Not long ago, Pat DiNizio, the singer-songwriter of the Smithereens, happened to mention his lifelong love for the deliciously morbid cartoons of Charles Addams to a friend who worked at the New Yorker magazine, where much of Addams’ work was published.
A few days later the friend sent DiNizio four original charcoal sketches by the late artist, followed a couple of weeks later by an original print of one of Addams’ New Yorker cartoons from the late ‘40s.
“Stuff like that happens to me just because I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” DiNizio, 34, said in wonderment recently over lunch at a Hollywood hotel.
Throughout the conversation, DiNizio reflected on the perks of his occupation, repeatedly casting aspersions toward the several look-at-me rockers on display out by the hotel’s pool.
The perks DiNizio enjoys are of a more down-to-earth, fan-type nature: things like getting to meet heroes of his youth (members of Deep Purple among them) and of more recent times (his Upstate New York neighbor Graham Parker, who will open for the Smithereens at the Universal Amphitheatre on Feb. 16; the band also plays the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Monday through Wednesday).
“I love it,” he said. “It beats picking up garbage, like I used to do. We’re self-employed--beyond the fact that we get to do what we love for a living.”
DiNizio got into rock ‘n’ roll relatively late in life. He was in his late 20s when he hooked up with guitarist Jim Babjak, bassist Mike Messaros and drummer Dennis Diken, three old chums who had been in bands together since grade school. The Smithereens formed in 1980, occasionally releasing their own records and touring as the backup band for Otis Blackwell, who wrote several Elvis Presley hits. The band’s big break came in 1986 when the song “Blood and Roses” from the debut album “Especially for You” hit the Top 40.
That elation is also reflected in DiNizio’s recent songs and in a more relaxed manner than he has shown in the past. In two previous albums and an EP his songs hung out at the dark end of the romance street, but such recent tunes as “A Girl Like You” and “Maria Elena” give the new “Smithereens 11" album--the title is an homage to the old Rat Pack flick “Ocean’s 11"--a more optimistic tone.
In fact, “Maria Elena"--a tribute to Buddy Holly’s widow--may very well be the sweetest song DiNizio has ever recorded.
“I wanted to do a tribute to what Buddy Holly meant to me as a songwriter,” DiNizio said. “And the fact that he asked her to marry him and she accepted on the first date seemed really romantic.
“I wrote it after I saw a show on the 30th anniversary of his death on PBS, and they had interview footage of her. They asked what she was doing when she heard he died and she broke down and cried for an instant and it touched me, and I knew where the lyrical content of my song would come from.”
That, DiNizio said, is typical of his new attitude. “It’s about being open to what’s around you. If I’d put a horror movie into the VCR that afternoon, I wouldn’t have even seen the show.”
To some extent, DiNizio attributes his current openness to moving from the New York urban jungle where he’s lived most of his adult life to idyllic Upstate New York. He still likes to haunt the Big Apple, collecting scenes and observations for his writing, but the new songs came together in the country, where he has no television or radio to intrude.
“I wrote the whole album looking out the window at trees,” he said. “In the past everything was written walking around New York, on the prowl as it were.”
But DiNizio still fancies the neo-boho Village look: black beret, turtleneck and a goatee. And he admits that doubts and fears provide him with most of his motivation.
“Fear is my constant companion,” he said when asked if he was afraid of running out of sharp riffs and slick melodies. “How many melodies are there left in the world? But I’ve forced myself to embrace that fear. I have no choice. I’m a professional songwriter and member of a band. But what could be better?”
The Smithereens play Feb. 12, 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $23.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.