Many people go through life never discovering their true calling. However, that hasn’t been the case for longtime Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken, who had that all figured out at a very, very, young age.
“I actually started buying records and listening to the radio when I was about 3 or 4,” recalls Diken. “That was when I first knew I wanted to play drums.”
Born February 25, 1957 in Bellville, New Jersey, Diken, along with fellow Jersey-ites singer-guitarist Pat DiNuizio, lead guitarist Jim Babjak and bass player Mike Mesaros, formed The Smithereens in 1980 (Mesaros left in 2006, to be replaced by Severo Joracion).
Their most recent studio album is 2011, while Diken’s solo album Late Music (recorded with his alternate band, Bell Sound) came out in 2009.
The list of artists that Diken has performed with includes Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, Felix Cavaliere, Tommy James, Darlene Love and Joan Jett. Since 2014, he’s also been part of Dave Davies’ touring band.
Saturday night’s big concert at Asbury Park, New Jersey’s famed Paramount Theatre will be a benefit show for The Light of Day Foundation which raises money to find cures for Parkinson’s Disease and other related illnesses such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and PSP.
Besides The Smithereens, the event will feature Willie Nile, Steve Forbert, Joe Greshucky and The House Rockers and Garland Jeffries.
The highly anticipated show closer is expected to be The Smithereens, performing their 1986 album, Especially For You, with a live string and horn section.
Says, Diken, “We’re looking forward to seeing a lot of our old friends.”
Elliot Stephen Cohen – It’s really great that you and the band are supporting this year’s big Light of Day festival. Do you have any personal connection with anyone who has, or has had Parkinson’s Disease?
Dennis Diken – I had an uncle, my Godfather, who had it. So, doing this show has a special meaning and really resonates with me. Light of Day is a great organization that’s really hands-on, and the money goes right to where it needs to go. It has a great community spirit. I personally know a lot of people who have been involved with it, and also other artists who will be at our show. Pat has been part of the shows before, but this is actually the first time The Smithereens are playing for LOD, as a full band.
ESC: The Smithereens have a long history with Asbury Park.
DD: Yes, we do. We first played The Stone Pony in 1980. Going back even further, while I was growing up, Asbury Park was someplace my family always took us to. I have a lot of fond memories of the town.
ESC: What was your first real introduction to music, when you were very young?
DD: Looking back, I really have to credit American Bandstand, because even before I started kindergarten, I used to watch it a lot. So, I think that was what really sparked my interest. I loved Chubby Checker, and I think the first records I actually owned were by The Four Season, Leslie Gore, and The Orlons. I was so into pop music at the time.
ESC: Many music historians view the pre-Beatles era as not very noteworthy, but Top 40 radio was really very diverse.
DD: That’s true. You had all these great instrumentals like “Wild Weekend,” which was such a savage track, but you’d also have something by Patsy Cline on the charts. Then you’d have great soul music from someone like Major Lance. You’d also get people like Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, and all the Brill Building stuff. So, different types of music were all over the map.
ESC: What were some of the other early records you owned?
DD: I was just crazy about “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Fools Rush In” by Rick Nelson. I was so over the moon with “Forget Him” by Bobby Rydell. I remember my mother taking me to this little mom-and-pop store in Passaic, where they would have all the current 45 picture sleeves taped in the window. I saw my first picture of The Beach Boys when I bought “Fun, Fun, Fun,” with the picture sleeve. Those were very exciting times.
ESC: So, you were actually an avid record buyer even before The Beatles made their iconic American television debut on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964. What was your first impression of them?
DD: Well, I was crazy about the Beatles even before then. They sounded so different to anything else that was on the radio. It’s hard to put into words for people who weren’t there, but when they first came on the scene, they were so revolutionary, just the sound alone. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” were already on the radio and, in my mind, I was wondering what these guys from England looked like. I’d heard they had a different kind of haircut, and when I went to that record store in Passaic, and I saw their picture, I just literally froze in my tracks. It’s not like today where everything is just a mouse click away. You first had these images in your mind what a band might look like before seeing them.
ESC: Being that you were only seven when The Beatles first came on Sullivan, do you remember your impressions of their performance?
DD: I remember it very well. I think, in my mind it just unlocked in my spirit what it was like to be in a band, although I already knew I wanted to play drums.
ESC: The 1960s were such a revolutionary time for music, and it’s incredible how prolific so many musicians were then. While today most artists take years just to get one album out, groups like The Beatles, Beach Boys, Kinks, Rolling Stones and Dave Clark Five were churning out an average of four singles and three albums every year during the mid ’60s….while also touring non-stop.
DD: Yes, the ’60s was definitely a golden age for music. It was admittedly a pressure-cooker time for a lot of artists. However, they were feeding off the excitement of the times, and the imagery of everyone else’s success. Plus, there was also the quality of all the other great songwriters and bands. It was just a great time to shine.
ESC: Who were some of your early drumming inspirations from the “British Invasion” era? You must have seen Keith Moon on TV shows like Shindig, flailing away at the drums like everything was one long drum solo.
DD: Well, Keith Moon came later on for me, when I first got (The Who’s) “Happy Jack.” The first drummer who really piqued my interest was a session guy named Buddy Salzman who played on those great Four Seasons records. Those records had a very strong rhythm feel, and very imaginative drumming. Of course, there was also Hal Blaine, who played on a lot of the Phil Spector records, and also for people like Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys. Of the British Invasion drummers, certainly Ringo, and a session drummer named Bobby Graham who I didn’t know at the time was on the early Kinks records, and also covered a lot for Dave Clark. I also loved what (Kinks drummer) Mick Avory did.
ESC: Now, you’ve been part of Dave Davies’ touring band for over a year, and what a great show you both did recently at The Stone Pony. While I wasn’t at Dave’s more recent London concert, it must have been great having Ray Davies show up to perform “You Really Got Me” which, of course, was the first time they’d played together in 20 years.
DD: When Ray stepped onstage, the audience was transformed into a sea of dropped jaws. I would have been thrilled just to have been in the same room to see the two Davies brothers playing together, but being on the drums for that song was a stone gas. Ray made a point of coming back to chat with the band, and was very gracious and complimentary to everyone. He seemed to have a really good time that night. I know we all did.
ESC: It must still be a thrill to play with people you idolized as a small child.
DD: Oh, yeah. People always say to me, “When you were a kid, listening to these records, could you ever have imagined that some day you’d be playing with those people?” The answer, of course, is “No.” When I was a kid, these people seemed totally elusive, that I’d never in my wildest dreams even get to be in the same room with them. I even thought, when I was little, “Wow, just to see them do a show would be so exciting and special,” but as an adult to get to play with some of them, and to call some of them your friends, is so cool.
ESC: When you started with The Smithereens over 35 years ago, I’m sure you also couldn’t have imagined that the band would still be going in 2016.
DD: You’re absolutely correct. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long but I always thought I’d stay doing something musical. As long as there’s an audience for what you’re doing and, fortunately, we still have a great fan base, our music continues to have meaning for many of them. A lot of our original fans now have kids who are college age, and bring them along to the concerts. Many of our fans tell us we’re as vital as ever, which is always nice to hear.
ESC: Les Paul once told me, “Find out what you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
DD: Yes, to be able to do what I do for this long is a blessing. I do realize that I’m very grateful that things have worked out the way they have for me. My passion for keeping the music potent is still very strong.