The Genius of an Unlikely Residency

The Riviera’s Confessions of a Rock Star tracks the rise of a garbageman-turned-tunesmith

The musician responsible for the old college-radio staple “Behind the Wall of Sleep” is now headlining a show, Confessions of a Rock Star, in Las Vegas? Pinch me, please; this has to be a dream.

On the one hand, alt-rock songwriter Pat DiNizio seems an odd fit for a comedy club in the Riviera. After all, the power-pop tunes he records with his New Jersey band the Smithereens are shot through with melancholy, even as the guitar amplifiers are cranked to 11, which happens to be the title of the group’s third album. Catchy as a song such as “Blood and Roses” is—it famously appeared in Miami Vice—DiNizio’s dark lyrics and Merseybeat-inspired melodies don’t exactly scream “Strip entertainment.”

On the other hand, the Smithereens scored big in 1989 with the Top 40 hit “A Girl Like You,” its massive power chords and unforgettable hook essentially serving as the template for Classic Rock Songwriting 101. In this respect, DiNizio is the ideal person to bring his intriguing stories of triumph and tribulation to a stage under the neon lights. (There’s a reason why Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain listened to nothing but the Smithereens during the crafting of Nevermind.) DiNizio’s career highs and lows are by turns spellbinding and sidesplitting, and consistently rewarding.

I don’t want to spoil the show’s storytelling format, but let me share this: When you hear how his late father warned a young DiNizio about joining the circus, you’ll wipe away a tear as he and his band tear into “Only a Memory,” while home-movie images of his family are projected on the screens on either side of the stage. Once you learn that Madonna and Warren Beatty unknowingly conspired to muffle the success of a DiNizio hit, you’ll laugh. And, jeez, brace yourself for the moment when he relates penning the final song on the Smithereens’ acclaimed Green Thoughts album while still wet from a shower and wearing nothing but an acoustic guitar as an unhappy girlfriend operates a tape recorder. The hourlong show breezes by like a too-short summer pop smash, of which DiNizio has written plenty (“Miles From Nowhere,” “Strangers When We Meet,” “Much Too Much,” just to name a few).

“People seem to be enjoying it,” confirms DiNizio after a recent performance, as he hands out copies of an official live Smithereens bootleg CD to the audience and signs autographs. (One local fan has already shown his support by getting a tattoo of DiNizio’s face.) “We always give it everything we have. It’s what I learned from being in the Smithereens for 32 years. No matter how many people are in the audience, or how new the concept is, give it your all, because things grow over time.”

It took plenty of time for DiNizio, 58, to find success and his own songwriting style. For years, he worked as New Jersey garbageman, writing songs in his head while riding a truck by day and running soundboards at rock clubs—in Jersey, Connecticut, New York—by night. Finally, with the Smithereens, he signed a major-label record deal at age 31, and was 35 when he charted his first Billboard hit. The wait was worth it, especially upon meeting Paul and Linda McCartney, who confessed to playing the Smithereens constantly. Indeed, the Liverpool band serves as a thread running through Confessions. (Interestingly, the Smithereens, in recent years, have released all-covers tributes—Meet the Smithereens!, B-Sides The Beatles—as a way of entering The Beatles’ fans convention circuit.)

“To me, The Beatles represent everything necessary to great rock ’n’ roll,” says DiNizio about his close encounter with McCartney. “Songs like ‘I’m a Loser’ taught me everything about songwriting, and touched me emotionally and intellectually, especially with this idea of marrying dark lyrics with upbeat music. My own song ‘Blood and Roses’ is infectious but is, at its core, about suicide.

“When the Smithereens started out, we didn’t have enough material in our sets,” DiNizio continues. “So we’d throw in covers we loved and that were obscure enough people might think we wrote them—‘Won’t Be Long’ by the Byrds; ‘Stoked,’ a Beach Boys instrumental; and of course The Beatles’ ‘Rain.’”

Speaking of weather, the sonic storm generated during Confessions by DiNizio’s rhythm section—Kenny Howe on 12-string bass guitar and drummer Nate Stalfa—is palpable, which explains why the drum kit is surrounded by a noise guard and the amps are pointed backstage. Great as the DiNizio’s stories are, from touring with the Ramones to making his mom proud by appearing in TV Guide, it’s important to remember that this is no mere lounge act, but a full-on rock show.

“This show is really a grand an extension and variation of the living room concerts I began doing over the last 12 years,” DiNizio says. “To bring the concept to the Vegas stage has taken time and work, and hopefully people will get a lot out of it.”

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