The Smithereens’ Dennis Diken: The Roots of Jersey Rock
Dennis Diken: The Roots of Jersey Rock
Dennis Diken is the drummer and a founding member of New Jersey’s rock’n’roll band The Smithereens. I met him through my musical hero, Don Dixon. Diken is one of the first drummers I ever played with. He is a mensch, a fountain of knowledge, a supreme musician, and a great story teller.
The Smithereens are currently celebrating their 31st anniversary with the release of 2011, their first all-original studio album since 1999 and critics and fans are abuzz. Diken, a noted musical historian and session man released a solo effort, the acclaimed Late Music in 2009, featuring his lead vocalizing and sturdy stick work.
On Saturday August 20 at 8pm, Diken will be hosting a unique show at The Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ in conjunction with the exhibit Jersey Rocks: A History of Rock and Roll in the Garden State. Groovin’: A Musical Journey of Stories and Sounds will feature performances by Dennis’ side project Bell Sound, along with his stories about growing up in NJ in the 60s and how music inspired him to follow a career in music. The evening will offer some surprises as well. Tickets are available by phone at 973.971.3706. More info can be found at www.morrismuseum.org
RG: Tell me about your hometown.
DD: Carteret, NJ, about 25 minutes southwest of New York City. Very blue-collar, with a strong sense of community. I was blessed with great friends, a wonderful group of bright, creative kids (which included Jimmy Babjak and Mike Mesaros of The Smithereens). We fed off each others’ talents, passions and immense sense of “play.” And we were extremely fortunate to have some very special teachers. Some inspired us by just being interesting characters while others actively encouraged and fostered our creativity.
RG: Where were you when you heard your first live band, who was it?
DD: An instrumental combo called The Blue Velvets in early 1964 at a spaghetti dinner at St. Elias Church in Carteret, NJ. I’d just turned 7 and it was a thrill not only to hear live rock’n’roll music but it was riveting to walk up to the stage on the band’s break and gaze upon real musical instruments. This was several years before I started drumming for real, although I was already teaching myself, using Lincoln Logs as sticks on coffee cans with plastic lids. A glimpse of a Stratocaster guitar or a blue sparkle drum kit set my soul afire with wonderment and inspiration at that moment in my life.
RG: How much time did you spend listening to albums with your friends after school, from start to finish?
DD: A lot! I’d rush home when the bell rang and play my favorite LPs. My buddies and I would pore over the covers and glean as much info as we could about the bands, studios, session players and dig on the graphics and photos. This was heavy stuff, a peek into a world I wanted in on! I scoured the inner sleeves that pictured a given label’s other offerings. I wanted all of those records! By the time I started playing drums in early 1968, the listening sessions turned into “playing along with” sessions with LPs like The Temptations Greatest Hits, England’s Newest Hitmakers by The Rolling Stones, Gary Lewis & The Playboys’ Golden Greats, Insight Out by The Association and Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles. I preferred the stereo pressings so I could pick apart the music tracks with more isolation!
RG: Who made you want to be one of the world’s greatest drummers?
DD: Aw, pshaw! Legendary NYC studio sticksmen like Buddy Saltzman, Gary Chester (early Four Seasons, Lesley Gore, Brill Building pop) and Bernard Purdie (great soul drummer), Hal Blaine (Phil Spector, Tijuana Brass, Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Elvis, etc,), Ringo, Keith Moon, Earl Palmer, Bobby Graham (top British session man), Kenny Jones, Dennis Wilson, Dino Danelli, Johnny Barbata, Roger Hawkins, Levon Helm, Johnny Badanjek…to name a few!! And my mentor, Bob Zeiss, a local Carteret drummer, who took me under his wing.
RG: I love Dave Amels, it seems like everything he touches sound like gold. When I hear him play, I am immediately brought into a hypnotic state. What was it like working together on Late Music?
DD: Dave really believed in the Late Music project. I wrote all the songs with Pete DiBella, a talented musician, with whom I recorded more than half of the tunes on the album. Most of the tracks were in varying stages of completion until Dave put all the pieces together with me at The Bomb Factory, a dearly departed studio in Burbank, CA. He is a consummate musician, engineer and he really puts a lot of care and love into everything he does. This album couldn’t have been completed without his vision. In short, “we had a ball!” We also had great help from a talented LA fellow called Dan Markell, members of Brian Wilson’s band and Andy Paley.
RG: There are very few drummers who can sing like you can. When did you start singing? Is there anything you find challenging about singing and playing at the same time? Do you have any singing tips for drummers?
DD: I’ve been singing along with records all my life and gravitated toward the harmony parts, so I guess it just came easy to me. No tips — just do it!