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Recalling some personal moments involving the late Smithereens singer

You had to be on your toes around Pat DiNizio — at least that’s how it was for me many times during my 20-year friendship with the Smithereens singer, who died Dec. 12 at age 62.

Our relationship started rather quietly, though. A Smithereens fan since the release of his band’s 1986 debut album, Especially for You, I first crossed paths with Pat in October 1997, interviewing him by phone for my Saturday afternoon radio show on WBRW-AM in Bridgewater, New Jersey. That night, we talked for a while at The Saint in Asbury Park following his solo concert, which also marked his 42nd birthday.

Two years later, the real fun began.

Along with a mutual friend, Pat and I drove from Central Jersey to Manhattan’s Roseland Ballroom in September 1999 for a tribute to Buddy Holly, a longtime favorite of Pat’s and mine. By way of my weekly radio column for the Courier News, I had secured two general admission tickets for the event, but as we approached the long line of people waiting to get in, Pat said to me and our friend, “Keep those in your pocket and follow my lead.”

We went to a table near the entrance, and Pat, as one of the participants for a planned all-star jam at the end of the show, checked in with a man holding a clipboard listing the names of special guests. After getting his OK to go inside, Pat gestured for us to follow him, but we were quickly stopped and asked who we were.

Without hesitation, Pat said in his authoritative baritone, “I’ve had some security issues lately, and these gentlemen are my bodyguards.”

It’s worth noting that our mutual friend was an actual police officer, and he very much looked the part in his size and stature. Me? Not so much.

Anyway, without further delay, Mr. DiNizio and his two bodyguards were waved through — my first true taste of the power and charm of Pat.

But that wasn’t the most unexpected moment of the night. As Pat’s bodyguards — sorry, as his guests — we had access to the balcony, where all the VIPs were mingling. As I was getting something to drink, Pat caught my eye and waved me over to where he was.

“Chris, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” Pat said, referring to the petite woman standing in front of him. I extended my hand, and she clasped it with a smile.

“This is Maria Elena Holly,” Pat added.

My right arm exploded with goosebumps.

“It’s so nice to meet people who are fans of my husband,” Mrs. Holly said.

I can’t remember what I said in return. I do remember Pat’s huge grin, equal parts “I gotcha” and “Can you believe where we are?”

Pat DiNizio fronting The Smithereens during the band’s show at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Manhattan on Jan. 31, 2015. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Pat and I remained in regular contact from that point on, personally and professionally. He was always an eloquent interview subject, and typically, our talks would involve mutual chop-busting, inside jokes and anecdotes about other artists.

The occasional surprises continued, too, like the time in late 2003, when I accompanied Pat for a weekend of solo gigs. Following a show in Ellicott City, Maryland, Pat was exhausted, so after we packed up his equipment, he climbed into our rental car, then adjusted the front passenger seat so it was in full recline.

“I’m going to sleep,” he said, smiling, “so I need you to go inside and get the balance of my payment.”

OK, fine, I thought, but who am I looking for?

Before I had a chance to ask, Pat’s eyes were closed and he was snoring away, arms folded across his chest, leaving me to track down the club’s manager to settle up before we departed for Baltimore.

On our way home from that trip, we stopped at a rest area so Pat could use the bathroom. Knowing my affinity for Coca-Cola, he caught me off guard by returning with not one but two 40-ounce fountain Cokes, which subsequently prompted my need for a few bathroom breaks.

That refreshment-related memory crossed my mind last month when I visited Pat at his home in Scotch Plains. As many Smithereens fans know, Pat had been battling issues related to his arms and back, which meant he was spending a lot of time lately in his house, watching classic movies. After helping him draft a press release in late October about his crowdfunding campaign to purchase his childhood home and convert it into a New Jersey rock ’n’ roll hall of fame/museum, he asked me to come over just to hang out, so I stopped by around 7 p.m. on Nov. 2.

It’s an Italian thing to never show up to someone’s house empty-handed, so I usually brought my fellow paisan some cookies from the bakery in town. This time, though, I walked through his back door with nothing. So after 20 minutes or so of chitchat, I asked Pat if he needed anything from the store.

“I want ice cream,” he said.

“What kind?” I asked.

“Phish Food or Cherry Garcia,” he said with a smile.

“Keeping it music-related — I like that,” I replied before making a trip up the street to a convenience store to buy him a pint of each.

The following week, I did show up at Pat’s house with something — a Starbucks coffee and a pumpkin spice muffin, as he requested.

These moments with Pat will stick with me, just like his music.

— By Chris M. Junior

At top: Pat DiNizio in concert, August 2016, Rahway, N.J. Photo by Chris M. Junior

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