"I thought I would like the desert, going through Arizona," said the Smithereens' lead singer Pat DiNizio. "But it scared me more than anything."
"Yeah," interjected drummer Dennis Diken. "Those monsters we saw? Wow!"
DiNizio managed a smile through the heavy cold he's been unable to shake during the New Jersey quartet's unrelenting tour. But it's a minor annoyance for a band whose luck made a 180-degree turn just when things looked darkest.
Now the Smithereens are rookie-of-the-year contenders, with their debut album "Especially for You" established not only in the alternative market, but also edging into the 60s on Billboard's national album chart.
But be careful when you mention ' 60s around the Smithereens. Along with the the glowing reviews and growing audience have come charges that their sound revives its '60s pop sources too obviously.
It was DiNizio's and Diken's turn to counter the criticism this week as they sat in the lounge at Bogart's nightclub in Long Beach a few hours before show time (they'll also be at the Roxy tonight).
" 'Blood and Roses' was the first song off the record to get all the attention and it's nothing like the Beatles or the mid-'60s at all," Diken pointed out.
Added DiNizio, the band's main songwriter: "Anybody that has ears to hear it will know that we never set out to be a revivalist or retro band. All the sounds on the album are thoroughly modern, to my ears anyway.
"There are certain things in there that are wholly intentional--there's an homage to the Byrds in one of the songs. But there are groups that are consciously trying to re-create a certain era. The accusations of revivalism or whatever should be directed at them. . . . It just seems when you write in that classic songwriting structure you get pigeonholed as trying to bring back the '60s."
When DiNizio hooked up with longtime friends Diken, guitarist Jim Babjak and bassist Mike Mesaros in 1980 in Carteret, N.J., he had a definite idea in mind.
"I think what I was trying to do," said the goateed singer, "was re-create Buddy Holly & the Crickets, but performing songs that I wrote. In my mind, it started as almost a minimalist thing.
"We all liked the same music and appreciated the no-nonsense approach. A lot of the music we saw around us we viewed with disdain. We felt there weren't a lot of people who had any integrity at all. So it was difficult for us to fit in."
The Smithereens had missed the mid-'70s new-wave boat, and they weren't very good at the political socializing that might have helped their career.
"We were very naive and didn't really know why it was that certain people got deals," recalled DiNizio. "We believed that perhaps our talent would get us through, and that we could do it based on musical merit alone."
The band was encouraged by reviews of the EPs it issued in 1980 and 1983, but the down side dominated: $2,000 sunk into a recording project they eventually junked, and a contractual dispute with a producer that kept them from releasing any records for a year.
"I was really at the end of my rope," DiNizio admitted. "I mean, you start to wonder what you're going to do. You're almost 30 years old, you've basically done this to the exclusion of everything else in your life. The band has survived every relationship, every job--I've never been able to commit myself to anything but this.
"Prior to getting signed to Enigma I had sent tapes out of the same material, within a month period, to smaller independent labels, and we got turned down by three or four of them. So I said, 'Jesus Christ, what are we gonna do?' I didn't even tell the other guys in the band."
That was when the luck changed. The person who received the tape at El Segundo-based Enigma Records had been a fan of the Smithereens' EPs when he was a college deejay, and the label signed the group. Through a sound-track deal, the Smithereens got two songs into the short-lived teen-action film "Dangerously Close," resulting in a video for "Blood and Roses," which led to MTV exposure and radio play and the eventual success of the album.
"I kind of knew there was an audience there that would like us if it could hear the music," said DiNizio. "I think they're responding to the fact that it's a real record. There's no drum machines, there's no synthesizers. It's acoustic drums, real electric guitars, vocals that aren't enhanced, it's played and recorded in a real direct way."
DiNizio says the monetary rewards haven't come in yet, but while the prospect of no more day jobs is appealing, he insists the real benefits of success lie elsewhere.
"The real rewards are things like meeting kids like we met last night (in Fresno) that brought me Sammy Davis Jr. albums because they heard that I collected them. It's stuff like that that has real meaning."