Dion: The King of the Noo Yawk Streets Comes Home
WHEN DION DiMucci made his major comeback at New York's Radio City Music Hall two years ago, he was joined onstage by an all-star quartet of backing singers: Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel.
It said a lot for the 48-year-old singer that he could bring together four such different examples of the New York street troubadour, each of them in their own way having come under the spell of the man who sang those swaggering classics of the early '60s 'The Wanderer' and 'Runaround Sue'.
"When we were rehearsing that show," says Dion two years later, "I remember watching Bruce Springsteen playing imaginary instruments, and I realized that he wasn't playing what the band behind me was playing… he was playing what was on the record! And when I pointed this out to Little Steven, his guitar player, he said to me: 'Dion, we studied those records. They may not be perfect to you, but to us they're perfect…' "
Dion was New York City's very own Elvis, the streetcorner idol from the Bronx who sang doo-wop with neighbourhood pals the Belmonts before breaking away to make his own kind of rock'n'roll, and he is the latest of a series of rock'n'roll stars to make a comeback as a rehabilitated legend in the 1980s. Not content with releasing the enjoyable Dave Edmunds-produced Yo Frankie album on Arista Records, he has also collaborated on a ghost-written memoir called, appropriately enough, The Wanderer – appropriate because a-wanderin' Dion has unquestionably been ever since those early, heady days on Crotona Avenue and 187th Street, drifting through an array of musical styles and identities and a decade of heroin addiction to boot.
"Well, I was only sixteen years old/ So what could I have known?" he sings in the wryly self-deprecating 'King Of The New York Streets'; "In my mind these passing years/ The legend sure has grown… " Of all the apocryphal stories which have circulated about Dion over the years, the best was the one Greil Marcus told in Mystery Train about him kicking heroin to the harrowing sounds of blues legend Robert Johnson.
Dion was also one of the first rock'n'roll casualties to clean up his act, a fortune which never befell his doo-wop contemporary Frankie Lymon, with whom he occasionally shared a needle and spoon in the early days of his habit. (Lymon overdosed and died in February 1968, mere weeks before Dion took his last drug or drink to date.) In the two decades since he's been, in American parlance, "straight", Dion has taken life pretty easy, living down in Florida a long ways from the inner-city abscesses of the South Bronx. After the folkish 1968 hit 'Abraham, Martin, and John', he found God and abandoned stardom, recording four very laid-back albums for Warner Brothers and living off periodic royalty cheques.
But New York remains as much a part of him as his classic records remain a part of New York's very bloodstream, and playing the city is always the best kind of homecoming for him. Watching a wonderfully loyal audience come alive at the Beacon Theatre at the end of August, one witnessed a communion of shared memories and associations between performer and spectator, as though a lost Mean Streets world of Italian-American life were being conjured out of thin air.
Not that Dion is unaware of how easy it is to slip into the lazy nostalgia that characterises films like Grease; as he puts it in The Wanderer, "I'm not sure if Hollywood was copying us or if it was the other way around…" But clearly he represents something tremendously important for New Yorkers, just as he does for Paul Simon, who guests on the Dire Straits-ish 'Written On The Subway Wall' with a faultless doo-wop cameo of the Elegants' 'Little Star'.
Onstage, Dion is almost too nice a guy to be a convincing legend. Headlining for the first time after a month of touring with Tom Petty and Lou Reed, he eases into the set rather uncertainly, only taking off with real assurance after an elegaic version of Tom Waits' 'Serenade'. Once he is into the swing of old hits like 'Ruby Baby' and 'Teenager In Love', though, there's no stopping him, and the black-influenced voice starts to sound stronger than ever. The band is his first proper outfit in years, but already they've mastered the harmonies of the Belmonts' one doo-wop classic 'I Wonder Why', and it sends the audience into convulsions of joy. "You know how I feel about New York", he tells us as adoring girls, young and old alike, present bouquets to him from the floor.
Dion has survived where such processed stars as Fabian and Frankie Avalon disappeared into history's waste bin; survived because he refused to play the games that others devised for him. When he was on Columbia in the '60s, struggling like the young Aretha Franklin with A&R men and producers who didn't know what to do with him, he destroyed $25,000 worth of costumes, scripts, and charts for a new nightclub routine intended to turn him into the next Bobby Darin. Unlike so many of his contemporary bobbysox idols, his inspirations were not urban ones like Frank Sinatra but rural ones such as Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. At age ten he was walking the neighbourhood streets with a pawnshop acoustic guitar singing Williams' 'Cold, Cold Heart', "a sound [as he says] that might as well have been from the moon for all it had to do with the heart of the Italian Bronx…"
Now he survives, he says, "to show rock'n'rollers how to grow old gracefully and kick ass at the same time." For the past decade, ever since a religious experience on a jogging path (a modern-day road to Damascus if ever there was one!), he has dedicated his life to Christ, recording several gospel albums for labels like A&M. Hence he can say at the end of 'King Of The New York Streets': "I awoke one day and I realized/ You know this attitude comes from cocaine lies… "
"It may sound corny, another junkie finding God", he says in the book, but he's not about to apologise for the fact that he is drug-free and blissfully happy with his wife and three daughters down in Florida. At the same time he's rightly proud of the rather more secular Yo Frankie, deeming it a more authentic product than some "comeback" albums of late.
"It's my album", he says, "I wrote songs on it, I found songs for it, and I think it's me. The only thing I'd have done different from Edmunds is to have made it a little more raw-sounding."
If Dion DiMucci really has "lived through the clichés" of New York, from violent street gangs in the Bronx to equally violent drug detoxes in Manhattan — and if Greg Shaw was half-right in calling him "the original punk" — Dion himself can't take the story too seriously. "I always felt like I was playing a part", he smiles.
© Barney Hoskyns, 1989