Dion: The Wanderer Finds His Way Home : New rock album exorcises years of drugs, insecurities

Well, I was wise in my own eyes

I awoke one day and I realized

You know this attitude comes from cocaine lies.

--Lyrics by Dion and Bill Tuohy

On the day after he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dion DiMucci sat in an Italian restaurant near Times Square and spoke about how drugs almost ruined his life.

Dion, 49, had recently completed his first secular album in a decade, and on the record's key moments he sounds as if he's still exorcising some of the pain he felt in those drug-plagued years. Titled "Yo Frankie," the album is due Tuesday from Arista Records.

But Dion's words at the restaurant didn't represent yet another tale of how someone struggled all his life to achieve fame, only to get involved with drugs and see the success all slip away.

In Dion's case (DiMucci has always been known professionally by just his first name), the involvement with drugs began well before he broke onto the pop scene in the late '50s with such classic hits as "A Teenager in Love" and "The Wanderer."

Raised on the mean streets of the Bronx, Dion turned to drugs and gangs in a search for confidence and self-esteem.

He was hooked on heroin at 15, survived an overdose at 16 and eventually formed a vocal group, the Belmonts, that was named after an avenue in the neighborhood. The quartet's snappy "I Wonder Why" was a hit in 1958 for tiny Laurie Records, and Dion was off on a hectic pop merry-go-round that lasted more than a decade.

With the Belmonts and then on his own, Dion registered a dozen Top 10 hits. He was rivaled perhaps only by Bobby Darin as the '50s' most compelling young white singer outside of the Southern brigade of Elvis and Jerry Lee.

Columbia Records was so impressed in 1962 that the industry giant signed Dion to a five-year contract for $500,000--a staggering commitment, considering that RCA had paid less than $50,000 seven years earlier for Elvis Presley's contract.

But it was a confusing period for Dion. He loved rock 'n' roll, but industry hotshots kept telling him that rock was just a fad--kid stuff. If he was serious about a career, they said, he'd have to move over into the adult pop arena.

Even back at Laurie Records, he had been encouraged to sing old pop standards, including "Fools Rush In" and "One for My Baby," and dress up in a sport jacket and a silk ascot for the cover photo of his first solo album.

The pressures and the drugs had caught up with Dion by the mid-'60s, turning his life into a nightmare darkened by thoughts of suicide. Alienated, Dion moved to Florida in 1968 with his wife and baby daughter in hopes of rebuilding his life.

"I made $2 million by the age of 22 . . . had 10 top 10 records . . . was at the height of my profession," Dion said about those early days during the restaurant interview.

"I had all the bases covered. . . . Fame, fortune and romance. I had even married my childhood sweetheart. But I was empty. I was looking out the penthouse window and saying, 'What the hell is wrong?' What I finally discovered was that I had others' esteem, but I didn't have self-esteem."

Schools gave me nothing needed

To my throne, I proceeded

Every warning went unheeded.

Yeah, king of the New York streets

--From Dion's "King of the New York Streets."

Dion was at an unpretentious family-style restaurant to shoot a video for his new album. The idea was to show him in the old milieu which is reflected in new songs such as "King of the New York Streets."

The restaurant is several miles from the Bronx intersection of 187th Street and Cortina Avenue--the real center of Dion's world in the '50s. But the atmosphere was similar enough for the video. You get a sense there is sometimes trouble in this neighborhood, too, when you notice that the Guardian Angels hotline number is written in much bigger letters on the wall near the pay phone than the police department's emergency number.

Despite his tough-guy past, Dion seemed unusually patient and soft-spoken. He appeared very much at peace with himself.

Wearing his ever-present cap, Dion smiled warmly when some restaurant employees asked for an autograph. Back home in Boca Raton, Fla., where he lives with his wife and the youngest of his three daughters, he can go weeks at a time without anyone recognizing him.

But Dion is part of the pop history of New York. When he stepped outside the restaurant for a photo, a man in his 30s spotted him immediately. The passer-by said he had read in the paper about the Hall of Fame dinner and asked if Dion was going to have a new album soon.

"Yeah, pretty soon," Dion said. "Hope you like it."

"Well, I still love 'The Wanderer.' Got anything like that in it?"

"These are new songs, but yeah," Dion replied. "There's a song like 'The Wanderer' but it's like about a guy bragging about his girl, not about himself."

"Sounds cool," the fan said as he reached into his pocket for a piece of paper. He, too, wanted an autograph.

Dion fell in love with country music at an early age, and before he was in his teens he sometimes sang at social clubs and local bars. Later, Dion fell in love with rock 'n' roll--both the rockabilly sounds coming out of Memphis and the doo-wop vocal harmonizing associated with New York street corners.

In his 1988 biography, "The Wanderer," Dion described the excitement of having his own hit record. "One minute we were four mooks on the street, the next, everyone wanted to get close to us. . . . You never wanted it to stop, and the only way to keep it going, it seemed to us, was to smile, sing and try to sort it all out later."

There was a vocal swagger in his most memorable recordings, including "The Wanderer" and "Ruby Baby," that defined New York cool so well that Lou Reed--the epitome of New York cool to later generations of rock fans--reminisced at the Hall of Fame induction dinner about how much Dion's records meant to him.

Almost immediately after their first hit, "I Wonder Why," Dion & the Belmonts were on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" TV show and touring the country with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens (he turned down an offer to join Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper on the fatal 1959 plane ride).

It's hard to imagine those years being anything but thrilling, but the memories eventually became painful for Dion. He felt such shame about the period that he refused to sing the early hits.

"When the light finally shined through, I realized the shame had nothing to do with the songs," he said in the restaurant. "To be honest, I think the shame was way before I even started drugs. I think it came from my whole background. I just never felt right about myself.

"There was never a word of praise in my house. . . . A lot of demeaning talk and criticism. I never felt good about myself--and the success didn't change things."

The turning point in rebuilding his life, Dion said, came shortly after he moved to Florida in 1968.

"I had simply run out of excuses," he said. "I was using a lot of drugs, drinking heavily and I just looked up to the heavens and said, 'God, help me' and He did. In a split second, the compulsion and the obsession to drink and drug came right out of me.

"I started to read the Bible and different spiritual writings and I started to see that my values came from how much God loves me, not from how many records I sell."

After embracing Christianity in 1968, he gave up drugs and continued to make records. The poignant "Abraham, Martin and John" was a Top 10 hit in 1968, but his folk-flavored albums for Warner Bros. in the '70s went largely unnoticed, and Dion spent most of the '80s singing and recording on the gospel music circuit.

The return to the pop world began on an emotional night in the summer of 1987. Some old friends at a New York radio station asked Dion if he wanted to be part of an oldies show at Radio City Music Hall.

His first instinct was to say no, but Dion saw the evening as a way to make peace with himself and his past. It was time to stop blaming the songs for his early pain.

Mitchell Cohen, now vice president of East Coast artists and repertoire for Arista Records, was in the audience that night and later contacted Dion.

"For me, that evening was like coming full circle," Cohen, 38, explained in a separate interview. "Dion was the headliner on the first rock show I ever saw . . . 1961 at the Brooklyn Paramount. It just struck me that night (at Radio City) that he was still a performer with a tremendous amount of vitality and commitment.

"When we got together later, he said he was doing some songwriting and he gave us the impression that he was ready to take another shot."

With English rocker Dave Edmunds as producer, Dion went into the studio last year and recorded "Yo Frankie." He wrote or co-wrote seven of the 10 tunes.

Some of the tracks seem too polished and predictable, but the heart of the album--including the playful nostalgia of "Written on the Subway Walls" and, especially, the wry introspection of "King of the New York Streets"--bursts forth with a sense of triumph and survival.

The album's most poignant moment may be Dion's version of a tender 1974 Tom Waits song. Though it was written as "San Diego Serenade," Dion likes to think of the tune as "New York Serenade" because, he said, it seems to summarize so well his feelings about not realizing what you've got until it's gone.

The song's opening lines:

Never saw the morning till I stayed up all night

Never saw the sunshine until I turned out the light

Never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long

And I never heard the melody till I needed the song

Dion's early hits alone would have been reason enough for record executives at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner here in January to give the singer a standing ovation when he walked on stage to accept the honor. But the executives' applause also seemed to acknowledge Dion's struggle.

Sitting in the restaurant the next day, he said: "Last night was great because . . . you are in the business 30 years, and songs are like a diary in which you share yourself with people. . . . Your love, your hates, your joys, your dreams. The applause was like everyone saying, 'Hey, you touched us' . . . . It was a validation after all those years of people telling me in the beginning that my music and all rock 'n' roll was somehow illegitimate."

Dion, who's looking forward to touring this summer, paused. He seemed to want to make sure the reporter didn't think that music again was becoming the way he measured his worth.

"I feel very grateful," Dion said finally. "I've been married to the girl of my dreams for 25 years and we have three healthy children that love me. The music is only part of me. It just happens to be what other people see.

"I can't tell you all the times I've had people look at me like I was an 8-by-10 glossy of someone who existed 10 or 20 years ago. They are talking to an image that they think they know. It's like Bob Dylan said: 'Just because they know my record, they don't know me.' The important thing for someone in this business is to realize that distinction . . . not to get into thinking you are that 8-by-10 glossy."

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