THE WANDER YEARS : Musically, Dion’s the Type of Guy Who’ll Never Settle Down
They call me the Wanderer, yeah the Wanderer.
I roam around, around, around, around.
Dion DiMucci has been the Wanderer in a more telling way than rock ‘n’ roll fans could have imagined 30 years ago, when he first grabbed them with that brash, swaggering refrain.
“The Wanderer,” a huge hit in 1961, was about loving ‘em and leaving ‘em--a commonplace Casanova fantasy that a young star like Dion probably could have achieved without undue effort. But in retrospect, it’s clear that Dion’s most impressive wanderings were musical. For more than three decades, he has explored a wide array of rich, roots-oriented styles that make him one of the most diverse, adaptable performers to have emerged from rock’s first wave.
Doo-wop harmony and good-time rock ‘n’ roll were the basis for the streak of early hits Dion scored from 1958 to 1963, first with Dion & the Belmonts, and then as a solo performer. The list includes such oldies-radio staples as “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue,” “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love.”
The British Invasion of 1964-65 ended the parade for most of Dion’s peers, who were left to await resurrection by nostalgia. But Dion was able to absorb new influences and find a new style as a folk-rocker in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
A recently released compilation album, “Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings (1962-1965),” offers new revelations about just how far Dion’s stylistic reach extends. Its most fascinating tracks are a series of straight, raw, Chicago-style blues songs that either were never released or fell quickly into oblivion. Such historic acts as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band get most of the credit for first bringing pure blues to a new audience of young white rock fans. As it turns out, Dion was on the same track at the same time.
Speaking over the phone recently from his home in Boca Raton, Fla., Dion, now 52, recalled that his handlers at Columbia were bent on transforming him from a teen idol to a crooner of smooth, sophisticated songs for the adult market. They proceeded on the prevailing wisdom of the time, that rock ‘n’ roll was a passing fad.
When Dion started stomping out heavy beats and banging tough blues progressions on his guitar, they were horrified.
“The producers walked out of the room. They didn’t want any part of it,” Dion said, his voice grainy but bright, and heavy with a Bronx accent.
Dion went ahead on his own, and the results stand up well today alongside some of the better-known blues excursions by young white rockers of the period. “Sweet, Sweet Baby,” a Dion original from mid-1963, fuses the blues with the zesty harmonies of his earlier work. “Troubled Mind” is a frayed, plaintive dirge that prefigures the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” Dion’s composition, “Kickin’ Child,” from 1965, owes a debt to Bob Dylan’s bluesy side, while gutsy covers of such blues standards as Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and “Seventh Son” make one wish that the Yardbirds could have recruited him.
Dion said he owed his blues introduction to a guitar-playing black man he recalls only as Willie, who worked as a building superintendent in the Italian-American neighborhood where Dion grew up in the Bronx.
“He’d play out on the stoops on those hot August nights,” Dion recalled, his tone softening to burnish the memory. “We’d have the fire hydrants open, having a party in the street. He’d be on the stoop playing the guitar, and I’d be right next to him. It just thrilled me, but I didn’t know what (Willie’s music) was connected to.”
After he signed with Columbia in 1962, Dion got to know John Hammond Sr., the famous talent scout and producer who worked for the label.
“His little ministry, his cubbyhole at Columbia, was all these black artists. It was like an obscure thing, in this one room,” Dion said. Hearing the R&B; influences already evident in Dion’s rock ‘n’ roll recordings, Hammond introduced him to traditional blues records like the first Robert Johnson “King of the Delta Blues Singers” collection.
“It was the stuff Willie was doing,” Dion recalled. “It was the first time I made the connection, that he was attached to a musical community that I knew nothing about--the rural blues.”
Considering what was happening in his personal life during the early- to mid-'60s, it is not surprising that Dion was able to sing some expressive blues. In his 1988 autobiography (written with Davin Seay), he paints those years as a desperate, chaotic time. Dion casts himself as a man out of control, driven by longstanding insecurities stemming from a turbulent home life as a child, and by a heroin addiction that began in his mid-teens.
“I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. One terrific guy,” Dion remarks dryly in his book.
The turning point came in 1968 when Dion had a spiritual awakening, gave up drugs and drinking, and moved to Florida with his wife, Susan, and their infant daughter. Soon afterward came a musical turning point. Seasoned by his own troubles, Dion was able to put aching conviction into “Abraham, Martin and John,” a lament for a nation’s mounting wounds.
On the flip side of the hit single, he showed a continuing penchant for diversity and experimentation. Where “Abraham, Martin and John” was cushioned by a sweet, sweeping orchestral treatment, “Daddy Rollin’ (in Your Arms)” was a raw, darkly driving folk-rocker with a hint of psychedelic guitar. It would have stood out on a Jefferson Airplane album of the period. On the strength of that single, his last to make the Top 40, Dion launched a career on the folk circuit. Later, he would also make a series of Christian albums.
“I recorded (“Daddy Rollin”’) in the back of a bowling alley with a bunch of guys from Liberty City (the black ghetto of Miami),” with cardboard boxes for percussion, Dion said. That direct, folk-inspired approach, he added, “is closest to the stuff I do” when he writes songs today.
Dion hardly has turned his back on his oldies. When he tours with his five-piece backup band, he said, “I serve up the hits, and I enjoy doing it. It’s a funny thing with those songs. They’ve become more valuable as time moves on. They turn me on and that turns on the audience, and it takes up most of the set.”
Dion readily admits that he would be flayed for political incorrectness if he were to come out with some of those hits today. Such singles as “Runaround Sue,” “This Little Girl” and “Little Diane” played out the battle of the sexes at 45 rpm, casting women as careless manipulators who couldn’t be trusted to be faithful. “The Wanderer,” of course, suggested that a roving nature was quite all right for guys.
“If you did a song like ‘Runaround Sue’ today, you’d have the feminists screaming at you, and ‘The Wanderer’ is so chauvinistic,” Dion said. “But I don’t even think of it as words anymore. The songs have a life of their own. I don’t think people take every word to heart. It’s a period in time, and people like hearing it. I can get behind them, because they’re good songs.”
The best songs from Dion’s most recent album, 1989’s “Yo Frankie,” found him looking backward to his early days in the Bronx. But in “Written on the Subway Wall,” Dion cautioned that memory should be a momentary pleasure, like looking at an old photograph, rather than an ongoing escape: “It’s just a frozen yesterday/To make it more would take away.”
In “King of the New York Streets,” Dion conjures up the swaggering figure he cut in his old neighborhood, and on his early hits, only to deflate the tough-guy persona in the end as an egotistic pretense: “Well, I was wise in my own eyes/I awoke one day and I realized/You know this attitude comes from cocaine lies.”
“That song represents a chaotic kind of self-serving illusion about oneself, a guy who is full of himself and really can’t see past his nose,” Dion said.
Attitude, which the early Dion had in abundance, always has been considered a key virtue for a rocker. It is somewhat surprising to hear Dion dismissing it in a lyric as “cocaine lies.”
Attitude can have its place as a spark plug for a musical career, Dion said, but it doesn’t suffice as a steering wheel.
“Sometimes you start out that way in music: ‘Look at me.’ I think rock ‘n’ roll starts out with anger, (the desire) to change things. That’s what ignites the spark in the first place--anger, loneliness, frustration, a need to communicate and connect.
“When you’re a kid, you get all these rules and regulations coming down on your head. You’ve got a need to be recognized. But as time goes by, this stuff, if it remains, can kill you. The attitude alone can’t sustain anyone forever.
“I think you’ve got five choices. You die, you burn out, you get out of the business, you go 100% into the world of show business, or you realize you’ve stumbled onto something that’s an art form, capable of communicating.”
Dion plans to wander some more while he pursues that last option.
“I’m going to do a country-flavored album,” he said. “I feel I’m a storyteller, and I could tell some good stories on an album like that.”
Country music would bring the Wanderer around, around, around, around and all the way around, full circle to his first inspiration.
“I started out with Hank Williams,” Dion said, recalling how “Honky-Tonk Blues” came over the radio one day when he was 11 and “just blew my mind.
“It took you on a trip. For the first time in my life, I got caught up. He sounded so committed, the way he dug into the words and ripped them off at the end of each sentence. I’d collect his records, and I had no idea what ‘honky-tonk’ meant or what ‘jambalaya’ meant, but it sounded damn good to me.”
Dion also is open to newer sounds. He said he and August, at 17 the youngest of his three daughters, recently took in the Lollapalooza, a big summer tour featuring young alternative rock and rap acts.
Dion gave favorable marks to Jane’s Addiction, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and hard-core rapper Ice-T, and noted that he found common ground in a backstage chat with Henry Rollins, an exponent of howling punk-metal full of politicized fear and loathing. It’s all a universe removed from “A Teenager in Love.”
To Dion, developments like punk and rap aren’t alien threats to his own turf, but part of a necessary growth cycle: What once was innovative becomes the established norm, prompting the next generation to rebel and find a style of its own. The Wanderer isn’t going to lament that rock goes wandering in search of new forms.
“I’m a die-hard rock ‘n’ roll fan,” Dion said. “I just like new expression.”
When: Friday, Oct. 4, at 9 p.m.
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.
Where to call: (714) 496-8930.