Beneath the Surface, Dion's Restless Melancholy

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were superstars of rock's first wave, but none of them expressed the innocence and desire of adolescence any more soulfully than Dion DiMucci.

You heard traces of his smooth intimacy in the doo-wop exuberance of 1958's "I Wonder Why," the first of his seven Top-40 hits with the Belmonts on Laurie Records. You heard even more of his seductive style in the lonely strains of "A Teenager in Love," another hit with the Belmonts.

But Dion's artistry really blossomed in the early '60s when he began a solo career on Laurie. On such hits as "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer," Dion sang with a casual confidence and authority that earned him a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Though the hits have been infrequent since then, Dion has continued to make music with much of the character and craft of those early records. In the process, he has supplemented his own compositions with tunes by such varied writers as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits.

The heart of Dion's music is contained in "Dion: King of the New York Streets," an inviting three-disc package that includes a 50-page booklet, complete with an essay by critic Dave Marsh and comments by Dion on the more than 60 tracks in the boxed set.

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*** 1/2 Dion, "Dion: King of the New York Streets," The Right Stuff. First, some testimonials. Springsteen once called Dion, who mixed a feel for classic pop and a love of R&B;, the "real link between Frank Sinatra and rock 'n' roll." Lou Reed has said, "I have always listened to Dion's voice. It's inside my body and my head forever."

The most lavish praise comes from Bob Dylan, who declares in the liner notes: "Dion comes from a time when so-so singers couldn't cut it--they either never got heard or got exposed quick and got out of the way. . . . His voice takes its color from all the pallets [sic]--he's never lost it--his genius has never deserted him."

You can understand all this enthusiasm when you listen to "The Wanderer," a recording that captured the imagination of young America in the winter of 1961.

On the surface, the song, written by Ernest Maresca, is about male bravado: "Oh, I'm the type of guy who will never settle down / Where the pretty girls are / Well, you know that I'm around."

But Dion's voice reaches past the surface emotion to convey a restless melancholy that gives the song its memorable edge.

Commenting on the song in the album booklet, Dion says "The Wanderer" is really a sad song. "A lot of guys don't understand that. . . . It sounds like a lot of fun, but it's about going nowhere."

Dion's own career reflects some of that same restless struggle--including a lengthy battle against drugs and the continuing quest to regain the ear of the pop world that once made him a star.

Born in the Bronx on July 18, 1939, Dion turned to drugs and gangs in a search for self-esteem. He has said he was hooked on heroin at 15 and had an overdose at 16.

By 19 he had formed the Belmonts--named after an avenue in the neighborhood--and was on the pop charts with "I Wonder Why." Columbia Records signed Dion to a $500,000 contract in 1962--a major commitment considering that RCA bought Elvis Presley's contract from Sun Records for less than $50,000 seven years earlier.

Dion had some hits at Columbia, but the pressures of stardom and the drugs turned his life into such a nightmare by the mid-'60s he considered suicide. Seeking relief, Dion moved to Florida with his wife and baby daughter in 1968.

Around that time, Dion embraced Christianity and began putting his life back in order. He gave up drugs and recorded "Abraham, Martin and John," a socially conscious song by Dick Holler that returned Dion to the Top 10.

"It's just a statement about love. . . . How you can rise to the challenge and let love carry you further," Dion says in the album booklet. "I must have gotten 4,000 letters [about the song] at the time, which was odd because I never got letters from college students before. If I had an e-mail address, I probably would have gotten a million."

"Abraham, Martin & John" opens disc two in the new boxed set, and it is followed by interpretations of such varied material as Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," Fred Neil's "The Dolphins" and Tom Waits' "The Heart of Saturday Night." Mostly, discs two and three showcase some of his own material, from the playful nostalgia of "Written on the Subway Walls" to the wry introspection of "King of the New York Streets."

The material is uneven, but you feel throughout the songs a genuine sense of artistic struggle--a writer trying to understand himself and his times.

Reflecting on the message in Dion's music, Marsh writes in the album booklet, "It's the one about a man who yearns to know the secrets of the universe, including the greatest secret of all: how to find and accept love. He is exuberant, desperate, dragged down by the very passions that exalt him, uplifted amidst the sorrow."

Of special interest is Dion's early-'90s, R&B-slanted; version of Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind," from the "Lucky Town" album. Listening to the rendition, you see where Springsteen most certainly got the idea for the soulful version of the song that was a highlight of his 1999 reunion tour with the E Street Band.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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