|Right In Your Own Back Yard|
Dion DiMucci was blessed with one hell of a voice; a voice
that managed to be soulful and bluesy without ever betraying so much as a hint
of mimicry of the black pioneers of those genres. It's strikingly evident from the first hearing of Dion, that the man and his voice are in a word, AUTHENTIC. Even those not yet conversant in such things will recognize the power of that voice from perpetual playing of such Dion classics as "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer" on oldies radio. Songs
that instantly and universally cause listeners to reach for the volume knob on
their car radio.
This fine new collection from Ace Records, Dion: 70's From Acoustic to the Wall of Sound, gathers the cream from Dion's 1970's records. By the 70's Dion had already been in the music business for well over a decade and seen more than his share of ups and downs. After his seminal work with Dion and the Belmonts, he had gone solo and quickly distinguished himself as one of the bright lights of the supposedly dark days of rock n' roll, the early 60's, with the gritty streetwise swagger of such tunes as "Born to Cry" and "Ruby Baby". It's the sound that made him in the words of another fine collection "King of the New York Streets." And you best believe that Lou Reed, among others, was furiously taking notes.
But by the mid-60's with the advent of the British Invasion Dion's commercial career was floundering. This hard luck was complicated and compounded by his growing addiction to heroin. Even so Dion still managed to record sporadically, with the mid to late 60's finding him moving in a folk rock direction, which led to a brief commercial rebirth with 1968's " Abraham, Martin and John". Despite this hit song and probably due in equal parts to record company incompetence and his own continuing struggle to beat addiction, Dion was unable to really capitalize commercially on his superb take on folk rock; which managed to sound just as urgent and vital as his early doo-wop and rock n' roll sides. Search out his song "Daddy Rollin' in Your Arms" (the b-side of "Abraham, Martin and John") for perhaps the finest example of just how raw and amazing a sound Dion was concocting in the late 60's. And here's hoping Ace might be able to reissue the criminally out of print self titled Dion album of the same period.
By the dawn of 1970 Dion had, as unflinchingly and unapologetically documented in THE most crucial song on this collection, "cleaned up his own backyard". He was on a new label (Warner Brothers) and recording in earnest with a renewed faith and love for the music that had helped him experience a rebirth both physically and spiritually. It seems that the one thing that never deserted Dion was his love of all kinds of music: rock, blues, soul, country, gospel and so on. And the redemptive power of this love of music and singing is what is telegraphed so clearly in Ace's collection of the best of Dion's 70's recordings. Just take a look at the great iconic photo, that graces both the back of the c.d. booklet and the c.d. itself, of Dion with a sly half smile and shades on, rolling down the street with acoustic guitar in one hand and a girl in the other.
Though some of the production choices of the later 70's songs might lean a little too much towards the slick and middle of the road for some listeners, there is just too much prime Dion here to let that minor quibble cloud the issue at hand, which is that this collection really does anthologize the very best of a decade of rebirth for Dion. And the very best of Dion's 70's recordings are a very fine thing indeed. Absolute highlights of the set include the opening "Doctor Rock n' Roll" with its infectious acoustic driven groove and lyrics celebrating the power of "sweet soul music", the despite all the bullshit everything's gonna be alright sentiments of "Sanctuary", the infectiously soulful good vibes (yeah I said it) of "Sunshine Lady", and the wall of sound collaborations with Phil Spector; "Only You Know", "Born to Be With You" and "Baby Let's Stick Together". But best of all is the aforementioned "Your Own Backyard", a joyful and humorous recollection of Dion's descent and eventual recovery from addiction that is completely devoid of self pity. It illustrates all that is great about the man: honesty, strength, forthrightness, and soul. "My idea of having a good time was sitting with my head between my knees.... I don't have to sit around no more on the nod, I can do anything I want to do, I do it straight, and I do it so much better too, and it's got to start right in your own backyard." When you hear him sing those words with such a tangible (and not at all self-righteous) joy in his voice it gives shivers and you believe him completely, you know he means it, he's for real. It's a feeling that unfortunately is increasingly rare in popular music. I think they called it sincerity.
© 2004 William Crain