Lookin' for the Heart of Saturday Night:
One Man's Search for Dion
by Ray D'Ariano
Let me tell you a little somethin' 'bout synchronicity, ok?
So the word was out, Dion, you know . . . The Wanderer, the king of the New York Streets, the man . . . Dion, at age 69, has a new album out.
Ok, so it's a new CD, but, you know, if you were hearin', like, "Runaround Sue" back in the day when it was new, when Dandy Dan Daniel was playin' it on the WMCA Good Guy survey, you know that cats like Dion don't make CD's, they make albums. Heck, back when it wasn't even that, back then they made singles, but that's a whole other story. The point of this one here is that Dion got this new album out and it's a blues album. Yeah, I know, Dion doin' a blues album. This has got to be heard, right?
So I happened to be walkin' by a Coconuts, and I drop in, and there's two young dudes behind the counter who weren't even around for the reunion with The Belmonts at the Garden back in the 70's, but, you know, hey, it ain't their fault that they were born too late, and so I approach and it goes:
"Dion? You mean, Celine Dion?"
"No, No, see there's this guy . . . " The CD is called "Bronx In Blue," and they check out their computer and . . . can't find it . . . never heard of it . . . never heard of him. Ok, no sweat. Have a good day. Enjoy that Usher CD you got playin' on the system there, and thanks for your help.
So I get into the car and reach for the radio dial, need a little CBS-FM, need some oldies, ooops, sorry, after a thirty year habit it's still hard to remember that that ain't no more. See, more young studs, who graduated a decade ago are now in their mid thirties, run the ad agencies and radio conglomerates, and they, like, got their first business card with the words 'vice president' of this or that printed on 'em, and they're good kids doin' what they think is right, but the problem is they were in pampers when the reunion concert went down. Hey, that's just the way it is, but now I was on a mission to get my hands on this CD. I needed something to listen to.
Next stop Borders. I look though the new releases . . . nada. I encounter another young guy who worked there and inquire about the CD. He looks it up on the computer and informs me that, yes, in fact, it does exist.
Ok, lets see, I knew that already. He's the one who didn't, but that's cool . . . let me have one please. According to the computer they don't have any, but he'll check in the back just in case.
Just then another guy around my age, 106 . . . kidding, but that's how I was starting to feel . . . a guy in his mid 50's, wearing a Yankee cap, jumped in. "Yo, if you're goin' to the back could you check if you got the new Dion CD."
The kid went to the back. I explained to my peer that I had just asked for the same thing.
So we bonded and I ask if he owns the recent DVD, "Dion Live," a concert taped in Atlantic City. He didn't know about it and I suggested he check it out.
He asked if I have a CD Dion released a few years ago called, "New Masters?" That was new to me so the guy explained that Dion went in and recorded new versions of his classics. The concept was that when they were originally recorded . . . great as they are . . . they didn't have advantage of today's technology. Sounded like something I'd love to hear. Then the kid returned from the back to inform us that they didn't have "Bronx In Blue." They didn't have "New Masters" or the DVD either.
At this point I started to think, ok, this is a deal for Amazon.com. I knew they'd have what I wanted, but you can't replace walkin' into a music store, securing your purchase, and listening to it on the way home in your car. So it was a road trip up the Merritt Parkway to Tower in Stamford.
I was now traveling out of state to buy an album named after The Bronx. Tower would have it, a few years ago that's where I bought Dion's amazing 3 CD boxed set, "King Of The New York Streets."
Hey, if you're a Dion fan you owe it to yourself to add this anthology to your collection. The booklet that accompanies the CD's is worth the cost. Dave Marsh, a brilliant writer captures the essence of Dion better than anyone who's ever written about him, wrote the text. " For forty years, 1958 to 1998, Dion has made all kinds of records . . . it is one voice, one vision, one set of attitudes, one man trying to find a way to open his heart and yours."
In the booklet the whole story is capsulated by Marsh . . . the kid in The Bronx with a guitar in his hands and Hank Williams on the radio . . . the apartment super who sat on the stoop playing Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker tunes . . . the membership in the gang, The Fordham Baldies . . . the hits with The Belmonts . . . the concert the night before the day the music died . . . the drug addiction and the sweet surrender to Jesus . . . and so much more . . . all illustrating that Dion doesn't just sing his songs he's lived them.
Bruce Springsteen: " He could have been either in the Rat Pack or the E Street Band if either had been lucky enough to have him."
Lou Reed: "One of the most original soulful voices to spring from the New York City cauldron."
Bob Dylan: "If you want to hear a great singer, listen to Dion. His voice takes it's color from all pallets he's never lost it his genius has never deserted him."
Mere samples of the great stuff that's in the booklet, but the main attraction is the music on the three CD's.
Where do you begin? All the hits are here, "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer," "Little Diane," "That's My Desire" (from that Garden reunion), "Lovers Who Wander" and all the rest. Then there's the singer-songwriter years, the album cuts, a touch of the contemporary Christian, and more recent material.
You get: "Written On The Subway Wall/Little Star," "Life Is But A Dream," "Sweet Surrender," "Book Of Dreams" (written by Bruce Springsteen. Sensational doo-wop harmonies over the soft soulful lyric written by one of Dion's greatest disciples. It's a reflection on the past, present and future, a rock and roll hymn . . . absolutely beautiful.) There's "I Wonder Why" by Dion and The Belmonts. (If someone who never heard doo-wop and wanted to know what it was all about I'd play them this record. This masterpiece from 1958 captures the attitude of the post war, pre-Beatles generation. Aside from all that it just sounds real good. Turn it up. It is rock and roll at it's purest.)
You'll hear "Lookin' For The Heart of Saturday Night," "(I Was) Born To Cry," "And The Night Stood Still" (Don't know who the female vocalist is, but she reminds me of Cher, and makes me wonder how big they would have been if Sonny had Dion's pipes, but that's here nor there. This is a very overlooked should-a-been a hit record. It's his "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" with a Clarence Clemmons-like sax break that doesn't go on long enough. The lyric? Hey, it's a lot of our story&great, great cut, a treat.)
Then there's "The Truth Will Set You Free" (A melodic, almost early Dire Straits, kind of groove under a lyric that once again we all lived. The message here is that accepting the truth that we all learn is our liberation. "It's not what's in your pocket son, it's what's in your heart that makes us one.")
And then there's "Midtown American Main Street Gang," and dozens of more fantastic songs and performances awaiting you on this boxed set, but this isn't about "King Of The New York Streets" . . . ok, ok, so it was for a short while, but now it's back on point . . . I'm up in Connecticut at Tower where I once bought the box set, and I'm looking for "Bronx In Blue."
Hot young babe with pink hair and nose piercings, looking cool moves to the computer (how did we ever buy music before computers existed?)
"And it's called "Blues In The Bronx?"
"Bronx In Blue."
"Yes, it was released on Tuesday."
"Great, do you have it?"
"No, but I can order it for you."
"That's ok, I'll get it somewhere. Thanks."
A quick check to the Dion section . . . something you don't find everywhere . . . no new CD, but "New Masters" is here so I buy it and crank it up in the car. Yeah! I don't know how Mr. Di Mucci pulled it off, but somehow he's taken records that were damn near perfect and made them better.
Here's the deal, stay with me now, when he recorded say, "Drip Drop," back in the early 60's, everyone was trying to make a quick little smash that would fit onto the playlists of the then powerful Top 40 stations. You had to try to get your art, your soul, your attitude all on to that little 45 . . . nobody did it better than Dion, but now, new technology, and the freedom to go as long as you want, and to include that sax break you always wanted, and a vocal riff . . . "Don't ya just know it' . . . makes it onto the cut just because it feels right . . . and with a smokin' guitar break . . . and you've got an improvement on perfection - a variation on the theme. What we have in fact is more, and that is as rock and roll as America, and as American as rock and roll.
Does doo-wop have any relevance in 2006? Can you even make a decent doo-wop record in the 2000's? Listen to the new take on "I Wonder Why!" It responds to the questions . . . and as John Lennon once wrote, "Yes is the answer." What a cut! In addition to the classic hits there are two new songs, and several remarkable covers including Del Shannon's "Runaway." I love this CD.
So now it was, like, the next day and while looking for "Bronx In Blue" at yet another place, I pick up a second copy of "New Masters." I needed it for the boys at the deli I go to where they always have great music playing. I lay it on Vinny and instantly the place is filled with the sound of Dion. Both the guys behind the counter and the customers waiting for their orders are grooving to it.
So see, that's what I was talking about way back at the beginning of this thing, synchronicity. I'm looking for one thing and find another. I love it, and then the music is passed on to more people. It was meant to be, you dig? That's how picking up on the vibe that's going down and passing it around works, and at this stage of the game, that's my desire.
Well, I finally ordered "Bronx In Blue" from Amazon, got it three days later. It was worth the wait. "Bronx In Blue" is Dion's masterwork. There are no tricks or gimmicks. No band . . . no back up singers . . . it's the album he was born to record. There have been clues along the way, he recorded "Spoonful," and "Blue Monday," but now he's become the magician who reveals his tricks.
See, it's always been a variation on the blues, and now Dion is at the point where he can just do it, pure and simple. All of his recordings, all of rock and roll, came from these songs. For example, if you listen real carefully to this CD you'll hear the roots of the riff from "The Wanderer" several times.
Here it is: Cool looking 69 year old cat from The Bronx, who has seen and done it all several times, wearin' his cap with the brim pulled down to the top of his shades . . . is sittin' on the stoop strummin' and putting out Son House's "Walkin' Blues" "Hope you never had 'em, and I hope you never do."
It is funky, basic, soulful, and right here on the first cut, as it is on the rest of the collection; we learn that above all this artist is still the apogee of cool. He's a one-man band playing guitar as good as anyone ever has, singing better than he ever has, performing tunes by Robert Johnson (check out "Travelin' Riverside Blues"), Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, and Hank Williams (excellent version of "Honky Tonk Blues").
Think of Derek and The Domino's version of "Layla," and then Clapton's acoustic version. Then think of Cream's version of "Crossroads," and check out, on this album, Dion's acoustic version. That's what we're talkin' 'bout here, dig?
Now that I've heard both "Bronx In Blues," and "New Masters" I realize that a lot of the material is performed on the "Dion Live" DVD. In addition to the concert there are segments throughout of the artist sitting alone on a stool and playing some of the blues tunes from his new collection.
To quote the man himself, "Black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood comes out with attitude. Rock and roll. Yo!"
Synchronicity . . . rock and roll, Robert Johnson, you, me, Dion, then, now . . . yo! You got it?