Dion: Forgotten favorites

Dion DiMucci was a kid from the Bronx who used to sing Doo Wop on street corners with his buddies. He was a nice looking boy, and “The Wanderer” is one of the few really great records you still hear on oldies radio. He made two awful Hollywood pictures around the turn of the ‘50s — you know, in those weird days when rock and roll was no longer greasy and threatening, before those long-haired guys with accents showed up to get things hopping again. Look out for Teenage Millionare and Twist Around the Clock on early morning local TV. So that was Dion & the Belmonts, and if you want a real history you can go to the library and look it up, ‘cause it’s all there.

What you won’t find in the early chapters of Rock On is the reason Dion got hooked on heroin and spent the better part of the sixties enjoying the decor of various gutters. Althouqh he seems to have come pretty close, in the end he didn’t die.

And in 1968 he crept back to make a record on the Belmonts’ old label, Laurie. Simply titled Dion, and sporting an appropriately noirish cover shot of the heavily shadowed Dion clutching an invisible guitar, this album is worth rediscovering. Scott Walker was quoted as saying that Dion was his favorite new album of 1967, and if it’s good enough for the cutest Walker Brother it oughtta be good enough for you.

Producer Phil Gernhard’s liner notes set the scene: “When you listen to this album, we hope it gives you a good kick in the gut.” It’s not that the record is ugly, difficult or in any way abrasive. Superficially it’s as soothing a set of songs as you’re likely to hear. The gut-kick is carefully couched in Dion’s subtle phrasing, and in several songs that offer quietly scathing social critiques.

Dion is largely an album of interpretations, and unfortunately a number of its songs have since become standards, their familiarity rendering them almost nonexistent to the listener. Nevertheless, Dion does wonderful things with them. The record opens with the hit “Abraham, Martin and John,” in which the singer invokes the martyred spirits of the dead and invites them to hang close around him as he plays. An abstract folk reading of “Purple Haze” is a remarkable reworking. With its sweet scat intro and bongos, it manages to be incredibly psychedelic without giving in to any overt musical excesses. When Dion purrs, “I’m acting funny, can’t find the reason why,” it’s infinitely more disturbing and real than in Hendrix’ freaked-out version. This song is also notable for introducing a vocal arrangement that would turn up verbatim on Scott Walker’s masterful “Hero of the War (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” on Scott 4. Other covers include one of the prettier versions of Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins,” Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and an early “Both Sides Now.”

Flip to side two for Dion’s original songs, which along with “Purple Haze” are what make this record so special. “He Looks a Lot Like Me” is a stunning anti-war hymn which blends equal parts Phil Ochs’ sensibilities, Tim Buckley’s vocal trickery, and Mario Lanza’s tasteful stylizations; throw some gypsy violins into the arrangement and you have an unlikely but effective fusion of Italian folk tradition and the protest scene. Next up is “Sun Fun Song,” an eerily dark take on the genre of joyful sixties pop-folk that is lyrical, bleak, and sonically unlike anything you have ever heard before.

Round it out with versions of “Sisters of Mercy,” “Everybody’s Talking,” and “Loving You is Sweeter than Ever,” ace interpretations every one. Dion is a haunting return to the form by an artist who’s been through all manner of degradation and self-hate. It’s all there, in the beauty of his voice, in the subtle arrangements, and in the dichotomy of two perfect original songs, one a vision of the bleak hopelessness of war, the other an equally fearsome vision of giddy pleasure.

Well worth picking up for five bucks, if you see it. -Kim Cooper

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