It was a sunny day in New York City in 1955. Strutting down the sidewalk in his pompadour, the collar on his leather jacket turned up, Dion DiMucci was feeling like the king of the streets.
“Rebel Without a Cause” had just come out on the silver screen and every boy in the Bronx wanted to be James Dean—the tough guy with the sensitive soul who got the beautiful girl, Natalie Wood.
But for the 15-year-old Dion, the film—a tragic tale of teen rootlessness and angst — struck a deeper, more personal chord.
It would still be a few years before Dion and the Belmonts would bust out with “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love”—the first in a string of hit records that would make him one of rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest sensations.
Already, though, Dion had copped an attitude. He scorned his parents. He was doing heroin, sneaking into pool halls at night and hanging out by day with the Fordham Baldies, a neighborhood gang.
On that particular day, he was swaggering down Crotona Avenue putting on his best I-don’t-need-you-or-nobody pose. He turned left onto the main drag, East 187th Street, and headed past Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
He had been baptized there as a baby. But he hadn’t been back since he was 8, when his father stopped going to Mass because the organ player he liked died.
The pastor, Father Joe, was sitting on the stoop outside the church.
He called out: “Yo! Dion! Come over here. What’s this ‘rebel without a cause’? Listen to me: When you rebel for the truth, then you’ve really got something.”
Dion recalled the incident in a recent conversation: “At the time I was like, ‘Yeah, thanks a lot, Father.’ And I was out of there to hang with the guys on the corner.”
“But, you know,” he added, “over the years I’ve come to see that this priest was the true rebel hero in the neighborhood. He was the sign of contradiction.”
Dion sees a lot of things more clearly these days.
His greatest hits —“Runaround Sue,” “Donna the Prima Donna,” “Ruby Baby,” and his signature, “The Wanderer” — sold millions and helped define the emerging sound of rock, back when it was a primordial mix of gospel, country, and rhythm and blues sounds.
But at 62, Dion is a rock ‘n’ roll legend who doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back.
He still wears the beret and talks like a hipster poet with rhythms and a banter straight out of the mean streets of his youth. But he’s a man who just celebrated his 38th wedding anniversary to his high school sweetheart, Susan, and has three grown daughters. And these days he is just as likely to talk to you about Jesus and the beauty of the Catholic Mass as he is about rock ’n’ roll.
“You know, after all is said and done, that’s what it’s all about—coming home,” he says. “While you’re on this planet, you can come home to that heavenly home, the eternal place, the Mass. You can participate in communion—not just community, but communion, the communion of saints. It’s like too beautiful. It’s hard for me to get my arms around it. I don’t think I ever will.”
Five years ago, Dion returned to the Catholic faith he was born into—after 18 years as an evangelical Protestant and 30 years before that spent as a heroin addict and alcoholic.
All of this likely evokes a collective shrug from most of the listening public.
Dion hasn’t had a hit record since the late 1960s and largely has been relegated to a voice on the golden-oldies station — a period piece, a specimen of nostalgia from the days of mohair suits and burger-joint waitresses on roller-skates.
This, despite the fact that Dion has persistently refused to play on the lucrative “oldies” circuit that has turned top groups of the ’50s and ’60s into novelty acts in night clubs and small stages around the country.
“I don’t like the ‘oldies’ thing,” he says. “Before they sing a song they say things like: ‘Do you remember when?’ or ‘I’d like to bring you back to 1952’ or something like that. I don’t get it. Just sing the song! You’ve got a great song. Why do you have to bring people back somewhere?”
If he is a blast from the past for many, Dion’s die-hard fans include some of the elite stars in today’s recording industry. And Dion, out of the public glare, has quietly continued to write and make good music — 42 albums in all since 1957 — including “Deja Nu,” an excellent set of new tunes issued in 2000.
His latest release, “Dion: King of the New York Streets” is an impressive, three-CD retrospective that should ensure his place as an important and influential voice in American popular song.
The collection charts Dion’s life in song as he grew from street-corner rocker and bluesman to coffeehouse poet-philosopher to born-again gospel singer to elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll.
It can also be heard as a compelling spiritual autobiography — a deeply personal story of his struggle for self-awareness and redemption.
On The Corner of Belmont Avenue
It’s a story that started on the corner near Belmont Avenue in the Bronx.
Dion and the Belmonts were four working class Italian-Catholic kids who got their sense of rhythm from the Sixth Avenue D Train and laid down harmony lines to sound like the sax and trumpet players they heard at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
On the strength of their 1958 smash hit, “I Wonder Why,” they barnstormed the country, sharing the bill with the likes of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.
Dion was there the day the music died — Feb. 2, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper went down in a rented plane in a snowstorm outside Mason City, Iowa.
He was the other headliner on that “Winter Dance Party” tour. The only reason he wasn’t on the plane was because he didn’t want to afford the $36 fare.
Today, he sees the hand of God at work in his decision to take the bus and not the plane to the tour’s next stop. At the time, however, Dion didn’t waste much time thinking about the intentions of the Divine. And there was nothing at all appealing about the Catholic Church he grew up in.
In the code of Old World machismo that ruled the neighborhoods of his youth, “Catholicism was something for old ladies and old men, sick people and weak people and sissies,” he says. “Real men didn’t need it.”
And anyway, Dion DiMucci was doing fine without God. His life was a dream: Money and drugs, screaming girls at his command, gigs on national TV — Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show.
A few short years after that exchange with Father Joe on the stoop of Mount Carmel, the 21-year-old Dion was a multimillionaire. With his beautiful girlfriend Susan under his arm, he cruised the old neighborhood in his silver and black T-bird like a conquering king.
In 1962, Columbia Records signed him to a $100,000-a-year, five-year contract.
A Rebel Yell
From the start, Dion was more than a teen idol, a pretty backstreet boy who could sing.
He was a good songwriter with good chops on the guitar, too. He could sing anything — rave-ups and ballads, shuffles and swings, city soul, backwoods country and blues.
He had great timing and rhythm and his voice was an instrument that could sound at once vulnerable and cocky, sweet and tough, soulful and stripped down.
When he sang, you could hear the lonesome and lowdown blues of his idol, Hank Williams. And he wasn’t singing your typical teenager-in-love hokum. His songs were edgy and dark, about runaways and drifters, betrayal and desire.
Even in his signature piece, “The Wanderer,” there was a sense of emptiness and futility underneath the swagger: “I’m as happy as a clown, with my two fists of iron and I’m goin’ nowhere.”
“I Was Born to Cry,” with its wild moans and its wailing saxophones, sounds like a minor-key psalm from the depths. In fact, Dion says, it was written after hearing the chants of a Jewish cantor he knew.
It was a rare top-40 hit that had lyrics this intense in 1962 (or today, for that matter):
…I wish today the world my friends would stop being sad There’s so much evil ‘round us I feel that I could die… I know some day and maybe soon that Master will call And when he does I tell you something, I won’t cry. Until it happens folks, I’ll sail with that tide And I know that I was born to cry….
Dion was the voice for all those kids in “Rebel Without A Cause,” the voice of a generation growing up expecting to be the last of the line — growing up in the shadow of the Bomb, the Cold War and the space race. Dion was singing for them when he “couldn’t help but wonder where I’m bound” and when he begged the stars above to “send me down a love to share.” A Shooting Star Dion’s own star fell just as quickly as it rose.
The rock ‘n’ roll scene in those early years was shifting fast. New rebels took to the stage, some even had causes — Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles and others. At the same time, Dion was dropping down deeper into a ditch of his own making.
By 1965, when he recorded a mesmerizing version of “Spoonful,” the great bluesman Willie Dixon’s paean to love or drugs, he was fully in the thrall of heroin addiction.
When he moaned Dixon’s lines, “Some men lie about it/Some men cry about it/Whoa-oah, they die about it…” he was making the song his own — singing about a life fallen past the guardrails.
He lost interest in making music. He had grown so rich so quick that he probably didn’t need to work ever again. He holed up in his house and stayed stoned much of the time. One night, high on acid and taking belts from a fifth of scotch, he came close to killing himself. Columbia Records quietly dropped him when his contract expired.
It was a period he would recall with almost unbearable honesty in his song, “Your Own Backyard”:
I lost everything near and dear to me, namely my children and my wife. My idea of having a good time was sitting with my head between my knees. I knew everything there was to know, everything except which way to go I cried, Oh God, take me, will you please?
At 28, Dion was a rock ‘n’ roll obituary waiting to be written — the shooting star who became a burnt-out case. The beautiful, brash kid from the Bronx with the choirboy pipes and the rebel soul, who found out too late that he was doing 90-miles-an-hour down a dead-end street.
He drifted out of public view, even did a stint in the psychiatric ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
He would surface again only once, in 1968, with the release of “Abraham, Martin and John,” a spare elegy about American innocence lost in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King. With Dion’s voice weary and wistful against a backdrop of glissando harp and fingerpicked guitar, the record was pitched perfect for a summertime when they were rioting, not dancing, in the streets.
It would be his last hit record and the last most people would ever hear of Dion. Only his family knew that six months earlier, Dion had finally started to clean up his act.
His father-in-law, a former alcoholic, whom Dion describes as a man of deep faith and gentle witness, told him he should pray for God’s help. And in a moment of desperation, Dion prayed.
Instantly, he says, he felt peace: “I was delivered from the obsession to drink and drug; it was just lifted off me like a weight.”
He hooked up with a 12-step program and hasn’t touched a drop of liquor or a shot of junk since.
His life back on track, Dion started writing songs again — intimate, acoustic-style confessions and meditations, many of which recounted his sufferings with candor and without sentimentality. It was sober, mature music, and 30 years later it still stands up well — the work of a man who had grown up in public and was grateful to have made it out of the limelight alive.
But it was the work of a man who still hadn’t found what he was looking for. The Master Calls
The man who sang about looking for love in the stars above, still longed to be lifted up higher.
On December 14, 1979, on a jogging path near his home in Miami, he got his wish. It came in the form of an answer to a simple plea he made during his regular morning run: “God, it would be nice to be closer to you.”
Suddenly, he says, a tremendous bright light surrounded him and he saw a figure moving toward him with outstretched arms. He could hear a man’s voice inside of him saying, “I love you. Don’t you know that? I’m your friend. I laid down My life for you. I’m here for you now.”
Dion went home and started reading the Bible cover to cover. He did that again and again. And he started going to church.
As a celebrity convert, he was befriended by some of the country’s top evangelical preachers, including Chuck Smith of Calvary Temple and Greg Laurie of the Harvest Christian Fellowship.
New songs began pouring out of him. He cut five pop-oriented gospel albums in the 1980s, including “I Put Away My Idols,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 1983.
The arrangements on these albums are probably a little too smooth around the edges, with their big drums, electric piano and synthesizers. But his voice and his writing is as honest and expressive as ever. One song from this period, “The Truth Will Set You Free” — a haunting look back over his life as a “boy Caruso” — ranks among his best work.
“I was so motivated because I had such a brilliant, profound, sudden awakening to who Jesus was,” he recalls. “All the songs were just an expression of what I was feeling. It was even hard to put it into words. I never could write a song that beautiful.” A Bronx Welcome
But the Wanderer was restless still.
Dion spent 18 years in various evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, a spiritual seeker probing the Scriptures and searching his heart for answers. Increasingly, he found, he had questions for which his pastors and Bible-study fellows had no satisfactory response.
He was troubled, he says, about who on earth has the authority to decide what gets taught in the name of Jesus as “the Truth.”
“There were just so many denominations, teaching so many different things,” he explains. “I was getting frustrated.”
One of his pastors quoted St. Augustine, the fifth-century North African bishop who was a spiritual and intellectual giant of the early Church. So, Dion began reading Augustine. He was amazed to discover that Augustine had been instrumental in drawing up the list of books to be included in the Bible that Protestants now relied on solely as “the inerrant Word of God.”
More eye-opening, he says, was the fact that Augustine had “Catholic beliefs” — including the belief that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit guides the Catholic Church and guarantees the truth of its teachings.
When he confronted his pastor and friends with his findings, “they all just tossed it off,” Dion says. “They told me it’s all according to the way you see truth. I said, ‘Exactly! You it hit it right on the head!’ And I started to see truth differently.”
For a couple of years he continued what he describes as “reading myself back into the Church.” He read the writings of the so-called early Church fathers, the first and second generation of Church leaders, some of whom had been disciples of Jesus’s original 12 apostles.
He also began reading conversion stories like Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s “Rome Sweet Home” and watching programs on the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network.
Scott Hahn, a theologian and former Presbyterian preacher, eventually became a close friend. Hahn is even singled out for special thanks, along with Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Bruce Springsteen and other friends, on Dion’s new CD.
With the help of Hahn and others, Dion grew convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church intended by Jesus and the place where he belonged.
In 1997, he went back to the Bronx, where it all started — to Mount Carmel Church where he had been baptized in 1939. Father Joe was long gone. But he asked the priest there to hear his confession. When he was done, the priest said to him, “Dion, welcome home.”
The man who said he was “born to cry” broke down and wept.
“I felt like I came home,” he says. “I realize today that what I did was come into the fullness of the faith and the beauty of truth, and 2,000 years of family history and this beautiful Church that Jesus started.”Who could be hipper? It took a long time and he’s been down a lot of roads, but the Wanderer has found his way back to that church at 187th and Crotona in the Bronx.
Dion still tells the story of Father Joe in his rare concert performances.
“What he was really saying was the truth will set you free,” Dion explains. “He was facing in the direction of that higher reality. A lot of the guys on that corner died, a lot of them are in jail. And even the guys that are living, a lot of them are just broken, walking around empty. I really think it’s important for me to tell people who I thought the cool guys were — the rebels — the guys I wanted to emulate. And how that’s changed.”
For the generation of rock ‘n’ rollers who came along after him and were inspired by him, it’s still Dion who is the embodiment of cool.
“Who could be hipper than Dion?” Lou Reed asked in his speech inducting Dion into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. In recent years, Reed, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and others have paid tribute to Dion and his influence on their work.
His friends in the music business know about his spiritual journey and respect his religious convictions. Though he says he “loves to talk to everybody about Jesus,” he never tries to proselytize or tell anybody how to live their life.
But if anybody in the popular culture should be open to the Gospel message, he says, it’s rock ‘n’ roll musicians.
“As a rocker, you always think that you have the truth and you want to express your individuality and your personal freedom,” he says. “That’s rock and roll at its best. Sometimes you go about it the wrong way. Like some people think that freedom and power is an amplifier. That doesn’t go far enough.”
What Dion does these days is what he has always done — he gets a good song and he sings it.
There was a time after his conversion, he says, when he stopped playing his old songs because they were products of his wild and wayward years.
“I didn’t see those songs accurately,” he says. “Now I do. And they become more valuable and important to me as time moves on. Some are character studies, some have an honest cry of desperation. There’s truth in all those songs.”
And it’s hard not to hear the language of religious desire turned inside out in the songs that Dion has laid down over the last half-century — songs of long loneliness, dark nights of the soul, of wandering in search of love.
Some of them even sound like prophecies:
When I opened my eyes, I realized Love came to me. Only this time for real.Originally published in New Covenant Magazine (October 2001)
© David Scott, 2003. All rights reserved.