I’ve said it privately to two people, but it’s time I came clean: given a choice between Dion and Elvis (a purely fantastical situation, I know), I’d take Dion. I couldn’t possibly dispute that Elvis waxed more great songs than Mr. DiMucci ever will, as well as recorded several great albums, where I do not think The Wanderer recorded one. No doubt, Elvis was a more important figure in American culture by many miles. Over time, though, other than the Sun sessions, the ’68 Comeback, and a terrific compilation called Reconsider Baby, I’ve found his magic doesn’t work on me the way it used to. On the other hand, Dion’s voice has held me more and more in thrall. Like Presley did, the guy can sing almost anything–doo wop, cutting-edge rock and roll, folk-rock, Delta blues, romantic pop–and someone needs to get him in a studio soon, because, at 78, he can still cut it. Dig if you will (I love, and hope you will love, this for more reasons than that it proves my point):
I guess it’s the lack of affect in Dion’s delivery–a frequently very unselfconscious sincerity, regardless of the kind of material he’s singing–that puts the hook in me. That, and his fascinating musical odyssey, one that, frankly, Elvis really never got a chance to embark upon of his own accord, outside of Hill & Range Publishing. I’m not doing a very good job explaining it…it just is. Simply put, I light up much more quickly and permanently when I hear “Lovers Who Wander,” “Born to Cry,” “Daddy Rollin’,” “My Girl the Month of May,” “Your Own Backyard,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Two-Ton Feather” and, especially, the two songs that inspired me to listen on this day, The Great Double-Standard Should-Have-Been-Double-Sided Fantasy 45, “The Wanderer” b/w “Runaround Sue” than I do when spinning Elvis’ classics. My dear friend Jill posted yesterday afternoon on Facebook that she’d never noticed how, well, unfair to women those latter two monster hits are, especially taken together. And, of course, on the merits of the lyrics alone, they pretty much are.
If you know about DiMucci’s youth, or if you’ve read Richard Price’s The Wanderer, though, such a viewpoint shouldn’t surprise you, nor would they likely inspire you to excuse them. But, on one hand, the other merits of these songs are bounteous: the musical arrangements, the vocals–at his best, there is a very subtle raw edge to Dion’s singing that’s his equivalent of Elvis’ style on songs like “Trying to Get to You,” and he’s at his best on these–the musicianship (Mickey “Guitar” Baker, Milt Hinton, Panama Francis, need I go on?)? WOW. And, lookit, I hear a little something different in the lyrics. When I hear “Runaround Sue,” I hear a cocky guy who’s gotten wounded by a spirited, beautiful, and free woman. That’s always been an occasion for a laugh in my book. In “The Wanderer,” you might note that the protagonist himself notes that, even with his “two fists of iron,” tattoos, and trail of broken hearts, he’s “goin’ nowhere.” I’m not the first to point that out, but it’s a nice irony, and in his true artistic life, Dion wasn’t interested in a pop/doowop pigeonhole. Just sayin’.
After I read Jill’s post and engaged in some spirited commentary, I couldn’t help but break out the above Laurie compilation, which Nicole and I have worn out over the years. It’s got some dreck on it, but that’s what programming is for. It’s entirely possible that the reader might not be familiar with Dion’s work, and this is the starting point, but should you get hooked, I highly recommend this great multi-disc collection (you may have to lean on your library or Spotify):
I’ll leave you with this, as I did with Jill when I departed the Facebook conversation, a deeply felt, graceful, and definitive Dion cover version of a great Springsteen song the beauty of which Bruce couldn’t quite tease all the way out. Herein, we hear that The Wanderer has come a long, long way:
The soundtrack I provided for Nicole, who was cooking caldo de pollo.
Flaco Jimenez: Arriba El Norte