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by Justin Farrar

January 24, 2012

Classic Rock Crate Digger: Dion Is Cooler Than You

by Justin Farrar  |  January 24, 2012

There's a good reason why Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed worship Dion. It's the same reason why his image appears on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band while those of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee do not. It's because the guy is cool, and in ways no other rocker has ever been cool. You can hear this in the way he slyly warns Ruby, "Like a ghost I'm gonna haunt ya." And in the way every line of "The Majestic" ends in that thin, knowing growl. And, of course, you can most definitely hear it in the opening line of "The Wanderer" ("I'm the type of guy who will never settle down ..."), a song so slinky, yet so soaked in bravado, it never relinquishes its ability to hypnotize.

But what courses underneath this cool is what's truly interesting: a volatile mix of crippling insecurity, sexual frustration and explosive violence. So totally disarming is the quivering, weeping prude in "A Teenager in Love" and "Lonely Teenager" and "Runaround Sue" that it's damn near impossible to imagine that same teen idol wailing "Little Diane," a song absolutely terrifying in its pathos and rage:

I wanta pack and leave and slap your face
Bad girls like you are a disgrace
A way down deep inside I cry
Without you little Diane I'd die

Musically speaking, few American singers have traversed as much of this country's sonic terrain as Dion Dimucci. What separated him from most of his rock 'n' roll contemporaries, the majority of whom grew up in the South and Midwest, is the fact that he hailed from the Bronx. It's in New York in the 1940s and '50s that he came into contact with everything from Frank Sinatra and the Metropolitan Opera to the latest rhythm and blues and jazz raging out of Harlem. He even developed a love of country music from his pops.

In the early 1960s, having already scored a string of hits with The Belmonts, Dion signed with Columbia Records and moved beyond his doo-wop roots in stunning fashion. Falling in love with rural blues, he crafted a singular rock 'n' roll sound ("Spoonful," "Two Ton Feather," "Baby, Please Don't Go") that is both urban and rural, black and white, Southern and Northern. He then added a layer of folk rock, which only intensified and deepened his unique vision. The same guy who sang "Little Diane" was now crooning "Abraham, Martin and John," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Your Own Back Yard" and "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound."

After the 1960s, commercial success was hard to come by, in all honesty, but that didn't prevent Dion from making some amazing records. There's the Phil Spector-produced Born to Be With You, whose bombastic production borders on the avant garde, and 1978's Return of the Wanderer, a lost gem of rock romance that should've been bought by everybody who fell for Springsteen, Warren Zevon and Mott the Hoople. More recent is a string of blues albums: the moody Bronx in Blue, Son of Skip James and 2012's Tank Full of Blues. He even took a detour through Christian rock in the 1980s.

Nowadays, a singer's "Americanness" is judged by how much faux twang he or she can stuff in a song. But the Americanness of Dion, as with Ray Charles and Doug Sahm, has always been more profound and subtle than that. His melting pot of a sound embodies what is supposed to make our country great, that belief in limitless possibility and inclusion.

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