"A Wanderer, the Singer Dion Returns to the Bronx"
December 9th, 2011
The New York Times
December 9th, 2011
The New York Times
DRESSED in black with shades to match, Dion DiMucci stood on East 187th Street and pointed to Grandma Maria’s apartment building. In the 1940s, that corner fire escape was the best perch in Belmont for the street fairs where big guys sang big songs.
“I had like a loge seat up there,” said Dion, the singer-songwriter best known by his first name. “You don’t know what it was like to hear those guys. They would sing opera. It was wild!”
He tossed out that last word with a touch of Bronx Italian attitude, betraying the vocal swagger that made him famous in the 1950s as the leader of the Belmonts, later as solo act and eventually enshrined him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That attitude made Dion, in Bruce Springsteen’s opinion, the link between Sinatra and rock ’n’ roll.
Now, after two failed attempts to bring his life to the screen, Dion is collaborating with Charles Messina, a playwright and director, on “The Wanderer — the Life and Music of Dion.” It will weave his songs through a plot centered on the singer’s life from 1957 through the late 1960s, a time that brought him his greatest success and biggest tragedies — sort of a deeper version of “Jersey Boys,” the jukebox musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
A few weeks ago he took Mr. Messina to Belmont, the Italian enclave that was the center of his young world and a place where he still easily walks the streets. The visit was not a nostalgia trip — Dion keeps recording new songs — but a way to help Mr. Messina get a feel for Dion’s world.
“This kid Charles — he’s 40 and I call him a kid — he’s ready to pop!” Dion said. “I like his style. I like the way he wrote. He caught a vision! I mean, I can write a three-minute song. But a play? That’s amazing. You know, I always saw my story as a young ‘Sopranos’ with great music and a Rocky Graziano ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ ending. It’s a story of redemption. A rock and roll redemption story!”
Dion grew up not too far from Belmont’s main drag, on the second floor of a two-story house on Prospect Avenue. His father, Pasquale, was a puppeteer, though he liked to talk more than work. His mother, Frances, worked in a hat factory. The two argued a lot.
“When they argued, I just went to my room and practiced guitar,” Dion recalled. “So the more they argued, the better guitar player I became.”
Mr. Messina, who has had plays about Freddie Mercury and Mario Lanza produced Off Broadway and elsewhere, knew he had the makings of a compelling story after a mutual friend introduced him to Dion a few years ago. The two shared an Italian-American upbringing and a feel for the city’s streets. And he was fascinated by how Dion — who can pepper a conversation with casual references to Lou Reed, Jackie Wilson, St. Jerome and St. Augustine — survived a turbulent era.
“The conflict was irresistible to me as a dramatist,” he said. “But what’s interesting about Dion is that he lived. In my other plays, you don’t have that ending where the guy overcame. Dion overcame.”
Mr. Messina and a preliminary cast have held several readings of the script for potential investors, as they try to raise the financing to mount a workshop next year. The show would have more than 20 songs, including Dion’s hits and other songs from the era, as well as new originals. Both Mr. Messina and Dion said the response had been encouraging.
“It took ‘Jersey Boys’ 10 years to get to Broadway,” Mr. Messina said. “I think we can get there faster. If you took the music out of ‘Jersey Boys,’ would it still work? Our story can, because Dion’s life was dramatic.”
Indeed, tragedy was never too far from Dion’s life, even during his dizzying success. He had become addicted to heroin around the time he hit it big with the Belmonts as they recorded hits like “I Wonder Why” and “Teenager in Love,” and later on his own, with “The Wanderer” and “Donna the Prima Donna.” And while he was on the road with Buddy Holly for a winter dance tour in 1959, he balked at spending $36 — the same amount his parents paid in monthly rent — for a seat on a chartered plane. The plane’s crash claimed the lives of Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
The play does not shy away from showing those searing moments. Dion says it has captured something that other efforts to dramatize his life have missed. He recalled watching a reading and being stunned during the scene where the young singer learns of the losses on what came to be called “The Day the Music Died.”
“When the kid who was playing me started screaming when the plane crashed, I almost fell to my knees,” he said. “Sometimes you need somebody to scream for you. You realize there’s a 19-year-old kid who still feels very deeply about things.”
And the neighborhood cares deeply about him. During their visit to Belmont, Dion ducked into Artuso Pastry, where Joe, the second-generation owner, had a box of cookies and cannoli waiting for him.
“This is for all you do,” Mr. Artuso said. “Good to be on your team, buddy boy.”
Dion threw his head back with a smile. “Joey, you’re a saint in the making!” he said.
He and Mr. Messina went down the street to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Dion’s childhood parish. He climbed up the steps, stopped in the vestibule and smiled.
“The cap stays on,” he said with a smile, as he pointed to his Kangol cap. “Not even cardinals know.”
Even when he first felt the thrill of a hit record, he would still stop at the church and talk with Msgr. Joseph Pernicone, who pushed him when he was a teenager to think about the meaning of love or happiness.
“He once asked me, ‘Dion what would make you happy?’ ” Dion said as he settled into a pew at the back of the church. “ ‘Well, there’s this girl Susan I’d love to get close to. And while you’re at it, throw in a hit record and a Thunderbird.’
“ ‘No, Dion. The virtuous man is the happy man,’ ” the monsignor replied.
“I had no idea what he meant,” Dion said. “But he told me, it’s the predisposition to do the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reason.”
He sat and looked around the sanctuary, which was bathed in a soft, golden light.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if not for him,” he said. “I got lost in my life. But I eventually came back to what he taught me.”
Mr. Messina craned his neck, taking in the details. “This will be good for set design,” he said. “Look at this place.”
A few blocks away on Arthur Avenue, they entered Pasquale’s Rigoletto, where Dion was embraced like a favorite — and hip — uncle. A frown crossed his face only when a customer casually walked into the dining room and started singing. Dion got up, said a word to the maître d’ — and the singing stopped.
“I just want to eat,” he said.
More than a half-century after his first hit, he thinks back to what his life was like as a child, when his grandfather Tony would wake him every morning to the rhythmic clack of a wooden spoon in a tin cup beating egg yolks, sugar and wine into a frothy yellow concoction known as zabaglione.
“That’s brain food,” Dion said. “That’s one of the reasons my brain is so highly developed. By the time I got to school I was like, ‘Trig? Bring it. Algebra? Bring it.’ I haven’t come down from that stuff.”
So while he has learned from the past, he doesn’t live in it. At 72, he has written new songs for the play. He’s even coming out with a new album, “Tank Full of Blues,” next month.
“I never felt more relevant,” he said. “I feel more relevant now than I did in my 20s. It’s probably the zabaglione.”
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