“I’ve been sitting here thinkin’ ‘bout when I started in drinking and went on to dope/
I cried a tear in a beer for me I lost everything near and dear to me mainly 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 except which way to go/
I cried, oh, God, take me will you, please.”
EASTON, PA—He came out on to the stage of the State Theatre with his usual Bronx cool intact, beret stylishly perched on his dome, guitar slung low. Hard to believe the guy’s 75. When the band left the stage to give him his usual delta-blues spot, he stung that guitar for all it was worth and pounded out some vital, authentic straight blues to the max, pounding his Martin with a slide and a sneer.
He could have died with his buddy Buddy Holly on February 2, 1959, when that plane went down. Instead, he offered to go on that freezing bus with no heat in the dead of winter on its way to bumfuck nowhere Wisconsin where he harmonized with Holly’s young bass player, Waylon Jennings. It was so cold that Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, contracted frostbite.
He was a star. In fact, he headlined that tour. He had made his mark with Dion & The Belmonts in the doo-wop era of street-corner harmony. He had life by the balls. “A Teenager In Love” (everything you’ll ever want to know about the opposite sex in under three minutes), “I Wonder Why” and a cover of 1937’s “Where Or When” sold so many records, he could buy as much dope as he wanted.
“Many a time I swore up and down I didn’t need any of this junk goin’ ‘round/
I can quit let me finish what I got/
After all, this stuff sure costs a lot/
Then I’ll get my feet back on the ground/
I can’t tell nobody how to live their life/
Even though inside we’re all the same/
All those things are toys I was playing with/
You know we’re all losers in that game.”
By 1961, he was a solo, riding high with hit after hit but digging low into the depths of a brutal heroin addiction. “Lovers Who Wander,” “Donna Donna The Prima Donna,” “Ruby Baby,” “Drip Drop,” “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue,” man, they sound as good today as the day they were recorded. Columbia Records, in the person of Mitch Miller, hated, I mean absolutely detested rock ‘n’ roll, thought it was a total fad that would die out within months, but he saw the error of his ignorance and made Dion Columbia’s first rock ‘n’ roll signing.
It took seven more years of being a pathetic junkie before he quit using and got straight with the help of his ever-suffering wife Susan (who he is still married to), Narcotics Anonymous (to which he still goes to weekly meetings) and N.A.’s mandate that you must give in and accept some sort of higher power than yourself. His songwriting became more profound. So were his song choices. His career went into Phase #2. “Abraham, Martin & John” (written as a reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy by Dick Holler who, ironically, also wrote “Snoopy Versus The Red Dragon”) was the natural result. From 1968 to 2006, his string of 18 albums won him devoted fans like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Lou Reed. They all love him. And have gone on record saying so. He’s one of only two rock stars on the cover collage of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the other is Dylan).
Phase #3 is the blues and he’s still into it. His seminal Bronx In Blue (2006), Son Of Skip James (2007) and his current Tank Full Of Blues (2011) are three of the best damn real blues albums of the 2000s.
The blue-haired old ladies, the silver-haired old men, the bald ex-hippies like myself, the biker types, the dads with their sons and the 30-something hipsters had a ball. We sang along to the tunes we knew. We admired the muscled dexterity of his blues guitar. We joined in raucous enjoyment of his crazy-ass saxophone player who put on a show like a white Clarence Clemons.
Grateful that he didn’t proselytize, I wanted him to play the one song he wrote which details the horrors of his addiction but “Your Own Backyard” went unplayed. Yeah, my man Dion found Jesus and it helped him conquer his addiction and I’m glad for him but even gladder he doesn’t talk religion onstage like if you go see Al Green and have to sit through an hour of Jesus stuff just to hear “Take Me To The River.”
“Now since I’ve been straight I haven’t been in my cups I’m not shootin’ downs I’m not using ups/
You know I’m still as crazy as a loon even though I don’t run out and cop a spoon but thank the good Lord God, I had enough/
Tell me, what has that stuff done for you so far?
I can do anything I wanna do I do it straight I do it so much better too/
And it’s gotta start right in your own backyard.”—“Your Own Backyard”