All rock and roll careers are littered with mistakes and what usually happens is that the fans drift away as soon as the mistakes cause them to lose their money on redundant albums. Elvis was the same but different. If the soundtrack albums and sweetening of his material saw his record sales collapse, there were many fans that stayed loyal. The addicts who needed the next fix, and who hoped that the next purchase might contain a high similar to what had first caused them to be hooked, hung around because they had no choice but to remain. John Lennon was wrong when he said, ‘Before Elvis there was nothing.’ In England, though, it felt that way and you stayed with Elvis because you remembered what nothing was like. The addict always expects more of the same. He is not interested in variety and diversity. Only after the death of Elvis were music critics able to look at some of the more unusual material and realise its strengths. When he was alive few thought it possible. Inevitably, revisionism occurs and somehow Elvis was saved by postmodernism or, if that is too fancy, the playing lists of the iPod. But because those early highs required supreme examples of rock and roll they also acted as the measure of what could and possibly should have been achieved by others.
Not all regard Elvis as the barometer. Some will think of Dylan, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or others. They will look for people who are as clever as Dylan, can produce hooks like The Beatles or have the dexterity of Hendrix. Elvis addicts, though, are usually condemned to search for someone who can add heart and drama to a song. This means certain people appeal rather than others. For me, they are the great black vocalists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Bobby Bland. The white alternatives to Elvis although interesting usually register lower pressure on the barometer. The best records of Elvis have an irresistible groove that contains power, grit and charm. ‘A Mess of Blues’ is a fine example but there are many more. There are few white performers who can make the needle on the barometer thrust its way into the high pressure zone and keep it there like Elvis.
Dion, though, was a genuine exception. In the later phases of his career after he had recovered from heroin addiction he became introspective and his songs were contemplative and restrained. At his best, though, there was nothing clever about Dion. He sang his early hits with the tough guy authenticity and musical command that rock and roll should insist upon. Supposedly he has compared his life to the ‘The Sopranos’ TV series except that his story had reform and a happy ending. He is probably right. We need Tony Soprano but a good guy Tony with fists that hit the right notes as hard as anyone. I first saw Dion in the movie ‘Twist Around The Clock’. The film was released in 1961 but I had to wait until 1963 when it appeared in the local flea pit. The world was different then. I saw it with a mate called Geoffrey Cresswell. In those days, in the North of England people had names like that. Today, the Geoffrey would be reinvented as Jeff. Then, we thought English people saying words like cool, and talking like Americans was silly. We assumed that if we did that then people like Dion and Elvis would laugh at us.
In Britain, Dion had two big hits which were ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’. The latter which has been subsequently traduced by inferior performers started life as a B side which indicates that the machismo lyrics were always tongue in cheek. Both records were funny but powerful. The extravagant claims in ‘The Wanderer’ are matched perfectly by the moral condemnation of the school flirt in ‘Runaround Sue’. The line ‘she goes out with other guys’ which Dion sings with incredulous horror is irresistible.
In Brazil, there was a bandit called Lampiao. He waged war on soldiers and terrorised the small towns and the villages of the backlands. He had his admirers but there were occasions when he would have his gang rape a girl in the village if he discovered that she had consorted with enemy soldiers. The same man would also castigate young women who wore their hair too long and their skirts too short. Obviously, he was difficult and he has to be condemned. But if he had been alive in the fifties he would have been a Dion fan.
The very best record by Dion, though, is the extreme ‘(I Was) Born To Cry’. Compared to this the nihilism of the other great cynical classic, ‘Is That All There Is’, by Peggy Lee sounds sentimental. It is not, of course, merely that ‘(I Was) Born To Cry’ is so extreme. In the song, Dion reveals a vulnerable moment when he thought he had a friend but he soon confirms that the friend later stamped all over his face. Oh dear. Elvis is very good at implying anger and despair. In ‘(I Was) Born To Cry’ Dion does more than imply. He describes what it means for him and he has no inhibitions at all about sharing his bleak contempt. Cornell Woolrich was a great American thriller noir writer. He wrote the short story that inspired the classic Hitchcock movie, ‘Rear Window’. He once said, ‘First you dream and then you die.’ Like Lampiao, Woolrich would have liked Dion. Maybe Dion was dreaming when he became a heroin user at the age of fifteen and maybe he needed a life that somewhere contained a recognisable death and rebirth. Some have said the heroin addiction explains his demise but his commercial decline began before the addiction led to a not too prolonged absence.
In the sixties, Dion made what appeared to be an obvious choice for a man whose vocals were so powerful. He sang the blues. These records are not as successful as his previous triumphs promised. Dion was tough and urban. He is right. Dion belongs in ‘The Sopranos’. Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf may have made their classics in Chicago but their roots are rural. Dion is an incredibly powerful singer but he is not primal. He did make some great R&B records but they proved that he was more suited to urban wise guy attitudes. His cover of ‘Drip Drop’ by the Drifters is a success. He triumphs because he has urban authenticity and superiority. It is in all his best records. Dion is most impressive when he is on the street corner sneering at everyone who walks past. We listen because he is slick and entertaining. Suddenly, the street corner does not quite feel so cold and boring anymore. Well, that was how it felt to me and Geoffrey Cresswell in that northern fleapit all those years ago.
We have to be pleased that Dion made personal progress, even though he abandoned the rock and roll street corner that some of us still use and need. Now he works to prevent addiction in others and to help addicts repair their lives. He is still making records and if none capture the glory of the three mentioned above they are definitely worth buying. The man was never invited to appear in ‘The Sopranos’. They probably realised that to give him sufficient respect he would have needed a whole series. Now, there is an idea.
Listen to the great Dion DiMucci
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