Tuesday 16 June 2020

Dion: Blues with Friends

Dion: King of the New York Streets

Dion: 'When I heard my album sober, I thought "Wow – heroin didn't touch it"'
He was a street-tough doo-wopper, then a wayward cult legend. Now at 80, Dion is embracing the blues – and his status as one of the last rock’n’rollers standing

Michael Hann
The Guardian
Tue 16 Jun 2020

Dion DiMucci was 13, maybe 14, when he first sang in a club for money, roughly the same time as he picked up a heroin habit that lasted 15 years. He got on the stage and belted out three Hank Williams songs – Cold, Cold Heart, Jambalaya and Hey Good Lookin’ and when he was done “the owners, Yodi and Bart, they gave me $20 apiece, which was more than my parents’ rent that they argued about every day. It was a whole month’s rent and I just sang a couple of songs.”

Yes, says Dion (no one ever uses his surname – he’s been Dion since he became a doo-wop star in the 1950s, and that’s not changing now), the money made music attractive, but it was the chance to say something that made him stick with it, although his career has had highs and lows. Even some of the high points have been lows: Born to Be With You – his dazed, brilliant 1975 album with Phil Spector, which cast teen pop as a spiritual experience – was not released in the US at the time, and was ignored elsewhere, only gaining its reputation two decades later. The dazzling Kickin’ Child, recorded in 1965 and offering a version of “that thin, wild, mercury sound” at exactly the same time as Bob Dylan was inventing it, was shelved by Columbia, only getting released in 2017.

But Dion has never stopped. As well as the doo-wop, he’s sung rock’n’roll, folk rock, Christian music, MOR music and everything in between. And for the past 15 years, he’s been a bluesman, singing in a voice that has barely weathered. Now 80, he’s releasing Blues With Friends, in which an array of superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Simon, Van Morrison and more, with sleevenotes by Bob Dylan) help him out on 14 originals, including a revival of Kickin’ Child. The presence of Morrison, he says, was the first thing to really impress his wife, Susan, in 57 years of marriage. “I am so in with my wife because I sang with Van Morrison. She’s got 12 Van Morrison CDs in her car. So now I’m in!”

It’s startling that his voice seems almost unaffected by the years, although he can hear differences. “I was talking to Paul Simon yesterday. I was telling him, ‘Paul, I’ve been listening to this record, and I can still sing great. I sing my original songs, in the same key, but I lost that 17-year-old innocence. But you still have that sweetness, that beauty, that powerful purity. I don’t know how you did it.’ And he said basically the same thing I would say. ‘I do well and I take care of myself, but I haven’t focussed on keeping my voice.’ We both don’t smoke or drink. That can make your voice husky.”

Blues With Friends doesn’t sound a bit like his rock’n’roll hits, nor Born to Be With You, nor his folk-rock era. It continues in the direction he began in 2006 on his Grammy-nominated album Bronx in Blue, playing the music that was once the spring from which rock’n’roll began, which saw one writer describe him as a “Catholic blues singer”. That makes Dion laugh. “To be honest with you, if you had to retitle the psalms, the songs King David wrote in the Bible, you’d call them the blues. It’s like the naked cry of the human heart longing to be in union with God. Those guys are crying out in pain. They feel isolated, they feel separated, they just don’t feel good. And they got the blues. Everybody in the Bible got the blues, probably including God, from the travails of overseeing us. God is love, he’s not loving, he is love.”

It’s all basically the same music to Dion, though. “To me, it’s all a slight adjustment. If I sing songs from any decade on my guitar, it all sounds the same. It all sounds like Dion music. People think I change from this to that, but I don’t know how much I change. They put a label on it, you know? But it all comes from inside me.”
Carlo Mastrangelo, a Doo-Wop Voice for Dion and the Belmonts, Dies ...
Dion and the Belmonts – four Italian-American kids who grew up around Belmont Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy – were like any of the groups of street-corner toughs who sang sweetly to the girls during Dwight D Eisenhower’s second term as president. Music was how they would all say the things they couldn’t put into conversation, for fear of being kicked around the block.

“I had this song, one of my first records, called No One Knows. I sat on the stoop of the tenement building, and the gang was there. Then we’d go to cellar parties, and I would sing this song that goes, ‘No one knows what I go through / And the tears I cried for you / And when I smile it’s just a pose / My heart is breaking, but no one knows.’ But a lot of that stuff, you couldn’t say. That’s why people go to the bar and put money in the jukebox and put on Only the Lonely, because they can’t tell you they’re lonely. They can just play the song 20 times.

“I realised early on you could bypass somebody’s brain. You don’t threaten anybody by singing, but if you were in a bar and turned to your friend and said, ‘You know, I’m lonely’, you’d get a punch right in the head. It just don’t ring right, you know? But you could relate to a record and identify with the song, and no one feels threatened, and no fights break out. It was kind of like a secret. I could sing about what people were thinking without them feeling threatened.”

But Dion had something else. Listen to some of those early hits – The Wanderer or Runaround Sue – and you hear a personality, someone crackling with life, amused, lustful and with a hint of threat. He sounds like a tough guy who wants to be liked, but who can’t bring himself to entirely conceal his switchblade. The Dion of the late 1950s and early 60s was such an archetype of Italian-American masculinity that Martin Scorsese probably has a shrine to him somewhere.

The heroin, he says, was nothing too unusual around Belmont Avenue, even 60 years ago. “With the guys I was hanging out with, it was the normal thing. There were some that never got involved. I don’t know if I had a propensity for it, or a disposition. But I knew the first time I took it, man, I loved it, so off I went. I was using drugs for about 15 years, from 14 to about 28. In 1968 my friend Frankie Lymon died of an overdose and I got on my knees, said a prayer, and I haven’t been the same since. I haven’t had a drug or a drink for 52 years.”

After splitting from the Belmonts, he became the first rock’n’roller signed to Columbia – “They were paying me 100 grand a year whether I made a record or not” – and began a solo career. It’s possible some of Dion’s memories of that era have been burnished by the years – he says he and the producer Tom Wilson were the ones who first had the idea of putting an electric band behind Dylan – or by the fact he was then at the height of his heroin addiction. Either way, he quit Columbia when they refused to release Kickin’ Child. “I have no idea why they did it. I’m thinking, ‘What the hell do you want?’ So I just left. I couldn’t care less. I called it integrity; my wife called it insanity.”

It was only a few years ago, hearing the album for the first time since he was an addict, that he was able to separate Kickin’ Child from the time of its creation. “When I heard it clean and sober I thought, ‘Wow. Whatever I was doing, heroin didn’t touch it.’ The art bypassed the drug.”

When Little Richard died in May, Dion was among the first to pay tribute. Recalling all those heroes of 1955 and 1956, he says: “Then I heard Little Richard. That’s got to change your life.” Now, he and Jerry Lee Lewis are the only major figures of the great teenage explosion left standing – and Dion wouldn’t be, had he not refused to pay the $36 it would have cost to board the flight that killed Buddy Holly. Still, he says, he’s not dwelling on mortality. He feels like he did when he was a teenager.

“When I was a kid and I got up in front of a high-school dance with my band and I sang a song, I was taking people on a trip. And I don’t think I’ve changed. I’m still the same. I still like that feeling.”

Blues With Friends is out now on KTBA Records.

Monday 15 June 2020

Bob Dylan Speaks

Bob Dylan Scores First-Ever No. 1 Song on a Billboard Chart With ...
Bob Dylan Has a Lot on His Mind
In a rare interview, the Nobel Prize winner discusses mortality, drawing inspiration from the past, and his new album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”

By Douglas Brinkley
The New York Times
12 June 2020

A few years ago, sitting beneath shade trees in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., I had a two-hour discussion with Bob Dylan that touched on Malcolm X, the French Revolution, Franklin Roosevelt and World War II. At one juncture, he asked me what I knew about the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. When I answered, “Not enough,” he got up from his folding chair, climbed into his tour bus, and came back five minutes later with photocopies describing how U.S. troops had butchered hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado.

Given the nature of our relationship, I felt comfortable reaching out to him in April after, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, he unexpectedly released his epic, 17-minute song “Murder Most Foul,” about the Kennedy assassination. Even though he hadn’t done a major interview outside of his own website since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, he agreed to a phone chat from his Malibu home, which turned out to be his only interview before next Friday’s release of “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his first album of original songs since “Tempest” in 2012.

Like most conversations with Dylan, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” covers complex territory: trances and hymns, defiant blues, love longings, comic juxtapositions, prankster wordplay, patriotic ardor, maverick steadfastness, lyrical Cubism, twilight-age reflections and spiritual contentment.

In the high-octane showstopper “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” Dylan honors the Mississippi bluesman with dragon-fierce harmonica riffs and bawdy lyrics. In the slow blues “Crossing the Rubicon,” he feels “the bones beneath my skin” and considers his options before death: “Three miles north of purgatory — one step from the great beyond/I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon.”

“Mother of Muses” is a hymn to the natural world, gospel choirs and military men like William Tecumseh Sherman and George Patton, “who cleared the path for Presley to sing/who cleared the path for Martin Luther King.” And “Key West (Philosopher’s Pirate),” is an ethereal meditation on immortality set on a drive down Route 1 to the Florida Keys, with Donnie Herron’s accordion channeling the Band’s Garth Hudson. In it he pays homage to, “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.”

Perhaps someday he’ll write a song or paint a picture to honor George Floyd. In the 1960s and 1970s, following the work of black leaders of the civil rights movement, Dylan also worked to expose the arrogance of white privilege and the viciousness of racial hatred in America through songs like “George Jackson,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” One of his most fierce lines about policing and race came in his 1976 ballad “Hurricane”: “In Paterson that’s just the way things go/If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street/Unless you want to draw the heat.”

I had a brief follow-up with Dylan, 79, one day after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Clearly shaken by the horror that had occurred in his home state, he sounded depressed. “It sickened me no end to see George tortured to death like that,” he said. “It was beyond ugly. Let’s hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation.”

These are edited excerpts from the two conversations.

Was “Murder Most Foul” written as a nostalgic eulogy for a long-lost time?

To me it’s not nostalgic. I don’t think of “Murder Most Foul” as a glorification of the past or some kind of send-off to a lost age. It speaks to me in the moment. It always did, especially when I was writing the lyrics out.

Somebody auctioned off a sheaf of unpublished transcripts in the 1990s that you wrote about J.F.K.’s murder. Were those prose notes for an essay or were you hoping to write a song like “Murder Most Foul” for a long time?

I’m not aware of ever wanting to write a song about J.F.K. A lot of those auctioned-off documents have been forged. The forgeries are easy to spot because somebody always signs my name on the bottom.

Were you surprised that this 17-minute-long song was your first No. 1 Billboard hit?

I was, yeah.

“I Contain Multitudes” has a powerful line: “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” I suppose we all feel that way when we hit a certain age. Do you think about mortality often?

I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.

There is a lot of apocalyptic sentiment in “Murder Most Foul.” Are you worried that in 2020 we’re past the point of no return? That technology and hyper-industrialization are going to work against human life on Earth?

Sure, there’s a lot of reasons to be apprehensive about that. There’s definitely a lot more anxiety and nervousness around now than there used to be. But that only applies to people of a certain age like me and you, Doug. We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything. In 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll be at the forefront. When you see somebody that is 10 years old, he’s going to be in control in 20 or 30 years, and he won’t have a clue about the world we knew. Young people who are in their teens now have no memory lane to remember. So it’s probably best to get into that mind-set as soon as we can, because that’s going to be the reality.

As far as technology goes, it makes everybody vulnerable. But young people don’t think like that. They could care less. Telecommunications and advanced technology is the world they were born into. Our world is already obsolete.

A line in “False Prophet” — “I’m the last of the best — you can bury the rest” — reminded me of the recent deaths of John Prine and Little Richard. Did you listen to their music after they passed as a kind of tribute?

Both of those guys were triumphant in their work. They don’t need anybody doing tributes. Everybody knows what they did and who they were. And they deserve all the respect and acclaim that they received. No doubt about it. But Little Richard I grew up with. And he was there before me. Lit a match under me. Tuned me into things I never would have known on my own. So I think of him differently. John came after me. So it’s not the same thing. I acknowledge them differently.

Why didn’t more people pay attention to Little Richard’s gospel music?

Probably because gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news. And we have to thank the media industry for that. It stirs people up. Gossip and dirty laundry. Dark news that depresses and horrifies you.

On the other hand, gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage. You can pace your life accordingly, or try to, anyway. And you can do it with honor and principles. There are theories of truth in gospel but to most people it’s unimportant. Their lives are lived out too fast. Too many bad influences. Sex and politics and murder is the way to go if you want to get people’s attention. It excites us, that’s our problem.

Little Richard was a great gospel singer. But I think he was looked at as an outsider or an interloper in the gospel world. They didn’t accept him there. And of course the rock ’n’ roll world wanted to keep him singing “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” So his gospel music wasn’t accepted in either world. I think the same thing happened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I can’t imagine either of them being bothered too much about it. Both are what we used to call people of high character. Genuine, plenty talented and who knew themselves, weren’t swayed by anything from the outside. Little Richard, I know was like that.

But so was Robert Johnson, even more so. Robert was one of the most inventive geniuses of all time. But he probably had no audience to speak of. He was so far ahead of his time that we still haven’t caught up with him. His status today couldn’t be any higher. Yet in his day, his songs must have confused people. It just goes to show you that great people follow their own path.

On the album “Tempest” you perform “Roll on John” as a tribute to John Lennon. Is there another person you’d like to write a ballad for?

Those kinds of songs for me just come out of the blue, out of thin air. I never plan to write any of them. But in saying that, there are certain public figures that are just in your subconscious for one reason or another. None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space. I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them. The folk tradition has a long history of songs about people, though. John Henry, Mr. Garfield, Roosevelt. I guess I’m just locked into that tradition.
You honor many great recording artists in your songs. Your mention of Don Henley and Glenn Frey on “Murder Most Foul” came off as a bit of a surprise to me. What Eagles songs do you enjoy the most?

“New Kid in Town,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” That could be one of the best songs ever.

You also refer to Art Pepper, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz in “Murder Most Foul.” How has jazz inspired you as a songwriter and poet over your long career? Are there jazz artists you’ve been listening to lately?

Maybe Miles’s early stuff on Capitol Records. But what’s jazz? Dixieland, bebop, high-speed fusion? What do you call jazz? Is it Sonny Rollins? I like Sonny’s calypso stuff but is that jazz? Jo Stafford, Joni James, Kay Starr — I think they were all jazz singers. King Pleasure, that’s my idea of a jazz singer. I don’t know, you can put anything into that category. Jazz goes back to the Roaring Twenties. Paul Whiteman was called the king of jazz. I’m sure if you asked Lester Young he wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.

Has any of it ever inspired me? Well yeah. Probably a lot. Ella Fitzgerald as a singer inspires me. Oscar Peterson as a piano player, absolutely. Has any of it inspired me as a songwriter? Yeah, “Ruby, My Dear” by Monk. That song set me off in some direction to do something along those lines. I remember listening to that over and over.

What role does improvisation play in your music?
None at all. There’s no way you can change the nature of a song once you’ve invented it. You can set different guitar or piano patterns upon the structural lines and go from there, but that’s not improvisation. Improvisation leaves you open to good or bad performances and the idea is to stay consistent. You basically play the same thing time after time in the most perfect way you can.

“I Contain Multitudes” is surprisingly autobiographical in parts. The last two verses exude a take-no-prisoners stoicism while the rest of the song is a humorous confessional. Did you have fun grappling with contradictory impulses of yourself and human nature in general?

I didn’t really have to grapple much. It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out. In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state. Most of my recent songs are like that. The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors. The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.

Once again in this song you name a lot of people. What made you decide to mention Anne Frank next to Indiana Jones?

Her story means a lot. It’s profound. And hard to articulate or paraphrase, especially in modern culture. Everybody’s got such a short attention span. But you’re taking Anne’s name out of context, she’s part of a trilogy. You could just as well ask, “What made you decide to include Indiana Jones or the Rolling Stones?” The names themselves are not solitary. It’s the combination of them that adds up to something more than their singular parts. To go too much into detail is irrelevant. The song is like a painting, you can’t see it all at once if you’re standing too close. The individual pieces are just part of a whole.

“I Contain Multitudes” is more like trance writing. Well, it’s not more like trance writing, it is trance writing. It’s the way I actually feel about things. It is my identity and I’m not going to question it, I am in no position to. Every line has a particular purpose. Somewhere in the universe those three names must have paid a price for what they represent and they’re locked together. And I can hardly explain that. Why or where or how, but those are the facts.

But Indiana Jones was a fictional character?

Yeah, but the John Williams score brought him to life. Without that music it wouldn’t have been much of a movie. It’s the music which makes Indy come alive. So that maybe is one of the reasons he is in the song. I don’t know, all three names came at once.

A reference to the Rolling Stones makes it into “I Contain Multitudes.” Just as a lark, which Stones songs do you wish you could’ve written?

Oh, I don’t know, maybe “Angie,” “Ventilator Blues” and what else, let me see. Oh yeah, “Wild Horses.”

Charlie Sexton began playing with you for a few years in 1999, and returned to the fold in 2009. What makes him such a special player? It’s as if you can read each other’s minds.

As far as Charlie goes, he can read anybody’s mind. Charlie, though, creates songs and sings them as well, and he can play guitar to beat the band. There aren’t any of my songs that Charlie doesn’t feel part of and he’s always played great with me. “False Prophet” is only one of three 12-bar structural things on this record. Charlie is good on all the songs. He’s not a show-off guitar player, although he can do that if he wants. He’s very restrained in his playing but can be explosive when he wants to be. It’s a classic style of playing. Very old school. He inhabits a song rather than attacking it. He’s always done that with me.

How have you spent the last couple of months home-sheltered in Malibu? Have you been able to weld or paint?

Yeah, a little bit.

Are you able to be musically creative while at home? Do you play piano and tool around in your private studio?

I do that mostly in hotel rooms. A hotel room is the closest I get to a private studio.

Does having the Pacific Ocean in your backyard help you process the Covid-19 pandemic in a spiritual way? There is a theory called “blue mind” which believes that living near water is a health curative.

Yeah, I can believe that. “Cool Water,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “How Deep Is the Ocean.” I hear any of those songs and it’s like some kind of cure. I don’t know what for, but a cure for something that I don’t even know I have. A fix of some kind. It’s like a spiritual thing. Water is a spiritual thing. I never heard of “blue mind” before. Sounds like it could be some kind of slow blues song. Something Van Morrison would write. Maybe he has, I don’t know.

It’s too bad that just when the play “Girl From the North Country,” which features your music, was getting rave reviews, production had to shutter because of Covid-19. Have you seen the play or watched the video of it?

Sure, I’ve seen it and it affected me. I saw it as an anonymous spectator, not as someone who had anything to do with it. I just let it happen. The play had me crying at the end. I can’t even say why. When the curtain came down, I was stunned. I really was. Too bad Broadway shut down because I wanted to see it again.

Do you think of this pandemic in almost biblical terms? A plague that has swept the land?

I think it’s a forerunner of something else to come. It’s an invasion for sure, and it’s widespread, but biblical? You mean like some kind of warning sign for people to repent of their wrongdoings? That would imply that the world is in line for some sort of divine punishment. Extreme arrogance can have some disastrous penalties. Maybe we are on the eve of destruction. There are numerous ways you can think about this virus. I think you just have to let it run its course.

Out of all your compositions, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” has grown on me over the years. What made you bring it back to the forefront of recent concerts?

It’s grown on me as well. I think this song has something to do with the classical world, something that’s out of reach. Someplace you’d like to be beyond your experience. Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain. That you’ve achieved the unthinkable. That’s what the song tries to say, and you’d have to put it in that context. In saying that though, even if you do paint your masterpiece, what will you do then? Well, obviously you have to paint another masterpiece. So it could become some kind of never ending cycle, a trap of some kind. The song doesn’t say that though.

A few years ago I saw you play a bluegrass-sounding version of “Summer Days.” Have you ever thought about recording a bluegrass album?

I’ve never thought about that. Bluegrass music is mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. Just because you are a great singer, or a great this or that doesn’t mean you can be in a bluegrass band. It’s almost like classical music. It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood. If you ever heard the Osborne Brothers, then you know what I mean. It’s an unforgiving music and you can only it stretch so far. Beatles songs played in a bluegrass style don’t make any sense. It’s the wrong repertoire, and that’s been done. There are elements of bluegrass music for sure in what I play, especially the intensity and similar themes. But I don’t have the high tenor voice and we don’t have three-part harmony or consistent banjo. I listen to Bill Monroe a lot, but I more or less stick to what I can do best.

How is your health holding up? You seem to be fit as a fiddle. How do you keep mind and body working together in unison?

Oh, that’s the big question, isn’t it? How does anybody do it? Your mind and body go hand in hand. There has to be some kind of agreement. I like to think of the mind as spirit and the body as substance. How you integrate those two things, I have no idea. I just try to go on a straight line and stay on it, stay on the level.