This article was published in the Guardian, in December, 2006.
It’s ten o’clock on a muggy Florida morning and Dion is ready to talk. He’ll talk all day, about his lifelong love of the blues, his collection of gold records and how God has saved his life three times. But first he wants to stop ants coming into his kitchen. The two Italian-Americans hired for the job are proud to kneel on his floor. “I love your music, Dion,” says Bob. “It’s an honour to meet you,” adds Antony, “and don’t worry, the ants won’t be back.”
For the last decade, since the youngest of his three daughters moved out of the family home, Dion has been living in a gated community in Boca Raton. The sign over the sentry post reads Seasons, a misnomer for a place where December is shirt-sleeve weather and residents hide behind the SUVs in their driveways.
“They call it a community,” Dion laughs, “But that’s not how I define a community. I know what it is. I don’t know if you know what it is. But trying to explain what community is to someone who’s never experienced it is like trying to explain what an artichoke tastes like.”
Dion knows because he grew up in the Bronx, running the turf round 187th street and Crotona Avenue with his gang, the Fordham Baldies, and singing on the stoop in the tough, sweet voice that would make him doo-wop’s breakout star.
“In New York, if you go into an Italian-American neighbourhood, the code of the streets is respect and reputation,” he says, “When I sang a song like ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ it wouldn’t threaten my friends, but if I ever verbalised what I was singing to them, told them that I felt lonely and confused – you’d get punched in the face.
“We used to fight the Puerto Ricans, the blacks, the other Italians, but when I got interested in music and started stepping outside the neighbourhood and into another world, it started rubbing. Soon after that I had to move out.”
In 1959 his group, The Belmonts, went on tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The Winter Dance Party was a freezing three week trudge through the Midwest on a bus with broken heating, and by the first week of February Holly had had enough. A plane was chartered in Clear Lake, Iowa, with space for three passengers.
The day the music died is rock’n’roll legend, and Dion’s version is well worn. As he tells it, the ticket cost what his parents paid in rent each month, so he chose to huddle up with Waylon Jennings on the back of the coach instead. “Buddy Holly said ‘let’s flip a coin.’ I said ‘let Ritchie go.’ Ritchie was sick. He was sixteen years old, he had a bad cold. He never saw snow before. I said ‘let him go, I’ll save the $36.’” Astonishingly, the show after the fatal crash went ahead as planned, with Minnesotan teenager Bobby Vee recruited to fill in.
Dion’s first two solo singles meant he would never have to worry about rent money again. The Wanderer and Runaround Sue both hit number one, earning him a contract at Columbia Records worth a guaranteed $100,000 a year, and forever defining his image: macho yet vulnerable, the sensitive soul with fists of iron.
There are twelve gold discs on the wall in Dion’s study, but only two photographs. The first is of the backing singers at his mid-eighties comeback concert: Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel. The other shows him at sixteen with his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Susan Butterfield. The type of guy who will never settle down seduced a generation of songwriters, but married his childhood sweetheart. They are still together. “She has a high tolerance for unacceptable behaviour,” he admits, with a grimace.
When the Beatles arrived in America, they made has-beens of the teen idols almost overnight. In 1963 Dion reached the top ten with Drip, Drop and Donna The Primadonna. The following year his cover of Johnny B. Goode debuted at seventy-one before dropping off the chart altogether. He had been taking drugs since his teenage years, but as his fame receded he slipped into dependency. Addicted to heroin, estranged from his Bronx roots and abandoned by his fans, he set out on a lost weekend that lasted five years.
“1967 was the bleakest, darkest, most emotional period of my life,” he says, “It was hell on earth, and I could see that I was at death’s door. I used to get high with Frankie Lymon. We used to share needles, it was pretty grim. I was getting off one time in a cellar and I saw the devil himself. I don’t know if it was a hallucination, an illusion or what, but he was standing right in front of me.”
The following February Lymon died of an overdose at his grandmother’s house in Harlem. He was twenty-six years old. Dion moved to Florida and found faith: “I was addicted, I was lost, I was sticking dirty needles in my arm. I cried out, I guess it was in the form of a prayer, ‘God, if you’re real, I wanna know you’ and I was delivered from the obsession to drink and drug. It was lifted off me like a weight.” Six months later he scored a comeback hit with the folk ballad Abraham, Martin & John.
In 1974 Phil Spector was offered his pick of the Warner Brothers roster and chose Dion. He’d been straight for six years, but on the resulting album, Born To Be With You, he sounds like a junkie talking with God. The record was never released in America, but is revered and much imitated by British musicians walking the frontier of dope and divinity, notably Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and Jason Pierce of Spiritualized. It is also reputedly Pete Townshend’s favourite album of all time.
Dion has heard it called great, but he’s still not convinced it’s any good. “Doing it was torture,” he says. “The sessions were like a circus, with Sonny & Cher in the control booths, ten guitar players, Spector doing his whole flamboyant circus routine. I don’t know if he was in a down period, but everything sounds like a dirge to me. I don’t think I’ve ever sung one of those songs at home.”
For a sixty-seven-year-old, Dion is evidently in robust health. He looks like Jack Nicholson might if he too had been sober for decades, with a micro-beard under his bottom lip, a black New York Yankees cap, and expensive shades. He is aware that “the junkie finding God is a cliché” but speaks the language of self-help regardless. “When is a train most free,” he asks, “on or off the tracks?”
There is a small shrine to the Virgin Mary tucked away in the corner of the living room, a sculpture of hands clasped in prayer on the coffee table and a collection of religious study on the shelves. His favourite photo, stuck to the fridge door, shows him posing not with his family, nor his rock’n’roll friends, but with the Pope, back when he was plain old Cardinal Ratzinger.
Dion’s latest album, Bronx In Blue, was recorded in two days at a small studio near his home. It is a carefully chosen covers collection, aligning him closer to Bo Diddley than Bobby Darin. Bruce Springsteen calls him “the true link between Sinatra and rock’n’roll,” but Dion declares his debt to a janitor named Willie Green who taught him Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed songs as a teenager.
None of his friends listened to the blues, but Dion was hooked. “Every time I see Van Morrison he says ‘when are you gonna do that blues record?’ because he knows I love those songs,” he tells me, “I was inspired by Robert Johnson before Clapton was. I was listening to Robert Johnson in 1959.”
He relates how Columbia Records executive John Hammond played him an acetate of King Of The Delta Blues Singers shortly after he signed to the label, and when I tell him that Bob Dylan describes exactly the same experience in Chronicles, the first volume of his autobiography, he replies “well, it happened to me first. I was at Columbia before Dylan came. When Dylan came up I was at his sessions.”
The sleeve of Bronx In Blue bears a picture of Dion with his first guitar, a steel string Gibson acoustic that his uncle gave him when he was ten years old. He feels like he’s been cheated of recognition as a guitarist, so his signature Martin 000C is high in the mix, with a raw, up-close sound. “People didn’t know I played guitar on all the hit records I had,” he says, crestfallen, “I’ve never been in an acoustic guitar magazine and I’d put myself up against anybody.”
He picks up a rare black Kramer guitar given to him by Joan Jett to underscore the point, and shows off his rhythmic, rolling touch with a version of You’re The One by Jimmy Rogers. His voice still sounds pure and strong, although he’s hardly trying. “You’re the one, that really gave me a buzz,” he sings, “I didn’t think I could last much longer but then it shows you just how wrong I was.”
The new album has been nominated for a Grammy, in the Best Traditional Blues category, and in the cycle of cool it may well win. The music industry that tried to take the guitar out of his hands and dress him up in a dinner suit is ready to welcome Dion back into the club.
“I did a show in Brussels with a big band in 1962,” he remembers, “and after I did that I came back to the States, threw $25,000 worth of arrangements and costumes into the incinerator and said ‘I’m gonna play my guitar. Fuck it.’ I’ve been playing my guitar ever since.”