Dion: He Got Around

Rock ‘n’ roll legend Dion DiMucci has long sent the message that he’s a New York badass, either via the pompadour of his early years, his pimp hat or testimony from other soi-disant badasses (Lou Reed) and just plain asses (Billy Joel). But half a disc on the new three-CD retrospective, Dion: King of the New York Streets (The Right Stuff), shows another, less-well-known period of Mr. DiMucci’s long career: his fascinating, though occasionally fruity, post-Age of Aquarius folk exploration.

This side of Mr. DiMucci doesn’t show up until the second disc of this chronologically compiled boxed set. Those who listen to King of the New York Streets in its intended order will first find a disc named The Wanderer , which features Mr. DiMucci’s well-known doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll work from the late 50’s to the mid-60’s, including “I Wonder Why,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Runaround Sue,” “(I Was) Born to Cry,” “Little Diane,” “Ruby Baby” and the title song.

Listen closely and the roots of Mr. DiMucci’s peace-and-love era can be heard in his early hits. It’s not such a large step from playing the Bronx tough with a squishy heart to putting that heart on your sleeve (particularly when you’re nursing a drug habit).

Dion and the Belmonts weren’t the first rock ‘n’ rollers to mine James Dean-style vulnerability–think of bisexual madman Johnny Ray, or Mr. DiMucci’s contemporaries the Everly Brothers and Gene Pitney. Or Elvis. But with his transcendent, flexible tenor, and with honest, often confessional lyrics that would give Jim Carroll chills (from “The Wanderer”: “I’m happy as a clown / with my two fists of iron / But I’m going nowhere”), Mr. DiMucci showed there was a Cassavetes-like brain throbbing beneath his Fabian-style pompadour. His work was some of the most emotionally conflicted of the era.

His early hits, such as “The Wanderer,” “Lonely Teenager” and “Runaround Sue,” adapted Sinatra’s streetlight existentialism for the sock-hop crowd. But Mr. DiMucci also had a well-developed taste for the poetry of the dark. As he wails above the sensual sax-fest of “(I Was) Born to Cry” : “I thought I had a friend once, but he kicked out my teeth.”

So, naturally, Mr. DiMucci pretty much threw away his success Last Exit to Brooklyn -style, with the junk and the booze–that aforementioned line from “The Wanderer” was originally written as “With my two fists of iron / and my bottle of beer.” The British Invasion didn’t help matters, and there also was the indignity of turning 25, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone planning a career in show business.

By the time, in 1968, that Mr. DiMucci kicked his habit and re-emerged on the Top 40 chart one last time as a folk-rock artist with the ghoulish “Abraham, Martin & John,” he had given up the mean streets for Greenwich Village and the influence of the brilliant, indulgent folk-junkies Fred Neil and Tim Hardin (author of “If I Were a Carpenter”).

This is where King of the New York Streets is a revelation. By the late 60’s, folk music was on the cusp of its soft-rock transformation. The evolution that began with Woody Guthrie would end with Seals & Crofts, and at that moment, the transitional music that was coming out of the Village was a mixture of middle-of-the-road strings, singer-songwriter introspection, Brill Building pop sense and acoustic “honesty” that was so jarring it was avant-garde. The results were records such as Phil Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor (1967), Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968) and Tim Buckley’s Lorca (1970).

The first half of Disc 2, titled Abraham, Martin & John , finds Mr. DiMucci mining the same vein. He really lets his freak flag fly, and I suspect that there is an entire generation of Palace Brothers and Jeff Buckley fans just waiting to lap this stuff up. “Abraham, Martin & John” could easily appeal to the Simon & Garfunkel-Vote McCarthy crowd, but Mr. DiMucci’s florid acoustic take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” is totally nuts. Complete with flute, string section, druggy-sounding scatting and, of course, bongos, it would fit in perfectly on an album by either Japanese psych-folk mystics Ghost or Terry Callier.

“Daddy Rollin'” is the sort of darkly insistent driving blues that is only a couple of steps removed from communal acid-krauts Amon Düül. The bone-chilling “whooo!” Mr. DiMucci lets out near the start of the self-eviscerating “Your Own Backyard,” a loosely rendered but more cohesive piece from 1970 about his various addictions, speaks of a life lived large and none too well. The song is delivered from the perspective of a man who has allegedly kicked his habits, and at the end Mr. DiMucci proclaims: “I can do anything I wanna do / I do it straight / I do it better, too.”

Maybe not. This period of Mr. DiMucci’s career, which spanned seven albums but is only represented by roughly nine songs here, is ripe for rediscovery. The same cannot be said for the disc and a half that follows. Mr. DiMucci’s voice–perhaps from lack of roadwork–remains an ageless wonder, but he has long since slipped into conventional 70’s soft-rock and then into Noo Yawk tough-guy nostalgia, encouraged by worshipful superstars such as Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen (covered twice on Disc 3, Brooklyn Dodger ).

Contemporizing rarely helps, and listeners who get up to Mr. DiMucci’s 1990 remake of the 1959 Frankie Ford classic “Sea Cruise,” the Don Was-marshaled track from The Adventures of Ford Fairlane , must be die-hard Dion boosters and should get a day in their honor from Mayor Giuliani. Hippie folk doesn’t sustain a career, but singing songs by Mr. Springsteen or Mr. Joel is always a last gasp for early-60’s rockers. And getting produced by Don Was is a last gasp for anyone.

Like Brian Wilson, Mr. DiMucci is probably unaware of his shadow constituency, the growing number of young eggheads enamored of the Incredible String Band and their ilk. They’ve resurrected John Fahey’s career, and they could certainly do the same for Mr. DiMucci’s. I can only hope they’ll find each other. Multifarious artists are usually punished in their old age by being forced to relive their early 20’s in perpetuity. But Mr. DiMucci–whose late 60’s and early 70’s work is bound to be revisited–should never have to dance for nickels from the remember-when crowd.

Dion: He Got Around