This review was originally published in the Reveille/Between the Lakes
I was listening to the Malt Shop Oldies a couple of weeks ago and heard The Wanderer by Dion. So, when I was looking for another book to read, I migrated toward Dion’s Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth.
I expected something different. I expected the “truth” Dion DiMucci would discuss was about his career and its ups and downs. And, to be sure, there are the two traditional tenets associated with most celebrities … their rise and their ruin. The unexpected twist was a third pillar … redemption.
Before you get there, you do have to trace the singer’s rise from the streets of The Bronx and his success that led to the all-familiar fall. Those stories consume the first half of the book. We won’t walk you through all the details. They are contained here and elsewhere. But we will share some of the relative points that led to the last half of the book.
Dion – he chose to use just his first name, especially professionally, because of the difficulties in pronouncing his Italian surname – came from a dysfunctional family on Belmont Avenue. His father was a dreamer and schemer who shirked his fatherly duties and his hard-working mother kept the family solvent by working as a seamstress in the neighborhood sweatshops. Home life was a war zone with loud, animated arguments permeating the two-bedroom, second story walk-up and pushing a young, impressionable Dion to the streets of Belmont’s Little Italy to find his way.
He admitted he did not always make “good” decisions growing up. He found his acceptance in gangs, which, although certainly not as violent as today, led to mostly misdemeanor mischief like petty theft, vandalism, brawling and just protecting the “turf“ from rival gangs. He started getting drunk at age 12, smoking pot at 13 and shooting heroin at 14. His gang buddies started disappearing – going to prison, overdosing or getting stabbed or killed.
He called himself a “rebel” and wore a black leather jacket, T-shirt, blue jeans, Cuban heels and Garrison belt. He slicked his hair back on the sides but liked to let his curls go wild on top.
One thing that surprised me was Dion’s interest in music. I assumed it was the pre-rock and roll genre, but it wasn’t. It was country.
He was 10 when he heard Hank Williams wail out I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry with its country moan and warble and southern twang. He became hooked and his father starting booking gigs for him, singing with a cowboy hat and kerchief. And he began singing on his front stoop, drawing a crowd.
He was also influenced by southern black Gospel and R&B and would often go to Harlem’s Apollo Theater to hear the latest and hottest bands, then practice those sounds on the trip back to Belmont Avenue.
His father set up an audition through a friend of a friend with Bob and Gene Schwartz of newly formed Mohawk Records, who liked what they heard. The first cut took off in the pivotal Boston market. The Schwartz brothers arranged the single be released on the better known Jubilee label for a wider distribution.
With work, money and respect, he quit school. He also had some leverage. He gathered up his friends – Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano and Angelo D’Aleo – and worked on I Wonder Why and That’s My Desire under the group name of Dion and the Belmonts, a tribute to his old stomping ground. I Wonder Why broke into Billboard’s Top 20 in early 1958. Teen Angel, No One Knows and Don’t Pity Me followed. By age 20, he was already a millionaire a couple of times over. While his mother’s frugality coursed through his veins and he didn’t spend extravagantly, he did enjoy the “good stuff” and used his money to fuel his addictions.
Next came personal appearances and appearances on national shows like American Bandstand, keeping the group in the eyes and ears of the youth of the day.
The turning point, however, was Buddy Holly’s Winter Dance Party tour. In addition to Dion and the Belmonts, Holly booked Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, J.P Richardson. They were the headliners and in Clear Lake, IA, in the middle of winter when Holly decided to charter a plane for the next stop, Moorhead, MN. There was room for the pilot, Holly and two others. The remaining three headliners – Dion, the Big Bopper and Valens – flipped a coin to see who would go, Dion and the Big Bopper won the toss, but Dion didn’t think an hour’s flight was worth $36, so he gave his seat to Valens.
We all know what happened next, Feb. 2, 1959 … the day the music died in an Iowa cornfield.
The show must go on … and it did for a numbing two weeks.
That event sent Dion spiraling downward, however. The hits kept coming, which only fueled his addictions. He was grieving and angry and didn’t know how to express it and he was stoned a lot of the time. When A Teenager in Love shot to the top of the charts, no one could escape Dion and the Belmonts … but Dion couldn’t escape Dion. He tried going it alone – without the Belmonts – and succeeded professionally while slipping further and further into the pit. It showed in The Wanderer. If you listen to the words, it encapsulates Dion’s life. “I roam from town to town. I go through life without a care. And I’m as happy as a clown. I with my two fists of iron and I’m going nowhere.”
He married his longtime sweetheart Susan Butterfield March 25, 1963. As success continue on the outside, torment raged on the inside. During a candlelight dinner in France, she asked him simply, “Dion, is this all you want?” And the question scared him.
He had been using heroin for 14 years, trying to hide the addiction from the world. He finally came to the realization he had to stop or he had to die. And he found that will only when he found out Susan was pregnant.
Despite not wanting to have a marriage like his parents, Dion’s marriage wasn’t going much better. In 1968, they moved in with Susan’s parents in Florida, which is where the final pillar – redemption – is unveiled.
His father-in-law, Jack, was one of those guys who didn’t seem bothered by anything. That irritated Dion. Jack had something Dion wanted … peace. One night he got his answer. As he passed the bedroom he saw Jack on his knees by his bed in prayer. A couple of nights later, Dion asked Jack to pray for him. The response, “Oh, Dion, you should try praying yourself. God likes to hear from strangers.”
He tried it. He got on his knees just as he saw Jack do and he prayed in a rambling way. He asked God to take away his obsessions. And He did. That was the day – April 1, 1968 – the chains of alcohol and drugs were broken. Or, as he wrote, “It was like God was just waiting for me to ask.”
His redemption led him through evangelical Christianity and eventually back to his Catholic roots, despite the fact the only time the baptized Catholic or his family went to church was for weddings or funerals. Now, he has become quite the apologist for Catholicism.
It was interesting to follow this transformation, even if all of us might not have taken the final step to Catholicism. It’s a story of search … and all believers can relate.
He started with a spiritually based 12 step recovery program. He returned to music with Abraham, Martin and John. He started reading the Bible and could identify with Paul, especially his letters to Timothy. His coming to Jesus day was Dec. 14, 1979 when he prayed while jogging, “God, it would be nice to be closer to You.”
Suddenly, he said, “I was flooded with white light. It was everywhere, inside me, outside me – everywhere, Ahead of me I saw a man with his arms outstretched. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know that? I’m your friend. I laid down my life for you. I’m here for you know.’”
Obviously, it’s not always white light. But those of us who have relinquished our control know the feeling.
His spiritual journey bounced through traditional and non-traditional denominations. As he put it, “… we Christians seemed to believe many different and contradictory things. Baptists believed in free will, but Calvinists didn’t. Lutherans believed Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist, but evangelicals didn’t and rarely celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Episcopalians put a lot of stock in their hierarchy (bishops, priests and deacons), while Baptists prided themselves on not having any. And on infant baptism, everybody was all over the doctrinal map …”
That raised the question, if there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5) why were there tens of thousands of denominations, many of them believing all the others were heretics to some degree. Preachers were interpreting the Bible, but what qualified them?
Ironically, it was a Presbyterian pastor who gave him some insight. “Unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and charity in all things.”
He went on to say the words were from Augustine … and Dion’s interest in all Augustine took over.
He found an ally in his crisis of faith in Dr. John Haas, an Episcopalian minister who converted to Catholicism, and Marcus Grodi, a Presbyterian minister before he, too, became Catholic. And he concluded it was all about authority.
Thus he, too, returned to his Catholic roots and that has become his Truth.
Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth, Dion DiMucci with Mike Aquilina, ISBN: 9780867169997. Softcover. 144 pages. Servant Books, Cincinnati, OH. 2011.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: You should try praying yourself. God likes to hear from strangers.