[18 December 2007]
While other 68-year-olds are spending their time on golf courses or lobbying their local government to slow down speed limits, legendary New York rocker Dion DiMucci is still kicking ass and taking down names. On his newest release, Son of Skip James, the Bronx-born singer-guitarist taps into the blues influence that has long informed his music. It follows on the heels of last year’s Bronx in Blue, which earned a Grammy Award nomination.
But what sticks in the mind about this CD isn’t its bluesy edge by the still-resilient voice of Dion (who is known by his first name and will be referred to as such here). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member’s voice is so agile and expressive that you’d never think the guy was a day over 30. Unlike countless other singers whose voices died 1,000 deaths after age 50 (Frank Sinatra comes to mind) Dion’s voice is better, in many ways, than it was when he was taking songs like “Runaround Sue” to the top of the charts. There’s now subtlety, sensitivity, and a wry sense of impishness mixed in with his notorious tough-guy bravado.
The idea of Dion doing blues might seem odd to neophytes. The concept seemed to bewilder an Amazon staff writer, for example, who inexplicably called Dion’s gutsy early hits “frothy” in his write-up of Bronx in Blue (maybe he was thinking of 1950s-era teen idols like Fabian; the streetwise Dion was of a very, very different breed). But anyone who has followed Dion’s career knows that he began channeling the blues as soon as he left his doo wop group, The Belmonts, and hooked up with songwriter Ernie Maresca. Maresca cooked an all-out classic rock tune for Dion in “The Wanderer”, which was blues both musically and thematically (download it, kids). They even cut a tune called “I Got the Blues”, after which Dion went on to have hits with two bluesy Drifters numbers, “Ruby Baby” and “Drip Drop”. When Dion signed with Columbia Records and met talent scout John Hammond, he was introduced to the cadre of classic blues singers that he’s covered on his last two CDs. But the influence was always there for anyone that cares to listen.
Around the time he was hanging with Hammond, Dion traded in his proto-gangsta threads for Sunday school clothes and became a devout Catholic. So the obvious joke to make here, then, is to wonder if maybe Dion hasn’t secretly been meeting with the Devil at the crossroads, selling his soul, as Robert Johnson was said to have done, for such a sterling set of chops. But we’d never, ever make a joke like that in print, because Dion clearly isn’t one to be messed with, even at his relatively advanced age. As he sings in the self-penned title track: “I’m a lover, not a fighter—but I could still kick your ass”.
Son of Skip James does not fall short when it comes to ass-kicking. Dion authoritatively rocks through a variety of covers ranging from Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” to Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” to Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” (popularized by Little Walter, among others). He brings out the sex appeal in Bob Dylan’s wry “Baby I’m in the Mood for You”, a track left off the rock bard’s legendary Freewheelin’ album. And James’ own “Devil Got My Woman” makes for a pensive album closer.
What keeps this CD from greatness, ultimately, is the song selection, which is too familiar. When Dion worked with fresh material in his Maresca days, he sung with a swaggering insouciance. But here, he brings a sort of reverence to the classic material and his approach is too respectful to spring these old warhorses back to life. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t sing the hell out of them – he clearly does. It just means there’s only so much you can do with songs after people like Eric Clapton and The Allman Brothers have beaten them into the ground. Blues was conceived to be an irreverent form of music and taking a reverent approach sort of misses the whole point.
It’s telling that Dion seems the least guarded on his two originals. “Son of Skip James” not only contains the aforementioned threat, but throws in a dig at Rolling Stone magazine (“Man, they don’t have a clue”, Dion wails). But the best tune on the album is “The Thunderer”, in which Dion uses as lyrics the words to a poem by Phyllis McGinley.
Maybe it’s because of the religious theme or maybe it’s because the song is in a minor key, but Dion really sounds connected here. Religion doesn’t often mix with rock, but this song works because it carefully avoids any sort of embarrassing preachiness with its allegorical take-it-or-leave-it lyric. McGinley’s poem is a sort of mini-biography of St. Jerome, who she calls “God’s crotchety scholar”. It’s clear that Dion must be singing about himself, on some level, with lyrics like “He thrust at his foes; quarreled with his friends…he wasn’t a plaster sort of saint”. There’s also, obviously, the fortuitousness of the poem’s title sounding oddly similar to that of “The Wanderer”, which for eons has served as Dion’s unofficial theme song of sorts.
The crossroads where blues, religion and rock music meet is a turf that’s been staked out by artists like T-Bone Burnett, Kings of Leon, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones (on songs like “Prodigal Son” from “Beggar’s Banquet”). And it works for Dion as well. It’s an area he should explore further, even if he’s probably got record executives breathing down his neck, telling him to go easy on the religious stuff. It may be sacrilege to say this, but considering some of Dion’s earlier works, it seems the more religious Dion gets, the more he kicks ass. “The Thunderer” is among the most deeply moving tracks he ever cut. There should be more like it.