Saturday, May 27, 2017

Relentless Beauty: Dion’s Kickin’ Child


Some things take time. For instance, it took time for people to recognize Dion – born Dion DiMucci in the Bronx in 1939 – as one of the most protean figures in rock ‘n’ roll. He has had more distinct artistic phases, and been more impressive in each, than almost anyone. As a teenager fronting his neighborhood group The Belmonts, he was an architect of doo-wop (“I Wonder Why,” “Love Came to Me”); as a soloist, he lit up the early sixties with a string of cool, slick hits (“The Wanderer,” “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna”). He made the Top 40 five times in 1963 alone. Then came The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and Dion, along with his lesser contemporaries, was cast into darkness and doubt. Despite that, and despite a heroin addiction he’d picked up in his teens, he kept recording. He wouldn’t chart again until 1968, with the post-assassination tearjerker “Abraham, Martin and John,” and a supporting album, Dion, that encompassed Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder in a strange and beautiful hippie-folkie mélange. In succeeding decades, as a born-again Christian, he made music that was often banal, and sometimes perversely fascinating (Born to Be with You, his 1975 collaboration with Phil Spector); most recently, he’s done a series of acclaimed blues-based albums, commencing with 2006’s Bronx Blues.

Across a 50-year career, Dion has been the hip idol’s hip idol. He turned up as a Sgt. Pepper face (Bob Dylan and The Beatles themselves the only other pop stars so honored); his song “Your Own Backyard,” about kicking heroin, was covered by Mott the Hoople on an early album; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by lifelong fan Lou Reed; and he’s been supported onstage by superstars, from Paul Simon to Bruce Springsteen, who have sold a hundred times his records without going through a fifth of his changes. This isn’t to mention the priceless minor hits, album tracks, and B-sides that run up and down his career, from “I Can’t Go On (Rosalie)” to “Born to Cry,” “Spoonful” to “My Girl the Month of May,” “Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” to “New York City Song.”

Some of his best, and still most obscure, work was done in 1965-66, when he was both overshadowed and challenged by folk rock and Britpop. He had choices: he could have tried, like Bobby Darin and Del Shannon, to hop the new trends; he could have gone Vegas like Paul Anka. Instead, carried by talent, ambition, and sympathetic producers, he took what he liked from the new sounds, worked the margins, and created consistently beautiful, soulful music that never found, as they say, the audience it deserved. That includes 1967’s Together Again, a Belmonts reunion that effortlessly updated their vocal-group style to modes of mid-sixties sunshine pop, white soul, and baroque rock; and the sessions contained in the new release Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965 (Norton). These tracks were recorded, mostly under the producership of Columbia Records A&R man Tom Wilson, between the spring and autumn of ’65. Wilson was on a streak, having produced three Bob Dylan albums in a row, including his half-electrified Bringing It All Back Home, plus the soon-to-be-epochal “Like a Rolling Stone”; he’d added the folk-rock backing to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” that would take it to number one. But his work with Dion, while satisfying to both men, couldn’t find its commercial opening. Several singles under-performed, and the rest went unreleased, waiting years to appear on hodgepodge compilations.

All of the 15 recordings on Kickin’ Child have appeared at least once before, albeit never in one place. Despite its subtitle, there’s no evidence that this collection was “lost,” or indeed that it was ever planned. It’s logical to assume that some long-playing entity would have been assembled from these sessions, though no production memos or hand-jotted tracklists survive to indicate that it would have been titled or sequenced in this way. But that’s academic, because these songs feel like an album, common yield of a single energy. Programmed sideways or backwards, they’d still come together. From the opening title track – the weird way it commences, seeming to jog against its own phantom beat: is it that the song can’t find a rhythm, or that you can’t? – the sound is dynamic, the feeling full. Freedom and a kind of companionable swagger come through in Dion’s voice; in the swing of his backing band, The Wanderers (Johnny Falbo, lead guitar; Pete Falsciglia, bass; former Belmont Carlo Mastrangelo, drums; Al Kooper, organ); and in a production that is resonant and roomy, with sharp electric lines leaping over plush beds of acoustic guitar and percussion. Even the weary-booted ballads (“Knowing I Won’t Go Back There,” “Tomorrow Won’t Bring the Rain,” Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound”) are lifted by Dion’s gift of sounding wise and winsome at the same time.

Dion in the studio, 1965. (Photo by Don Hunstein)
Dion wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, and “relentless” is a word that describes many of them: not some assaultive force, just a tendency to upward turns and sideways stretches of melody line and vocal exploration. Hardly anything here doesn’t breathe and unreel, find its own horizon and head for it. The style is solidly folk rock, but the blues are everywhere you turn, and Dion’s vocals sometimes draw a soaring arc back to doo-wop days. Though he plays it cocky on the title track and “Two Ton Feather,” his voice never strains to sound tougher, meaner, or grittier than it is. The Dylan infatuation surfaces in three cover versions: although his “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is only fair, Dion’s “Baby I’m in the Mood for You” and “Farewell” are among the best Dylan interpretations that exist. Al Kooper’s organ conjures something of the majestic junkyard sound of “Rolling Stone,” while auguring the in-progress Highway 61 Revisited and as-yet-nonexistent Blonde on Blonde. But where Dylan’s early electric sound could be suffocating at times, it’s as if Tom Wilson pushed the studio walls out a bit for Dion, allowing fresh air to circulate between instruments, between players and singer. That’s nowhere clearer than on “Now,” with its impossibly rich harmonies (the second voice is presumably Mastrangelo’s), and its climax upon a perfectly Beatlesque rise and fall: for me, this is the album’s highlight, and one of the most magnificently fulsome pop songs of the sixties.

Even if this album, or one like it, had come out in 1965, it probably wouldn’t have had much impact, and only partly because Dion’s career was on the wane. The music on Kickin’ Child does not innovate, ingratiate, or sound alarms; rather it is set – however gracefully, with whatever self-assurance – in the less marketable margins between existing, commercially successful styles. It’s not teenybopper music: though often fun, it’s resolutely adult. Neither is it the adolescence-reaching-for-adulthood of Simon and Garfunkel, which for all its beauty and mystery as pure sound was lyrically precocious, or precious, enough to appeal to teenyboppers of a literary, self-dramatizing bent. This music finds drama in the details, but is undramatic on the whole. It’s not the cutting edge. It is simply gorgeous – abundantly so – with guts and funk and odd strokes where you don’t see them coming. Altogether it is woven, like Dion’s best music always has been, out of an unaggressive confidence, a beatific poise, a harmony of style and spirit to which you surrender yourself easily, happily – as if a primal need were being met. That’s deeper than the cutting edge, and harder, at first, to appreciate. But some things take time.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful review of a great album. "Love Came to Me" written by Dion and John Falbo in Houston in 1962 was a solo Dion hit (backed up vocally by The Del Satins, not The Belmonts ). It was his 5th top ten single in a row. The 6th would be " Ruby Baby". I disagree that if the album had been released in 1965 it wouldn't have made a difference in Dion's career. With a big promotional push by Columbia Records getting Dion & The Wanderers touring and on TV and radio I believe people would have seen Dion as an innovative folk rocker. I think "I'm in the Mood for You "and "Now" could have been hits.Columbia wanted him to do a nightclub act and not rock. Dion was being paid $100,000 a year for 5 years, but begged Columbia Records to release him from his contract.

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    1. Thank you, and thank you for the correction on "Love Came to Me." Releasing this album in '65 might have given Dion's career a bump(then again it might not have: the almost flawless TOGETHER AGAIN didn't even chart), but I think it wouldn't have made much commercial headway against the sounds it was in competition with. Hence my theme, "it takes time": we can see D. as an innovative folk rocker now, but at the time, the mass audience wouldn't have cared much about this album, any more than it did about the four singles from the sessions, each of which failed to break the Top 100. But Dion's career is nothing if not a testament to the value of sticking around (on his side) and persistent and loyal listening (on ours).

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