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Dion: The Wanderer Finds His Way Home : New rock album exorcises years of drugs, insecurities

April 30, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

NEW YORK — Well, I was wise in my own eyes

I awoke one day and I realized

You know this attitude comes from cocaine lies.

--Lyrics by Dion and Bill Tuohy

On the day after he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dion DiMucci sat in an Italian restaurant near Times Square and spoke about how drugs almost ruined his life.

Dion, 49, had recently completed his first secular album in a decade, and on the record's key moments he sounds as if he's still exorcising some of the pain he felt in those drug-plagued years. Titled "Yo Frankie," the album is due Tuesday from Arista Records.

But Dion's words at the restaurant didn't represent yet another tale of how someone struggled all his life to achieve fame, only to get involved with drugs and see the success all slip away.

In Dion's case (DiMucci has always been known professionally by just his first name), the involvement with drugs began well before he broke onto the pop scene in the late '50s with such classic hits as "A Teenager in Love" and "The Wanderer."

Raised on the mean streets of the Bronx, Dion turned to drugs and gangs in a search for confidence and self-esteem.

He was hooked on heroin at 15, survived an overdose at 16 and eventually formed a vocal group, the Belmonts, that was named after an avenue in the neighborhood. The quartet's snappy "I Wonder Why" was a hit in 1958 for tiny Laurie Records, and Dion was off on a hectic pop merry-go-round that lasted more than a decade.

With the Belmonts and then on his own, Dion registered a dozen Top 10 hits. He was rivaled perhaps only by Bobby Darin as the '50s' most compelling young white singer outside of the Southern brigade of Elvis and Jerry Lee.

Columbia Records was so impressed in 1962 that the industry giant signed Dion to a five-year contract for $500,000--a staggering commitment, considering that RCA had paid less than $50,000 seven years earlier for Elvis Presley's contract.

But it was a confusing period for Dion. He loved rock 'n' roll, but industry hotshots kept telling him that rock was just a fad--kid stuff. If he was serious about a career, they said, he'd have to move over into the adult pop arena.

Even back at Laurie Records, he had been encouraged to sing old pop standards, including "Fools Rush In" and "One for My Baby," and dress up in a sport jacket and a silk ascot for the cover photo of his first solo album.

The pressures and the drugs had caught up with Dion by the mid-'60s, turning his life into a nightmare darkened by thoughts of suicide. Alienated, Dion moved to Florida in 1968 with his wife and baby daughter in hopes of rebuilding his life.

"I made $2 million by the age of 22 . . . had 10 top 10 records . . . was at the height of my profession," Dion said about those early days during the restaurant interview.

"I had all the bases covered. . . . Fame, fortune and romance. I had even married my childhood sweetheart. But I was empty. I was looking out the penthouse window and saying, 'What the hell is wrong?' What I finally discovered was that I had others' esteem, but I didn't have self-esteem."

Schools gave me nothing needed

To my throne, I proceeded

Every warning went unheeded.

Yeah, king of the New York streets

--From Dion's "King of the New York Streets."

Dion was at an unpretentious family-style restaurant to shoot a video for his new album. The idea was to show him in the old milieu which is reflected in new songs such as "King of the New York Streets."

The restaurant is several miles from the Bronx intersection of 187th Street and Cortina Avenue--the real center of Dion's world in the '50s. But the atmosphere was similar enough for the video. You get a sense there is sometimes trouble in this neighborhood, too, when you notice that the Guardian Angels hotline number is written in much bigger letters on the wall near the pay phone than the police department's emergency number.

Despite his tough-guy past, Dion seemed unusually patient and soft-spoken. He appeared very much at peace with himself.

Wearing his ever-present cap, Dion smiled warmly when some restaurant employees asked for an autograph. Back home in Boca Raton, Fla., where he lives with his wife and the youngest of his three daughters, he can go weeks at a time without anyone recognizing him.

But Dion is part of the pop history of New York. When he stepped outside the restaurant for a photo, a man in his 30s spotted him immediately. The passer-by said he had read in the paper about the Hall of Fame dinner and asked if Dion was going to have a new album soon.

"Yeah, pretty soon," Dion said. "Hope you like it."

"Well, I still love 'The Wanderer.' Got anything like that in it?"

"These are new songs, but yeah," Dion replied. "There's a song like 'The Wanderer' but it's like about a guy bragging about his girl, not about himself."

"Sounds cool," the fan said as he reached into his pocket for a piece of paper. He, too, wanted an autograph.

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