The geriatric set soaked up every minute of it. Like Lazarus, the dormant body of the audience came to life. Codgers were tossing their walkers into the aisles. Dion was making the blind see, the deaf hear, the crippled and lame walk….”
by mike morgan
Worried about the corns acting up, the piles giving you the heebie-jeebies, losing your teeth, your hair (or your mind). How’s this for an elixir of youth. Go see Dion in a one-dog town in Pennsylvania in 2003. Our wee group’s age range was approximately from 35 to mid-50s. And we made up the youth contingent of the audience, outdoing the norm by at least 10 years. Allow me to let you in on a little secret — This thing called rock and roll…it’s here to stay.
Ever since I was a young kid, Dion was the man. Growing up in South Africa, Belmont Avenue and the Bronx, New York might as well have been on the dark side of the moon. But Dion was always special for me and here’s why. I explained in a previous issue of Smokebox that my father, a journalist, had to review long-playing records as part of his job, and that we never had a record player in the house, but that didn’t stop him from amassing this bizarre collection of vinyl. One such album was Ruby Baby by Dion. Here was this young, drop-dead handsome Elvis type, dressed in a yellow mohair sweater, smoking, wearing Roy Orbison shades, with a pair of woman’s arms coming out of nowhere, clad in elbow-length blue silk gloves, caressing his neck. Now that was cool, even for a nine-year old white South African brat. And when the old man finally broke down and bought the Pilot radiogram (16 r.p.m. speed included so you could play the Chipmunks and they’d sound like human voices, or you could listen to Burl Ives at 78 r.p.m. and he sounded like the Chipmunks), then we eventually got to hear Dion sing, and he sounded like an angel, albeit a gangster of an angel. I played that record to death and never forgot it. Every track is etched still deeply in my memory.
With the arrival of the hi-fidelity apparatus/gadget in the household came the opportunity to explore more Dion music. By age thirteen, I was more than familiar with the great ones, and all of their attendant mores: “People let me put you wise, Sue goes out with other guys” from “Runaround Sue,” a song where, in certain teenage circles, the prepositions in the latter line changed for those upstarts with raunchier imaginations; “I know I’ll be alright, If I just stay out of sight,” a how-to guide for youngsters on the lam from over-bearing monitoring parents or teachers in “Lonely Teenager;” “Rosie on my chest,” the yearning to be old enough for one’s own tattoo, with all the necessary braggadochio that belonged to “The Wanderer;” and “Born To Cry,” teenage man/child discovers the angst of getting to know girls, adolescence and failure. Twenty years later, Bruce Springsteen coined the line, “We learnt more from a three minute record baby then we were ever taught in school,” and I knew then exactly what he meant. If there was a toss-up between Dion and the old Irish-Catholic Marist Brothers, with their whipping canes, their Latin conjugations and unseen passages, their bad poetry, and their “Acts of the Apostles” readings, it was a no-brainer contest. Dion was the clear winner.
Years passed by and there were snippets of information about Dion, but no more “Ruby Baby.” He was a junkie, he was a folk/protest singer, he was a born-again devil dodger (in fact, he was all of these). The times seemed to have left Dion behind. When circumstances brought me to NYC in 1978, I was ecstatic to find that Dion’s stomping ground was part of the city I now lived in, that the birthplace of “Ruby Baby” was a subway ride and a borough away, and that its maker was continuing to play and sing his heart out, even though he had appeared to have relegated himself to the oldies circuit. This too changed. In 1989, the year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dion released a new record entitled Yo, Frankie, produced by that Welsh wizard, Dave Edmunds. The opening track “King of the New York Streets” was as magnificent as Ruby Baby, fully resplendent with more Dion bravado, “The world was my appetizer, I turned gangs into fertilizer,” “Local bullies I deflated, Back Street jive that I translated, Top ten girls were all that I dated,” capped with the final down-to-earth jolt that “These attitudes came from cocaine lies.” “Ruby Baby” was back.
In 1991, Columbia Records released a Dion collection entitled The Bronx Blues, recorded during 1962-1965 sessions at the Columbia studios in NYC (when Dion was as high as a kite). The last half of the album is made up primarily of blues songs recorded in 1965. This set included many of the musicians who, later that same year, would appear on Bob Dylan’s album , also recorded in the Columbia studios. That the music Dion had made then influenced Dylan was no longer a secret. It was obvious.
In 1996, Dion pursued a radical break from the past, and spent a year playing and recording with the Little Kings, a band comprising of younger New York roots rock alumni from the Del Lords and the Smithereens. With a gaggle of new songs, and stripped down, harder versions of some old ones, he again set out and successfully proved that he indeed deserved the moniker “King of the New York Streets.”
Thus, when recent news of an upcoming Dion show in Easton, PA penetrated our watering hole in Brooklyn (forty years after “Ruby Baby”), it didn’t take much arm-wringing to throw an entourage together that included the Root Cellar Kid (RCK), that notorious French crooner, Clermont Whatsisname, and the Trusty Sidekick himself amongst others, a veritable mish-mash of backseat drivers. Easton, in the Delaware Water Gap, is famous for two reasons. Larry Holmes, the “Easton Assassin” and former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, hails from those parts. Martin Guitars are made and headquartered in nearby Nazareth, PA (home of the Kraft processing plant entitled “Cheeses of Nazareth”). Larry Holmes did not attend the Dion gig, but Dick No-Name-Worth-Remembering, a poohbah from Martin Guitars did. We rubbed shoulders with one of the rich and fatuous.
The concert took place at the Easton Arts Center, a beautifully refurbished opera theater. The venue, reminiscent of Big Bopper type shows, with its neon marquee entrance, proudly advertised future performances…Ringo Starr (a measly $102.50 a ticket), and Hall & Oates (this helped explain the street wide banner announcing “Celebrate African-American Heritage Week in Easton”). Dion himself was introduced by none other than the local oldies AM radio afternoon drive-time host, clad in a tartan polyester jacket and sporting an HCA (Hair Club of America) deluxe rug (or system, as the good people from HCA prefer to call their product). The aging record spinner, along with his silent partner (the morning drive-time deejay), plugged the local establishments, especially the Buick dealership. Despite his obvious lengthy experience in the business of payola and snake-juice retail, this emcee was oblivious to the fact that the term “He’s outside selling Buicks” in old hobo parlance translates into “He’s outside throwing up.” And then there was Dion.
The veteran Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was in fine voice and his band was in the groove. The geriatric set soaked up every minute of it. Like Lazarus, the dormant body of the audience came to life. Codgers were tossing their walkers into the aisles. Dion was making the blind see, the deaf hear, the crippled and lame walk. He sailed through a twenty song show that raised the blue hairs on end. He blessed the multitude. They blessed him back. He “yo’d” them with beatitudes. He told parables. He rapped and doo-wopped his way through the sermon on the mount. He performed miracles with his Martin guitar. He forgave us our sins. We forgave him his (like scrounging money from women, and messing around with dope). Dion imparted his wisdom on all of us, using every faith-healing trick up his sleeve…”Donna the Prima Donna,” “Drip Drop,” and above all, “Ruby Baby.” And then, just like on Easter Sunday with the son of the Great Big Unum, he was gone. So we retired to the Whiskey Tent (the Easton Days Inn), where we proceeded to have a bunch (of whiskeys that is).
Late the next morning (it being Sunday), after exploring the uncomfortable avenue of Buick selling, we decided to forego church (a tough but unanimous decision). Instead, we found ourselves in an Easton saloon…Sunday bar, Bloody Marys, punk waiter doing his homeland security number by checking ID, passable food, whiskey hangovers, until there, in the corner chalked up for all to see, read the sign: “THE LARS TETENS PROJECT – Live, Saturday Nite, May 31.” Hold the phone. We traveled seventy miles down the highway, sat through Dion, drank a gallon of whiskey, and missed “THE LARS TETENS PROJECT.” The discussion went something like this:
“What kind of sanctimonious, self-absorbed bastard would call his band a Project?”
“Fuck Lars Tetens!”
“What do you know about Lars Tetens?
“See, you probably haven’t even been to Norway?”
(At this point, the conversation digressed from the subject at hand, Lars Tetens, to a less scintillating Norwegian travelogue).
“…After all, it gets very cold in Norway, what with the fiords and all.”
“I wonder if he played his greatest hits.”
“No Lars Tetens, you stupid jerk.”
Enter the pub owner, a friendly sort, who introduced himself as Lance (not Lars). Lance was originally from Brooklyn, but has lived all over the world, and now has taken up residence in Easton (go figure). It turned out that Lance knows Lars. And Lars is not just another Saturday night oakie. Lars is an artist. Lars deals art. Lars makes leather briefcases and knick-knacks (Lance’s own wallet is a Lars creation…he showed it to us). Lars has a famous Scandinavian actress girlfriend (she was in “Lord of the Rings”). Lars is an accomplished blues guitarist (the Project). Lars has played with Eric Steckel (from the Eric Steckel Project). Lars sells skateboards. Lars has a store and studio downtown. Lars sells imported cigars. Lars manufactures his own cheroots. Lars learnt the ancient art of rolling smokeable items from a wise man in Tibet, a nicotine weed-wrapping shaman by the name of Morris “The Lama” Rosenthal (also from Brooklyn). Lars has a website. No, Lars has five websites. Lars publishes his own newsletter entitled “Of Lars I Speak.” Clearly, there was more to Lars than met the eye. We stopped downtown. There it was, the Lars Tetens storefront. We parked and sniffed around. No Lars though, he probably got legless with the Project after the gig the night before.
Back in the bus, the buzz was about Lars. I didn’t want to hear about Lars. I wanted to talk about the “Ruby Baby” man. No such luck. The tone of the conversation was somewhat awed:
“I didn’t know about all of that.”
“About all of what?”
“All that Lars stuff and all.”
“No, fuck you! You try and belittle a local hero, a man whose feet you should be kneeling at, whose Birkinstock sandals you are not worthy to tromp around in, a man whose anorak you are not fit to zip up, all because you want to punish us with your repetitive know-nothing humor. Meanwhile, a genius like Lars Tetens, a stogie-puffing giant amongst giants, a compadre of the multi-talented Eric Steckel, becomes the victim of your sledgehammer wit. For what? For us to have to listen to the likes of you.”
“Put a sock in it.”
By now, the weekend was beginning to take its toll. The Golf Museum off Interstate 78, the old-timers, Easton, the deejay with the toupee, the Days Inn, the Whiskey Tent, the acned waiter in search of Osama, Lance and his name-dropping, Lars Tetens, the Norwegian Blues (beautiful plumage), Eric Steckel, the state of the bathrooms at the Amoco station off the Holland Tunnel, they all weighed on us like a gigantic boulder fettered around our collective neck. There was only one solution. We played the Dion disc of the concert all the way back to the city. Peace won. Dion Ruled.
A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.