A Conversation with Dion DiMucci
Mike Ragogna: Dion, how are you?
Dion DiMucci: Well, good, thanks. How are you?
MR: Great, and it's terrific to speak with you again. Your new album, Tank Full Of Blues, marks the third of a series of recent blues projects.
DD: Well, when I recorded, "The Wanderer" and "Ruby Baby" and "Runaround Sue" back in the day, Rock 'n' roll was basically blues. All you had to do was turn a minor chord major and you had rock 'n' roll. Basically, listening to Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams was my musical foundation as a kid, and if you take blues and country music together in the '50s, you had what we called "rock 'n' roll." So, these albums are just getting down to my roots. I feel more relevant now than I did in my twenties because I have more to say--you can tell in the album Tank Full Of Blues because there's a narrative there. When I finished the line, "I have a tank full of blues, and I'm out at the break of dawn. I have my guitar in the back, I have a set of new strings on. I got a woman who really wants me, and another who wants me gone," I asked myself why no one ever wrote that line before. You know what I mean? (laughs) I concentrated on the words quite a bit this time.
Of course, blues has a lot to do with the guitar and the groove. You want to reach people mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. But blues is also more than that. I really leaned on the narrative and the stories I had to tell with this album because I feel like the fathers of the blues always had that element to their songs. Their words were so potent; Robert Johnson wrote with such beauty and told such potent stories. I wanted to do the same thing here. The first two blues albums I did, Bronx in Blue and Son of Skip James allowed me to interpret a lot of classic blues songs from the '30s, '40s and '50s, but with this album, I wanted to explore who I am within this form of music.
MR: You've always had a bluesy way of phrasing words, whether it be in your songs like "Sanctuary," "Dr. Rock And Roll," or even "Abraham, Martin And John."
DD: It's my foundation really. I even think "Runaround Sue" was a cleverly disguised blues song. (laughs) If it wasn't for guys like Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, I wouldn't be here and doing what I'm doing.
MR: One of the most ambitious tracks on the album is "Ride's Blues (For Robert Johnson)." Can you tell us a little bit about that song and it's relation to Robert Johnson?
DD: First off, Robert Johnson is one of the first people to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. For people who don't know who he is, he died in his twenties back in the 1930s. He wrote "Crossroads" and everything Eric Clapton ever did was based off of Robert Johnson. There are a whole bunch of stories and myths about Robert, but I had a vision, one day, of me driving him to the crossroads. As we were on our way there, I had a conversation with him and the whole song is about me picking him up and him getting into my car. We talk about what people are saying in town about the blues guy and so on. It's a blues narrative, and after I finished, I thought that I had written a masterpiece. I felt like I had gotten under the spout where glory came out. (laughs) This song is my whole perspective of this young man, who he was, what he did, and where he is now.
MR: I agree. This is one of the best songs about the blues that I think I've ever heard. There's also a resurrection in the song, and I interpreted that to symbolize a rediscovery of Robert's music, is that what you were going for?
DD: Absolutely. But if you ever saw his tombstone, you'd know why I wrote some of those lines. I only talk about that in the song because I've visited his tomb in Mississippi and some of that is written on it. This guy was just a special man with a touch of God's grace on his writing. He had quite a gift. I just wanted to put something together that I felt paid homage to him and the way I truly see him. I think he's so much greater than all of the stories or myths that have been told about him. For instance, there was a myth that he sold his soul to the devil, but if you listen to his music, it tells a very different story. I wanted to bring that element into it.
MR: You also cover the classic "Ramblin' Man" as a part of a medley.
DD: Yeah, kind of. We did a song on this album that's kind of a medley of train songs. I love the idea of trains and tracks and leaving town and coming back. That was the time in the country when that was how everyone traveled, and everyone had the blues back then. I always say that the blues is the naked cry of the human heart, longing to be truly free. Sometimes, when you jump on that train, you think it's gonna be better when you get off, you know? So, I put a couple of train songs together and one of them was "Ramblin' Man."
MR: Back in the earlier days of your career, you had a series of hit singles as a solo artist and with The Belmonts. Then your career took a bit of a turn due in part to a man named John Hammond. Can you tell us about that?
DD: Well, back in the mid-sixties, we had what most people called the "British Invasion," but I like to think of it more as a British Infusion. They had it right, had good roots, and they threw a lot of good music back at us. I was hanging out in The Village at that time and woodshedding on the guitar and meeting people. That's when John Hammond introduced me to his son, John Hammond Jr. This was the time when The Lovin' Spoonful, Richie Havens, Bob Dylan, and Mike Bloomfield were breaking out. It was just a time for great songwriters and some great guitar picking. That's where I spent the mid-sixties--in the village, working with these guys. I wasn't making a lot of hit records at the time, but when I lifted my head all of a sudden I had recorded, "Abraham, Martin & John," which was the result of what I was digesting down there at the time. That became a #1 record for me in 1968.
MR: That was such a great cultural contribution too. How do you feel about that song's relevance today?
DD: I think it's always relevant because, in my mind, it's about a state of love that does exist and it's up to us to work at it and make it real. It wasn't intended to be a political statement at all. I guess if you look at it, you could say it's two democrats and two republicans. I only say that because it's about the Kennedy brothers, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr.--Martin Luther King's family said that he was a republican, but I don't think anyone ever documented him saying that. But it wasn't a political song, because, in my mind, love trumps politics. Politics is just the expression of the culture, and culture is the religion of the people. In my mind, this song was above politics because no matter who's in office, I say a prayer for them because it's not an easy job. That's the way I look at it.
MR: Right, you also kind of want to say a prayer for them because, in a way, everyone's future is in their hands, you know?
DD: Yeah. That's why I pray. In fact, I was just honored at the National Italian American Foundation in Washington and I was about five feet away from President Obama the whole time. I met him and we spoke, and he's a very charismatic guy--very intelligent and gifted. I'm not saying I agree with everything he's done in office, it was just very interesting meeting him. I was also brought up to respect the office and to pray for those in office.
MR: Right. And speaking of religion, many people may not know that you even had a successful Christian music career that even earned you a Dove Award in the eighties.
DD: That's right, I earned a Dove Award for the album, I Put Away My Idols. I have three daughters and I started thinking in a different track when they were born. I've been married 48 years now, and I think my belief system kept the family together and everyone sane because the world is quite complicated. I believe faith is a visible sign of a higher reality where everything is in perfect order. I really do think it kept my family together and gave me some degree of sanity. Plus, there's a lot of beautiful songs there because writing gospel songs is so uplifting, you know?
MR: Yeah. By the way, I really enjoyed your revisit of an older song, "Man In The Glass," which was written about Nixon, right?
DD: Yeah. It was around the time of Nixon, so I loaded some of what was going on in the world at the time into that song.
MR: But your re-recording had changed the meaning, which is why you recorded it, right?
MR: I also wanted to talk about your Warner Bros. material. Songs like "Sanctuary" and especially "New York City Song" were amazing.
DD: There's a line in "New York City Song" that goes, "The saints of stone look lonely in the old cathedral hall, perhaps they knew before the rest that I had to leave it all." I was moving to Miami from New York at the time. (laughs) I had just started a family and was I was looking for some sky to look at rather than skyscrapers at the time. I mean, I love New York. God knows I still have an apartment there and need to keep going back and getting my fix of New York. You can't take the Bronx out of me. In fact, the song "Bronx Poem" is a free form, stream of consciousness song with just me playing the guitar and talking. It's not a blues song, it's very meditative.
MR: And speaking of blues, you've also got "Guitar Queen" from The Return Of The Wanderer.
DD: Yeah, that was written about Bonnie Raitt. We went to see her when we were in Chicago and we wrote that song when we were riding to the next gig.
MR: Nice. Another great song from that album was "Midtown American Main Street Gang." Nice band.
DD: Those were the guys that I was traveling with at the time...we were a gang. When you're on the road for eight weeks with a bunch of guys, you become a gang. I called the band The Streetheart Band.
MR: Like the title of one of your previous albums, Streetheart. Getting back to Tank Full Of Blues, another song that I admire is "Holly Brown." You manage to approach the subject of relationships from a completely different angle.
DD: That's one of my favorite songs. I really like some of the lines on that particular song, I get a kick out of singing that one. "My Baby's Crying" is another great example of one of those relationship songs. When I finished that song, I asked myself how it had never been written before. It's about thinking that you should have shut your mouth and learn to think before you talk. So, I really wanted to have stories in some of these songs--I was trying to reach for higher ground. Sometimes with blues now, the artists toss the lyrics aside and plays some really good guitar, rightfully so because that's a lot of what blues is about. But I wanted to lean a little more on the total feel, groove, and lyrics of each song. I'm really pleased with this album. It's all me on guitar, I just went into the studio and opened myself up. There was something burning inside me and I had to get it out.
MR: I wanted to mention that the guitar work is, I think, pretty solid. Great licks here, you really don't disappoint.
DD: Thank you. I'm really pleased with it. We had a good bassist, drummer and great lyrics, and it just took off and that's what I wanted to do. I like taking people on a trip, especially if it's a good trip. That's what rock 'n' roll is all about. I learned that when I was crisscrossing the nation with Buddy Holly. He would walk out on stage, take the stance, and you knew to hold on to your butt cause you were going on a trip. And that's never changed for me. I just always wanted to do those guys proud and take the audience for a good trip.
MR: (laughs) Yeah. I obviously want to be very sensitive about this, but can we talk about that tragic plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper? In a way, it was like a blues song since a $36 ticket was the difference between your being here and not.
DD: That's absolutely right. My parents used to argue over the rent, which was $36 a month. Back then, that was a lot of money. The plane that they took was a $22,000 plane, which, today, would be an $800,000 plane. They weren't flying cheap. One day, Buddy, Ritchie, the Big Bopper and I were in a private dressing room and we tossed a coin to see who was going to opt out of riding the plane because there were only four seats including the pilot. The Big Bopper and I won, but when Buddy told me that the tickets were $36, I told Ritchie to go because I couldn't wrap my head around the concept of spending that much money on a two-hour flight from Clear Light, Iowa, to Fargo, North Dakota, you know? That was 52 years ago, and I was the only one that was in that room and lived. But I must say that after all these years, I have never forgotten one of those guys and they've really affected my life on a lot of levels. They made me ask about my life, why I'm here, and where I'm going. I was so close to these guys. I even went on tour with Buddy Holly for a month before that particular tour even started. Then, all of a sudden, when I was 19, these guys were taken away. But I hope over the years, I've done those guys proud. I love them and I miss them. Relationships are forever in my faith, so someday, we'll get together and start a new group up there. Eternity is a long time.
MR: Hopefully, you won't get together too soon. (laughs) You are, in many people's opinions, one of the great original rock 'n' roll artists, and so many other great artists who look up to you as an icon. Dave Marsh even said that you are the "the only relevant rock 'n' roller left of the first generation." How do you feel about that?
DD: Well, were at a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame event about the history of rock 'n' roll. Dave looked at me and said that I was the only artist from the fifties who stayed relevant and creative and I started arguing with him. I mean, it was very hard to digest, but he convinced me. I walked out of there a little baffled and high. I told my wife about it and she asked me what I was going to do about it, and that's how this album came about. I think he's right, and thank God I do still feel relevant and creative, probably even a little bit more relevant than I felt in my twenties. Sometimes, you need that kind of encouragement from someone you respect. But there are all these other rockers like Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and Bruce Springsteen who have also stayed consistent and creative over the years. But they're from the sixties, not the fifties.
MR: Right. When I co-produced your box set with Bob Hyde, reading the quotes from other artists was very moving because of all the love and appreciation they expressed.
DD: And Bob Hyde was a great guy. I miss him. He died very young. He had a love for the music, like you and I.
MR: Yeah, and thanks for including me in that. You know, Bob loved you and your music as well. You and Rick Nelson were his favorites at the label. Now, Rick Nelson, that's another guy...
DD: ...I've grown to really appreciate Ricky more and more over the years. He played with great musicians.
MR: Yeah. And one of his children, Sam, has grown up to be a pretty great musician himself as well as his dad's spitting image.
DD: Has he done some work with James Burton by any chance?
MR: Yes. Most folks heard of Rick's other kids, Matthew and Gunnar, who had hits as the group Nelson, and there's also actress Tracy Nelson who became famous as an actress.
DD: I haven't followed them, but I know that they're all talented.
MR: Dion, do you have any advice for new artists?
DD: I'd say follow your joy and make sure what you're doing resonates with your soul, mind and spirit. Otherwise, you get lost because there are so many things coming at you. So, stay close to that inner voice and enjoy it. Music is a gift from God and without it we'd self-destruct. But writing songs and music was a bit of salvation for me. Stay close to the gift.
MR: Dion, it was wonderful talking with you again after all these years, especially about your latest album, Tank Full Of Blues.
DD: Thank you, Mike.
MR: Do you have any last words of wisdom for our readers?
DD: Keep looking up and take things one day at a time. Also, stay grateful because gratitude and happiness go hand-in-hand.
MR: Wonderful. Thanks so much for being with us, Dion. Happy New Year.
DD: Happy New Year to you too, Mike.
1. Tank Full of Blues 4:14 Not Available
2. I Read It (in the Rolling Stone)
3. Holly Brown
4. Ride's Blues (for Robert Johnson)
5. Two Train
6. Do You Love Me Baby
7. You Keep Me Cryin'
8. My Michelle
9. My Baby's Cryin'
10. I'm Ready to Go
11. Bronx Poem
Transcribed by Evan Martin
A Streamer Of Anthony Green's New Album Beautiful Things
Singer-songwriter Anthony Green has teamed up with indie folk trio Good Old War for his second solo album, Beautiful Things. Though best known as the charismatic front man of rock group Circa Survive, Anthony's solo material has always been a major departure from anything he's done with his band. Beautiful Things features an almost schizophrenic range of sounds--everything from folk-tinged rockers to psychedelic mind trips to sparse lullabies and everything in-between. A headlining tour kicks off this week with support from The Dear Hunter (who is on the just-announced Coachella lineup).
Anthony Green - Beautiful Things (streaming)
US TOUR 2012 All Dates w/Special Guests THE DEAR HUNTER
13 New Haven, CT Toad's Place
14 Towson, MD The Recher Theatre
15 Poughkeepsie, NY The Loft @ The Chance
18 Boston, MA Paradise Rock Club
19 New York, NY Bowery Ballroom
20 Philadelphia, PA Union Transfer
21 Richmond, VA The Kingdom
22 Carrboro, NC Cat's Cradle
24 Nashville, TN Exit/In
25 Atlanta, GA The Loft
27 St. Petersburg, FL State Theatre
28 Ft. Lauderdale, FL Culture Room
29 Orlando, FL The Social
31 Houston, TX Warehouse Live
1 San Antonio, TX Korova
2 Austin, TX Mohawk
3 Dallas, TX Trees
4 El Paso, TX Tricky Falls
6 Tempe, AZ Clubhouse
8 San Diego, CA The Epicentre
9 Los Angeles, CA El Rey Theatre
11 Pomona, CA The Glass House
12 San Francisco, CA Slim's
14 Portland, OR Hawthorne Theater
15 Seattle, WA Neumos
17 Salt Lake City, UT The Complex
18 Denver, CO Bluebird Theater
20 Pittsburgh, PA Mr. Small's Theatre
21 Indianapolis, IN The Emerson Theatre
22 Chicago, IL The Bottom Lounge
23 St. Paul, MN Station 4
26 Detroit, MI Magic Stick
27 Cleveland, OH Grog Shop
28 Rochester, NY Club @ Water Street Music Hall
29 Pawtucket, RI The Met Cafe
30 Vineland, NJ Hangar 84