Dions Still Struttin
Among the first songs I recall hearing as a little boy-kid in Syracuse was DION's "Runaround Sue," along with such equally greasy 1961 fare as the Four Seasons' "Sherry," Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law," Dick & Dee Dee's "The Mountain's High," and Nino Tempo & April Steven's "Deep Purple." My sister owned all these 45s, demonstrating pretty good taste for an 11-year-old Jewess from upstate. I was only 3 at the time, but such is the impact of those great old records that I remember them despite my toddler-li-ness (somewhere in my mother's garage, pictures exist of me doing the twist in diapers—feel free to form your own erotic mental images). I don't recall much else from those tender years, but those records were burned into my memory—right down to the way their labels looked spinning around on the turntable.
I moved to California at age 16. It soon became apparent that songs that were big hits where I grew up were not necessarily popular here, and vice versa. While us Noo Yawkers were tuning into pompadoured Italian slicksters from the Bronx and Philly and funky-assed black acts from New Orleans, you people were flippin' yer lids over the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and (shudder!) Frankie Avalon. There's no doubt about it: our coast could definitely beat up your coast. This trend continued for many years as the West foisted such dog shit upon the world as the Eagles, Jackson Browne, the Doobie Brothers and Linda Ronstadt, while faves back East included tuff punks like Lou Reed, Southside Johnny, Little Steven and Mink DeVille.
If there was ever an act that personified West Side Story-era Italian street soul—in all its sharkskin-suited, finger-poppin' glory—it was Dion DiMucci. Either as a solo singer or while fronting doo-wop gods the Belmonts back in the late '50s, he smirked, spit, swaggered and trashed where other teen-idol types whined, mewled and pleaded. Even cooler than "Runaround Sue," Dion's follow-up hit, "The Wanderer," will forever be the final word on strutting machismo. The song was about going from town to town on a mission of boning young girls and having your conquests commemorated as tattoos—pretty heavy shit for the early '60s. (Philip Kaufman fashioned a whole movie around the song; his 1979 film The Wanderers is among the best greaser/ gang period-piece flicks ever released.) Following "The Wanderer," Dion released several thundering songs based on a similar formula—such as "Lovers Who Wander," "Donna the Prima Donna" and "Ruby Baby"—but they weren't quite as testosto-riffic as "Runaround Sue" or "The Wanderer," Dion's two real classics.
Unfortunately, Dion was also a junkie many years before that became fashionable, and he began to stumble by around 1963. Clean, sober and substantially less greasy, he re-emerged in 1968 as a long-haired folk-rocker; his well-meaning but sappy "Abraham, Martin and John" (about the assassinations of Lincoln, King and Kennedy) rose to No. 4 on the charts.
For the past few decades, Dion has adhered to a schizophrenic schedule of releasing Christian rock albums and more earthy, secular, autobiographical fare that celebrates his status as the ultimate goombah from the streets of the Bronx (1989's Yo Frankie, produced by Dave Edmunds, has been the best of these). His voice ain't what it used to be, but Dion still manages to conjure up enough olive-oil attitude that he'll always exude the vibe and aroma of New York Italian cool. Smell the thin-crust pizza Tuesday night at the Sun Theatre.
What the fuck? They're back? Again?!? KISS were just through here not long ago on a supposed "farewell tour," and now they've returned to sling their crap at us one more time? Go away! I mean it! Frigginsaggengrumblebitch@$#%&**!!! . . .
When the Kiss Army was at its largest, I was a conscientious objector. Historical revisionists now have the cartoon-metal group—which pollutes the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Friday night—atop one of rock's highest pedestals. I have always fully concurred with the critical revulsion that dogged the group during its heyday and well beyond. That heyday came at the full blush of the glitter/theatrical-rock movement, a pre-punk rejection of the hippie-drippy excess of '70s rock. Yet rather than stripping rock & roll down to its basics as punk would, glitter embraced another brand of excess that was, at its worst, no less stupid and embarrassing than anything that bad hippie music had to serve up. Glitter exchanged unbearable banality for hedonistic bombast, fey drivel for posed androgyny.
That's not to say that there weren't a great crop of glitter rockers gracing the landscape in the early to mid-'70s. Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, T-Rex, Queen and, to a lesser extent, David Bowie (whose reputation and influence far outpaced his actual merits) all created superb rock & roll at one time. It's just that Kiss, perhaps the inevitable vulgar conclusion of this scene, does not come close to belonging on that estimable list. For all the gaudy theatrics, their music was and is a crashing bore of clichs, ridiculous decibel levels and pure mediocrity. They couldn't write a song, and they couldn't play their instruments, but I suppose all that tongue-wagging and blood-spewing and phallic-posing was kind of neat if you were a 12-year-old boy.
That's really the key to Kiss' popularity in recent years: nostalgia, once again. Kiss are remembered more as a favorite childhood toy rather than as creators of lasting rock & roll. As my generation fondly recalls our Rat Fink T-shirts, Aurora monster models, Fantastic Four comics and Orange Crate bicycles, so does the subsequent generation wallow in Kiss sentimentality. Which is all well and good. But just don't try telling me this group made even one consistently decent album—or even a single—in their quarter-century career, which I fucking pray is really at its belated end. Cretinous shitheads.
DION PERFORMS WITH JAN & DEAN AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. TUES., 8 P.M. $38.50; KISS PERFORM WITH TED NUGENT AND SKID ROW AT VERIZON WIRELESS AMPITHEATeR, 8808 IRVINE CENTER DR., IRVINE, (949) 855-8095. FRI., 8 P.M. $26.50-$81.50.
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