By Don Wilcock
On January 24, 2012, 1950s rock and roll star Dion Di Mucci released the third CD in his blues trilogy, Tank Full of Blues. The first two, Bronx in Blue and Son of Skip James, were largely covers of classic delta blues songs. On Tank Full of Blues Dion discovers his own blues voice and on one cut in particular, “Bronx Poem,” he creates a deeply personal statement that transcends the current definitions of rock and roll and/or blues.
At 72, he cuts away all artifice and produces a musical statement that underlines Willie Dixon’s definition of the genre: truth. Add Dion to the short list of fellow icons Dylan and Cash in his ability to turn a microscope on his life under a spotlight so sharp and clear that it hides no imperfections. On “Bronx Poem,” Dion does not blink: ‘Yo! When I’m inside a song I’m strong. I can’t go wrong. That’s where I belong. Come along. It’s good. It’s bad. Who said it was perfect?’”
Two people in his life gave Dion permission to look inside his songs, Blues Foundation Director Jay Sieleman and music journalist Dave Marsh.
“Jay said to me, ‘Back in the day, Robert Johnson had a story. There was some kind of narrative and some kind of genius about his writing,’ and I said, ‘You know, I tell ya, Jay. I’m gonna lean in on the stories.’ So, I started leaning towards stories and really drawing pictures. I love drawing pictures with words.’”
“Jay told me about the story in the blues, and Dave Marsh told me about being the most creative and relevant over all these decades. He said, “You’re truly an artist for the ages.” Then, after those two remarks from Jay and Dave Marsh I thought, you know, let me express who I am within this genre. Let me start expressing who I am and what I can do in this musical form ’cause I loved the blues. I never realized how it was everything to me until I did Bronx in Blue. When I went in I cut that album in two days. I thought, ‘This is really what’s the center of my being.’ I never knew it. I kind of overlooked it because of the era I came from.”
Dion has travelled light years since “The Wanderer” and “Ruby, Baby,” but one consistency is that he’s always been what he calls a rhythm singer.
“It’s a rhythm that takes you along, that connects everything, and it’s the rhythm of the streets and the rhythm of the city.” In part one of our interview Dion said, “I think anybody could sing rock and roll, but I don’t think anybody could sing the blues. You need something in the blues. You need that feeling. There’s something about it. You need to be connected to it. I don’t think you can learn it.”
Don Wilcock for Blues411: Tank Full of Blues is the third record in what you’re calling your trilogy.
Dion Di Mucci: Yeah.
B411: Does that mean it’s your last blues album?
DD: Absolutely not. I just wanted to, like I said, express who I was within the genre because I had done songs from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s on the last – stuff that I consider classic, and I wanted to express – really show who I was with my voice sort of up front. I wanted to express myself within that form.
B411: Okay. When you look at some of our blues heroes like Buddy Guy and B. B. King, they’re older than we are, but then you also look at people we’ve lost in the last year or so like Honeyboy Edwards and Willie Big Eyes Smith and Clarence Clemons. Does that force you to look at your own mortality? How does it feel to be 72 and getting into the blues?
DD: Like I was saying, I’ve never felt more relevant, and that’s a wonderful thing. I’m very blessed in that respect because – at my age – I feel a lot of gratitude for that because I have a good mind. I have a good perspective, a good bird’s eye view of where I came from and the music, and how it evolved and the friends I have. I’m just very grateful because this music opened my whole life to travel, to meeting people and everything we think.
It all works itself in relationships. Without relationships, you got yourself. That’s pretty boring. So, I’m very grateful. In fact, to a large degree, the blues taught me how to live, the music, the feel and all the nuances in between the words, you know, reading between the lines and everything, good and bad. It taught me how to live and survive and move forward. I wrote a book and in the Bible they have the Psalms, and those are songs, and if they had to retitle the Psalms, they’d call them the blues.
Everybody in the Bible is broken and damaged. We’re all so imperfect. We were talking off the subject for a second, but we were talking about our dads, my kids, I know they love me. I got a great relationship with my kids. But yeah, I’m not perfect. They gotta roll with some of my little quips and quirks and all that kind of stuff.
B411: I’ll bet your wife takes care of that.
DD: [Laugh] Yeah, we’re a good team. She runs interference for me.
B411: Yeah, I can see that interaction working. Blue Horizon (Tank Full of Blues is the first CD on the new Blue Horizon label) was one of my favorite labels from England in the ’60s, and of course they went belly up, and I think they tried to get back on their feet10 years ago or something, and that didn’t go over either. Do you feel at all responsible for renewing the vitality of that legacy?
DD: No, Seymour Stein and myself, we’re good friends, and so we go out for dinner. Man, you’d love to be there. These guys, I love to be there because Seymour Stein is like an encyclopedia because he sings all throughout the meal. I mean he’s great to go out with. He just sings songs you wouldn’t believe. I mean, he knows everything. I can’t begin to tell the songs he pulls out of a hat and knows beginning to end. I mean in everything including Hank Williams, Luke The Drifter, his narrations.
So, no, I don’t feel responsible. You know what? I feel like it’s a good fit. I feel like the album’s good. I don’t think of – I’m too busy creating and living and enjoying life to think – and I’m a believer. So like the 23rd Psalm says, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever. So, I’m changing addresses somewhere along the line. That’s about it.
B411: In 2007, this is a direct quote from you, “Sometimes white guys are trying to get inside the blues. Blues guys are trying to get out.
B411: When I reread that quote today I was thinking back to about a year ago I went with Danny Kalb to this jail in Burlington, Vermont, where he played the blues for these inmates, and I felt that dichotomy between them trying to get out and him trying to get in. Can you define what you meant by that?
DD: Well, you know, I might redefine it because I always said you don’t have to be a young, black guy to have the blues, and in the ’30s walking to the crossroads because John Paul II had them. He was born in Poland under the Nazis, under Communism. His friends were dying on the streets so the guy had the blues. It just was a letter – maybe he didn’t define it like we’re talking. He didn’t have the form, the three cords, but he had it. You know what I mean?
DD: So, I don’t know. I might almost take that quote back.
B411: [Laugh] You’re wiser and older now. You don’t think the same way.
DD: Now, I don’t think –
B411: How would you say it today?
DD: I’m just meaning some like black kids today that don’t even know rock and roll has black roots. They think it’s white music, so I don’t know. I’m relooking. I’m taking a new look at this stuff, you know?
B411: It’s evident in your writing.
DD: ’Cause you had the blues growing up, and I had the blues, and I don’t know how you want to cut that up, or you can’t see it on a graph or anything, but you get it. You have it.
B411: Here’s another quote from 2007, “Freedom and license are two different things. License is giving your will permission to do anything you want to do with total disregard for your family, country, yourself and God. But freedom is the ability to choose the good and its ability to totally be free.”
DD: Yeah, yeah.
B411: That still works. That quote still works.
DD: That’s the truth because I thought freedom was doing anything you want, and it’s not. It’s really not. Like I never had the freedom to choose God’s best. I was in bondage. I was using drugs. I was drinking. I’m talking about years ago when I thought I was free and cool and hip and slick. Now, all the stuff I thought was lame I found out is cool.
B411: Does rock and roll make you free?
DD: Listen, music is such – uh – it won’t take you all the way there, but it’s a gift from God, man. Without it, we would total spiral inward and self destruct. If you and I, with the shit that was going on in our lives, if we didn’t have music to express stuff, I don’t think we’d be talking to each other today. So I think in a way it’s a handle to salvation for sure, you know what I mean? It gives you a handle to a higher reality. I think God gave it to us to express ourselves on the journey, to get it out. So I think it does. It’s definitely a handle for me. It definitely pulls me out, upward and forward.
B411: I love the album. The album is an amazing step forward.
DD: They wanted to know what song to go with. I didn’t have the slightest idea. My favorite song on the album is probably everybody’s least, but I like “You Keep Me Crying.” [Laugh] I don’t know. I was happy that (Rolling Stone Publisher) Jann Wenner liked (“I Read It in Rolling Stone”)’cause like whoa!
B411: Yeah, ’cause in 2007 when you and I talked, you said those guys at Rolling Stone didn’t believe there was any rock and roll before 1967.
DD: Right, well, it’s true.
B411: It is true.
DD: Well, they have a few guys they champion. You know how it is. With every era there’s about five guys that shine, but then there’s a lot of people that you and I know, especially in the blues, that are under those five monumental guys. Like a B. B. King will be like the biggest guy, but I don’t listen to B. B. King near as much as I listen to other guys.
DD: I love rural blues. I’m a good friend of John Hammond Jr. We go out a lot, and I just love him. The biggest compliment was when he did one of my songs, “If You Wanna Rock and Roll.” Oh, man, that was it. Of course, I’ve known him since The Village in the mid-’60s.
B411: Yeah, I know John, too, and I’ve been following him since the first Vanguard album. I was there when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Blues Foundation in 2011.
DD: Oh, man.
B411: What a thrill it was to see him get that.
DD: He’s a monster. He is a monster, that guy. I love what he does, and he’s the sweetest guy, man, very helpful and encouraging.
B411: Agreed, agreed. There’s another guy who didn’t like his father.
B411: Oh, I’d have to think about that one for a while. He brought just about anybody that was anybody from 1930 to 1970 into the public eye. So, I don’t know if I’d agree with that statement.
DD: You may not, but I think his greatest legacy is John.
B411: Wow, that’s an honor for you to say that about him.
DD: I told John Hammond, Jr., “Your father was a head with a heart. You’re a heart with a head.”
B411: Interesting, interesting. I like the way you do the yin and the yang in your songs. I forget which song, I think it’s the last one on this album were you talk about a woman making you sane instead of insane. I like that.
DD: That’s my wife. You know it’s funny. I did a Huckabee show, and he said, “Man, you write, and you really love this woman, your wife that you’ve been married to.” You know me.” I go, “You know, Governor, this woman not for one minute, nada, nothing. In all the years I’ve known her, she hasn’t given me one ounce of sympathy.
DD: So, the audience is looking at me in horror, but it’s all in the nuances of what I’m saying. I said, “She loves me, and she gives me, you know, plenty of compassion and understanding and empathy, but no sympathy.” Then I had to go look up sympathy and found out it was something good. I used to think it was something bad. It’s good.
No wonder they were looking at me in horror, but it was all in the nuance of what I was saying, you know? I think he got it because I was saying she always says, “If you want sympathy, you’ll find It in the dictionary,” because I was feeling self-pity, and she never bought into it. She was like, F*** you!” I mean she doesn’t say that, but (you know what I mean.)
photos of Mr. Di Mucci provided courtesy of Joseph A. Rosen http://www.josepharosen.com/other photos courtesy of artist
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease