Did you ever have the fantasy when growing up of hanging out with a musical icon, someone you listened to on the radio and sang along with?
Last month, that dream became a reality when I had the chance to sit down and talk to Dion DiMucci. While I had heard “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” as a pre-teen, it was the 45 (for those who remember vinyl) of his rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John,” which I played and played in the aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, that touched me deeply as a 13-year-old.
It was that memory that I carried when my wife, Mary Carty, and I arrived at his Florida home to take photos of him for an upcoming article in the June issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine on the occasion of the new Servant Books release Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth.
At the end of the hour-long photo shoot, I just assumed we’d gather up equipment and leave, and chalk up another time of briefly brushing up against fame. But, instead, he ushered us into his kitchen for San Pellegrino mineral water, orange juice and some engaging conversation. We also witnessed the revealing of someone who has tasted fame, experienced great success, seen tragedy and had his share of pain.
Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth shares some of those stories from his childhood: his climb from the Bronx and up the musical charts, the musicians he played with and the demons he faced while slowly returning to his Catholic faith.
What we discovered very quickly was that this music legend was someone easy to be with, comfortable in his own skin, someone who could bluster but who sought to make us comfortable around him.
In typical New York fashion, conversation flowed from him. While he looks younger than his 71 years, his response to “do you work out?” was an emphatic “not at all!” before admitting that he sometimes walks around a local lake.
Family central to his life
Family plays a central role in his life. He introduced us to his wife of 48 years, Susan, and talked about her fondly throughout our visit. In fact, he noted her devotion to St. Anthony, whom she prays to when seeking lost things. “I told her she is over her quota,” Dion said.
He spoke with great fatherly pride of his three daughters, whose photos and a sketch of them he created adorn walls and shelves. Yet, he also recalled the problems in his household as he was growing up, a hardworking mother who was constantly fighting with his father, who did not show much interest in being a much of a provider.
He referred to some of his religious heroes – Sts. Augustine, Francis and Jerome, “the thunderer” – and to not understanding people who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” “How can you be one and not the other?” Dion asked.
A story of recovery’s challenge
He talked freely about his 43-year recovery from addiction, AA meetings he attends regularly and a sobriety that has God at the center and that means much more than just abstaining from drink and drugs.
“The disease does not have humility,” Dion said, adding that he never knew before entering AA that one can consciously reach for stability, discipline and humility.
He shared a story that didn’t make it into his new book about how that choice to live a sober life was a daily challenge, a daily “commitment to grow spiritually.”
He went on tour with Frank Zappa, a musician “who didn’t do drugs and didn’t drink.” Zappa asked the 20-something Dion to play acoustic guitar and perform his hit, “Abraham, Martin and John.”
The tour flew into a private airport, which he recalls was in Cincinnati, and there were three limos to pick up the band: one for Zappa, one for the backstage help and one for Dion and the other musicians.
As the doors of the cars close, the other musicians brought out the cocaine and marijuana and started lighting up. But Dion, who “had just got off of drugs,” was faced with a dilemma. “I’m there and I just want to fit in,” he said. “I want these guys to like me so bad.”
He recalls asking the musicians to put the drugs away. “I said, ‘Come on, guys.” They balked, but he didn’t back down.
“I had to open the window. I wasn’t going to take in that second-hand smoke,” Dion said. “I had to stand up.”
For him, it was “a decision that I had to make,” though not succumbing to peer pressure at that time was “hard, very hard.” But, he said, it was one of those times in his life that he knew who he was and could see the course his life should be on, a path not determined by others and likely not the easiest path. Some of the musicians, he noted, died, and not of natural causes.
Like his book, Dion, sat down to talk truth with us. Like his book, there was a real honesty in the man and desire to pass on, like those involved in 12-step programs, his experience, strength and hope to others.
Check out the book, Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth (stories, humor & music, which he wrote with Mike Aquilina, and let me know what is your favorite part – his childhood stores, how Dion and the Belmonts began, how he almost was on the flight of plane that fatally crashed with other rock legends, how he met and then married his teenage sweetheart or how his life journey led him into a much deeper relationship with God.
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Photo above of Dion DiMuccci holding his custom-made Martin guitar, with inlaid image of New York City and his signature, standing in front of a painting he created. (Photo by Mary Carty)