I remember a long time ago, I was driving around listening to WCBS-FM, a New York area oldies station, and they were having this "contest". They had listeners calling in to vote for the all-time greatest rock n roll song, and they would play the current "champion", and callers would vote to either keep it, or vote for the song that the DJ put up against it. Well, as I was tuning in, the song that was reigning supreme was "The Wanderer", by Dion DiMucci. And they would throw up a Beatles song, and Dion would remain on top. Then a Stones song. Same result. Little Richard? Down it goes. Elvis Presley, the undisputed King? The Dion song made short work of him.
And so, on it went, and each time The Wanderer won, they would play it again. I must've heard the song 15 times that night, but I never tired of hearing it. It's a great song. It stands up to the "repeated spins test", rewarding each subsequent listening with new appreciation. And it sounds so vital, so rude, so in your face, even while the narrator shows his vulnerability and admits, "I got two fists of iron, but I'm going nowhere..."
Fast forward to 1996. Scott Kempner, my lead singer/principal songwriter/chief cook and bottlewasher for 10 years in the Del-Lords, calls me with exciting news. Dion was cleaning out the trunk of his car, found a Del-Lords cassette (Lovers Who Wander) that he had never listened to, popped it in and loved it. Roughly seven years after it's release! This is DION DIMUCCI of DION AND THE BELMONTS fame we're talkin' about here. I'm sure it didn't hurt that the name of our album was "Lovers Who Wander", in honor of you-know-who's song of the same name. Scott played me the answering machine message...
"Uh... Scott. This is Dion. I wanna was listening to you guys, and I wanna do dis thing...."
The "thing" Dion was referring to was a small rock combo he wanted to put together, and he wanted the Del-Lords to be his band. Well, Manny had gotten out of the music business, and moved to Texas besides, and Eric Ambel was quite busy with his producing gig (Bottle Rockets, Blood Oranges, Nils Lofgren... Eric is currently playing guitar with Steve Earle), so that left Scott and I. I had been playing with Mike Mesaros (Smithereens, think: "Blood and Roses") in Jack McDowell's band, Stickfigure, so I called him up and we had a bassist. We were a band. "The Little Kings". WITH DION!!!
I can't really explain how much of an honor this actually was. I guess you could say that Dion invented Doo Wop music, or at least was one of it's pioneers. Of course, after the first few rehearsals, any notion of "star-struckness" went out the window, as we got down to the business of learning all the great new songs he was bringing in with Scott. Besides, Dion was a very down-to-earth guy, and a Bronx native to boot, so, needless to say, the four of us spoke the same language, and we became very friendly. But never did the respect for this God of rock history abate.
One of the most startling things about rehearsals would be when we would sit around begging him for anecdotes from his long and amazing carreer, and he would burst into song as a way of illustrating a point he wanted to make. I cannot explain to you how odd it seemed to hear such a familiar voice, singing such a familiar line or two. ("Here's my story, sad but true...") Right next to you. Fucking astounding.
Well, one day, we decided that it wouldn't be such a bad idea to incorporate some of his legacy into the set. He was kinda reluctant to play on his past, because he wanted the Little Kings, and this new material, to stand on its own. Shit, he didn't even want to bill the gigs as Dion! But the three of us persisted, and the first golden oldie to make it to the setlist was The Wanderer.
Dion instructed us to "play the way we play", not imitate what was on the original recording, not rehash the past. He wanted something more modern for the song. But, I decided that a good starting point for learning it would be to study it, pull it apart, and see what made it tick. Then, and only then could I bring what I wanted to the table, and therefore do it the justice it deserved.