Memory Motel: The Bards of the Bronx
Dion and Bobby Darin's inconvenient evolution.
Dion DiMucci and Walden Robert Cassotto both broke through to the big time in the late ‘50s, at the tail end of the first wave of rock & roll -- DiMucci as leader of Dion & The Belmonts (named for The Bronx's Belmont St.) with the doo wop-based "I Wonder Why" and "A Teenager In Love," and Cassotto as Bobby Darin with "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover." Both Dion and Darin were Italian-Americans in their early twenties, who came from vaudevillian stock and were as fascinated by country and blues as they were by rock & roll. By the early '60s, both young men had already reached their respective commercial peaks, Dion as a solo artist with "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer," and Darin as a swinging, post-Sinatra crooner with "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea."
Pretty much every other artist of Dion and Darin's generation who found themselves hitting a similar ceiling around that time soldiered on with their initial approach for as long as they could before becoming officially outdated with the arrival of the British Invasion and ending up on the oldies circuit by the time they hit their thirties in the Logan's Run-like landscape of ‘60s pop music. Dion and Darin both had something more in mind.
When the counterculture began to blossom in the mid ‘60s, instead of fleeing, both Dion and Darin embraced it boldly, not out of pragmatism or desperation, but because they were seekers with as forward-looking an artistic sensibility as the avatars of the new aesthetic, who were only a few years younger than them. In 1966, Darin released If I Were A Carpenter, his homage to the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement, featuring covers of tunes by Tim Hardin, John Sebastian and others. Unexpectedly, the title track earned him his first big hit in years. In 1965 Dion began making some perspicacious forays into folk rock with everything from original tunes to Bob Dylan covers, but Columbia shelved them until after he'd had a 1968 hit with the sociopolitically conscious single "Abraham, Martin, and John," finally releasing them in '69 on Wonder Where I'm Bound.
Atlantic Records was seemingly unwilling to let Darin take his experimentation too much further, following his 1967 folk-rock album Inside Out closely with his unfortunate Atlantic swan song, Bobby Darin Sings Doctor Dolittle. By '68, Darin was flying fearlessly forward into career apocalypse, falling off the mainstream map and releasing the excellent Born Walden Robert Cassotto album, which featured a batch of his own powerful compositions, from the funky rocker "Long Line Rider" to the anti-war baroque-pop ballad "Sunday." He followed up the next year with the equally impressive self-released record Commitment. Commercially, his new direction (in fact, Direction was what he dubbed his new label) fared as poorly as Atlantic had feared, but artistically it was a resounding success. Dion's post-"Abraham" sales figures weren't much more impressive, but he continued pursuing his progressive singer/songwriter mode into the early ‘70s with four outstanding albums: Sit Down Old Friend, You're Not Alone, Sanctuary, and Suite For Late Summer.
Darin spent the early ‘70s trying to reconcile his attempts at self-expression with his crooner career, with mixed results. He died in 1973 of a lifelong heart ailment, so we'll never know how he might have ultimately fared. Dion, who had already cheated death back in 1959 by refusing a seat on the infamous plane that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper, kept moving forward, evolving through everything from a born-again Christian period to a late-‘80s semi-comeback as a rocker and a 21st century turn as a bluesman.
There's a scene towards the end of the 1979 film The Wanderers (based on Richard Price's book of the same name) where the leader of an early-‘60s Bronx street gang, played by Ken Wahl, is feted by his comrades with their theme song, Dion's "The Wanderer," at a downtown bar. Wahl's eye is caught by a girl he's been pursuing, and he slips away to follow her down the street. She steps into a folk club where a decidedly Dylanesque figure is singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'," while he stands outside, sadly watching the world begin to pass him by. Dion and Darin refused to let that happen to them, so they freed themselves to change along with the times. Career paths notwithstanding, the result was a little treasure trove of intensely personal but endlessly relatable songs.
|Bobby Darin - Long Line Rider|
|Dion - My Girl The Month of May|