TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Memorial Day, we're going to listen back to an interview that I really enjoyed with Dion. It was more than an interview. He brought his guitar and sang some of his own songs, as well as blues and country songs that influenced him. If you've ever dismissed Dion as a former teen idol whose talent or relevance didn't survive the oldies era, what you hear today is likely to change your mind.
Dion had his first hit, "I Wonder Why," in 1958, with the doo-wop group The Belmonts, named after Belmont Avenue in the Bronx neighborhood in which they lived. His other hits included "Where Or When," "Donna The Prima Donna," "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer" and "Abraham, Martin And John." In 1965, Dion recorded a folk rock album. Some of the tracks were released as singles, but the album was never released until now. It's called "Dion - Kickin Child: The Lost Album 1965." It was mostly produced by Tom Wilson, who also produced Bob Dylan's early albums. Let's start with a track from it. This is a song Dion wrote called "Knowing I Won't Go Back There."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOWING I WON'T GO BACK THERE")
DION DIMUCCI: (Singing) Cold winds blow through fields of pine. Rain won't drown this pain of mine. I think I've heard some woman fair, knowing I won't go back there. I wonder if she looks the same. Maybe she forgot my name. Think of her long golden hair, knowing I won't go back there. She said she loved me, and she'd stay right by my side. And then one day, she spoke the words she couldn't hide. She said she found the guy that she's been dreaming of. I couldn't cry. I just said goodbye, my love. I had to leave that town behind.
GROSS: I spoke with Dion in 2000, after the release of his album "Deja Nu." Many of Dion's fans associate his hits with his and their teenage years. I asked him if it's been difficult to find adult songs that reach his audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DIMUCCI: I don't know. Songs to me have always been kind of like a diary, you know - and say when I did "Teenager In Love" maybe I was 16. Those questions in that song even though it's a very simple song, and it seems like kind of claptrap or something, but it's not. To the unknowing ear, it would seem, you know - if you just listened to the surface of it, but it had a lot of heart.
It had a lot of soul, and it asks some relevant questions that you could ask today, you know. And songs like "I Wonder Why" - it was a first hit record I had, you know. We were - we didn't know how to write lyrics too good, so we invented this kind of percussive, rhythmic sound. You know, we'd make up these sounds. We'd go down to the Apollo Theater and hear the horn players, and we'd come back to the neighborhood and give the vocal group - I'd conjure up - you know,
I'd recruit guys and say do this, do that, you know, and I'd try to get them to sound like the horn section down at the Apollo Theater. Like a song like "Ruby Baby" I would, you know - (singing) I got a girl and Ruby is her name. I have to go (singing) Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, baby. It was like (scatting). They were like horns, you know? And all that stuff was arranged, you know - I - the group was a poor man's horn section on the street corners. That's what it was.
Even when I did "Runaround Sue" and they would - (scatting). That was a horn section I heard at the Apollo Theater. I just brought it back to the streets and gave it to the guys to sing.
GROSS: Let me go back to the beginning with you when you were first listening to music. You wrote in your autobiography that Hank Williams really influenced you early on. When you were a kid growing up in the Bronx, what did you hear in Hank Williams?
DIMUCCI: Well, Hank Williams seemed, like, so total to me, so committed to the lyric. He would actually rip the ends of the words off at the, you know - the end of the sentence. It sounded like he'd bite into the word and rip it off. You know, he would do like - well, I can't sing like him, but the kind of idea like - the first song I heard him do was like (singing) and I let my home down on the rural route, told my pa I was going stepping out and get the honky tonk blues. Yeah, the honky tonk blues. Well, oh, I got them. I got the honky tonk blues.
You know, he'd say (singing) I stopped into every place in town.
And he'd rip the word right off. Like I got it, and there it goes, you know. And he was totally committed physically, lyrically, musically, spiritually just - I just said what's this guy talking about? You know, just - and, see, I had a guy on the streets that really helped me out a lot, too. There was a guy in Bronx, New York City. His name was Willie Green, and he was the superintendent of a tenement building in my neighborhood.
And, you know, basically what I ever - what I do is like black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood comes out with an attitude - yo. So Willie Green would be playing me all this John Lee Hooker stuff and, you know, Sonny Boy Williamson. And he'd be playing like (singing) going down to Rosie's stop at Fannie Mae's. Tell my baby what I heard her boyfriend say. Don't start me talking. Oh, lord. Tell everything I know. I'm going break up with signifying. Whoa, lord, Jack. Some people have got to go. Jack gave his wife $5 to go downtown get some - you, know, he'd do stuff like that or (singing) And I woke up this morning, looking around for my shoes. (Unintelligible) walking blues. Yeah. Woke up this morning looking around for my shoes (unintelligible). You know (unintelligible) walking blues. Some people tell me that they (unintelligible) blues in bed. (Unintelligible). People tell me that they worry (unintelligible). And (unintelligible) walking blues.
And he'd do stuff like that, so I go into the studio and do the white version of that.
GROSS: Well, no, really, but it sounds like what I'm hearing from you is that you heard country music through Hank Williams. You heard all these blues recordings...
GROSS: And what you found was this kind of Bronx version...
DIMUCCI: And a little doo-wop.
GROSS: Yeah. That - well, that doo-wop was out for you, this really like, for you, native version of all the music that you were loving.
DIMUCCI: Right. It was kind of...
GROSS: But it was authentic because it was your music. You weren't just doing stuff in the manner of somebody else.
DIMUCCI: Well, Willie Green, again, the guy who was doing this, he told me - he said, Dion - he said write about the people in the neighborhood, write about the things you know. And, to me, when I looked around my neighborhood, we had characters like Frankie Yunk-Yunk, Joe BB Eyes, Ralphie Mooch. There was a guy in my neighborhood - they called him Shakespeare. He used to say, like, 2B or not 2B? Which is my apartment?
DIMUCCI: I thought I'd get you with that, Terry.
DIMUCCI: But we had a lot of characters, you know? So - and they seemed bigger than life. Like, "The Wanderer" - his name was Jackie Burns (ph). He was a sailor who got tattoos all over him, you know? And every time he'd date a girl, he'd get a name tattooed on his body. You know, this guy was like, you know - (singing, playing guitar) Flo on my left arm, Mary on my right. Janie is the girl I'll be with tonight. Little girl asks me which one I love the best. I tear open my shirt. I show her Rosie on my chest. I'm a wanderer. Yeah, I'm the wanderer. I roam around, around, around, around, around. Lay that thing over your neck.
DIMUCCI: But this guy would walk around with his tank top on with all these names all over him. You know, he was like...
GROSS: What'd you think of him? Did you like him, or...
DIMUCCI: He was kind of a loner. He would like - I didn't know him that well. But he just seemed bigger than life because he was older than me, and he was in the Navy.
DIMUCCI: And he would come back, and he'd have this kind of, you know - and I kind of featured myself, you know, kind of like a street-corner poleward (ph), you know, burnt to the bone with the fire of this new rock-and-roll music. So I was like, you know, over there, saying, what could this guy - you know, like, how can we put this guy to music, you know?
And I don't think he ever knew the song was about him. He took off for - I don't even know if he's alive today. But "The Wanderer" is a sad song. It says, I roam from town to town. I go through life without a care. I'm as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron. But I'm going nowhere. It's about a real - a guy who just is stuck in a very kind of shallow lifestyle, you know?
GROSS: Before you started listening to rhythm and blues and blues music and stuff like that, I know when you were 11, you used to sing in a bar in your neighborhood. And it sounded like you were a real local attraction. What did you sing when you were 11?
DIMUCCI: Ah, yeah. I would do - I knew 70 Hank Williams songs.
DIMUCCI: Would you believe that? I would even sing his Luke the Drifter series, you know? (Singing, playing guitar) In the world's mighty gallery of pictures hang the scenes that are painted from life.
I was, like, 13 years old.
DIMUCCI: I thought I was a philosopher. I didn't even know what I was singing about. I sang "Honky Tonk Blues." I sang "Jambalaya." If you - an Italian from the Bronx - I had no idea what jambalaya meant. But it sounded so good and felt so good coming out of my mouth, you know? (Singing, playing guitar)
Goodbye, Joe. Me got to go. Me oh my oh.
You know - (singing, playing guitar) Jambalaya, crawfish pie, and a file gumbo.
I didn't know what gumbo was.
DIMUCCI: I knew what rigatoni was.
DIMUCCI: But gumbo - I had no idea. And, you know, I got caught up in this music. And I guess it's like anybody else when you get caught up into something. It just took me away.
GROSS: Why don't we pause here and listen to the first Dion and The Belmonts recording, which is "I Wonder Why" with those great harmonies?
DIMUCCI: That's a good attitude song.
GROSS: Yeah. Let hear it. What year is this, Dion?
DIMUCCI: This is '57 - beginning.
GROSS: And you were how old?
DIMUCCI: I was 17.
GROSS: OK, let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER WHY")
DIMUCCI: (Singing) Don't know why I love you like I do - don't know why I do. Don't know why I love you - don't know why I care. I just want your love to share. I wonder why I love you like I do. Is it because I think you love me, too? I wonder why I love you like I do, like I do. I told my friends that we would never part. They often said...
GROSS: That's Dion and The Belmonts. We'll hear more from Dion after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dion. The folk-rock album he recorded in 1965 has been released for the first time. It's called "Dion - Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965." When I spoke to him in 2000, he had just released the album "Deja Nu."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: There's a song that you wrote on the new CD that I really want to play because I think you're singing now is really similar to what it's always been. I don't think - I think some of the material has changed. But I think you're singing still has everything in it that you've been talking about - all those influences, the urgency that you've been talking about. So let me play a song from the new CD. But before I do, I want you to introduce it for us. And this is called "Every Day (That I'm With You)." Tell us about writing this, what inspired it.
DIMUCCI: Well, this is a story but I'm going to tell it. The CD is called "Deja Nu." And the song that you're about to play - in fact, the whole CD - the whole - all the songs in it are a movie soundtrack for a movie called "The Wanderer" that Chazz Palminteri wrote a screenplay for. And I was writing these songs for different scenes in the movie. And the movie got bogged down this year, so I just released the CD.
But, anyway, every song on the CD is written for a certain, you know, piece of the movie. This song was written for a montage scene in the middle of it. I traveled with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on that tour. We were co-headlining a tour. And we were on this little, yellow school bus, not one of these luxury-line, custom-made coaches today. It was just a yellow school bus. We were riding through the Midwest in 1959, February of 1959.
And it was cold. It was, like, 30 below zero. We were freezing. But we really kind of bonded on this tour - Richie, Buddy and myself - because we had the first Fender guitars that were issued, these new Stratocasters. And we were in kind of a competition to see who would make them ring the longest. And two weeks into the tour, Buddy got kind of fed up with the bus breaking down. And he was trying to recruit people. He chartered a plane.
And he said - because the more people you get aboard, the less it would cost. So he said, you know, it'll be $36, he tells me. And he hit the magic number for me. I grew up with my parents screaming and yelling at each other for the rent in Bronx, New York City at the time. It was $36. So my mind hadn't stretched out to that place where I could spend a whole month's rent on a 45-minute plane flight to Fargo, N.D. So I said no.
So he gives me his guitar. He says, here. He says, you know, take care of my guitar. You better take care of it, you know? So he took his laundry. That's what he wanted to do. He wanted to get a haircut. He wanted to do his laundry - gives me the guitar to take care of. So now I'm wondering, I wonder how his guitar sounds compared to mine. So I go in the dressing room, and I take the guitar. I plug it in. And I'm saying - I was telling Chazz Palminteri as he's writing this story around this book "The Wanderer" that I wrote. And the movie was called "The Wanderer."
So he said, you know, we could do a Buddy Holly song here in the movie. Like, it doesn't matter anymore. I said, let me write something to go through me sitting in the dressing room playing his guitar and singing with it and while this scene takes place of them leaving, us driving to Fargo, arriving the next morning. So this song was written for that scene because I thought I could capture this thing because, in my heart, I've always wanted to express this relationship that, you know - that I pondered at times or reflected on at times that I had with Buddy Holly. And it came out in this song.
GROSS: And I just want to say, for our listeners who don't know the end of the story, that Buddy Holly took this plane that you decided not to take. The plane crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
GROSS: So - and the other thing is - so Chazz Palminteri's movie is your biography? That's what he's trying to write?
DIMUCCI: Yeah, he wrote a screenplay around this
GROSS: Around your biography - autobiography - "The Wanderer."
DIMUCCI: Right. Right.
GROSS: All right. Well...
DIMUCCI: So that's what this whole album is. It's actually a soundtrack. In fact...
GROSS: It's the soundtrack of your life.
DIMUCCI: ...I don't think it would have came out as good if I tried to write songs and put out an album. I kind of did it inadvertently. I kind of backed into it, you know?
DIMUCCI: And it's interesting the way it came out, you know?
GROSS: So let's hear "Every Day (That I'm With You)," this song that's, I guess, inspired by Buddy Holly...
DIMUCCI: Yes, absolutely.
GROSS: ...And about that chapter of your life. This is a song written and performed by Dion from his CD "Deja Nu."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY DAY THAT I'M WITH YOU")
DIMUCCI: (Singing) Every day I step down trouble. Heaven knows it's what I do. Every day I raise my fists for the struggle - every day that I'm with you. Every day I wake up hungry. Yeah, I try to get my fill. Anyway, it's a great big country. And I've got time to kill. We dreamed a dream together one dark, winter night and found the dream still burned a new, warm, summer light. Every day you call upon the angels. They do what you tell them to. I'm walking just a little south of heaven every day that I'm with you.
GROSS: Dion will be back in the second half of the show. His folk-rock album "Dion - Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965" has just been released for the first time. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY DAY THAT I'M WITH YOU")
DIMUCCI: (Singing) I've crossed mountains. I've crossed valleys, walked the highway, seen the sea. Every day...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Dion. An album he recorded in 1965 has just been released for the first time. It's called "Dion - Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965." I spoke with him in 2000 after the release of his album "Deja Nu." He brought his guitar to the studio and performed old songs, new songs and songs by performers who influenced him. When we left off, he was telling us about being on tour with Buddy Holly and the fateful decision Dion made not to get on the plane Holly had chartered, which crashed, leaving no survivors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: A couple of songs on this new CD are inspired by the period of your life in which you knew Buddy Holly. How did it change your life to know that you came just, like an inch away from dying in that plane crash with him? I mean, that's got to give you pause and make you think that every day is a kind of gift after that.
DIMUCCI: Well, and some - I was 19 years old when that happened, and the rug was ripped out from under me. I was in shock. In fact, when I got home, my girlfriend who's been my wife all these years - at the time, she was my girlfriend - she said you were in shock for like two weeks. You stayed in a room singing Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens songs. But I think, you know, at that age, basically, I was baffled because this was the best thing that ever happened to me being on tour with these guys, running around the country singing rock 'n' roll.
I was like, you know - I felt like, wow, what a good thing this is. You know, what fun, what - you know, seeing the world, new friends. You know, there was nothing like it. And then all of a sudden I'm wondering what's this about? Where am I going? Why am I here? Who am I? You know, I'm starting to ask questions that I really - they're probably floating around your head but you don't - you know, they're not clear.
But I knew God had a plan for my life right then, but I started thinking on a higher reality, you know after that. I started seeking like truth and freedom and God. And, you know, what's this about? You know, why are we here? And that's been a journey for me, and it's been a wonderful journey.
GROSS: Did you fly much after that?
DIMUCCI: I flew home. I wanted to get - for some reason, I knew I had to get over it right away, so I flew home and - but a lot of things weren't worked out. Because when I got back to the Bronx, there was no one that said, gee, what are your feelings about this? You know, (laughter). They went, hey, you know who came into our neighborhood the other day? We're going to kick his teeth out. Are you coming with us or not? You know, and that was that.
Nobody cared. You know, I was out in the Midwest like a loner, you know. So I never really, you know, put a lot of these questions - you know, a lot of these things to rest. I had to go off alone to like, you know, work them out.
GROSS: But there's an interesting point that you brought up. I mean, the music that you started performing when you were young was so much a part of your neighborhood, both the people you started performing with initially and the kind of sound that it was. And then you became really famous.
And when you become famous, you might become a hero in your neighborhood, but you're also separated from the people because you're living in a different world. Suddenly, you have money, you have fame, you have different kinds of friends, you have professional connections.
DIMUCCI: Yeah. Well, that's true. That's true. I - but there's a part of me that never left the - my neighborhood, my upbringing became more important and more valuable to me as I got older. I appreciate the people, like even the priest who told me, like, early on in my career when I was walking down the streets thinking I was the rebel king of the neighborhood. He said, yo, Dion, come over here - Father Joe - he said what's this rebel without a cause? You know, that James Dean movie was out.
He said, you know, when you stand up for the truth, you really got something, you know? I didn't know what he was talking about but he was telling - you know, but you see he was the true rebel. He was the true radical one in the neighborhood. I didn't know that, so I had to know - these things you learn as - you know. I'm glad I'm around this long because, like, you find these little treasures.
GROSS: At the same period when, you know, Buddy Holly dies, you start thinking more about the larger meaning of things, the direction you really want to be heading. It's also during the period when you were doing heroin. So I'm wondering if how the heroin connected or didn't connect with this sense of looking for something larger?
DIMUCCI: Well, yeah, you're try to find something and trying to fill up that place in you that needs filling. And sometimes you go to the wrong places, you know? But when I look back on some of my records now, it's really funny. I see a kid who, you know - here's Chuck Berry singing about school, singing about cars, even though they were, you know, maybe when - you know, it was more than cars. But, you know, singing about all these kind of things - I'm singing like I live in dreams, strange as it seems, love came to me.
When I opened my eyes, I realized love came, you know. I wrote a song called "Born To Cry" that I say what was I writing? What was I thinking? I mean, they're really heavy. They're not very light songs. They're very introspective songs. And I could see how I was trying to work out some of these things, and the music was a real, you know, outlet for me, like salvation in a way.
GROSS: "Born To Cry" isn't one of your more famous songs. Would you do a little bit of it for us?
DIMUCCI: Well, here's a song. Yeah. (Singing) I like to tell you all about the good and the bad. I wish - how does it go? - I wish today the world, my friends, would stop being sad. There's so much evil around us. I feel that I could die. And I know that I was born to cry. If I ever told you all about the things I have done, I don't remember having even one day of fun. The things I like and you want to have I can't even buy. And I know that I was born to cry. See cry - I can't. I blew it.
GROSS: That's great though. While we're on the subject of these kind of deep feelings that you're having and trying to translate it into songs, let me ask you about something that you also had to do at the same time. Just the other day on TV I was watching "Don't Knock The Twist," one of the rock 'n' roll movies with, you know, Chubby Checker, and it's all about, like, the twist becoming a dance craze.
And, of course, you're featured doing the majestic and the wanderer in two of the nightclub scenes. And there's one scene where everybody's onstage doing the twist and you're onstage looking like what am I doing here?
DIMUCCI: Well, that's exactly what I was feeling because here you have a scene where people are sitting at - like, tables in a nightclub, you know, all dressed up. And they wouldn't let you use any black musicians onstage. The white performers had a white band. Chubby Checker had a black band because the movie wouldn't get played. You know, you go from south of Baltimore, it wouldn't get played.
And all I had on my records were black musicians from the Apollo. They play "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue," all those records. The guys like Sticks Evans and Panama Francis and Buddy Lucas - all these great musicians at that time. But it was - here you are, you have these really white-bread guys onstage going (scatting), you know.
DIMUCCI: And you have these people sitting at tables. Meanwhile, the song - like "Runaround Sue," doesn't look anything like it is because it was born on the street corners, in the schoolyards, banging on cardboard boxes, and guys chanting, and we - with jeans on and with attitude. It didn't look like it looks like in those movies.
So I still - when they have these doo-wop shows - I still get, what are they doing? They look like wedding bands or something. That wasn't the way it was. The music was street music. And (laughter) it just looked so funny dressed up like that to me.
GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Dion in 2000. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dion, which we recorded in 2000 after the release of his album "Deja Nu."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Why don't we hear "Book Of Dreams," a Springsteen song that you do on your new CD? Tell us how you ended up doing this particular Springsteen song. What was his occasion for writing it? How did you get it? And where does it fit into the story of your life?
DIMUCCI: "Book Of Dreams" is such a special song. I wanted to put it in the movie for a wedding song because it's written four-dimensionally. Like, there's one verse about the present, one about the future, one about the past and one about - one that happens in your imagination. So it's almost like adult doo-wop music, you know? See, this album - I recorded this album with all the same techniques and equipment I recorded "The Wanderer" with.
It sounds like - being it's a soundtrack to a movie, it sounds like it was recorded in the '50s or 1960, and somebody forgot to release it. And so it sounds like that, but yet, the lyrics just bring a little - pushes it a little you, know, so it has a little extra dimension to it.
GROSS: Well, this is Bruce Springsteen's song "Book Of Dreams" sung by Dion on Dion's new CD "Deja Nu."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOK OF DREAMS")
DIMUCCI: (Singing) I'm standing in the backyard, listening to the party inside. Tonight, I'm drinking in the forgiveness this life provides. The scars we carry remain, but the pain slips away it seems. Oh, won't you, baby, be in my book of dreams? I'm watching you through the window with your girlfriends from back home. You're showing off your dress. There's laughter and a toast from your daddy to the prettiest bride that he's ever seen. Oh, won't you, baby, be in my book of dreams? Won't you, oh, won't you, baby? In the darkness, my fingers slip across your skin. I feel your sweet reply. The room fades away, and I'm way up high. Just holding you to me as through the window the moonlight streams. Oh, won't you, baby, be in my book of dreams?
GROSS: That's Dion from his new CD "Deja Nu." This song is by Bruce Springsteen. Dion, what did you mean before when you were saying that you used all the same equipment and techniques that you did on your early records?
DIMUCCI: Well, we recorded this album with two mics and the same equipment that I used on "A Teenager In Love," "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue." It sounds like it was recorded right in between those records. We ran the vocals through the hallway. We used the same (laughter) - that's what we did in the '50s. We didn't have, you know, we didn't have effects.
So we invented stuff, you know, and we did it live. Everything leaks into everybody's mic. You know, back then, if you come into the studio with a band and didn't get it done, it didn't get done. It just had to happen. You had to capture that magic right there. So we went in and let it rip, you? know.
GROSS: There was a period of your life when all of your recordings were coming out on a Christian record label. You had gone through a spiritual awakening, were born-again. And I'm wondering if that period when all of your records were on the Christian label, was that because that's the only kind of material you wanted to record or is that the only place where you were finding a place to record?
DIMUCCI: No, it's what I wanted to record at the time. I tell you, gospel music is very uplifting. It's great. It's just a lot of fun to write, and it's wonderful for the heart, soul, mind and spirit. It's just great. So I was - my faith had come alive. You know, I grew up Catholic, you know. I would say I had a mild Catholic upbringing. But, you know, you see all these beautiful signs and these traditions and all these beautiful ceremonies, but you don't realize that they're a visible sign pointing to a higher reality. And one day, my faith came alive. It just came alive. And I just wanted to - you know, I've always had passion. And it always came out musically. It was one of the gifts that God gave me to express it.
And so I always - instead of moaning and groaning and being in my concerns - you know, look what these people are - look what that - I like to be influential, effect change, at least through music, like a song like "Abraham, Martin and John" - just to have people think about things where they could ask themselves the right questions.
If you don't ask yourself the right questions, you're going to get stuck. So music is a wonderful tool to stir up some change in people's thinking. So writing some of this material, for me, was just - like, I wrote a song called - (playing guitar). Remember that story I told you about Father Joe?
DIMUCCI: He said, when you stand up for truth - well, I wrote this song. I saw the verse in Scripture. It said, the truth will set you free. So I wrote this song.
I'll do a verse.
DIMUCCI: (Singing) Down the dirty city streets with blacktop sneakers on my feet, I race through early teenage years and dealt with all those nameless fears. Waiting as the school bell rang to drop my books and join the gang in alley fights and stickball games - we're passing girls, wore dirty names. Over my shoulder and back through the years, I can see my father's eyes in my memory, telling me Jesus died upon the cross - always won and nothing lost. And, son, the truth will set you free. Yeah, the truth will set you free. You know I turned my collar. I combed my hair. My high school friends were all there. When two dimes made my pockets ring, I was a wealthy New York king. Being cool by the candy store, I knew my world yet wanted more. My high-school colors of black and blue - they would disturb my point of view.
GROSS: That sounded really great. Do you still perform that? Do you do any of your gospel songs at concerts now?
DIMUCCI: I just kind of do Dion music, you know? One year, I'll go out and maybe do two do gospel songs. Some years I go out - I don't know. I just put shows together.
GROSS: That was Dion, recorded in 2000. His 1965 folk-rock album "Dion - Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965" has just been released for the first time. Coming up, John Powers reviews "The End Of Eddy," an autobiographical novel about growing up poor and gay in a French village which has become an international best-seller. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large John Powers has a review of an autobiographical novel about growing up poor and gay in a northern French village. When the book "The End Of Eddy" was published in France in 2014, it made its 21-year-old author Edouard Louis a cultural star.
"The End Of Eddy" became a big best-seller and was translated into 20 languages. The English version has just been released here, and John says that the novel is as relevant in America as it is in its home country.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since the twin surprises of Brexit and Donald Trump's election, the Western media has been obsessed with what's going on in the minds of rural and working-class people. In America, this has made a star of JD Vance, whose book "Hillbilly Elegy" is treated as a kind of Rosetta Stone to the psyche of forgotten America. In France, a similar role has been played by Edouard Louis, a 24-year-old literary sensation.
During the recent election in which Emmanuel Macron defeated the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, his autobiographical novel "The End Of Eddy" was seen as a bulletin from the enraged heart of Le Pen country. Yet, Louie's account of growing up gay and poor in a working class village isn't a story only about France. Just released in a highly readable translation by Michael Lucey, this painfully insightful tale of entrapment and escape could have easily been set in Michigan or West Virginia.
When we first meet Eddy Bellegueule, he's being beaten up at school. It's clear to everyone, especially him that he doesn't fit in. Secretly attracted to boys with whom he has sex at a startlingly young age, Eddy's born with mannerisms - a shrieky voice, waving hands, a sway-hipped walk that get him identified as gay, although, naturally, nobody calls him anything so gentle as gay. Things are no easier at home where his family struggles to make ends meet in their cramped house with concrete floors. His mother, who had her first child at 17, lives in a permanent state of rage punctuated by puffs of cigarette smoke.
His father is a violent hard-drinking factory worker who suffers vicious back pains from his job and eventually gets laid off. Both are disturbed by his son so unmanly that he doesn't even like soccer. As Eddy widley puts it, they treat his obvious gayness as if it was some weird art project that he does just to annoy them. While Eddy's parents are both vivid characters, Louis has a great ear for their patois. What makes the novel special is the way it expands outward. Louis shows how his parents' values have been shaped by a profound sense of powerlessness shared with their neighbors in the village of Hallencourt, a blue-collar community bleak with unemployment, alcoholism, violence, racism and a deadening sense that life goes nowhere.
Hallencourt is the kind of place where the high school has the same architecture as the local factory because you're supposed to go straight from one to the other. When Eddy's sister dreams of studying to be a midwife, everyone makes her feel that this is too grand for someone like her, better off to be a cashier. As prisoners of economic forces they don't understand and can't control, the locals learn to take pride in toughing out miserable circumstances, and they loathe the style of the political and economic elite. When Eddy uses the term have dinner, instead of his father's inevitable chow down, he's mocked for pretending to be part of a higher social class.
In most classic novels about poor boys rising beyond their beginnings, the road to freedom is paved by a love of books. Now, Eddy is bookish by his family standards. He writes with artful precision about everything from his floundering attempts to de-gay himself by dating girls to the way the village guys' wearing of earnest tracksuits brands them as lower class. Ironically, what helps Eddy escape is the very thing that gets him abused, his gayness. Where the men around him including his older brother affirm their dignity by honoring a tough guy image of masculinity with its drinking, fighting, porn watching and physical labor, Eddy is immune to that image's allure.
There's an abyss between the name Eddy chosen by his dad because it sounds tough and who he actually is. He needs to get away, and eventually he does. I won't say how, but "The End Of Eddy" ends with the beginning of a journey, one that will lead him to change his name from Eddy Bellegueule to the classier Edouard Louis. He will study in Paris, edit a scholarly book about sociology and appear on the French talk shows where he will explain how even though he was treated cruelly, his parents and the villagers aren't intrinsically cruel. Instead, like so many people who feel abused by our globalized world, they were merely passing the abuse along.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "The End Of Eddy" by Edouard Louis. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Senator Al Franken. He's written a new memoir that explains how he went from his work on "Saturday Night Live" to his work in politics and how after years of learning how to be funny, he had to learn how not to be. I hope you'll join us.
I want to correct an error I made last Thursday in the first broadcast of our show, when re-introducing my guest New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg, we were talking about the investigations into General Michael Flynn who was an adviser on the Trump campaign and became president Trump's first national security adviser. I said that Trump knew when he appointed Flynn that Flynn had failed to register as a paid lobbyist for Turkey and had covered up his calls with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. What I should have said was members of Trump's team knew weeks before the inauguration that Flynn was under investigation for not disclosing his work for Turkey. It's unclear exactly when Trump found out about the Russia calls, but we do know that White House counsel Don McGahn was informed about them a few days after the inauguration.
FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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