Dion’s new album opens with a house-rocking version of Tom Waits’ “Heart of Saturday Night,” and Dion rings the bell twelve times: every note hits home. Fittingly, the title of this record implies something more than just another step on the endless comeback trail of the Fifties hero (the comeback that, by the nature of how rock & roll history is made, will always fall short): Return of the Wanderer means a return to form, not simply an escape from obscurity. Dion may never again define rock & roll, as he did in 1958 with “I Wonder Why” and in 1961 with “Runaround Sue,” but he can still make himself heard.
Like Bob Seger’s Night Moves, Return of the Wanderer is one man’s attempt to keep faith with his past without being trapped by it. Inevitably, there’s a good deal of sentimentality here. “I used to be a Brooklyn Dodger,” Dion sings of his punk days in the Bronx, “but I’m not a hitter anymore” — well, we know that claim is sentimental because on “Heart of Saturday Night,” Dion is a hitter. Sentiment, or self-pity, does bleed the life out of a few love songs, and out of Dion’s covers of Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic”: his attack is so vague, so fainthearted. we lose all sense that a singer is making a claim on our attention. The musicians hold back, where on that first cut they explode.
The centerpiece of Return of the Wanderer (“The Wanderer” was a Number Two hit for Dion in 1961; in his novel The Wanderers, Richard Price has an early Sixties New York teenage gang name themselves after the tune) is the stunning “Midtown American Main Street Gang,” a six-minute scenario of the days before Dion traded in his leather jacket for a mohair suit. “I feared the friends I ran with,” Dion begins, “but I loved to live the role.” The whole song is in the tension of that line.
Dion’s singing on the verses — which describe what he and four buddies tried to make of life in the mid-Fifties, and what life made of them (a forced marriage, the Army, prison, and for Dion, fame and heroin) — sounds distant at first, almost effete. But the rumble of the chorus is full of thrills, and it rescues the story and the song from cliché. What we hear is hard, brittle, transporting. Fighting the guitar and sax for space, the backup singers send out rough doo-wops (Do do do do doot — day oh!) that connect the song to the past without imitating it, Lords of Flatbush-style. It’s the best moment of the piece, until Dion tops it by cutting loose with the biggest, freest wails he’s hit since “Lovers Who Wander.”
Shooting for the movie version of The Wanderers begins in September. If director Phil Kaufman knows his stuff, “Midtown American Main Street Gang,” which dovetails almost exactly with Richard Price’s story, will be there on the soundtrack, right under the credits. But since you never can tell, you never should wait.