Folk Focus: Dino Valente
By the time the kid made it into Greenwich Village he was, at 17, no longer a kid. He’d shorn himself of his given name, Chester Powers, Jr., and told people to call him Dino Valente. He’d just cut loose from his parents’ chosen rat race, the runways and tents of the carnival circuit, and he told people that he was a composer, a guitar-picker, a folk singer.
Just like all the other cats those days in the late Fifties in the Village.
But if Valente was just getting himself into another rut — this time of basement clubs that didn’t pay and of five-story walk-up crash pads — he didn’t know it. Even among the newly-huddled nonconformists, he brashly thought himself unique.
So he spent his first evening in East Village singing in the park; there were no vacancies at any of the coffeehouses strung along McDougal. Then just before two A.M., Dino Valente entered one of the houses, determined to make his Village stage debut. He located the owner from out of the smoke-blanketed, Feifferesque audience, pointed at his guitar and said, “I want to play.” The owner, Manny Ross, pointed to his wrist and said, “We’re closing.”
“Well, let me play ’til you close.”
Man, I was really jacked up,” Dino says, “and I went in there and started playing and didn’t get off ’til two o’clock the next afternoon.”
It’s a short distance between the no-or low-pay Village clubs, and before long, Dino Valente had hit them all, earning a reputation as the “underground Dylan” (underground because he remained unrecorded for such a stubbornly long time).
It’s a long distance from New York to San Francisco, with ten years and a jail term in between. But Dino hasn’t changed much. At the Human Be-in at Golden Gate Park in early 1967, he pranced around the polo field like the minstrel clown he’d been raised to be, singing, joking, blowing his flute and a few hundred minds.
Even now, famed for his composition “Get Together” and having released, finally, a first LP, he prefers to roam the underground circuit, playing small clubs and the rock ballrooms.
And even more than that, he likes to drift around San Francisco, Mill Valley, and Sausalito (where he keeps a newly-bought houseboat) with his two Great Danes, his buddies from the Quicksilver Messenger Service, and/or any of a vast stable of chicks.
“I like things to be going on,” he says. “I like trying, I like doing, flying, making, running, being, balling, ING-ing … not stop-dead and stagnated.”
Valente ends the assertion with a self-satisfied smile. Just showered, he’s lotus-positioned on a couch in a dark, low-ceilinged Mill Valley shack he’s dropped in on. Three young blondes hover over and around him, ready to serve their now-shirtless master at either a beck or a call.
They’re pretty; seen at an original-design dress shop moving from rack to rack in floor-length Renaissance-period gowns, they might be called “groovy.” This night, they’re running water for Dino’s shower, offering tea and pie for Dino’s pangs, and serving as a might-as-well-be-canned audience for Dino’s utterances.
For years now, it’s been this way. Valente may not be an Electric Star (although he was asked by David Crosby, in 1965, to be one of the first Byrds) with teenyboppers hanging all over his body. But, as his good friend Tom Donahue says, “Dino’s one of the few American singers around who have a real capacity to sing to chicks.” And his rep as a superballer is as widespread and rampant as his mostly-discarded past.
On stage in a small club, Valente can be overpowering. To accommodate his frequent and fierce headshakes, six or eight mikes flank him; and he peers out at the audience hazily, as if looking over a growth of steel weeds. He is not good-looking; his voice is smoky, and, finesse on the 12-stringer notwithstanding, his compositions are musically monotonous, his lyrics remarkably unremarkable. Always there’s that pained moan interrupting or punctuating a line, giving it a climactic clause; always that same beat, just draggy enough to allow a fluid guitar accompaniment.
The secret potion, for Valente, is a mixture of stance and communicative lyricism. He’s the counselor, the brother, the available lover. In “Something New,” he sings:
You tell me your guy doesn’t turn you on any more…
Here’s a tower straight and tall
Something to run to when you fall,
You don’t have to cry, babe…
As Donovan Leitch seems transfixed by crystals and sunshine, Valente seems similarly absorbed with natural phenomena. “My Friend” is an image-a-line:
Just like-a breath of morning
Purple magic dawning
Can you know the dreams I always will dream
Can you see me, my friend
Then come laughing,
Dancing to the song the wind sings
Barefoot girl of beads and paper rings
Fairytale things, my friend.
And if use of the second person pronoun is the cardinal rule of effective communication, Valente’s got it down pat. First lines establish the tone: “Listen to me, girl, and go find your mind,” or “You tell me, little one, that you can’t understand it,” or “Girl, when I hear you say forever…” It’s almost always a direct rap.
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