Blues with friends, life with God: A conversation with Dion and Mike Aquilina

“Without God,” says the legendary singer and songwriter Dion DiMucci, “I’d probably be drinking and drugging, sounding husky – I probably wouldn’t even be alive.”

October 13, 2020 Paul Senz FeaturesInterview 1Print

Detail from the cover of “Blues with Friends” by Dion (KTBA Records)

Dion DiMucci’s music is the soundtrack of the 1950s. Hits such as “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “I Wonder Why” form part of the fabric of that decade in the popular imagination. In the 1960s, his ballad “Abraham, Martin & John” lamented the assassination of several important figures in American history. Since that time, he has returned to his roots as a blues musician – and had a profound conversion of life, including entering the Catholic Church. (He has even appeared on EWTN’s The Journey Home and The World Over to talk about his faith.)

Dion’s latest album, Blues With Friends, has spent months on the Billboard “Blues Album” charts, much of that time in the #1 slot. Featuring guest appearances by such rock legends as Jeff Beck, Paul Simon, Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top), Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and more, the album is another triumph from the man whose career began with Dion and the Belmonts, and has lasted another 60 years beyond – and counting.

After his conversion to Catholicism, Dion met Catholic author Mike Aquilina while on pilgrimage in Rome. They soon began writing music together, and have co-written three albums, as well as the book Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth. Their latest effort is Blues With Friends.

Dion and Aquilina both spoke with Catholic World Report recently regarding their newest album, their writing partnership, and the way in which their faith informs and influences their music in an industry that typically does not openly embrace faith.

DION DIMUCCI

Catholic World Report: Let’s talk about your Catholic faith, and how that influences your music.

Dion DiMucci: Well, my Catholic faith influences everything. That’s at the center of my being, of my mind. If you would unzip my mind and look inside my brain, you’d find a very orderly place, and that’s because of having a personal relationship with God. I came into a 12-step spiritual program 52 years ago and it was gleaned from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Disciplines. It’s designed to lead you into union with God. And that’s a very peaceful place! A place of wisdom, a place of power, of serenity; it’s home. I’m home, and I’m not living in a chaotic world, because I’m living in God’s presence – or trying to, a day at a time.

That influences everything. It frees you up to write about beauty, and truth, and goodness, and relationships. I think it helps you be creative. I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “At your age, you sound like a young guy! Your voice is incredibly vital.” That’s God. Without God I’d probably be drinking and drugging, sounding husky – I probably wouldn’t even be alive. If he wasn’t the center, I think I’d be in trouble in some way. I think I’d be living in a chaotic state. I’d probably be grasping for position and power and money and pleasure and honor, fighting everybody, trying to be better, trying to win, all of that. Instead of just being content in all things.

CWR: Would you say your Catholic faith, or a broader faith, has influenced your music all along? Even early on, with Dion and the Belmonts, did your faith affect the music you were putting out then?

Dion: Well, I wrote a song when I was sixteen called “Born to Cry.” In the last verse it says, “I know someday and maybe soon, the master will call. And when he does, I’ll tell you, friends, I won’t cry at all. But until it happens, I’ll sail with the tide, and I’ll know I was born to cry.” Here I am talking about God, and some kind of relationship, but at that time I’m not conscious of God from a hole in the wall. I wasn’t conscious of it, but I think God was with me all along – I just wasn’t aware of it.

My parents weren’t religious at all. But Mt. Carmel Catholic Church was the hub of Little Italy in the Bronx. That washes over you, and has an effect in some way. Maybe I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but it has an effect.

I was taking drugs at a very early age. I started taking drugs because I really didn’t know how to rest in God’s love or power – I really didn’t know. I don’t know if no one told me, or I just didn’t receive it. But I used drugs for about 14 years – from the age of 14 to 28, and it got worse and worse. And in 1968, Frankie Lymon, a friend of mine, died of an overdose, and it just shook me into my senses, shook me to my core. I got on my knees and said a prayer, and I haven’t had a drug or a drink since. It’s been about 52 years. I became aware of God’s power before I became aware of his reality. That night when I said the prayer (“Help me – I don’t know what I’m doing, and if you’re real I need your help, I want to be close to you”) God removed the obsession with drink and drugs.

CWR: That must make you wonder sometimes, the way that God can work in our lives, chipping away at the hardness of our hearts or at the ignorance of him. There was this tragedy where Frankie Lymon died, and it changed you; or how you almost got on the plane with Buddy Holly and the rest, but something happened to prevent you from getting on. God has a plan for you. Does that ever come into your mind?

Dion: It must be that God has a plan for me. And he’s revealing it a day at a time, you know? All I know is I have three beautiful daughters, and I’m grateful I was spared. I miss those guys, they were great friends and musicians, writers, singers, performers, brothers. They were great men. I learned a lot from them on a lot of different levels. And I think, in a way, a lot of the stuff I learned from them I’m trying to carry forward.

CWR: Can you briefly recount how you and Mike Aquilina got to know each other, and how you came to write songs together?

Dion: We found ourselves in Rome together, in 2000. We were on the bus, and we stopped and there was a statue of St. Jerome. I remembered a quote that I read in the back of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in the Bronx that said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” and that’s St. Jerome. So I said that to Mike, and he says to me “The Thunderer!” I said “’The Thunderer’? What’s that?” And he said, “Well, St. Jerome – he gave ‘ignorance of Scripture’ new meaning. He was from what we now call Croatia, the brightest of the bright, so he was sent to Rome. The pope saw how bright he was and had him translate the Bible from Greek to Latin – the Vulgate. And he was an intolerant guy – he didn’t like Italian women and Greek women, the way they combed their hair, the way they did their eye makeup. People got on his nerves.” I said, “People got on his nerves? How could he be a saint?” He said, “Well, it takes all kinds to make it to heaven. He had great qualities. He moved to Israel; he made friends with a rabbi, and he learned how to speak Hebrew, and he translated the Bible again, from Hebrew to Latin! So he gives ‘ignorance of Scripture’ new meaning.” I said, “I’ve got to write a song about this guy!” And we ended up writing a song called “The Thunderer” about St. Jerome. That was the beginning, that’s how we met.

Oddly enough, a blues radio station played it, because I sang it on the Blues Cruise album, and St. Jerome’s High School in the Bronx adopted the song for their football team.

Mike and I have been together ever since. I found out he can sure put words together. I come up with a song, some lyrics, and he always takes it and we finish it off together.

CWR: Coming to your new album: in the liner notes, you talk about how the album’s genesis was in an interaction you had with Joe Bonamassa. How did the album come to fruition? How did you come to choose the “friends” on the album – Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, etc.?

Dion: Well, you’re right, Joe Bonamassa was the catalyst for the album. Mike and I had written all these songs. To be honest with you, Mike kept calling me saying “Hey, got any plans to record those songs? They’re real good, and keep running around my head!” I think this is the best batch of songs we ever put together. They’re memorable, they’re great stories, they’re worthy to be told.

I went in and cut all of the songs in three days. Bonamassa heard them at my house and said he wanted to play on “Blues Comin’ On”. And that was it. That really sparked something in me. It sparked the idea that I could cast characters, like each of these songs is a mini movie and I could cast a character to infuse their personality onto my song. It worked so well with Bonamassa, maybe it will work well with Billy Gibbons – and it did! So I sent one to Brian Setzer – and it did! So I decided to send one to Jeff Beck – and it worked again! When he said yes, that was the gold standard, because he has magic in his hands.

After that it was just like dominos, like riding a wave. It was crazy fun, because I never gave anybody an idea of what to play – I just gave them the song, a finished track, and they would just add their own thing to it. When these artists do something, it really puts a smile on your face.

CWR: One song in particular I want to ask about it is “Uptown Number 7.” You say in the liner notes the song is about striving in the spiritual life, facing temptations. Do you think it’s important to communicate spiritual truths through your music, or is it just the cherry on top when it happens?

Dion: If it happens, great. It’s a fire in my belly, but I can’t say that I feel I have to do it – it’s such a big part of me that it just spills over. I’m a born evangelist. I found that out early on – when I first heard Hank Williams, I became an evangelist for Hank Williams. I was in the Bronx! I told everybody what they were missing. Same with Jimmy Reeves. They couldn’t care less! But it’s just part of my nature.

Having had a spiritual awakening over 40 years ago, I said a prayer: “God, it would be nice to be closer to you,” and suddenly it’s like Jesus was standing before me, and I’ve never been the same. I’ve been sharing his love and that beauty and truth and goodness that I’ve found in him ever since. The fulfillment of all desire – I want to share that. With “Uptown Number 7,” it’s sort of a metaphor for growing in the spiritual life. And if you don’t have God in your life, you’re going to try to fill it with money and relationships and power and honor. You’re going to live in chaos, the self-driven life. It just led me to hell, not being in God’s presence, being in darkness. God needs to be the center of your life, because if anything else is, you’re going to be one miserable person. I don’t care what kind of smile you’ve got on your face; you’re not going to fool me.

That’s the way it is – I’ve tried it, I know.

CWR: In your “thank you” section in the liner notes, you mentioned John Sebastian and Joe Walsh. What sort of role did they play with this album, or were they just supportive friends in a more general sense?

Dion: Oh man, I’m so glad you mentioned them! They were so giving and supportive. Joe Walsh wanted to play on something, but after all the songs had already been done. John Sebastian wanted to do something for me. You know, I had to put their names down because they’re such good friends and so supportive. They were so generous and understanding. Just great guys. Nobody’s asked me that one before!

And you know how Mike is – he’s going to lie about everything, try to say that he did everything! He’s going to say he even sang the songs, but gave me credit! [laughs]

Mike Aquilina and Dion DiMucci (Image: Mike Aquilina)

MIKE AQUILINA

Catholic World Report: How did you first meet Dion, and how did you start collaborating on songwriting?

Mike Aquilina: Scott Hahn introduced us. We were all on pilgrimage in Rome. I had been listening to Dion all my life, so I brought along my 45 of “Abraham, Martin, and John” and asked him to sign it. I got to know him and his wife, Susan, pretty well on that trip, and we stayed in touch afterward. He lives not far from my brother, so we’d get together when I was down there, or when we were both in New York at the same time.

Some years later, when Servant Books approached Dion about writing his memoir, he asked if I’d work with him on it. When the book was all done, he called one day and left a message on my answering machine. He said, “’I read it in the Rolling Stone. I read it in the Rolling Stone.’ I want to sing that line in a song, and I want you to write that song.” I had never really written a song, but I knew he was throwing down a challenge. So that night I wrote up lyrics for a song with that title. And he loved it! So the next morning he called me with another idea. Pretty soon we had an album’s worth of material, and that album, Tank Full of Blues, came out in 2012. We’ve been working together since then, and we’ve done three albums: Tank Full of BluesNew York Is My Home (2016), and Blues with Friends (2020).

CWR: Dion told me that the idea for the album sort of started with Joe Bonamassa. How did you get brought in? Are you Dion’s standard songwriting partner at this point, or just on occasion?

Aquilina: We’ve been talking on the phone a few times a week since we met. We talk about everything — the Bible, theology, Italian food. When he gets a song idea, we work on it, somewhere between the Bible and the cannoli. In addition to the songs on those three albums, we have lots of other material that’s finished or still in process. We don’t have a schedule. Sometimes Dion will work on a song for many years before he has it where he wants it.

CWR: Did you have much songwriting experience, or other musical experience, before writing with Dion?

Aquilina: I was in a garage band during high school. We played a few gigs, and the other guys were actually pretty good. Some of them have continued playing professionally. I phased out, which was indeed right and just.

CWR: How does your faith play a part in your songwriting? These are not exactly hymns. Does your faith inform your songwriting?

Aquilina: Dion defines the blues as “the naked cry of the human heart longing for God,” and he compares them to the Psalms of lament. In the liner notes to “Blues with Friends,” Bob Dylan makes the good point that the blues assume the goodness of the law and the consequences of sin. There’s no corner of life that’s off-limits to art. It’s all in how you handle it. As Justin Martyr said in 150 A.D.: Everything that’s good is ours. Our songs aren’t hymns, but our faith informs our imagination, even when we’re talking about an addict hitting bottom, as we do in the song “Way Down.” Some of the songs have more explicitly Christian content, like “Song for Sam Cooke,” which tells a true story and deals with race and friendship.

CWR: You’ve written dozens of books, including collections of poetry. Do you approach poetry and songwriting differently than you do your other books?

Aquilina: For me, writing is writing. In one way or another, I’m trying to communicate something I believe is important. I did my degree in writing at Penn State, and my emphasis was poetry. The blues is a poetic form as challenging as the sonnet.

CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Aquilina: The friendship is primary, and we were friends long before we wrote music together. I love the man like a brother. A priest who’s a mutual friend of both of us once described Dion as the most thoughtful man he’d ever met. I won’t dispute that. The relationship makes it easy to make the music. And I’m learning the craft from one of the great masters. Dion was one of the leading lights of rock and roll’s first generation; he was one of the very early inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (same class as the Rolling Stones). It’s a pure grace to work with someone like that. And now our songs have been recorded by many of the artists I was listening to as a teenager: Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Jeff Beck … I keep expecting to wake up and find myself in my bedroom in my parents’ house, having dreamt of a collaboration like this.


About Paul Senz 70 ArticlesPaul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts i

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working4christtwo

I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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