Sometimes the great things we get from our efforts are more abstract and very different from what we expect. Sometimes what we think is inspiration is something else. And sometimes we inspire things that we aren’t even aware of. Back in the late ‘70’s, I had the opportunity to write songs with Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and legend in the truest sense, Dion DiMucci. However, something really fun and really great came out of it that had nothing to do with Dion or me.
A lyric of mine called “Midtown American Main Street Gang” got to Dion’s manager back in 1976, and he had sent it on to Dion. D apparently loved it and wanted to write with me. However, it was a year later when I was invited to Dion’s show at the Bottom Line in New York, to meet him. Even though this was a few years past his big hits like “Run Around Sue”, “The Wanderer”, and “Abraham, Martin, and John”, the frenzy in the small backstage was nearly impossible to negotiate at this welcome home show.
If you ever met the man, you know that everyone who ever did meet him feels like his best friend. Dion just makes you feel that way. He was “The Boss” before Bruce and has a very similar relationship with his fans. And if you are not fully familiar with him, along with being a major figure in Do Wop, Dion was a folkie, and a pop idol, a Contemporary Christian artist, and a blues aficionado. He was the original street guy in a leather jacket. Many of rock’s biggest acts consider him their inspiration. Add to that the enormous weight of being the most prominent survivor of “The Day the Music Died,” January 23, 1959. Dion was the only star who didn’t get a seat on the plane that took Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. If you research that event of 50 years ago, his name prominently graces the poster for the show that never happened that next day.
So here it was, I was being set up to write with this legend. However, that night backstage was so crazy, I couldn’t get near him. After waiting a year to get with him and after waiting around for an hour and a half, I went home a little empty. We never even had a chance to say “Hello.”
These are the times when you ask yourself why you put yourself through the highs and lows of trying to do something out of the ordinary. I told my friends for a week beforehand about this meeting… and now I’ll tell them tomorrow that it didn’t happen.
Another several months passed. I came back to the office from lunch one day, and the receptionist said, “You’ve gotten like seven calls from this guy named Dion in the last hour!” I knew instantly that he had put a melody to the lyric to “Midtown!”
I called and Dion was excited about the song and played it over the phone to me. He said, “Send me everything you got!” He was excited about the melody he was able to put to the lyric and really felt we had something special. I laughed and told him I wasn’t going to send everything I had or I’d be shipping him boxes of lyrics! But I did tell him that I had a song title that I thought was perfect for him and I would try to finish writing the lyric and send it to him. And that night I was inspired! I wrote my butt off and re-wrote until I finished a lyric called “(I Used To Be A) Brooklyn Dodger.” It was an allegory about growing up and leaving your teenaged life. Dion loved it and both songs ended up on his critically-acclaimed “Return of the Wander” album that was produced by Terry Cashman & Tommy West. Dion and I wrote a few more songs after that as well.
No the songs were never hits. “Midtown” actually was a single and charted for a few weeks, but never got into the Top 100. I think it did reach #1 in Birmingham, Alabama, of all unlikely places. And “Brooklyn Dodger” has had this strange, curious existence over the years. For one, Dion kept it in his show for many years… the only non-hit in a set filled with fan favorites. And every few weeks for the past 30 years, someone mentions the song to me. I once played in a golf tournament in Anderson, Indiana, and I met Carl Erskine, a pitcher for the old Brooklyn Dodgers. I sheepishly mentioned the song to him and he instantly reacted that he knew the song and loved it. It’s an odd experience for a song that really never had much exposure.
However, the strangest experience with the song came every time I happened to run into producer Terry Cashman. Here was the guy who actually produced the record in 1978. Terry loved baseball and was obsessed with the whole idea that I had written a song around a baseball theme. Whenever I saw him back in those days, that’s all he talked about to me. He would go on and on about it. How cool it was that I had written a song lyric about baseball. He just couldn’t get over it. He said he wished he had written a song like that. He just couldn’t get it out of his mind. And it was flattering, but I was hoping he might want to check out another one of my lyrics!
And then one day in 1981, Terry built a better mousetrap! Maybe inspiration comes in strange ways. He wrote “Talkin’ Baseball,” a song that will be played in some ballpark somewhere a hundred years from now. It’s a joyous celebration of the game.
Word has it that Terry was inspired by a photo of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider, and wrote that song. I am sure that is true. However, I know we threw him an inside curveball back in the ‘70’s that he never forgot, and he took that pitch and he hit it out of the ballpark!
(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)