13 September 2005

dion - "your own backyard" (from 70's: from acoustic to the wall of sound, available for purchase here.)

in brief : the greatest song about drugs ever written.

there are days, and today is one of them, when i think that dion is the greatest singer who ever lived.

there are also days--many days, really, as it's the most played song on my ipod--when i absolutely need to hear "your own backyard," the happiest and most hopeful song i've ever heard. "you might find oil wells in your own back yard," he sings. out of context, it may seem preposterous; i know people who dismiss something like it's a wonderful life out-of-hand for its sentimentality, forgetting just how bleak things get for george bailey. dion's like that: most people probably think they know him and his music ("the wanderer," "runaround sue," &c.) better than they do, when the real tragedy, though he'd hardly agree, is that people know so little about that music. as w/ george, dion's happiness is hard-won, his heroin habit having cost him everything "near and dear to me," as the song goes, "namely my children and my wife." it's one of those stories you tell your friends; i used to have my own version. you begin telling your story, making it funnier than it is, a smile refusing to leave your face, as your listeners stare in disbelief. "wait, it gets better," you have to say. it's one of those situations that hindsight has made very funny.

indeed, dion begins the song w/ a laugh, a laugh whose sincerity is never in doubt. his singing on "your own backyard" is impossibly light, a frank denial of gravity; the backing track (acoustic guitar, melodic bass, piano fills), too, seems to know his secret. he casually inserts "woo"s and tosses off the most exquisite melisma. compare this to something like "ruby baby" or "abraham, martin & john" or "daddy rollin'"--hell, compare those songs to one another; that they're sung by the same individual is amazing. they explore different regions of his range, different styles, different settings, and yet they're all identifiably dion. focus not on the lines but the unscripted notes and words that ties those lines together and makes them into a song--it occurs to me that dion is the closest thing that rock & roll has come to a sinatra.

so, what was his secret? ah, on that point, at least, you'd be happier thinking you know him better than you actually you do. mid-song, dion sings, "i got a friend his name is ..." it honestly sounds like he's saying "richie rich," but the story behind this lyric is that, whatever he's singing, the person stands-in for pat robertson. yes, that pat robertson. (you may have noticed that God is mentioned often in the song; it's not a trope: dion is a devout christian.) say what you will about robertson, but he helped dion get off heroin, which led to this song being written in the first place, and, in dion's case, i think it's better to be born again than to fade away. but "your own backyard" isn't a religious hymn--only in the most secular meaning of those words--and the only thing he's trying to convert you to is a belief in hope. what works for him might not work for you, but something will, it's merely a matter of finding it. for me, often, it's this song. a temporary solution, yeah, but until the real thing comes along ...

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