I was about as cold as I’d ever been. The Midwest was in the midst of a bitter winter in February, 1959. The wind was punishing, trees were freezing up and snapping, and the little yellow school bus I was riding in with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had been breaking down.
After our “Winter Dance Party Tour” appearance in Duluth, Minnesota, our bus broke down again. Buddy had had enough. He talked the club manager into chartering a plane to fly the headliners to our next show in Fargo, North Dakota, and tried to recruit us to get on board.
— By Dion DiMucci, Envoy Magazine, 1999 —
The more people on the plane, he told us, the lower the cost per person. The Big Bopper agreed, as did Ritchie, who had a bad case of the flu. When Buddy came to me, I thought about the $36.00 price. My parents paid $36.00 a month for rent back in the Bronx. I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the same amount on a 45 minute plane ride, so I told him no.
The next day, I stood in the lobby of the hotel in Moorehead, Minnesota. There was a television on the wall, announcing that the plane carrying Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper had gone down in the storm. There were no survivors.
From that moment on, I knew God had a plan for me.
I was born and raised in Bronx, New York City. Mount Carmel Catholic Church, which was the hub of our neighborhood, is where I was baptized and confirmed. Though my parents have many wonderful qualities, I came from a highly dysfunctional family that wasn’t too interested in religion and found the Church unnecessary.
Frances, my mom, has never had a day in her life when she isn’t worrying about something, looking out for someone or taking charge somewhere. She was born to bear responsibility, and the heavier it got, the more long-suffering she got. In most important ways, she held the family together, sewing hats and making ends meet at home.
My dad, on the other hand, was always somewhere else making puppets or down at the local gym lifting weights. My parents would constantly argue about our money shortage, and the need for my father to get a job. Mom would chew him out in front of the family with my uncles helping, and it was her feelings towards him, more than anything I guess, that made me lose respect for my old man. What was there to look up to, I thought, when he lets her treat him that way? In this macho Italian neighborhood, the code of the street was respect, and reputation was everything.
In this environment, Catholicism seemed suited for old women and sissies. Real men didn’t need it. It looked to me, as a kid, like the world was divided into things that were my size and things that were way over my head. God was a million miles away in Mount Carmel church, somewhere up above those stained glass windows
. The priests and nuns could give you the fear of God, all right, and the guilt that came from not following the rules, but they couldn’t breathe life into the words and rituals. Still, I remember going to Mass occasionally with friends or relatives on those cold, snowy Christmas nights when our parish seemed to be overflowing with everyone in the Bronx. The choir voices, singing, flickering candles, ringing chimes, the church organ bellowing sounds from the third tier — all this filled me with awe. I guess somewhere in me, the music, the worship, the sense of reverence struck a chord that said there was Someone great up above who cared and we were nestled in His unconditional, loving arms.
At the age of twelve, my uncle purchased a secondhand guitar as a gift for me. I was soon caught up in the music of Hank Williams and some rhythm and blues, which was odd for a city boy in the 1950s. Hank Williams knew what it was like to have folks in the palm of his hand simply through the sound of his voice. It was something I was learning too.
At the age of thirteen, in those vulnerable years when a boy starts making the transition to manhood, the call of the streets, the gangs, being cool and running my own life seemed the way to go. With music, I felt part of something. I felt connected. By the time I was a teenager, I was beginning to realize the limits that were put on me by my family and the neighborhood. After a while, I lost that sense of belonging that carried me through my childhood. Without even realizing it, I started looking for a way out.
Music offered that way. Maybe it could rescue me — maybe my whole family, too. By 15, I was a rebel. Then I met Susan, the most beautiful girl in the world. She’d moved to the Bronx from Vermont. I had no idea they grew anything as gorgeous as Susan up there. She had a clean, country air about her that followed her down the street.
I fell head over heels in love. I approached her like I approached everything else in my life: with a mixture of sheer bravado and quaking fear. I wanted her to love me back, even just a little. But more than that, I wanted her to look up to me, and admiration was something I thought I knew how to get. So I sang. I used to play school dances at the parish hall, where Susan would come to hang out. In doing that, I hoped to catch her attention. . . . (continue reading)