No, it’s not a “perfect record,” far from it. There are kitschy lyrics, forgettable moments, skippable tracks. But in terms of the sober rhapsody any singular artist has set to vinyl, especially with the barebones arrangement of an acoustic guitar and their own melodic choreography, there are few who dare to climb so high, and fewer still who mount the staggering peak of Dion’s criminally overlooked 1970 LP. It is a record that walks off of its wax, sits beside you on the couch, places its hand on yours, looks you in the eyes, and promises in no uncertain terms: you are forgiven.
From the opening chords of Sit Down Old Friend, the slick slide of the steel strings through Dion’s skillful fingers, you can tell you’re in for a monumental listen. The album opens with a portrait of a saintly man, perhaps Jesus himself, handsome and tan, who was “cracking the seams / in conformity’s beams / with a message so old it was new.” The hero, like Jesus, is persecuted by people who misunderstand, or choose not to understand him. And this heavy, familiar narrative sets the tone for the 39 minutes that are to follow – prophetic, filled with a yearning for something divine and lost, nurturing the wounds bruised into each of us by the violence of the human heart.
The swelling anguish of the album is one that could have only come from someone who’s known the true depths of misery, and Dion is no stranger to suffering. At 18 years old, his musical career took off with doo wop group The Belmonts, who almost immediately found themselves topping Billboard charts with songs like “I Wonder Why,” and “No One Knows”. The youthful success took its toll, however, and by 1960, a heroin addiction that began in his teens found him hospitalized. Over the ten years that followed, Dion would part ways with the Belmonts, release nine solo LPs, and make an appearance on the cover of Sgt. Peppers, battling his addiction all the while. Then, at the end of the decade, a profound religious experience baptized him both sonically and spiritually.
The work to emerge from Dion’s second coming as a singer-songwriter, while shamefully ignored, shines side by side in canon among the Tim Buckley’s, Bonnie Raitt’s, and Cat Stevens’ of the world. Considering why this era of his output is so overlooked, one is forced to consider how in a way, it is untouchable. Even in writing this piece, I had to sit in silence more than I ever do. Listening to a verse, hitting pause, and just sitting with it, letting the waves of sound and sentiment wash over me. Every note tolls a deep bell in the heart, its reverberations spilling loneliness and heartache across the chest. Hurts long lost to time and the learned patterns of “growing up” coming up for air because it feels safe to do so in the disarming presence of Dion’s lilting voice. And with each crash of sorrow, the tender hand of mercy is following just behind, healing those old wounds with the cathartic power of the human gospel.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, it’s hard to imagine a song more perfect than “I Don’t Believe My Race Is Run.” The alternating bassline so masterfully crafted by Dion’s simple fingerpicking delivers an immediate flood of warmth and sorrow. A swan song to a lover he’s just not willing to let go of, no sentient being could bear to witness the thunderous agony of the refrain and not be Moved:
“You see baby that our plans have all gone up in smoke / you see it any longer now, leaving us as just a joke / but I FEEL now until the morning comes / I’m gonna sit right down and love you / I don’t believe my race is run.”
It’s unclear whether this profound devotion comes from a denial of what is already lost, or a refusal to surrender what he never had. And in fact it doesn’t matter. His words are the last stand in a fatal fight to salvage what is certainly dead but maybe, just maybe, could be revived, like a bloody battle with the sun to keep it from inevitably setting as twilight marches in.
Sit Down Old Friend, like any sacred text, is evergreen and consecrated – I will never tire of it. And though I only listen once in a blue moon, it’s out of respect for the work the record demands of its listener, work that ought to be performed with utmost attention and humility. You will read these words, and maybe they will steer you towards the beacon of Dion’s deliverance. But there are no words that could communicate the compassion, the absolution, and the qualified salvation offered by songs like “Let Go, Let God”:
“Baby baby / carry on like you think you should now / I’ve been down that road myself, it’s no damn good / I’d hand you something better if I only could.”
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Sit Down Old Friend before today, and maybe that’s part of what makes it so special. You can’t find it on Spotify, it’s not even mentioned on Dion’s wikipedia page. There’s always something mystical about that which is lost to time. And while I’m not here to advocate the mass appeal of the LP – again, this is not an easy-listening record, especially for the weak of heart – I am here to tell you that if you’re among the lucky ones to chance upon it, consider yourself blessed by the grace of some holy muse channeled with near-perfect revelation by the spirit of Dion DiMucci.
“Sit down, old friend / there’s something in my heart that I must tell you / in the end, even at the very end / there is nothing but love / nothing but love.”
– Stephanie Glass, April 2022