“One day, Ronnie won’t be there championing the common cause — a cause dear to his heart because it’s dear to yours. Experience it and enjoy it while you can.”
That was the first thing that came to mind when I read the news that Ronnie James Dio, born Ronald Padavona, lost his battle with cancer on the morning of Sunday May 16th, 2010.
The tributes poured in online and everywhere else, from artists working in the mainstream of heavy metal to the very edge of the genre. The grand spectrum of heavy metal music had now become a family once again.
One could argue, hell, MANY could argue, including me, that Dio never got his due from the rock community. It still burns me that the Rolling Stone Album Guide never gave any record of his more than 2 stars.
But who really needs them? Dio didn’t. Why should we?
Part of me is just glad that I got to see him in action, live, one time. That was back in August of 2008 on the Metal Masters Tour. None of the other three bands, Testament, Motorhead, and the headliners Judas Priest, disappointed me in the least. However, there was something special and particularly enchanting about Dio’s performance with Heaven and Hell, the reunion with his former Black Sabbath colleagues. The ensuing record, The Devil You Know, 2009’s most easily enjoyable metal album in my opinion, would be Ronnie James Dio’s swansong.
My first aural encounter with his work came when I was a sophomore in high school. I had decided that I was going to become a Black Sabbath completist and buy every Black Sabbath cassette tape I could afford, despite whether or not it was a worthy release or had Ozzy Osbourne on it.
The first post-Ozzy Sabbath album I ended up hearing was The Mob Rules. Back in the late 80’s-early 90’s, it was fashionable to dismiss any Black Sabbath recording that didn’t involve Ozzy Osbourne. In fact, by this time, it appeared that most had forgotten that Black Sabbath carried on, let alone excelled, after Ozzy’s departure.
Hearing The Mob Rules’ opening track that evening, a song called “Turn Up The Night” became one of my most fondly remembered personal experiences with music. I felt that spinal tingle a serious music fan gets when he or she hears a great song for the first time. Irresistible, groovy, stopping, starting, THOSE vocals roaring, dueling with Tony Iommi’s still innovative riffing, THOSE lyrics evoking the kind of myth and magic that only occurs when “neon kills the sun” as Ronnie would later put it in another song of his.
I have always resented those who think that Ronnie James Dio was a poor lyricist.
Dio’s lyrics were brilliantly arcane, darkly poetic, deeply heroic, and not without a social conscience. His songs were about far more than dragons, wizards, and swordplay.
Did you know that his Black Sabbath-era track “Children of the Sea” was about the environment? It could have been used in the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar.
“Invisible” was partially about a young man (listen to or read the second verse) who was queer and wished to be “invisible” so as to hide from an intolerant society.
As far as that cover to Holy Diver, the song’s parent album, goes, Dio once asked rhetorically of it, “How do you know it’s not a picture of a priest drowning a monster?” Dio always of course liked to explore, play with the ideas of good and evil. For Ronnie, it wasn’t just about good triumphing over evil, but also about what good and evil really are.
Who really is “evil or divine” as Dio would say in the lyrics to the title track of his second “solo” (Ronnie always saw DIO as an ensemble) effort? Is the demon good and the priest evil? Can it be that way? For those not in the know, flip over the “DIO” logo sometime. “Dio” in Italian, Ronnie’s nationality, means “God.” Far from feeling megalomanical, he named himself after the gangster Johnny Dio merely because he just thought it was a cool (subversive?) stage name.
Dio had an anti-war streak in him too. Here’s “The Man Who Would Be King”…
This is what Dio had to say about the song itself…
“As I wrote the song it began to sound like George Bush to me. We have soldiers dying in the Middle East for what I think is no apparent reason.”
He then went on to say…
“The only thing that will stop a war is the number of body bags lined up on the pier and the amount of mothers and father crying for them.”
That was from a man who was often ridiculed by the mainstream media.
What anarchist could find fault with this overtly anti-authoritarian anthem from his days with axe tyrant/primadonna Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow?
Or this stab at televangelists and their hypocrisy from his second Sabbath run?
More scorn, venom for organized religion for you…
Dio had something to say about losing our humanity to technology. From the same album…
“Onward all you CRYSTAL soldiers.” Get it? Genius.
How about the subject of losing our personal freedoms? Ronnie had a thorn in his heart about that as well…
What of this leaden slammer from The Devil You Know? Could it have been about torture?
Consider this brisk, fresh rocker from the aforementioned album. Were Wall Street bankers the target of Dio’s poison words?
It wasn’t until fairly recently that I found out about Dio’s early years, ones spent playing with old-time rock and roll groups such as The Prophets and The Vegas Kings. What a journey he had in retrospect. How did he abandon the rock for the steel?
I had always wanted to ask him if he knew that he was on the ground floor of something important and lasting considering that he was present at heavy metal’s genesis? I suppose that ship has sailed away much like the fools he wrote about here.
Listen to that first sixty seconds and try not to be moved. Is your heart heavy now? It should be.
Or how about this song?
I believe that track had something to do with Ronnie and his wife’s involvement with the organization Children of the Night…
And speaking of charities, who could forget Dio’s Hear ‘N Aid project, metal’s answer to USA For Africa?
Even if you’re not the type to look for sociopolitical commentary in your music, you have to own up to the fact that Dio had a knack for turning a clever lyric.
That lyric has always been particularly comforting to this Aquarian.
I’m merely reminiscing now. One who is a fan could do that for days, weeks, hours, years…
Dio was such an inspiring, unique, and valiant figure to me. People made his physical height an issue, but to me that was one reason why he was so inspiring, unique, and valiant. To see a man like him, especially as he became older and somewhat frail, sing with such righteous might and command the stage like he did could do nothing else BUT empower! Now I realize how fortunate I was to see him that night twelve summers back. I never wanted to admit this before, but way deep down, I had a feeling in the back of my mind that it would be the last time I would see Ronnie in person. It ended up being the only time. I recall Dio’s demeanor during the entire show. It was almost as if he was reassuring the crowd throughout the set, telling us “It’s ok, I’m still here” without actually saying it, defying his age with some sort of renewed vigor, doing things with his voice I had never heard him do before.
He had turned us all into children again, and Dio, ever and forever the magician, was entertaining us. We were Children. His Children. We always will be, won’t we?
Imagine being a teen during his 80’s glory years, that laser beam blade of his making your eyes saucer-wide.
What a golden treasure chest of a legacy he has left us with! From his groundbreaking years with Rainbow, arguably the premiere power metal band, to those magnificent Black Sabbath albums that for too long were ignored or underrated. If that wasn’t enough, and it could have been for any musician, there was that reinvention of himself as a solo artist of sorts and finally that supernatural regathering of elder gods called Heaven and Hell.
Dio once said something along the lines of “I’d like to end my career with Black Sabbath.” In a way, he got his wish when you think about it. It just wasn’t called Black Sabbath. It could have been. Perhaps it should or should not have been, and while it wasn’t exactly full circle (I don’t think any of us wanted another Ronnie And The Redcaps record), it was a “return” if you choose to see it that way.
We’re approaching a period in heavy metal that is unprecedented, one where our heroes and titans are continuing to press on beyond middle-age. It’s worrisome because you’re left wondering about who will carry torches. Who else will we lose next? Many are saying that Dio’s death was “the saddest day in metal history.”
Will even sadder days come?
I know it’s hard to think of it like this, but would Dio even want us to cry for him?
Take the lives of 20 people, and that’s Ronnie’s life. If it were a warehouse, it would be cited by the fire inspector for being stacked to the ceiling with artifacts, trophies, and mementos. There were no wasted moments, no scandals that I can recall. He remained loyal and married to his spouse/manager Wendy Dio for decades, something that is a rarity in entertainment these days, highly admirable, enviable even.
Dio was a man who by making his music and performing it for his many fans, in his own singular way, yanked people’s spirits up from whatever abyss they were stuck in. He was a musical guardian of the afflicted, the disaffected, but not in a way that wallowed in darkness, despair, and malignant rebellion. Dio’s way offered hope, hope that the knights would defeat the knaves, that there was no dark lord who could not be overcome, that there was no damsel that was beyond saving. There was a strong sense of morality to Dio’s music that at its most cynical merely lamented, at times angrily, the loss of virtue, and never glorified or submitted to vice or degradation.
And even if you don’t want to chip away at the layers all that much, it is still apparent that Dio was just a great writer of heavy metal songs, aided of course by an array of crack musicians. Listen to that chorus of “Caught In The Middle” or the hairtrigger “Overlove” or his Black Sabbath-era battle hymn “Neon Knights.”
There are myriad, exquisitely proud metal moments from Ronnie. I implore you to find them if you haven’t already.
I wasn’t truly spurred on to discover the music of Queen until Freddie Mercury died during my senior year of high school. Perhaps one good thing that can come from Ronnie James Dio’s passing is that more of today’s youth will know who Dio is and will discover HIS music, becoming lifelong fans as a result, always wondering what other gifts he would have brought us had he not been taken away by a gravely unjust disease.
And yes, Ronnie James Dio deserves to be put on that same plateau Freddie Mercury occupies. The word “legend” is bandied about so much that it has almost lost its meaning. Dio’s passing has only rejuvenated it, capitalized it.
If The Fates are fair, the heavy metal fans of tomorrow will have their own Ronnie James Dios. They deserve them. All those who love music deserve their legends, not those who burn out brightly and quickly in flames of self-abuse, but those who shine and shine for many years, regardless of how many people actually see their light.
That’s what Dio was to me: LIGHT. That’s what I’d like to think he has become: LIGHT.
I won’t say that I’ll miss Ronnie James Dio because he’s always going to be with us. 100 years from now, people will still be hearing his songs. His music will continue to give those that are put upon hope that whatever is weighing them down will evaporate.
Some futuristic 14 year old will hear “Turn Up The Night” for the first time like I did, getting those same goosebumps…
I’m suddenly “under your spell” again, Ronnie. We all are.
We, your fans, are your Children. We’ll always be, and there will only be more of us.
Whenever I hear “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” I always imagine a music video for it in my head, one where a pack of young people are sitting around a fire as Ronnie warns them, us, to stay clear of malevolent forces and to “protect our souls” as he places the mallochio, that hand gesture he popularized, over his heart.
I keep telling myself that Ronnie wouldn’t want us to weep for him. He seemed so brave. Even in the last video I ever saw of him, one where he talks about his tumor shrinking, he’s an unfailing optimist.
It makes his death seem all the more cruel.
On the other hand, legends never really die, do they? How else do they achieve immortality but to leave this plane?
Strange how that is, isn’t it?
I never get tired of saying this: Ronnie James Dio was as important to heavy metal as James Brown was to soul music. The afterlife must have needed another icon. James, Jimi, Freddy, Phil, Bon, and a crowd more all just wanted to meet him, hang out with him, share a beer and a doobie with him.
Long Live Rock and Roll. Long Live Heavy Metal’s Elven Wizard Of Melody.
Long Live Ronnie James Dio.
May his work stand for millennia. May our love and respect for him and his music stand for eternity.
Ronnie, you were an old friend that I never got to meet. Rest now. Goodbye.