Saturday, July 3, 2010


Why is it that when a worthless starlet overdoses on drugs or some namby-pamby pretty boy gets caught in a compromising position we hear about it on every news network and supermarket tabloid and yet when a true maestro of his or her craft dies the press is often relatively silent?  I didn't know about the death of Ronnie James Dio until a couple of days ago, well over a month later.  He died from stomach cancer at the age of 67 on May 16 in a Houston hospital.  Despite his diminutive stature, he was a giant in the world of heavy metal and hard rock.  Nobody sang like him, though many a long-haired frontman emulated his powerful, operatic vocal style.  I first came across Dio in the early 1980s when he replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath.  I caught a live performance of the title track from the album Heaven and Hell on some paid TV channel.  I was taken aback by Dio's stage persona and above all his powerhouse voice.  Who is this guy with his laced vest, peculiarly handsome face, dramatic gesticulations, and deep conviction in every word?  He sang the song with such intensity and had, perhaps strangely, an ethereal quality too.  Clearly, Ozzy has one of the best hard rock voices of all time, don't get me wrong.  But I'll take Dio over him any day, and especially Dio's Black Sabbath over Ozzy's.

I was just starting to cut my teeth on heavy metal and hard-driving rock in the early Eighties, though I didn't consider myself a "metal head" or "head banger."  I eventually found my first love in progressive rock à la Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Yes, Rush and the like.  But I've always loved Dio.  After becoming acquainted with his tenure in Black Sabbath, the classic Dio/Black Sabbath albums Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules at any rate, I listened to his work in the late Seventies with Rainbow, a rock band formed by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.  He's mostly known, however, for his own work in the mid and late eighties with his band Dio.  What a career!  I don't know anyone who's continued on in this genre so strongly into his late sixties!  He had a knack for melody and an interest in medieval and Renaissance lore.  Let me name just a few rock anthems that he wrote or co-wrote: Man on the Silver Mountain, Stargazer, Heaven and Hell, Neon Knights, Lady Evil, Holy Diver, Mystery, Rainbow in the Dark, The Last in Line.  As the titles suggest, there was a spiritual quality to Dio's compositions, even if they perhaps lacked in sophistication.  But suffice to say he was not the typical dumbass rocker writing trite songs about sex and drugs.

An Italian-American with a working-class background, Dio, or Padavona, the name he was born with, was the type of musician who earned his way to the top through hard work and consummate showmanship.  While his songs often explored the blurred borders of good and evil and he was sometimes thrown into the "demonic rock" category, I always got the sense that Dio, probably an agnostic in his heart of heart whatever his earlier interest in the occult, never strayed far from his Catholic upbringing.  Moreover, ever the only child of working-class immigrants, he was continually paying his dues—always on the road and promoting both new and old material.  My viewing of various interviews on YouTube helped me appreciate his sober, nose-to-the-grindstone attitude.  He was one of those rockers who didn't let drugs and the excess of rock divert him from songcraft and a passion for music.  You can see this attribute clearly when he speaks.  While he wasn't beyond some of the petty squabbles that can develop between bands and band members, I appreciated his sense of humor and a refreshing, self-effacing ability to poke fun at his metal persona.  Witness for example his appearance in the 2006 comedy Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny.

The music, however, he took quite seriously, and, at least as far as rock goes, it will stand the test of time.  Usually the main attraction of a metal show is the guitarist, and Dio played with some great guitarists, most notably Ritchie Blackmore.  Great metal drummers attract a lot of attention among males too.  But as far as Ronnie James Dio goes, the singer is the main draw; your eyes tend to fixate on this small man's commanding presence.  If you watch one of his live performances, you see a man giving you everything he's got, concerned that the folk get their money's worth, reaching out both emotionally and literally to the audience.  And to his credit he never prostituted his image for profit like, say, Ozzy or Gene Simmons, even though he could have.  He was committed to his craft, not the hype that can come with it.  He always expressed an affection and appreciation for his fans.  In short, he was a Mensch, a class act, equally beloved in Europe (perhaps more so) and in the States.  I was saddened to hear of his passing, as his music inevitably brings me back to those halcyon days of my teens. A metal god has died. Long live Rock 'n Roll. Let us salute him with the devil's horn sign that he made into a cultural icon.  He'll be missed.

As a postscript, I suggest you sample his talent.  Fans of his music know what I'm talking about when I suggest that one note in the song The Last in Line gives you the quintessential Dio.  After the mellow beginning, Dio belts out the word "home" with such power and as a way of switching the tune into overdrive.  I've heard him reproduce this power live; in fact, I'm hard pressed to find a live performance on YouTube in which Dio does not deliver.  For those of you less inclined toward metal, check out Dio's spirited, high-range vocals on the song "Love is All," from The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast, a 1974 album put together by Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover.  You can find it on YouTube.