Ronnie James Dio – R.I.P.

Ronnie James Dio, who died this morning after a bout with stomach cancer, was revered in the metal world while also representing, to many outside of it, the typical heavy metal cliche. The man who claimed to bring the devil horn symbol to metal (the raising of the forefinger and pinky in salute was something, he said, he picked up from his Italian grandmother) dressed in theatrical black velvet and leather, and tackled lyrics strewn with tales of devils, dragons, and rainbows with the same sincerity Barack Obama has when addressing the oil spill in the Gulf.

But to those of us who reveled in the excitement of a Ronnie James Dio song or performance, it was exactly this earnestness, careening madly and purposefully through an ironic world, that made the man so special. Dio’s music was often melodrama, but it was always in the service of optimism and joy.

While much of Dio’s music was special to me, a standout will always be the first song on his first album with Black Sabbath, “Neon Knights.” Alongside a defiantly simple but propellant statement via riff from Tony Iommi, a bold first step in the Sabs’ post-Ozzy existence, Ronnie easily matched his new band members’ kinetic metal energy and bombast while blending it seamlessly with the bright power of his own musical legacy to date.

Hardly in search of conventional narratives, Dio’s otherworldly poetry nonetheless did what any great creative fantasy should do, in that like these lines from “Neon Knights,” it enveloped the listener in another world.

Circles and rings, dragons and kings/Weaving a charm and a spell/Blessed by the night, holy and bright/Called by the toll of the bell/Bloodied angels fast descending/Moving on a never-bending light/Phantom figures free forever/Out of shadows, shining ever-bright.

Dio’s music was not always about the creation of stories (although it was sometimes that as well), but about the weaving of just these sorts of dreamscapes – sparkling and mystical raw settings onto which readers could implant their own detailed visions of his world.

I had the privilege of interviewing Ronnie James Dio twice – in 2000, and again in 2007. During our 2000 conversation, for his Magica album, we discussed how in his later days with Sabbath his lyrics had briefly shied away from fantasy, but that his fans clearly preferred his more natural lyrical inclinations. Then, Ronnie gave me some of this thoughts on the nature of death and the afterlife (or lack thereof).

…for Dio, who’s latest album, Magica, tells of a fantasy world where, as in much of his writing over the years, good battles evil, writing about reality left both him and his fans unsatisfied. “I’ve done things that haven’t struck fantasy at all,” recalls Dio, “that were much more socially realistic. I got very angry at the world around me, and felt I couldn’t speak in terms of dreams. I spoke about how if one doesn’t have a goal, then life’s pretty well non-existent. Looking around me, I got so angry at the injustices, especially for young people – no employment, drugs running rampant, disease everywhere, over-population, especially the AIDS situation, and it got me angry that nothing was being done about it and people were dropping like flies.”

But Dio found that addressing life’s everyday problems was the last thing his fans wanted from him. “I kept hearing from Dio fans that they loved the way I write, and wished I would go back to writing the way I did before. They said it gave them hope, it gave them a chance to think, so I changed, and wrote Magica. It was a reason to revert to writing the way I had.”

Dio describes Magica as “a morality play – good vs. evil,” saying that its “what life is all about.” Dio thinks of life in these absolute terms.

“There is good and there is evil,” he explains, “and in my belief it resides in each human being. I’m not a believer in an underworld, or an overworld, although I use those analogies as many writers do, because we don’t really know if there is or there isn’t. Death is the only time we’re going to find that out. So in my belief there is no heaven, there is no hell, it’s here on earth. That’s what this is all about.”

(Photo by fürschtua)