Ronnie James Dio: A Remembrance

I’m sure I’m not alone among the thousands of weird, longhaired kids who came of age in the early-mid 1980’s in finding myself peculiarly stunned and unbalanced by the recent death of Ronnie James Dio. Thought he was infallibly one of the most generous and down to earth rock stars ever to hold the title, he also seemed somehow beyond the simple vagaries of everyday life, not unlike one of the immortal, ancient deities that often thundered and raged through the lyrics of his songs. The fact that he is no longer with us seems not just sad, but somehow, cosmically wrong.
I remember clearly the first time I heard The Voice. I had just turned 11, and the album was “Mob Rules,” Ronnie’s sophomore disc with metal pioneers Black Sabbath, who were enjoying a brief renaissance in the wake of Ozzy Osbourne’s departure. After sneaking the newly purchased vinyl into my parent’s home, I spent the better part of an hour just staring at the cover. This was during the era when album art was considered a vital link to the music it housed, and “Mob Rules” was one of the most striking works of the time: a grim tableaux of hooded, semi-human monk-like creatures guarding a blood-caked torture rack draped with what can only be described as a kind of satanic Shroud of Turin; the bands name and album title written out graffiti style on a filthy brick wall stand out in bold relief against the burnt copper and polluted yellow tones of the scene below.
As arresting as the album cover was, the music inside was its equal in every way: dark, aggressive and brimming with ancient evil, it was the kind of music that only a very young man could fully appreciate. But what was truly different about this album was the banshee wail and righteous wrath poured forth by the vocalist, a tiny little fellow who I had never even heard of before; this definitely wasn’t Ozzy. What it was was damn exciting. This guy possessed, and possessed is the correct word, an almost punk rock sense of momentum and confidence, married with the type of range and power rarely heard outside of Italian opera. This motherfucker meant it man, and he was going to ram it right down your throat if he had to. To my nearly teenaged self it was an almost perfect combination.
By the time I turned 13, Dio’s Sabbath years were behind him and his first solo album, “Holy Diver” proved that the man didn’t need to ride anyone’s coattails to achieve greatness. One of the defining works of eighties metal, Dio’s performance throughout is simply without peer. From the staccato force of the stunning title track, through the melodic burst of “Caught in the Middle” and the acoustic laced”Don’t Talk to Strangers”  the album offers a unified vision of sound and subject that vaults free of the usual dull metal cliches. Any true music fan should give this album, as well its follow up “The last in Line,” a chance. Rock music of any genre has rarely been executed with the conviction or invention on display here. And the album cover, well, it’s a thing of evil beauty indeed. Look it up if you need convincing.
I remained a die hard fan up through 1987’s “Dream Evil” after which, as teenagers often will, I turned my ears and passions to other sounds. Frankly Ronnie and the boys had started to seem a little passe by that time; it happens to the best of them I suppose. Still, I never lost my admiration for those early albums and as the years went by, I watched with appreciation as the old master continued to tour and create music, with nary a nod to current fads or critical indifference.
Recently, a reunion with his old Sabbath mates under the moniker Heaven and Hell had offered a promising return to form and anticipation for the subsequent tour had been high among both longtime fans and newcomers to his storied discography. Maybe that’s one reason I was so unprepared for his passing; it seemed like he was just getting his second wind, battling through a lengthly illness that couldn’t possibly keep down someone so determined, so blessed with a gift that needed to be shared while he was still physically able to stalk a concert stage.
But mainly, I believe, it just comes down to that voice. Even through the harsh static grind of the cheap speakers and pubescent dream state I first experienced it through,  I knew even then that voice was deathless.
Listening to those albums now, as well as his earlier work with Rainbow and Sabbath, I hear textures and nuances I never heard then: subtle blues shadings, little rhythmic tricks and melodic slurs that push the song at exactly the points where it needs pushing, creating a sense of power and momentum in even the most doom-filled dirges. This was no mere howler or Robert-Plant clone; this was a master craftsman in full control of his instrument. Like a feral animal that’s managed to contain its wild gifts in a barely controlled space, one always has the feeling that voice could break it’s boundaries at any moment and go rampaging free of the song. It’s thrilling, dangerous in all the right ways.
Of course, that all this power emanated from a man who stood 5’4 on a good day and, on stage, dressed like a cross between a medieval sorcerer and a hobbit, only makes the legend even more fantastic. Add the fact that Dio lifted the single most recognizable symbol of heavy metal the planet wide, the devil horn salute, from his Italian grandmother and, well what can I say, the world has lost a true original the likes of which we shall never see again.
Immortal though his gifts may be, Dio himself was tremendously human. Pull up any Youtube interview with the man and bare witness to the graciousness and appreciation of a performer who never took his art, or his fans support, for granted. “I’ve been blessed to do what I love in life,” he said during one pre show chat in 2001, “and I never, ever forget how very different my life could have turned out. My fans have never let me down, and I do my best to never let them down.”
He never did. Rest in peace Ronnie.

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