Ronnie James Dio (19?? – 2010): Rest In Metal

On Sunday, May 30th at 2 PM, a free public memorial will be held to honor Ronnie James Dio at the The Hall of Liberty, Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.  We hear the mutants of the Westboro Baptist Church, who routinely spew hate at military funerals and elsewhere with their "God Hates Fags" signs, will be in attendance to protest.  I'm not sure why they believe God's hate is so exclusive.  By forcing us to share breathing space with those morons, it's pretty obvious that God Hates Us All.  But enough of that digression.  Here are Professor Bunkum's eloquent yet drunken thought's on Dio's passing:  

Ronnie James Dio died on May 16th.  A lot has been written (and a lot more will be) with which we can’t compete.  We aren’t (good) musicians or industry insiders.   We can’t tell you what he was like in private.  We’re just people who heard his particular music at a particular time and it made us keep coming back, keep listening, keep buying what he was selling.  And that’s why his death doesn’t mean that much to me.  I didn’t know the guy.  If a friend died, I’d be bummed because now I've got a hole in my life.  But Dio?  He’s dead, and the songs he left behind sound just as good.   I’m listening to them right now.  Fucking AWESOME.  I could swear Ronnie is in the next room.

One thing totally missing from Dio’s work was snottiness.  There was no “fuck you” in his lyrics.  Normally I’d say that’s a bad thing, but not for Dio.  He recognized the universal struggles--good vs. evil, the individual vs. everyone else--and the powers you can't defeat.  Dragons, and kings and queens, like a rainbow in the dark.  The lonely kid caught in the middle of feuding parents.  The loner standing on the edge of the world.  “If your circle stays unbroken, you’re a lucky man.”   For Dio, life was tough, but you can’t deny it.  It’s just THERE.  There’s no alternative; you can’t turn away.  There’s dignity in the fight, in keepin on with the keepin on.

But beyond the big themes, the reason I liked Dio had everything to do with my adolescence.   It was right after Heaven & Hell came out, and metal was happening.  The drawings on the back of that LP depict a band of elders coming together to take everything that Sabbath had done before, supercharge it, inject some actual songcraft, fuck with the punks (“Neon Knights”), and show Iron Maiden and the other youngsters the future.  That was me, 1981.  Sabbath without Ozzy.  The title track, “Neon Knights,” “Lady Evil.”  There so much mystery there.  On Warner, but still no airplay.  This was a secret language.  It was OUR secret language.  And I doubt Warner understood what they had, or else they wouldn’t have let hair metal happen.   Later I came to realize that the playing, the mix, the clear vocals, the melody with the heaviness – that it was all genius, thoroughly modern, unlike anything before.  But at the time, it was just good.  I wanted to hear it over and over.  

There won’t be another Ronnie James Dio, just like there won’t be another Shakespeare.  Guys like that only happen when worlds collide.  In our case, it happened when blues, heavy rock, boogie, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Hawkwind’s "Silver Machine", Blue Cheer and Sabbath all fused together to become heavy metal.  Dio was a relative veteran at the time, but there was no “heavy metal” template for him to follow.  Dio wasn’t bluesy like David Coverdale.  He wasn’t a braniac banshee eccentric like Ian Gillan.  He wasn’t pulled in all the directions of Robert Plant.  He turned the studio project of “Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow” into “Rainbow.”  He then turned a dead-in-the-water Black Sabbath into something that outsold the first Ozzy record.  Dio was there when metal was invented because he, like Rob Halford, was one of the inventors, just doing what came natural, like any true innovator.

It’s no mistake that the Cliff Burton’s exhibit in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame displays his Heaven and Hell baseball jersey.  It’s no mistake that Henry Rollins confesses in American Hardcore that Black Flag toured to the first two Dio records with Sabbath.  It’s no mistake that in a radio interview just after Holy Diver came out, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm asked Greg Ginn “What are you listening to?”, Ginn said “Dio”, Arm inquired “What is that?”, and Ginn replied “It’s Italian for God.”  If you never saw him live, that’s your fault.  The guy was touring forever.  He’s was around so long, I was able to go through a 15 year “I’m too cool for Dio” stage and still manage to see him three times in the last seven years. Sometimes, when he was cranking through guitarists and telling every crowd “you’re the best crowd we ever had”, I’m pretty sure he was like every other rock star hack making a living on the road.  One thing Dio’s death means to me:  he won’t do another album as good as Heaven & Hell, Rainbow Rising or Holy Diver.  So that question is answered.   Right now, it’s just about the legacy and putting some bookends on his life.

Here are my Dio experiences ( send me yours… not really.  No, seriously, do not): 

  • 1983: Sacramento, Memorial Auditorium:  Holy Diver tour (Queensryche opening, when they were on the first EP and sounded like a killer Maiden cover band):  Awesome show (friend Mike was there).  First time I saw the whole “there’s a little white light looking down at me” rap.  To this day, I don’t know how Dio got away with going across America over and over again, and, every night, screaming “ I want to burn in Hell with all of you!” 
  • 1984:  Sacramento, Cal Expo (Whitesnake and Y&T opening):  “Last In Line” tour.  Another great show.   All my friends except me ended up making out with random girls in the crowd.  Got drunk and talked to guy who claimed to be in Blue Cheer. 
  • 200(?):  Saw Motorhead, Dio, Maiden in Long Beach with my sister.  Couple in front of us timed standing up and smoking weed to the opening of “Holy Diver.”  How lame is that? How beautiful?  Did they go home and fuck all night because he got promoted to manager at Kinko’s?  If they did, what is wrong with that?
  • 2008:   Monsters of Metal Tour.  Drank wine in the parking lot.  Got too drunk on slurpee margaritas in show; my friend Mike and my sister (again) were there to help.  Bought them some rockin Judas Priest wrist bands.  Saw some slutty 18 year olds tripping drunk in the parking lot, partying like it was 1985, when they weren’t even alive.  We’re talking girls who could be my children dressing like their moms when I could have made them my children.  Laid on my back on the lawn in the desert thinking about Kyuss while Sabbath played “Children of the Sea.”  People sang along.  Eerie and cool.
  • 2009:  Not even a year ago.  Saw Heaven and Hell at the Greek Theater. You can read about it here.  The sound was too quiet.  I wanted to drown in power chords like I did in my bedroom over 20 years before, and that wasn’t going to happen.  But when “Heaven and Hell" started up, the crowd started singing the chorus.  Here I was in the middle of a tree-lined neighborhood, deep in the City of Devils, sharing this classic groove with thousands of new friends, all of us captivated by a simple melody: “hmmm, hm—hmm, hmm / hmm, hm-hmm, HMM—HMM—HM—HMMMMM.”  I knew I was fucked.  Love it or hate it, these were my people.  We all loved these songs that were penned by a little guy hunched over on platform shoes and a dude playing a downtuned guitar with a missing finger.  From trailer parks to office cubicles to welfare lines to law firms to emergency rooms to the shores of Tripoli, we knew these songs and what they made us feel.  I was among my peers—not the peers that I chose, but the peers and the tribe that chose me.  And I wasn’t getting away anytime soon.  You can't escape your youth.  And you can't cheat death, no matter how good you are.  Sorry, no exceptions to the exit plan—see ya’ll eventually on the other side.  In the meantime, here’s to the authenticity, here’s to one Ronnie James Dio.  Devoid of irony and serious as fuck about what faces us all.  And he took all of us seriously.  Let’s return the favor and take this moment to treat ourselves like we deserve to be treated.