Let’s face it. Most rock stars are complete fuck-ups. Whether through drugs or irresponsible behavior or just being so catchpenny as to be largely dismissible, it is all the more astounding that there are music personalities who stay the course, avoid the perils, make a profound impact on the music world, and remain actual human beings in the process. Of the latter, there has been no better paragon than Ronnie James Dio.
My earliest memory of RJD wasn’t from Rainbow or Sabbath (I would discover that material later on) but from his solo act, simply known as Dio. It was 1984 and heavy metal reigned supreme, providing the genre with some incredibly defining albums including Metallica’s Ride The Lightning, Iron Maiden’s Powerslave, Judas Priest’s Defenders of the Faith, as well as one other: The Last In Line. Dio’s sophomore effort wasn’t just good, it was an instant metal classic and one that would be the soundtrack for much of my adolescence.
It would be my first viewing of the music video for the title track (and, soon after, his appearance on the King Biscuit Flower Hour syndicated radio program) that would mark my entry into RJD fandom. At the time and at that age, Dio’s anthemic musings on prideful alienation and self-direction were a big deal to me, through such tracks as “Rainbow In The Dark”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Children”, “Stand Up and Shout,” and of course, many others. It was a time when everything hadn’t been done to death and, in my opinion, an opportune era to be young and rebellious. And, a bit of a dork, too.
Although not quite of the Dungeons and Dragons coterie, I was that metal kid who was also really into computers. Now, that might not mean much now but, in 1984, such interests were more than looked down upon. If you liked computers in the 1980s, you were treated with the worst kind of social castigation. Much like being a metal kid of that time period. Safe to say that there were some odd parallels there, but they also fit rather well. (Further proof of metal/nerd cred: Every time I played the Radio Shack computer classic game, Sands of Egypt, it was a “tradition” of sorts to always play Dio’s “Egypt (The Chains Are On)” first. Yeah. You read right!)
I first saw Dio live in concert on Halloween Night of 1985, with opening act, Rough Cutt. After I got over the novelty of Duke Fame (aka, Rough Cutt lead singer, Paul Shortino, who also played the silent rock star in This Is Spinal Tap) actually performing on stage in front of me, I was having no more of it and only wanted to see The Evil One and his mechanical dragon. And I got that. But I got more. A lot more. I got a good eyeful of what, for me, defined ’80s metal stage shows — the pyrotechnics, lasers, animatronics, lights, props, and costumes all complimenting the theatrics of the music perfectly. It was a SHOW, not a “listen.” And they weren’t wearing t-shirts and jeans, either.
Sadly, I’d only seen Dio live twice. The second time was in the summer of 2002. My pal Bill (whom a few of you might know) took me as an early birthday present. Before we left, I remember thinking that I really only wanted to see a handful of bands at this point in my life, having otherwise grown tired of the concert nonsense. The artist, for me, had to be worth it. So, of those I could have counted on one hand, Dio was front and center. The band was playing at Le Medley in Montreal, Canada — a small-ish venue, but all that meant was that many of us got to be “front row.” After the show, Bill and I had gotten backstage passes and ended up getting to meet and hang out with the band, including RJD.
Shaking Ronnie’s hand was beyond surreal; a man whose musical legend is… well, legendary… Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath (then later, Heaven and Hell), and Dio. And as much as some might not believe just what a warm and overall nice fellow he is, allow me to verify. He is. Seeing a video camera in my hand, he asked me all about my video work, my then-public access show, publishing releases, etc. Of course, I had questions, too. Here’s how a couple of them went…
MGP: So, tell me. What’s the one song you perform live that you’re just tired to death of doing?
RJD: Rainbow In The Dark.
MGP: But, you do it for the fans because, let’s be real, it’s a classic.
RJD: Definitely for the fans.
MGP: So I see that you dropped the “Heaven” part of the live performance of “Heaven and Hell.” Any reason why?
RJD: Well, which part do YOU like best?
MGP: The Hell part!
RJD: Well, there you go.
Ronnie also signed three CD booklets I’d brought, posed for a pic with me (see above), and even was kind enough to do a video show ID for my old show, Subterranean SINema. Even minutes after we’d said goodbye to each other, I overheard him talking to security, making sure that all of the fans who were in line upstairs got what they wanted. Each and every one of them. Dio even motioned to a few of the shier fans to come over and say hello. I had heard so many stories of Dio’s graciousness with his fan base and that night I saw it firsthand. Impressed beyond words.
As I sit here and type and listen to that final track on The Last In Line, I am somehow reminded of something another great man (who also died at 67) once said of living on through the works you leave behind. RJD leaves us decades of powerful music, very real magic, and medieval theatricality that can never be duplicated. I raise my hand in sincerest horned salute to the memory of Ronnie James Dio and know well that when fear calls my name, I shout a hearty “LOOK OUT!” and it all goes away.
Hail Ronnie James Dio!
(Anyone who would like to post links to articles, videos, tributes, blog posts or other meaningful online material on Dio can do so in the comments section of this post. And thanks.)
I’ll leave you with my favorite Rainbow song — oddly enough, the very video I was planning on posting today, then unknowing of Dio’s passing…
“The Devil is me
And I’m holding the key
To the gates of sweet Hell…