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Ronnie James Dio, 1942-2010

George Lang Published: May 17, 2010

We need to just get this out of the way, because it is the law:

Dio has rocked (echo: rocked) for a long, long time,
Now it’s time for him to pass the torch.
He has songs of wilderbeasts and angels,
He has soared on the wings of a demon.

It’s time to pass the torch,
You’re too old to rock, no more rockin’ for you.
We’re takin’ you to a home,
But we will sing a song about you.

And we will make sure that you’re very well taken care of.
You’ll tell us secrets that you’ve learned. Woah!
Your sauce will mix with ours,
And we’ll make a good goulash baby.
Dio, time to go!
You must give your cape and scepter to me.
And a smaller one for KG.
Go! Go! Dio! Dio!

Jack Black, Tenacious D, “Dio”

It’s certainly not my earliest memory, but it’s what always comes to mind when I think of Ronnie James Dio. Sometime in the mid-’90s, my friend Tony and I were paging through the newspaper when we saw an ad for Dio playing a local mid-size venue — I think it was the Boar’s Head at the French Market Mall. The ad featured a picture of Dio and by this time he was wearing some kind of poodley hairpiece because this was pre-1998, when it officially became safe for metal singers to brandish baldness and still rock. The funny thing about it was the coyness of Dio’s signature “devil horns” hand gesture, and I say signature because Dio, who died Sunday at age 67, is thought to have invented the damn thing. It was as if he had just sighed and said to the photographer, “Yeah yeah, I know — don’t worry. I’ll break out the 7-10 split.”

“Still satanic after all these years,” Tony said.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Of course, this was at least a baker’s dozen years after Dio made his post-Black Sabbath splash with “Rainbow in the Dark” and “The Last in Line,” and so it was cool at the time to laugh out loud at this kind of goofy, faux-devilish spectacle, but let’s not discount what R.J. Dio meant to power-deprived teenagers in the early ’80s who depended on the visceral high of quasi-operatic shrieking and doom-laden guitar thunder. Of course, we didn’t know that he had been rocking practically as long as there had been rock — he started a band called Ronnie and the Redcaps in 1958 — but Dio essentially provided the template for nearly a quarter-century of metal singing when he announced in 1975, as lead singer of Rainbow, that he was “THE MAAAN ON THE SEEELVUR MOWN-TAAAAN — YEAH!!!” He belonged to the  subgenre of metal screamers in which singers like Klaus Meine of the Scorpions, who might have worn Viking helmets on stage in another era (not that this was necessarily frowned upon in 1970s heavy metal), did their best to evoke air raid sirens and strangled cats.

But Dio was especially effective with the Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed segment of the metal constituency because, as his pre-Rainbow band Elf indicated, he looked quite a bit like a denizen of Middle Earth. When people describe someone as “elfin,” it’s usually to evoke someone who looks like they just drifted down a staircase in Rivendell, like Liv Tyler or Taylor Swift or Christy Turlington. At 5’4″, Ronnie James Dio did not look like that kind of elf. He was more like an imp, or “ympe,” because that looks better in Olde English fonts. He looked like what you thought might be hiding under your bed, waiting to steal your socks.

Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath, which in its post-Ozzy years operated as a sort of witness protection program for singers who once worked for Ritchie Blackmore. While purists often derided Dio’s Sabbath period, Dio’s involvement in the band seemed to inspire Tony Iommi — the title track to 1979′s “Heaven and Hell” featured a riff that belongs in the Sabbath pantheon. While Ozzy sounded crazy, Dio sounded like the thing you hire exorcists to eradicate from your rec room. Dirtbag teens, and I use the term affectionately, had their defender.

Yes, Tenacious D made fun of R.J. Dio, but it was not mean-spirited. It was clearly out of love — he appeared in “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny” and the D showed up in Dio’s video for “Push.” To the very end, Dio continued to sear faces off with his wail: last year, he reunited with his “Heaven and Hell”/”Mob Rules”/”Live Evil” Sabbath lineup — Iommi, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice — to release a new album, “The Devil You Know” as Heaven and Hell. These days, with Ozzy occasionally playing with Sabbath, you have to differentiate, you know.

The unfortunate difference with Dio-era Sabbath, beyond the old Beelzebubbish content, was that you aged out of it. Ozzy’s Sabbath is eternal — you can rock “War Pigs” well into the December of your days with a certain amount of dignity. Dio was made for the skinny kid in the early ’80s who got pantsed during dodgeball and needed to feel empowered by the time he got home. So he’d throw the cassette of “Mob Rules” he recorded on KMOD’s “Ultimate Six Pack” on Sunday night into his brick-sized Walkman and rock that thing all the way home on the school bus, flash-frying every demon he could spy  from the back seat.

There was nothing cool about Ronnie James Dio. That much is clear. He existed because for those kids, sometimes slaying a dragon was more immediately important than being cool. That could come later.

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