Monday, May 17, 2010

In Respectful Memory of Ronnie James Dio

One of my favorite rock singers of all time died yesterday morning of stomach cancer. Ronnie James Dio, heavy metal's chief proponent of the "devil horn" hand gesture as a sign of musical power, sang professionally with the bands Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio, and Heaven and Hell (the latter reprising the Black Sabbath lineup but renamed so as to distinguish it from the Ozzy Osbourne-era repertoire). With this kind of pedigree, he clearly was a heavy metal demigod; yet his talent, appeal, and charisma transcended labels. To say he was heavy metal's most sonically and gifted vocalist is almost damning with faint praise, as the genre is not known for singers with refined voices. But Dio was different. Described as leather-lunged, he could scream with pure tonality and convey a gentle ballad with a smooth, lovely sound. He could growl at the moon and sing with a soft falsetto. No other hard rock or metal vocalist could approach the command and control he had over his voice.

My introduction to his music was via an oddly circuitous route. I was working in the kitchen of a restaurant inside a department store in the once-swanky Chestnut Hill Mall, in Newton, Massachusetts. One of the assistant cooks was a twenty-something high school dropout looking to turn his life around. I was 17 and just looking to earn some money for recreational pursuits. One day, we were talking and he asked me if I liked Black Sabbath. I said I'd never heard their music before. He replied, "Really? I thought all potheads were into Sabbath."

The next time we were working together, he handed me Sabbath's first two albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid. To put it kindly, they were beat to shit, having somehow survived untold parties where drunken hands carelessly ran phonograph needles against the vinyl grooves, while the album covers themselves were worn and faded and smelled vaguely of spilled bong water.

I took the albums home and played them, and through the skips and crackles I heard the heaviest music I've heard before or since, laced with Almighty Guitar Riffs and Thundering Bass Lines and Brutal Drum Beats, topped with Ozzy's Mutant Wolf Wailing Vocals. I was instantly hooked, but I knew it wouldn't be worthwhile to tape these noisy, skippy albums so I went to the record store to get my own copies.

At the store, I thumbed through the Black Sabbath section and saw a number of choices. I figured at minimum I would get the first two because I already knew I liked them. I then assembled a chronology from the available titles to see where they'd gone from there. It being 1980, I noticed that there was a brand-new album by the band, Heaven and Hell. I was disturbed to learn, however, that Ozzy was no longer in the band, replaced by a guy named Ronnie James Dio (I've always held that only assassins are known by all three names). "Figures," I said to myself. "I'm always getting into bands too late." (It's true, many of the artists I'm most into I discovered when they were either dead, disbanded, or on the artistic decline.) I ended up just buying the first two albums.

A short time later, I was visiting a friend of mine and he was blasting out an amazing album by a group called Rainbow. I'm pretty sure the track was "Stargazer." The vocalist was astounding. I asked him who it was and he said it was Ronnie James Dio. "Unfortunately, he's no longer in the band. He just joined Black Sabbath."

You can guess where I went next. Yes, back to the store. This time with Heaven and Hell in hands. I took it home and listened to it, instantly transported to that golden place where music is nutrition or a willing sexual partner - where music is not just good, not just even good for you, but essential to your very existence. I was hooked.

And just in time, because tickets for "The Black & Blue Tour" were going on sale. This was Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult on the same bill. My friends and I were already big Cult fans, having worn out copies of Secret Treaties, Agents of Fortune, and Spectres. My Sabbath discovery was new to the gang but once they got a face full of "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" they were on board. Still, for all of us, Cult were going to be the bigger attraction.

The concert was in Hartford, Connecticut, so a road trip was in order. Not even an early dinner at Denny's could derail our enthusiasm. It only got better when we entered the Hartford Civic Center and discovered the sound board where our seats were supposed to be. The usher explained that they had to move it form its original location for some reason, then led us to new seats in the fifth row on the floor, not more than 10 or 15 feet from the stage. Just ahead to the left of us was a speaker stack about the size of a house. Whatever this show was going to be, it was going to be loud!

Sabbath and Cult took turns throughout the tour opening for each other. This night, Sabbath came on first. In less than a minute, Ronnie James Dio had me in the palm of his hand. He painted such an imposing atmosphere with his presence and his voice (he was oddly short for his power and affect), and made such a strong connection with the audience with the devil horns and his earnest stage patter. This was his first tour fronting a venerable band and he knew he had to win over the fans. He succeeded in spades.

By the end of their set, I was exhausted and drenched with sat. I stood and boogied the entire set, desperately communing with the congregation with shouts and horns. As the lights came up, I was hoarse and completely spent. Cult came on eventually and played a powerful set themselves, but I had nothing left to give them. I sat for most of their set and my hands were so raw from clapping for Sabbath that it hurt to applaud.

I saw Sabbath again on their next tour, in 1982, at which time I was in college. Then Dio left the band and I kind of ignored heavy metal for a few years. I didn't even respond when he reunited with Sabbath for a one-off album called Dehumanizer in 1992. (I've actually never been a huge metalhead anyway; my favorite bands all have colors in their names: Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Deep Purple, and Rainbow. Yes, there's also a Whitesnake but I prefer the Scorpions, chiefly because their singer sounds like Dio.)

A few years ago, Sabbath's label wanted to put together a collection of Dio-era Sabbath selections and they got back together to record three new tunes, which were strong. Then there was a tour as Heaven and Hell, which I had wanted to see but never did. Prior to that, the band Dio came to Worcester, Massachusetts, but I deemed it too far to go to stand among young metalheads. The result of the tour was a live album and DVD, Live from Radio City Music Hall. When I heard it I was amazed at how good he and they still sounded. I decided that if they toured again, I would definitely try to catch a show.

In 2009, they toured again and a friend of mine scored me great tickets. The date was August 28, 2009 - what would have been my mother's 76th birthday. Little did I know it would also be Ronnie James Dio's last performance. It was the last show of the tour and they exhibited no fatigue. This was a burning hot show, tight, energetic, and mesmerizing. Dio was in fine voice, active, talkative, and as engaging and charismatic as ever.

The tour over, Dio began preparing to tour Europe with his own band when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. That tour was canceled, as was a European Heaven and Hell tour slated for summer 2010. Periodic updates on his website were hopeful, but his gallant battle ended on May 16. The man who wrote "Die Young" had done just that. He was two months shy of 68 years of age, two years short of the three score and 10 he was due at minimum.

Tributes to Dio have come in from his bandmates, Queen's Brian May, younger metal artists who were influenced by him, and of course, from his wife, Wendy, and his fans. But I would like the last words here to come from him. RIP, RJD.

Catch the Rainbow - Rainbow
We believed we'd catch the rainbow
Ride the wind to the sun
Sail away on ships of wonder

But life's not a wheel
With chains made of steel
So bless me, come the dawn

Heaven and Hell - Black Sabbath
They say that life's a carousel
Spinning fast, you've got to ride it well
The world is full of kings and queens
Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams
It's heaven and hell, oh well

And they'll tell you black is really white
The moon is just the sun at night
And when you walk in golden halls
You get to keep the gold that falls
It's heaven and hell

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