Killing the Dragon with Ronnie... Metal, Mythopoetics and Dreams
I first heard Ronnie James Dio’s vocals sometime early in 1979.
A mate of mine had an album, Rainbow Rising, by a band called Rainbow. After a brief discussion about girls, motorbikes and, finally, whether Motörhead really made your ears bleed when you heard them live, we turned to the stereo.
“You should listen to this,” he informed me with teenage authority, putting the needle to the vinyl and cranking up the volume, “You’re into Tolkien and all that fantasy shit, so you will like this.”
As the crackling vinyl exploded into Tarot Woman, I suspected that he might be right, by the end of Stargazer I was convinced.
There was just something about those lyrics and the mighty voice that belted them out.
Who was this Ronnie James Dio!?
But the genesis of my love of heavy metal had been listening to another classic band, Black Sabbath. And, by ‘79, although I had only been ‘into metal’ for just over a year or so, I had already listened to the entire back catalogue of Ozzy-era Sabbath. The doom-laden chords of Tony Iommi had become a musical narcotic that could take me to realms I had never dreamt existed. It was that combination of magic, mystery, and horror that my D&D-enamoured teenage self was drawn to, and this in combination with Iommi’s searing, soul-blasting guitar riffs simply hooked me. Other bands were good, some great, but for me, none came close to my passionate enthusiasm for Sabbath.
But in 1979 Black Sabbath seemed dead. Ozzy had been sacked.
What’s more, Dio had been sacked from Rainbow.
And most of all to my immature mind, came the hauntingly terrible thought, would either Sabbath or Dio ever return? Would I be left listening to back catalogues for the rest of my life?
Then it happened.
Dio joined Sabbath.
An impossible dream became a reality. It was an alchemical marriage, a metal thaumaturgy beyond all reasoning!
And I bought ‘Heaven and Hell’ and knew that for a time at least, balance had been restored to the universe.
Dio and fantasy
“Life began when I saw my first book. When I discovered that you could do things with words, man, I tell you, I just freaked out, I just read everything that I could possibly find...”
In a 2001 interview, Dio discussed some of those elements of fantasy that had inspired him in the books he had read in his youth:
“I’m an only child so I spent a lot of time on my own reading and read mostly fantasy things. It made me use my imagination. In the early days, I read a lot… Edgar Rice Burroughs had a series called John Carter from Mars and that was very fantastic in its way. And a lot of medieval things from Walter Scott and others. And a lot of science fiction and that kind of fantasy and you put them all together and they make you what you are...”
And later, Dio was drawn to cinematic versions of fantasy as well:
“One of my favorite films has been the ‘Never Ending Story’. There were two of them of course and I think that was magnificently done. ‘Time Bandits’, which has some mirth in it was a wonderful fantasy piece... The ‘Baron Munchausen’ thing, I’m using a few Python things here, but I love all that, I think it’s wonderful. ‘Labyrinth’ was good, these are old things. I haven’t really seen a lot lately because I’ve been working for such a long time. But Tolkien, [meaning Peter Jackson’s 2001 release The Fellowship of the Ring], I will be drooling when I watch that.”
His lyrics reflected those worlds of the imagination and the fantastic that so many of us have grown up loving, and his own ladlings from the creative pot of myth soared above that of many of his contemporary musicians in both dramatic power and beauty:
"When I became a songwriter, I thought what better thing to do than do what no one else is doing... to tell fantasy tales. Smartest thing I ever did.”
And recurring throughout Dio’s lyrics over the course of his career were symbols and emblems that carried their own magical weight. Wheels, Dragons, Rainbows, Charms, Stars. These elements (and many others) would appear again and again, an esoterica given a voice that screamed from the abyss of the strange and other-worldly. To put it simply, Dio loved fantasy and his songs perfectly framed the realms of the imaginal. And like a wheel he just kept on turning.
Take, for example, the lyrics from ‘The Man on the Silver Mountain’ (Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, 1975)
Come down with fire
Lift my spirit higher
Someone's screaming my name
Come and make me holy again
Each of the three Rainbow albums Dio made with Blackmore is peppered with songs that evoke strange, mythic, and fantastical themes. When he moved to Sabbath in 1979 he found new vigour in the partnership with Iommi. Listen to the incredible first side of the Heaven and Hell album, the magic just comes in wave after wave. The first song Iommi and Dio penned together, ‘Children of the Sea’, is a fine example:
In the misty morning, on the edge of time
We've lost the rising sun, a final sign
As the misty morning rolls away to die
Reaching for the stars, we blind the sky
And then there is the immense, eponymous ‘Heaven and Hell’ (apparently one of Dio’s all-time favourites of his musical-poetic creations):
Sing me a song, you're a singer
Do me a wrong, you're a bringer of evil
The Devil is never a maker
The less that you give, you're a taker
When Sabbath returned with the Mob Rules album, Dio was back once more summoning fantasy, chaos, and wizardry:
Close the city and tell the people that something's coming to call
Death and darkness are rushing forward to take a bite from the wall
You've nothing to say
They're breaking away
If you listen to fools
The mob rules
On the same album, another outstanding example was the haunting ‘Falling off the Edge of the World’, a song that has strong Arthurian resonances:
I should be at the table round
A servant of the crown
The keeper of the sign
To sparkle and to shine
And a personal favourite from the Mob Rules album, ‘Country Girl’, just fires out the fantasy folk-horror:
Fell in love with a country girl, morning sunshine
She was up from another world, just to bust another soul
Her eyes were an endless flame, holy lightning
Desire with a special name, made to snatch your soul away
We sailed away on a crimson tide, gone forever
She left my heart on the other side, all to break it into bits
Her smile was a winter song, a Sabbath ending
Don't sleep or you'll find me gone, just an image in the air
After an unhappy divorce from Sabbath, Dio began his solo career in the early 1980s, but his success only continued to rise like the proverbial rainbow. The first two albums went platinum, and the magic and mystery just continued in songs such as ‘Holy Diver’ (originally written for Sabbath... one can only wonder how Iommi would have played it), ‘The Last in Line’ and ‘Sacred Heart’. And with the popularisation of the ‘music video’, we were treated to a sword-wielding Dio and a host of visual abominations to accompany the crashing crescendo of Dio’s music. And I haven’t even touched on the album art...
In 1987 I had been living in South Africa for four years. Black Sabbath came to play in Sun City, and I finally met one of my early musical heroes. Tony Iommi was having a quiet, pre-concert drink at the bar when he was accosted by a bunch of denim and leather-clad youths who couldn’t believe their luck. Mr. Iommi was, of course, a gracious, and down-to-earth ‘Brummie’ gentleman. We shook hands and, after expressing his surprise at hearing my working-class English accent in South Africa, he answered all my questions about Sabbath and the current direction of his music.
And we talked about Dio.
I impertinently asked him the question of whether the new Sabbath album (this was the Eternal Idol tour and the album itself would be released in the November of that year) would be more like Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules... As I said, he was a gentleman, and he confirmed that that was the acme to which he had always since striven. Of course, Dio returned to the Sabbath fold in the early 90s, and, despite a much-underrated album (Dehumanizer, 1992), that particular conjunction of stars was not to realign until all of the musicians involved were much longer in the tooth. When the time arrived and Heaven and Hell merged once more, they produced The Devil You Know (2009), a truly kick-ass album. Iommi was (and is) the Riff Meister and Dio’s vocal range was as strong as ever, with a lyricism that just improved with age. It’s all the more tragic that the invigorated partnership of Iommi, Butler, Appice, and Dio ended with Dio’s untimely passing.
Dio is, of course, a legend of the heavy metal pantheon and his work has continued to inspire successive generations. But it was his unique blend of fantasy delivered through powerful, stirring, and often haunting vocals, encased in mind-splitting music, that marks him out as the icon that he will always be.
I wrote to Dio in the mid-80s. At the time I was desperately homesick for Britain and was starting to scribble fiction and imagine myself a writer. Perhaps Mr. Dio sensed something of my loneliness and desperation in my fan letter. I wrote at length about the importance to me of his musical legerdemain and how his music had sustained my own creativity over the years. Or, perhaps, he was just a good guy who made the effort with all his fans. Either way, he sent me a signed pic and a short note and those meant a great deal to my younger self. He told me to never stop believing and to keep on dreaming. Well, who was I to argue with the great man? So, that’s just what I did.
Dio was a bard, a true magician, and the sorcery that he brought to Sabbath extended into the immense creative output with which he permeated metal in the decades that followed, both as a solo artist (he blasted the 1980s with some of the greatest albums of the era) and back again with Iommi, Butler, and Appice.
But I will always remember the one and only time that I saw him live. That was in the wet British summer of 1980. I had gone along to my first Black Sabbath concert to hear him for myself on the Heaven and Hell tour.
And, that night, my fourteen-year-old self stood in the presence of legends... nay, in the presence of metal gods.
I was deaf for days afterwards, but I was rocked.
Dio himself once said:
“I've lent myself to that portion of the population that does have a brain, who likes to think and be challenged. I'm not saying that my challenges are anywhere close to Keats or Edgar Rice Burroughs, but in my small way, I've made people think not only about themselves, but also about others and the world we live in.”
Thank you for the music and the memories Ronnie, dreamers truly never die.