Here’s part two of my elegy for a couple of my idols that have unfortunately passed away in the last week.
Saturday night I was sitting in the Palace Lounge in Missoula, waiting for my kid’s band to play. They were playing last, which means they went on late. I was impatient and irritated. The band before them, one which I’ve seen three times before and have always loathed, played a cover version of Killswitch Engage’s cover version of the great Dio classic, “Holy Diver.” I hate Killswitch Engage, and their cover is a travesty. So as I was listening, I was thinking to myself that I hope Ronnie never hears the version, as it would likely kill him; I was already aware the man has been battling stomach cancer, but last I heard he was recovering.
I got home after 2 AM and saw that his death had been announced, then retracted as a hoax. By morning, though, it was final. The little man with the huge voice was dead at 67.
I came to Dio via Black Sabbath. My cousin and I went to the theater and saw the animated movie Heavy Metal when it came out in 1981. During this gruesome scene, the music playing behind it kicked my ass, and when I rushed out for the soundtrack I learned it was “The Mob Rules,” from Black Sabbath’s album of the same name, with Ronnie James Dio on vocals.
In the age-old debate among metalheads as to who is the better singer for the band, I’m a Dio guy all the way. Sure, I can accept the historical significance of the original lineup, and those first four albums in particular are musical classics, but Ozzy Osbourne just doesn’t deliver for me like Dio. The man tops my list of greatest rock vocalists ever, and The Mob Rules is my favorite Sabbath album of them all.
I remember one summer in particular, driving around with my boombox beside me blasting a recording I’d made of his The Last in Line album. Arguably, that is my favorite release he did as a solo artist.
The first time I saw him live was on December 30, 1985, in Spokane, WA. My friend Mike and I went and saw him — it was the tour in support of his third solo record, Sacred Heart. The concert was mindblowing. His D&D-ish imagery and epic songs (there was a friggin’ DRAGON onstage, for crissakes!) blew my mind. I was amazed at his ability to deliver the goods live too; so many singers are disappointing live, but not this man. His voice made him larger than life. We went home and played a New Year’s Eve show the next night, and all of our music sounded limp and lifeless to me.
I know many people sneer at this stuff, at the whole notion of metal and its imagery. Dio tried to write “literary” songs, and succeeded often enough. But his voice was undeniably epic, with a range and power that others can only dream of. Not only that, but his work in both Rainbow and Black Sabbath, let alone his solo stuff, is timeless to fans of heavy music.
During the drought of the 90s, as it relates to metal anyway, Dio kept writing and recording albums, and touring. Where others gave up he kept on, and while some of his output over those years is spotty he was still delivering the goods. His popularity surged again in the wake of the Heaven & Hell project, which came together after the release of the Black Sabbath — The Dio Years compilation.
For years the name Black Sabbath was being ground into the dirt, in my opinion, as they would perform in sketchy appearances as part of Ozzy Osbourne’s OZZFEST tours. The same songs year after year, delivered by Ozzy’s steadily weakening voice and sideshow television bullshit, brought down not only the name of the band but also seemed to tarnish the legacy and reputations of the rest of the band as rock legends. When Heaven & Hell — essentially the Dio version of Sabbath under a different name so that Sharon Osbourne wouldn’t have a conniption — got together and toured, metal fans rejoiced. The band also recorded an entire album of new material, and it kicks ass. It showed again why this band is so heralded. Behind Dio’s rock solid vocals, bandmates Iommi, Appice and Butler were able to show what made them icons in the first place.
I urge anyone to pick up the live album and watch the DVD that came with it with all the behind-the-scenes stuff. Another good option is the documentary Metal — A Headbanger’s Journey, where Dio is featured heavily.
My biggest regret is not driving to see the band. I had a couple opportunities within eight hours drive of me, and never did it. Now it’s too late. I’m thankful that I did get to see Dio in his solo band a couple times, and I’m glad the guy went out as a creative influence putting out fantastic music until the very end. He’ll be missed.