Ronnie James Dio
(Dio/Black Sabbath * Heavy Metal)
Geoffrey V. Carter
Saginaw Valley State University
Citation: Carter, Geoffrey V.. “Ronnie James Dio.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r09
Abstract: Although Ronnie James Dio is often parodied for his lyrical ruminations on dragons, demons, and other Dungeons and Dragons style phantasmagoria, he maintained a humor about himself and possessed a capacity for openness unique to heavy metal. He is known for popularizing the devil horn hand gesture (“malocchio”) at rock shows, though he said its history extended back to his Italian Grandmother who used it as a way of protecting against someone’s evil eye. Dio also said his Grandmother could use it as a curse when provoked. Thus, Dio linked the symbol of the devil horns to protection as much as provocation. Carter’s work likewise considers the polarities in Dio’s work that made him the formidable artist of Heaven and Hell.
Keywords: Ronnie James Dio, Parody, Devil Horns, Heaven, Hell .
Ronnie James Dio only returned to my musical orbit when I discovered the Spinal Tap-inspired and self-titled debut album by Tenacious D (2001). Dio’s Dungeon & Dragons style lyrics were often ridiculed, however Tenacious D raised the ridicule to an art form, with this soaring lyrical tribute: “He has songs of wildebeest and angels/He has soared on the wings of a Demon.” I have to admit that until I heard that track, I hadn’t thought much about Dio beyond the one song he penned (“Neon Knights”) for his first album with Black Sabbath (Heaven and Hell, 1980) and the much maligned Live Evil (1982), an album that would contribute to Dio’s first break with Sabbath. Theirs was a love / hate relationship.
Even up to that point, I admit that I mostly compared Dio’s work to the vocal efforts (and compelling antics) of his Sabbath predecessor, Ozzy Osbourne. Ironically, it was only after Dio appeared as himself in the Tenacious D comedy, The Pick of Destiny (2006) that I started to take him seriously. In the movie’s flashback, a Dio rock poster comes alive to sing advice to an adolescent Jack Black—“Jaybles, [who was] hungry for the rock.” Something deeper about Dio struck me when I read that Black wrote that song in the specific spirit of “Neon Knights.”
Obviously, the sweet cruelty of Tenacious D’s debut album didn’t insult Dio or dampen his power. Despite lines like, “It’s time to pass the torch / You’re too old to rock / No more rockin’ for you / We’re taking you to a home / But we will sing a song about you,” Dio dropped four studio and three live albums before his passing. Of course, Tenacious D’s album and movie— unlike the often searing send-ups by Weird Al Yankovich—are written with the desperate ethos of unlikely wanna-be rock stars, the comedic duo of Jack Black, his musically superior partner, Kyle Gass.
What’s most important at the moment, however, is that Dio’s Pick of Destiny cameo and his obvious humor about his work, made me want to get to know him better. I discovered that the rock horns gesture, pervasive throughout heavy metal culture, was brought to the fore(arm) by Dio: \m/. He appropriated it from his Italian Grandmother, who used it to ward off the evil eye (“malocchio”). Despite that he wasn’t a big part of my initial musical development as a Sabbath-loving teen, I’ve come to love this thoughtful and engaging singer. And I’m not alone in that.
When Dio sadly succumbed to cancer in 2010, it was clear in the interviews from fellow musicians that his influence wouldn’t disappear anytime soon. In fact, regardless of being considered a comedic act, Tenacious D would earn a controversial Best Metal Performance Grammy in 2015 for their cover of Dio’s emblematic 1984 hit, “The Last in Line” over celebrated metal acts Anthrax, Motörhead, and Metallica.
With the Medium of the Rocktalog, I want to channel Dio’s ruminations on rainbows and dragons and his illuminations on why those phantasmagorias have such staying power decades later. “Neon Knights” holds up for me, and in what follows, Victor Vitanza will employ the song’s imagery to bridge the three decades from Octalog to Rocktalog.
Dio’s Opening Statement
Heavy Metal doesn’t apologize for the music it makes. It attacks you; it comes after you; it’s very aggressive.
I like very much the values of the Medieval Times….
It all stems from reading as a child. I am an only child. I spent a lot of time on my own reading. I read mostly fantasy, and that made me use my imagination. I read Edgar Rice Burroughs –John Carter of Mars_ and lots of medieval things from Walter Scott and lots of science fiction by folks like Alan Dean Foster who wrote every possible Alien book you can imagine and great fantasy piece called Carnivores of Light and Darkness. Well, you put them altogether and they make you what you are.
My favorite movie is the Neverending Story, and there were two of them. Time Bandits has mirth in it was a wonderful fantasy piece and the Baron Muncheson piece. Labyrinth was good.
The library is one of my favorite places in all the world. It is a place that I strictly don’t do any work in. Most of my work takes place in the dungeon
I think it’s important to present theater with music. I think it comes much more alive.
I try to, lyrically, to write with intelligence and imagination to allow the listener to create his own concept—or her own concept—it could be your song, it has different meaning to each who listens to it. We consider the audience to be a sixth member of the band.
I never wanted to be a solo artist—not in a million years.
I never ever written anything I would not give to the band that I was band. I never written anything that I’ve saved and said, “No, that one I’m going to save and use it for my solo album,” because, again, my attitude has never been to be a solo artist, it’s only one to be one of the people in the band. That was my love, that is why I started to play music, because—I liked music of course—but I liked the camaraderie.
A riff should be able to be played by the kid in the room listening to it.
I noticed this big chalkboard, and it had the list of the food for the day, and one of the foods was a sandwich, and it was Evil on Queen Street. It was sandwich. The song isn’t a sandwich, of course, but judging from some of the people I see on Queen Street’s it’s pretty apropos.
I don’t believe in either Heaven or Hell as a place to go to that, uh, when we die we’re going to go to and burn for awhile or if we’re good we’re going to go up there and be happy for awhile. I don’t believe in a Purgatory where all the poor unbaptized babies are hanging out. I think anybody who has that kinda idea, anybody who came up with that kinda idea that there is going to be place where little children are hanging out for there rest of their lives is either the sickest person on earth or the stupidest. I think both things apply. My belief in heaven and hell is that it is right here. This is where we are. This is Heaven, This is Hell. You make your own heaven, you make your own hell. Hell, Good and Evil, God, The Devil, they reside in each one of us. I don’t have to go to a place to pray; I pray inside myself. I don’t need to told by a priest that I am bad or be told by a nun that learning my project properly and get smacked on the head with a ruler—“Who the hell are you to do that to me?” We are the Last In Line. Take it from my song Heaven and Hell: “The World is Full of Kings and Queens who will blind your eyes and steal your dreams.” That’s Heaven and Hell.
Ronnie James Dio 1986: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0kbCqvC970
Dio Toronto 1990: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y53NepXSea8&t=258s
Ronnie James Dio Interview 2001 (part 1)