LA Weekly, 2/97
by Greg Burk
Dio in the cathedral. November, first date of the tour. The Ventura Concert Theater is a vaulted stone edifice, good spot for a mythic ritual. Male hormones crank high. (Go on -- tell somebody heavy metal is dead.) A badass in leather jacket, lip bristling with Freddy Fender mustache, pupils methadrine microdots, charges from wall to wall with head lowered, scattering the crowd like ninepins. T-shirts: “Deep Purple.” “Kiss.” “>Natural Born Killers>.” “Security.”
The band Dio rocks mightily, loudly and without earplugs, deafness be damned. Ronnie James Dio, master of metal, wails the song of the Valkyrie -- 100 percent rock star, but his Italian grandmother emerges in the hunched sorceror posture, the spidery hand gestures. Drummer Vinny Appice hammers like Hephaestus through a curtain of smoke that completely obscures keyboardist Scott Warren. Bassist Larry Dennison bobs behind his hair. The high percentage of Latino pilgrims is a tribute to regional guitar legend Tracy G (Grijalva), who conjures from his tangled board of foot pedals a vast, multilayered shroud. It’s dark in here.
A short-haired kid at the edge of the mosh pit headbangs reverently.The slamming closer to the stage is furious. The Badass floors some customers and gets ejected. Emotional peaks come with past alienation anthems: “I,” “Rainbow in the Dark,” “The Last in Line.” New material like “Double Monday” is black and weighty, making some of the old stuff come off almost poppy. An immense herd of double Satan fingers thrusts toward the stage to meet Dio’s phalangeal antennae. Each individual in the place has become larger. It’s like Dio says, “This music is >expanding>.”
An hour and a half after the show, Dio emerges alone to plunge into a marathon meet-and-greet. The sore thumbs are a couple who must be near 70. The man sports an Iron Maiden T.
“We love your music,” he says. “We have six grandchildren, and three of them are Dio fans.”
“What’s the matter with the other three?” Dio challenges. “Let’s see if we can get them, too.”
Ronnie James Dio sings: “Ride the tiger/You can see his stripes but you know he’s clean/Oh don’t you see what I mean?” What he means? Well . . . of >course>. Blake’s “tyger,” the mindless universal force, the clean stripes of dark and light, and you’re right there straddling both. It’s the beast of heavy metal -- music of power, struggle, destruction and redemption. Dude.
If metal is dead, it sure as hell is a loud corpse. And Dio is its voice. “Like a hydra, it always grows another head,” he quips, Bulfinch on wheels. “And here it comes again.”
This is the Word of Dio. Pay heed. Dio has commanded the metal legion for close to 20 years, and stomped the rock stage quite a bit longer than that. Way back in the early ‘70s, he charged himself with a sacred mission requiring a special identity and a change of name -- Padavona became Dio. And even you non-Italian blasphemers know what >that> means.
At the time of his diofication, he was howling with the mid-’70s barrelhouse rock outfit Elf. Having that band essentially named after him (he’s about 5’2”) was gratifying, but Dio had something bigger in mind.
He’d been writing “relationship songs,” about “broken things more than healed things,” he relates, mild and courtly between profanities, in a San Fernando Valley rehearsal room. “The darker themes started to come in, and those were the things I really wanted to do, but it was difficult to take a band like that, that had a honky-tonk piano, and suddenly drag it into doom.”
Guitar king Ritchie Blackmore befriended Dio when Elf was touring with Deep Purple, and they started Rainbow when Blackmore split Purp in ‘75. “In Rainbow I had an opportunity to write in more of a fantasy manner,” says Dio, “a little bit darker themes.”
Then Ozzy Osbourne left Black Sabbath in 1980, and the band needed a singer. “It was Sabbath that really was the vehicle for me. I could finally do what I really wanted to, which was write as dark as possible anytime I wanted to.”
One step remained: the transition to his own band, Dio, which lifted off with the ferocious Holy Diver in 1983. It established a template for weighty, dramatic, uncompromised metal from which Dio has never since deviated. Flanked by monster musicians -- Appice, with his enormous beat and canny versatility, is surely one of the all-time loadsmen -- RJD has set himself no less a task than splitting the good/evil atom and releasing a blast of rock energy that could electrify the world’s disaffected.
Observe the titles: Sabbath’s >Heaven and Hell> and >Live Evil>, Dio’s >Sacred Heart> and >Dream Evil> -- we’re digging down to the mythic taproot here, folks. If you turn the band’s Gothic logo upside-down, you can read it DEVIL. The abundance of diabolical references in Dio’s lyrics, in fact, along with the two-pronged “horns of Satan” hand sign he flashes generously throughout his performances, has led many to neglect the divine side of his identity.
Dio and the crew (all of whom, like upstate New York native Ronnie, dwell in L.A. County) are talking just before they are about to begin the aforementioned tour promoting their incredibly fine new Mayhem Records album, >Angry Machines>. Though it’s the day after Halloween, Dio seems untainted by the aftermath of blood sacrifice, confessing as his gravest transgression the fact that he ate most of the candy himself: “Those little York peppermint patties -- I can’t stay away from ’em.”
Confronted with the rumor that he invented the “horns of Satan,” he is modest. “I didn’t invent it, but I probably have made it most famous -- because Ozzy’s was the peace sign, and that always reminded me of Nixon, and I certainly didn’t want to be Ozzy, either. My grandmother had always done this. It’s an Italian thing. That was protection against the evil eye. We’re a very superstitious race, and my grandmother actually emigrated from Italy. So she used to do that all the time, and I thought, ‘Wow, it’s Italian, it makes sense to me.’ So that became my thing. It’s a little antenna that takes the evil away.”
Being Italian naturally mandated Dio’s childhood immersion in Catholicism, which he emphatically rejects while retaining its dualistic outlook. He was even an altar boy.
“I was only an altar boy so I could drink the wine. The priest was out there doing his thing, and we were getting sloshed all the time. Weddings were great, ‘cause you’d make money. Maybe you copped a host once in a while, and chewed that up, and you thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna die -- goin’ to hell tomorrow!’
“The Catholic Church thing was summed up on our last album [>Strange Highways>] with a song called ‘Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost,’ which was about being first introduced to the Catholic religion, and being shown a stone statue and being told this was the Mother of God. You know . . . ‘Really?’ ‘And this is the Son of God, he’s nailed on a piece of wood somewhere, and then there’s the Holy Ghost . . .’ ‘Holy shit! The holy what? You mean there’s a ghost, and he’s holy?’ So it was all scare tactics, which I hated. Luckily I was able to go, ‘What a bunch of bullshit.’ But I saw kids frightened to death of all this stuff. I just think it’s the wrong way to introduce God to someone. We live in a time when things should be explained. Shift a little bit more toward the scientific, because we’ve got a pope who’s got to be the biggest asshole on the face of the Earth. ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. We’re overpopulated -- have more kids and fuck the communists!’ Come on, Pope, gimme a break.”
Dio’s social concerns aren’t confined to dissing the pontiff. He’s long been involved with Dr. Lois Lee’s Children of the Night organization, which provides aid and refuge to young people who find themselves stuck on the streets.
“I saw Dr. Lee on >60 Minutes>, and they were doing a retrospective of her life, the woman who had gone into the bad parts of Los Angeles and had virtually grabbed people away from pimps and drug people and had gotten beaten up in the process two or three times. I was so impressed with the fact that she was dealing with kids that buy our records. I wanted to be involved in a charity that had a direct impact on my life, and that was the one.
“We built a shelter for kids, 24 beds, a real nice place in the Valley. The kids stay there till they’re 18 years old, they’re not sent back to the dysfunctional family they came from, which is what a government agency will do. After 18 years old, they’re prepared, and away they go. Unfortunately, a lot of them are AIDS victims, but they’re prepared to deal with their problem, and to face the reality of death, at this point. It’s something that puts you in real perspective. It’s nice to have success, but when you see the suffering of other people, and you take part in that, it really nails your shoes to the ground.”
Sound like Satan? Dio >is> a man of wealth and taste. “I’ve always hated shouting at the audience and berating them,” he says. “I mean, how many times can you go, ‘Yeaaaah! Rawk un rowwwl!’ I think people like to be talked to, not lectured.”
One is struck by the whole band’s lack of stereotypical heavy-metal badnuss. Appice is a bluff New Yorker, funnier than heck. Dennison is an easygoing new recruit who can’t believe his luck. Tracy G is the soft-spoken metal-loving kid from La Puente who now, at 35, gets to show his dad a good time.
“My dad’s, like, the biggest fan,” he says. “I’m living out his dream. He played drums, mostly just casuals, wedding receptions and stuff, then he got married and had kids. He just totally digs what I’m doing and is real excited. Finally when I got to this stage, I flew him to Vegas when we did Vegas, and he got to hang on the bus with us, and he was just, like, ‘Happenin’, dude.’ All my life, I’d play local gigs and shit, and my dad would be the only one in the audience. He’d always go to >all> the gigs. Nobody else’s parents would be there. It makes it nice to be able to give it back.”
Dio says he feels young, but his youthful Rock Burnout period is in the cinder bin. “We’re mature people. We’ve done all that stuff in the past: We’ve chucked our TVs out, and we’ve sexuated ourselves across the country more than enough times. You grow up, and your values change.”
One thing hasn’t changed: the music is intense. The band Dio is, in fact, smelting the most complex, most thoroughly conceived, heaviest metal of its career. The group spent a year writing the material on >Angry Machines>. It shows.
The opening track, “Institutional Man,” is a cogent example of Appice’s contribution. Packed with changes, unusual time signatures and counterrhythms, it’s determined to be >original> metal music, the only reference points -- a chromatic riff and the behind-the-beat drum slog -- coming honestly via Black Sabbath.
Appice amplifies: “When Ronnie and I were in Sabbath, they were so behind. I thought, this is really interesting, the way they pull it back. It just makes it sound bigger and heavier. I got into that style, and in the music we play, it works really well, it makes it so strong.”
More ambitious still is “Stay Out of My Mind,” which begins with Appice prostrating the band before the throne of Slowness, then flouts the standard 4/4, tosses in a splattery, dissonant keyboard solo, indulges in a symphonic interlude, builds, overlaps, and finishes with a Beatlesque “She’s So Heavy” guitar arpeggio. Yikes.
Thematically, church, state and parents are up for their usual flogging, but that ain’t all. Dio is here to warn us against another menace to personal freedom: that >other> sex. The muscle-thighed riffmaster “Big Sister” will endear itself to feminists of all persuasions with lines like “Kill the king and then we’ll crown the whore.”
“I still think that’s a woman’s attitude,” Dio digs in. “I’m a strong believer that males are the endangered species. Big Sister’s gonna get us.” As he says this, photographer Virginia Hunter pops a test flash in his face. “That’s what they do,” he says. “They blind you first . . .” “Then they rob you blind, right?” Hunter interjects. Dio quotes himself from the song “Heaven and Hell”: “They blind your eyes and steal your dreams.”
During metal’s mid-’80s florescence, Dio tours were known for their blowout stagings: fire-belching dragons, mechanical warriors, smoke, lights -- now necessarily downscaled in favor of a leaner, cyberfied, “roboticky” approach. The theatricality and Dio’s resilient, dramatic, tone-perfect tenor lead one to think he might be a hardcore opera fan, but it turns out he mainly just likes Wagner.
“Opera stories . . . I find ‘em all pretty damn banal. It’s always a love story, or somebody screwing his mom, or the mom’s screwing the dog, or whatever. Wagner’s whole Valkyrie thing is cool, ‘cause it’s so tied into metal. I like the strength, just the pureness of it.”
Apocalypse now >and> then: Musicians can love the smell of napalm in the morning, too.
Now it’s time for the writer of this piece to make a confession. I used to question Ronnie James Dio’s utility. I thought he sang too competently to be a real rocker. I thought his melodrama was funny. And I was behind punk. Metal was not hip.
It was 1977 when I first heard him. Trying to broaden my education, my friend Dave played me “Kill the King,” from >Rainbow on Stage>. According to Dave’s testimony, I sat there with my mouth open, then got up and started pogoing furiously around the room. Then I >ripped> the stylus off the record.
Dave was patient, and eventually I realized I was dead wrong. Was Dio any more melodramatic than Mick Jagger or Johnny Rotten? He was an entertainer, but he fucking >rocked>. His lyrics went to the >wall>. And, possibly, musicianship wasn’t an automatic disqualification.
Unlikely as it seemed 20 years ago, the best heavy metal -- Dio’s, Ozzy’s, Iommi’s, Blackmore’s -- has turned out to be music you can grow up with. Ask Pat Boone, who has just released In a Metal Mood, an unexpectedly impressive album of heavy classics done big-band style. Ask Blackmore, whose twisting solo graces “Smoke on the Water” on that opus. Ask Dio himself, who sings on his own “Holy Diver” therein.
Punk rock has debouched into the mainstream, getting ever more polluted in the process. Johnny Rotten’s rebellion has devolved into a self-acknowledged joke. But Ronnie James Dio is more radical than ever, and more sophisticated. It’s fitting that he’s a fight aficionado who calls Sugar Ray Leonard, who has announced a comeback, “my hero.” He obviously digs that refusal to quit.
“You just miss the applause, you miss the attention,” says Dio, speaking ostensibly of Leonard. “If you can still get it, I guess you try for it.”
Yeah. At the Ventura Concert Theater, I’m right in the middle of the slam, an old asshole with a note pad in my paw, deflecting the human torpedoes. The music hits a big doom chord, and I am compelled. I shoot both devil-pronged fists into the air.
“Yeaaaah!” I scream. “Rawk un rowwwwl!”
Dio performs at Billboard Live Fri., Feb. 7. Pat Boone appears on The Tonight Show the same night.