Letter Of Recommendation: Ronnie James Dio
Throughout 50 years of making heavy music — in Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Heaven & Hell — Dio sang again and again and again about trying to find a home. In Rainbow’s “Stargazer,” Dio tells the story of a wizard who tempts commoners with empty promises, persuading them to enslave themselves to build him a tower from which he will fly. The people realize too late that they’ve fallen victim to a predator: “We build a tower of stone/With our flesh and bone/Just to see him fly/But we don’t know why.” Dio is the aching voice of an embittered, betrayed public — a siren urging them to rise, stand up, take their lives back: “I see a rainbow rising/Look there, on the horizon.”
My love for Dio’s music came in a slow drip. During the period in which I regularly came home from work to find red heating-shut-off notices dangling from the doorknob of our rental house, I progressed further into his catalog, taken by all the stories he tells in his music. When he died in the spring of 2010, I thought of all us castaways for whom he must have been singing. The more I listened, the more I felt as if Dio, all along, was talking to people like me and Joe in his songs.
There are precise songs for precise moments: Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut” for Friday nights, Metallica’s “Creeping Death” for morning traffic, Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” before a salary negotiation. But Dio’s music was often about finding victory inside yourself, of recognizing the craven intentions of the powerful and fighting back. When he held the microphone, his voice exploded out of him, a smelling-salts blast under the noses of anyone on the verge of giving up.
Recently, though, Dio’s music became clearer for me, and it happened around the time I realized that I was remiss in expecting a society set up on the twin values of spending and earning to find a place for a person like me. I was on my way to have lunch with a Pulitzer Prize winner with 23 cents in my bank account and a desperate hope my “emergencies only” credit card wouldn’t be declined. I was on the freeway when, out of the blue, there was Dio: Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” crashing through a bright afternoon:
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, oh, no. Fool, fool
For once, I was broke and I was laughing. How could I listen to a song so many times and only now really hear it? All along, Dio was saying what a fool’s game it is to measure your value on the standards of a society that was never meant for you. Gold is never free, and to get it, you’ve got to bow before a master. “God and the devil are inherent in each of us, and it’s our choice to make,” Dio said in one interview, late in life. “The optimum way to go is to do the good thing.”
I think he wanted to leave this as his legacy: a reminder that home is a place inside your own mind. There will always be new wizards to follow, new rings to kiss. But there, too, will always be rejects and castaways. And there’s victory in the realization that there will always be more of us than there are of them. That in our anger, together we are all home.