[from The Beachwood Reporter / May 18, 2010]
Here’s the thing about the devil horn salute Ronnie James Dio made famous: it wasn’t a devil horn salute at all, but an Italian gesture of safety meant to ward off evil spirits. When normal, less-cultured men throw the horns, they mean it as a way of calling out to Satan; when Dio did it, he did it because he loved you.
Most purists forget this, but Sabbath’s last days with Ozzy were musically actually quite awful, as both 1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 1978’s Never Say Die! had reduced even the mighty Butler/Ward/Iommi juggernaut to a caricature of itself. But Dio’s huge voice, more operatic and melodically flexible than Ozzy’s, gave the band an entirely new instrument to write for and in turn gave new life to the kings of the undead. Certain corners of the Sabbath universe lament the prime Dio years only producing two proper albums, but those people are looking at things the wrong way: that lineup only needed two albums. If Dio doesn’t leave Sabbath after Mob Rules, we as a species suddenly find ourselves denied “We Rock,” “Evil Eyes,” and “Lock Up the Wolves” and that, simply put, is not a world in which any of us should have to live.
Do you know why dragons, wizards, swords and mythical demon-beasts are metal? Because Dio came along and said they were, and we should all be thankful for that, lest cars and casino fires still be held up as the gold standard of where the devil’s music can and should find inspiration.
Dio wasn’t the first to write about those wonderbeasts and dream worlds, he simply penned classic after classic about those mythical beings because he thought they were interesting, and at the same time made those things cool in the process. Yes, they were ridiculous. Yes, the idea of a grown man running on stage holding a sword over his head was laughably stupid. That didn’t matter. Dio loved those things, and he was going to do whatever he wanted whether you liked it or not, and in the end spectacle and conviction won out over fashion and common sense. He never sold out, never bowed to trends and famously threatened to destroy the master tape of 1983’s Rainbow in the Dark because he thought it was too poppy. Years later, people wrote songs about wonderbeasts and dream worlds because Dio had already blazed that trail, and made it all look so awesome along the way; witchcraft and wizardry were just part of the drill, but the real challenge was seeing how far anyone would dare take them after Dio had already proven the only way to not look ridiculous was to in fact be Dio. Lesser bands tried, and those lesser bands failed.
In 2001, Tenacious D’s excellent tribute song “Dio” playfully proposed that Dio was by then too old to rock; considering the man was 59 years old, you could forgive people for thinking that was the joke. Except if you actually saw the man in action around between then and now, either with Black Sabbath’s surprisingly earth-moving reformation as Heaven & Hell or with his eponymous band hitting the road for a fantastic tour with Iron Maiden and Motorhead in 2003, you found yourself understanding that the fundamental question the D was trying to sidestep was not “why does he do it?” but rather “how does he do it?” Most men would have been too worried about shattering their arthritic hips to kick out “Holy Diver” at that age; Dio, slyly laughing in their faces, threw caution and Father Time to the wind.
Somewhere beyond the gates of Babylon, a mighty beast takes flight from its mountaintop perch, vainly seeking shelter knowing full well its assassin is about to come riding over the horizon. A million suns set, a cold wind blows, and from up on high a thunderous voice echoes forever on, a guiding light across the endless midnight sea. Dragons beware.