I am sad to read that Ronnie James Dio has died. He had a special gift for singing delectably improbable lyrics (“Between the velvet lies, there’s a truth as hard as steel”; “You’ve got to bleed for the dancer!”) and making potentially ludicrous songs convincing and compelling on several levels—the ironic level (which he opened up with his adamant earnestness) as well as the level just beyond irony at which one remembers how it was to be 12 and enthralled by castle-rock classics like “Tarot Woman” and “Kill the King.” And of course there’s the level of his sheer vocal prowess and authority. He’s as strong and commanding a singing presence as anybody in hard rock (you can lump him in with Robert Plant and Ian Gillan or anybody else), but Dio left rock’s blues roots behind (it’s hard to imagine him singing, say, “I Can’t Quit You Baby) and opened the way to the quintessential metal vocal style, carnality purged and thus perfect for prepubescent males. His incantatory way of emoting through lyrics suffused with a hermetic, abstract spirituality (“catch the rainbow,” etc.) aimed to provide a catharsis entirely contained within a detached fantasy realm. It doesn’t give “insight” into your life and problems particularly, but when it works, it’s like an obscure ritual has been enacted. When it doesn’t, well, then there’s still lots to laugh about. (And if music—especially Dio’s sort of music—can’t make you smile, what good is it?)
The peculiar sexlessness of most of Dio’s work can make it seem especially juvenile, but one would have to be both humorless and heartless to dismiss him at that. It’s easy to use pop music as a means of bullying, for rites of exclusion. But Dio’s music never lent itself to that. Persistently optimistic in his stage persona, Dio always seemed as though he was on the side of outcasts and underdogs, and he would shout his affirmative paeans to rainbows and self-esteem right alongside his evocations of fire and demons and whatnot without any regard to whether anyone might think he was silly. He gave his audience permission to feel the same way and forget whatever might have made them misfits.
So I sort of think this video may best sum up the spirit of Dio. (Though I admit that if I could have found one of him killing a dragon on stage I might have changed my mind.)