Dio: Dreamers Never Die (2022)
I laughed, I air guitared, I wept.
I’ve long tried to explain just how and why heavy metal means so much to me. How these absurd songs performed by (mostly) men in denim and leather* (and occasionally spandex) have given me a reason to get up, to keep going, to light my darkest hours. This is music that took a scrawny, perpetually anxious kid and gave him a sense of purpose, of strength. A feeling of belonging, the sense that someone halfway across the world felt as fucked up and miserable as I did, and put it in a song. For years Black Sabbath’s Paranoid was my theme tune and I still can’t decide if that was a good thing. Still, likely better than Snowblind, eh? To be clear, I had a relatively happy childhood, and love my parents. Don’t take this the wrong way. But depression and anxiety, we’ve known each other a very long time.
Metal became an outlet for my frustrations, a way of venting my fury at well, the world. An outlet for exploring things I denied myself, or didn’t feel comfortable admitting. I’m still coming to terms with a lot of those sorts of issues. It’s been said that my love of tales of rock and roll excess, while not partaking myself, is one of the great hypocrisies of my life and I’d agree with you on that. Control issues, and not being willing to let go? Yeah, that’s me. Despite all that, emotion is something I do at full blast, whether that be attempting to explain Babylon 5 to my mother in law without spoiling how Sleeping in Light breaks me into tiny pieces or the fact that just typing the words Tales of Ba Sing Se has me trying, and failing, not to cry. So, there’s going to be some wild and over the top hyperbole incoming, and I mean every fucking word of it.
I was aware of the works of Ronnie James Dio, mostly as an 80’s throwback. I discovered metal in the 90’s, aka the decade described by comedian and metal fan Andrew O’Neill as ‘when all your favourite bands went shit.’ It was a strange time – Iron Maiden and Judas Priest lost iconic frontmen (happily both returned after a few years), Metallica released the Black album and gained twice as many fans than they lost and to this day I still can’t stand Pantera – not that the band are bad, but every fan of theirs I knew at the time was a violent meathead and the association stuck. Now, I’m not saying every Pantera fan is a violent thick headed fuckwit, but you may have to work to prove you aren’t one. (I have the same problem with Australian flag capes and Southern Cross tattoos.) Singer Phil Anselmo’s far right outbursts over the years haven’t helped things either. It was a time when the more absurd excesses of the 80’s were (mostly) swept under the rug and songs about dragons and wizards were not on the agenda.
So yeah, I was aware of Dio, mostly through the gloriously Dungeons and Dragons-esque video for Holy Diver. It wasn’t until the release of the Black Sabbath compilation The Dio Years that I truly dug into his work and holy crap, it was one of those ‘Where has this been all my life?’ kind of moments, much like my first viewing of Big Trouble in Little China. Yes, these were ridiculous songs about dragons, kings and the power of rock and roll, and that’s exactly my aesthetic. And by Crom, that voice. For someone who claimed to have had no formal vocal training, the power in his voice could shake rooms. The way it lets rip in The Last in Line, or the sheer power in Falling Off the Edge of the World. His delivery of “Look out there’s danger. nowhere to run!” is enough to smash you back against the wall. Therefore, it was quite surprising to discover that his earliest releases were 50’s doo-wop. The man knew of a time before rock and roll…
We get taken through the evolution of his sound, the car crash that nearly killed him and the formation of Elf, who became regular openers for Deep Purple which in turn led to the formation of Rainbow when Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore quit. While massively popular in Europe and Japan, they couldn’t crack America and those cracks only got larger when Blackmore decided to move in a more commercial direction. Hence, the first of several dust ups (A running theme of sorts) when Dio stuck to his guns and quit.
Looking for work and running out of money, he stumbled across Tony Iommi in the Rainbow Bar and Grill and the rest, as they say, is history. The album that resulted, Heaven and Hell, lit a fire under Sabbath who’d spent the previous few years in a cocaine haze, but alas, things fell apart during the mixing of the album Live Evil and Dio was out on his own again. It takes us through the glory days of the 80’s, dust ups with band members (Vivian Campbell is heard, not seen) and the dark days of the 90’s, (There’s no mention of his short lived return to Black Sabbath for 1992’s Dehumanizer nor of his messy exit when he refused to support Ozzy Osbourne) and of his return to glory with the retro metal movement of the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Getting to see him with the reunited Sabbath, billed as Heaven and Hell, in 2007 was a bucket list moment, even with the prat a few rows over who kept yelling for Holy Diver. When someone finally managed to explain they were only doing Sabbath songs, the guy started yelling for Paranoid. *sighs*
Alas, we know how the story ends with Dio’s death from cancer in May 2010, and I have zero shame whatsofuckingever in admitting I was weeping at that point. We get to see his final on-camera interview, and given how he’s talking about making another Heaven and Hell record, it’s hard not to feel robbed. Yes, he was 67, but he still had more to give. It wasn’t over, he didn’t get to go out on his terms and that still hurts me.
The film’s a mostly warts and all story of triumph and tragedy, that showcases a man who loved music and was determined to do things his way, no matter the consequences. Someone who loved what he did, no matter how small the venue, and from the video footage we see of some 90’s gigs, the venues were pretty bloody small. Someone who’d anything for a fan, even to the extent of helping talk down a suicidal fan with the offer of a hug. The bonus footage from the cinema screening contained some extra gems, with the story told by Jack Black about Dio overpowering 3 top of the line microphones while recording his part for Tenacious D’s The Pick of Destiny a highlight for me.
If you’re a fan, you’ll be all over this. And if not, what are you doing with your life? Put some headphones on, Fire up Heaven and Hell and you too will know the glory that was Ronnie James Dio.
That he was taken shed a tear,
His legacy remains,
So he will never die.
Be aware that he’s coming for you.
Look out, look out, look out!
Three Inches of Blood – Look Out
* It brought us all together….