Tuesday, June 1, 2010

STL #94: Evil or Divine

Ronnie James Dio died a little more than a month ago. He was 67, died of cancer, and is the first metal person to die from what is sort of old age. His passing was noted as expected in the media--the second singer Black Sabbath, he who introduced the devil horns into the metal world, fronting his own band in the 80's, etc. While to the casual follower of pop culture he was the guy who replaced Ozzy, to the metal world he was unto a god. (See Lars Ulrich's moving letter to Dio.)

Dio is an example of a the role of lead singers in the metal world. When Ritchie Blackmore hired him to be the lead singer in what was originally called "Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow," it clearly showed that the identity of a band was not necessarily derivative of the lead singer's personality. Tony Iommi must have been taking notes, because he hired Dio to replace the charismatic but unreliable Ozzy Osbourne a few years later. Band identities in metal are not linked to a line-up of players; in most bands, most of the players were replaceable. The singer, like any other member, was a hired gun, and could choose to leave or be fired in a corporate model. While this might seem to lead to a kind of facelessness or interchangeability, it also encourages competition and virtuosity--if you are good enough, you could rocket to the highest reaches. Dio was definitely good enough: nearly every fan debate on Dio vs Osbourne era Sabbath begins with the premise that Dio is one of the three or so best singers in metal. He might have felt miffed by lack of appreciation in his two previous bands, since he learned the key to job security after leaving Sabbath--if you name the band after yourself, they can never fire you. Both Rainbow and Black Sabbath carried on with other singers, though of course the band Dio never could.

As a sometime resident of the metal world, I knew him as a giant voiced, impassioned singer--he was what we call in that realm, "awesome". His voice was always what you would call "big" but not, as some recent commentators have said, "operatic." Unlike Rob Halford of Bruce Dickinson, he never used his pipes for sheer pyrotechnics. I've listened to a lot of his work lately, including his early band Elf and even some of his doo-wop stuff recorded as Ronnie and the Prophets, and he also had a sense of phrasing in service of the lyrics.His awesomeness can be demostrated in a relatively short playlist. I'd skip over his first 15 years and start it with "Man on the Silver Mountain" (1976) when he was the lead singer in Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. Then "Heaven and Hell" (1980) from his first Black Sabbath album and "Mob Rules" from the second, and round it off with three from his band Dio: "Holy Diver" (1983), "Rainbow in the Dark" (1983) and "The Last in Line" (1984). This last song in particular has been a longtime fascination of mine. Emerging from the contemplative first minute, it is an example of the chiaroscuro technique beloved by classic metal--to go from light to dark, light to heavy, at a moment's notice. The moment of transformation, of waking up, occurs with one of the greatest high intensity screams of eighties metal is at the 53 second mark of "The Last in Line," when he kicks it up to 11: "We are coming... HOME!"

The lyrics of "The Last in Line" meant a lot to when inscribing them on the inside of my Pee-Chee at the age of 14, but I'm still moved by them now. Dio's work has a penchant for repeated imagery of an elemental variety: "We are fire, we are stone" that creates a sameness when bingeing on his music, but summons an archetypal mood in the moment. Sometimes this elemental imagery muddles into non sense, like in "Mob Rules": "If you play with fire, you'll burn your fingers, and lose ahold of the flame." In "The Last in Line," though, there is nary a false step. He flirts with incoherence in the second verse: "We are all born upon the cross/We're the throw before the toss"--what does that mean? But that moment of bafflement is washed aside, everytime I hear it, by the dynamic fall at the end of the line "You can release yourself but the only way to go is down."

The grandeur his voice perfectly suits his major theme the problematic search for the truth. This is present in all of the songs I mentioned above, and is the primary topic of "The Last in Line." Truth is the ultimate goal ("We search for the Truth, We could die upon the Truth") but it is never clear--we will not know until the Final Reckoning is "We're Evil or Divine." In this case, the search for truth is bound up with his other great lyrical theme, loyalty. In the song, he forms a community of the cast out and abject in the chorus--"We're the last in line." Watching online videos of performances, I saw a communal aspect (in the sense both of community and communion) of this song in particular. The crowd would come alive, joining in singing and throwing the horns with the master himself.

Dio explained that the devil horns were taught to him as by his superstitious Italian grandmother. Pointing out with the fingers down is a method of giving the evil eye, that is, of cursing an enemy. Held up, in the ubiquitous heavy metal salute, is a means of blocking the evil eye. So what is commonly viewed as Satan worship is actually a spell of protection. The horns are a unifier--gathered together, his people, the last in line, were protected, and learned the occult means to protect themselves (forbidden knowledge to be sure). There is a sense of allegiance in throwing the horns--you gain the protection and fellowship of a community, but don't succumb to the fellowship of Christianity and 'upstanding society' that has travestied itself so many times over.

When a public figure dies, the rest of us strive to make sense of what his or her life meant. Newspaper obituaries and fan tributes both recap the major events of the deceased and in varying degrees, make an argument about why he or she was important to the culture and society he or she departed. Though Dio made his impact in less than a decade's time, his longevity is part of his legacy. Tenacious D helped RJD experience a kind of revival in the last few years, through a novelty song about how RJD was too old to rock anymore, and should pass the torch on to Tenacious D. This is intended as joke of course--Jack Black couldn't hold a torch if there was one to offer, but it's true that at this Dio's flame will keep burning in all the rites he originated.