LONELY IS THE WORD: A Deep Dive into the Myths, Meanings and Metaphors of Ronnie James Dio
"If there isn’t light when no one sees, how can I know what you might believe? A story told that can’t be real somehow must reflect the truth we feel.” – Sign of the Southern Cross, from the 1981 Black Sabbath album, Mob Rules. Lyrics by Dio.
“If Dio goes, we all go.”
I posted that statement on my Facebook page a few days before Ronnie James Dio passed away. I remember hearing that Heaven and Hell, the reformed and renamed Dio-fronted version of Black Sabbath, cancelled all their upcoming tour dates a few weeks earlier. There were occasional, mostly negative reports on Dio's health leading up to the day as well. Increasingly it became clear he wouldn’t be around much longer.
Dio died on May 16, 2010. We did not go with him. Now, nearly 10 years later I’m still upset that it didn’t happen that way; that we didn’t all suddenly find ourselves on the rainbow bridge, standing behind Ronnie as he pointed to some indistinguishable spot in the cosmic distance.
It’s not hard to imagine that Dio is still on that mythical bridge, gazing at the galactic horizon. He was, after all, “the guy who sang about dragons and wizards.” That’s how many people, including his fans, often describe him. The tagline isn’t meant to be a put down because Dio certainly did sing about dragons and wizards. But ending the description of him there is also dismissive. It’s equivalent to your friends saving images of Hawaii from Google Earth to commemorate a trip they took to the islands. They’ll get the general idea whenever they look at the pictures, but they’re skipping all the details.
With Dio, the devil was always in the details. He mixed his metaphors and he pulled from multiple mythologies, sometimes even in the same verse of a single song. And more often than not, he was actually talking about something meaningful. His dragons had teeth and his wizards were full of magic.
MYTHICAL CREATUREMyths and epics from our past are not just stories for the sake of entertainment, they are attempts to express something about the human experience that it is otherwise impossible to convey. The same is true of poetry. You can try to explain to someone how you felt when a loved one died, or when you fell in love, or when you were more scared than any other time in your life, but you will probably come up short. You’ll end up saying something like, “I felt like I was in an elevator that suddenly dropped at high speed from the 100th floor.” This is metaphor and myth in its simplest form. Over the long course of the human trajectory we have turned these little exaggerations into elaborate stories; stories that are meant to communicate our experience to others. Dio steeped himself in myth. It was his lexicon and his means of communication in song.
Joseph Campbell, the great professor of comparative religions said, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth — penultimate because the ultimate truth cannot be put into words. It is beyond words.”
In that light, consider Dio’s lyrics in the introduction to the Black Sabbath song, The Sign of the Southern Cross; they are almost a rewording of Campbell’s statement. “If there isn’t light where no one sees, then how can I know what you might believe? A story told that can’t be real somehow must reflect the truth we feel.”
This is not the only example of Dio’s acknowledgment of his purposeful use of metaphor to communicate very real things. Even casual Dio fans should be able to complete these lines from Holy Diver: “Between the velvet lies there’s a truth as hard as steel. The vision never dies, life’s a never ending wheel.”
The first line is just another way of saying, “All these fancy words are actually telling you something.” The second line with its reference to a never ending wheel is a good segue into Dio’s commonly used themes, and how he applied them to very real occurrences in his own life.
The circular nature of life and the spiritual quest were very present themes in Dio’s lyrics. We’ll discuss them often in this essay, as we consider some of Dio’s most commonly used concepts. Let’s start with The Fool.
FOOLISH WAYSThe classic fool is the court jester, the seemingly hapless clown in the royal court who entertains the king. The original fool of myth is best represented in the Tarot. The fool card shows a young man heading forth on a journey, oblivious to a cliff that he is about to fall off. He is young and joyful, and full of possibility. And he is questing to find the truth. The original tarot deck eventually evolved into the modern playing card deck. The current representation of the fool is much different than the original version, relegated to useless status in most games. The fool of the tarot deck is Dio’s fool; the fool who is heading off on his quest to enlightenment and will either spill into the abyss in front of him, or discover the truth of it all and avoid disaster. Or, he may simply walk off the cliff and out into space.
The fool shows up a lot in Dio’s lyrics. In the song, Heaven and Hell, from Black Sabbath’s Mob Rules LP it is simply stated, “fool, fool, look for the answer.” Here Dio presents the questing fool; the oblivious, but hopeful young-soul seeking out truth. The song’s lyrics present pairings of opposites — endings and beginnings — all mashed into Dio’s constantly present view of the cyclical nature of life.
“They say that life’s a carousel, spinning fast you’ve got to ride it well…” Here, Dio throws the traveling fool into a constant mix of dark and light, and tells him to look for the answer amidst the swirling motion of life. Dio identified with the fool. His career was a constant flow of endings and beginnings. His bands approached dizzying heights only to fall apart, usually in acrimony. Working with Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow, Dio was forced to deal with one of rock’s most dour and difficult musicians. Blackmore is an amazing guitar player, but he’s just as well known for his large ego. After the dissolution of Rainbow, which was deeply frustrating and disappointing for Dio, he found himself in the recharged Black Sabbath. The first song on his first record with the band is Neon Knights. It starts with the lyrics, “Oh no, here it comes again, can’t remember when we came so close to love before. Hold on, good things never last, nothing’s in the past, it always seems to come again.” Dio recognizes and celebrates his new beginning with Sabbath, but with caution, remembering the lessons of his past.
Dio often referred to the beginnings and endings of his career (and there were a lot of them) in his lyrics. One of his most direct identifications with the fool comes in the deeply personal, Strange Highways, the title track from the Dio album of the same name. Strange Highways was his last album with Vertigo/Reprise records. Vertigo had been the label to finally sign Dio as Dio, not as a member of somebody else’s band. He had success with his first few albums, but as interest in him and heavy metal in general waned in the 1990s, the label was satisfied with letting his contract run out. Strange Highways captures his thoughts on this. “It’s a crazy world we live in and I’m leaving it today, for another institution, where crazy people play. Every time I climbed a mountain and it turned into a hill, I promised me that I’d move on, and I will.”
The institution is the record company, the crazy people are the musicians working for them, and the mountains that turned into hills were Dio’s repeated disappointments. Rainbow and Black Sabbath started as mountainous ventures, then simply crumbled. Even Dio (the band) disintegrated under the loss of a record contract and constant lineup changes. Strange Highways gets more personal as it goes on: “I, good for nothing, going nowhere, so they say.” In the second verse Dio almost mimics Pink Floyd’s Have a Cigar in his indictment of the music industry: “Hey you, I want your number, don’t even wonder, we do things our way here. Questions, these are forbidden. We’ve got no answers, believe us anyway.”
Dio had signed more than one contract in his life at this point, and his opinions on the business end of the music industry were pretty clear. Although Dio suffered many setbacks in his career, he always picked himself up and dusted himself off in the garb of the fool. “So here is my confession, it’s the only broken rule,” he sings. “Sometimes I crawl inside of me where I can play the fool on strange highways.”
The strange highway is the carousel referred to in Heaven and Hell; the mixing mash of swirling, unsettled life. Dio is a man between contracts, not sure what he’ll do next, or who his bandmates will be. But he accepts his fate, and sets out on his journey again, much like the fool, full of hope and wonder.
One of his most obvious references to the fool comes in the largely misunderstood All the Fools Sailed Away. The fool referenced here is the later version — the jester, the entertainer. Dio recognized that people often misunderstood the concept. He saw himself as the questing fool, but was well aware that many viewed him more as the modern day, court jester. All the Fools Sailed Away stands as a warning: “We bring you fantasy, we bring you pain. It’s your one great chance at a miracle, or we will disappear, never to be seen again.”
Dio knew he was not always taken seriously, and from time to time he was willing to pause and say, “I’m trying to tell you something. What I have to say is important.”
The video for All the Fools Sailed Away is worth watching. At first glance it might be dismissed as the kind of 80s cheese that people sometimes accused Dio of exemplifying, but its message is actually pretty plain. In the video, a man in a suit rounds up people on a beach, including heavy metal fans and entertainers (there’s even a football player). He leads them to a ship. Once aboard the gang plank is burned and they sail away into the night. The symbolism here is pretty obvious. The suited man partially represents the music industry folks that Dio didn’t appreciate, but also the “straight” world in general; those who failed to see the magic around them. Dio makes his place in this ongoing struggle clear — as the ship sails away he remains alone on the beach, standing near a fire, the keeper of the flame. He will carry on telling his stories, though he knows he may be telling them to people who don’t understand or even care to listen.
Years before, Dio had considered his position in Black Sabbath’s Lonely is the Word. The “traveler” in his lyrics is interchangeable with the “fool” represented in the tarot card deck: “…come on join the traveler if you’ve got nowhere to go. Hang your head and take my hand, it’s the only road I know, lonely is the word.” The song closes with resignation at the likely outcome of choosing the path of the dreamer. “Lonely is the name, maybe life’s a losing game…”
Dio wasn’t always resigned to the tragedy of the fool however. He was philosophical about it sometimes too. In Just Another Day from the Sacred Heart album he takes the non-dreamer to task, but ultimately just chalks it up to the way things are. I’ve wondered if this song is about a specific ex-bandmate, a conglomeration of ex-bandmates, or maybe successful musicians he felt were going through the motions. He sings, “You never sing for pleasure, you only make the sounds. You never feel the magic, ‘cause you think the world is spinning round for you. But it’s all right, it’s just another day.”
ONCE AND FUTURE KINGDio frequently referred to the Legend of King Arthur in his songs as well. Not unlike the fool concept, the light he used it in changed according to his own situation at the time. The first reference he makes to the legend is on the last Rainbow album he appeared on, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll. In Lady of the Lake, he sings in the first person, about preparing himself to take the sword and begin his quest. Rainbow was collapsing at the time and Dio found Blackmore increasingly impossible to work with. In this song, he imagined himself ready to strike out on his own and become something more. “I know she waits below, only to rise on command. When she comes for me she’s got my life in her hands.”
Dio revisits the Arthurian legend after joining Black Sabbath. He invokes it in the most positive sense, having found a kinship with his new bandmates. His excitement was apparent in the lyrics for Neon Knights: “Ride out, protectors of the realm, captains at the helm sail across the sea of light.”
Unfortunately, the Sabbath relationship quickly unraveled. By the time Dio recorded his second and final album with the band, their future had gone dark. In Falling Off the Edge of The World, he bleakly reflects, “I think about closing the door, and lately I think of it more. I’m living well out of my time. I feel like I’m losing my mind. I should be at the table round, a servant to the crown, the keeper of the sign to sparkle and to shine.”
In Lady of the Lake Dio wrote of hope and potential, but here he laments the wasted chances and failed opportunities.
Dio’s focus on the circular nature of life was the central lens through which he viewed the world. It’s not surprising to find a later reference to Arthurian mythology that has a sense of resignation to it. In the introduction to Invisible on the Holy Diver album, he sings, “If your circle stays unbroken then you’re a lucky man, ‘cause it never, never, never has for me. In the palace of the virgin lies the chalice of the soul, and it’s likely you might find the answer there.”
Here, Dio accepts that it is difficult to stay on the path, or at least to keep your band of brothers together, but he does point the listener to “the answer.” The chalice/virgin symbolism plays heavily in the Lancelot branch of the Arthurian legend.
THE ANSWER YOU SEEKThe answer — that’s something Dio wrote about a lot. It would be difficult to gather all his references to “the answer,” but suffice to say he often uses the concept to express the completion of the spiritual journey. If myths represent something too difficult to express in normal language, then how hard is it to explain the answer if it is known? Dio didn’t even try, but he frequently pointed toward the path to the answer. In most myths that tell the tale of the hero, or the tale of the fool, enlightenment is gained by a leap of faith. As mentioned earlier, the fool from the tarot card deck depicts the character on the precipice of a cliff. In a story meant to tell something, the leap of faith at the end is inevitable. And in most examples, it is this moment that the fool, with no other choice, is successful. An invisible hand catches him, or an unseen path presents itself before him, or a divine intervention ensues. Dio mulled over this idea often in his lyrics. In the waning moments of Sign of the Southern Cross, he sings, “Don’t live for pleasure, make life your treasure. Fade Away! Eight miles high, about to fall, and no one there to catch you. Look for the sign…”
The command to “Fade Away,” is the command to let the “self” go. Although there is no one there to prevent the fall, Dio reminds one to look for the signs. The hero here is “about to fall” and will not receive his answer — his help — until he does so.
Another example of this motif can be found within the song, Shoot Shoot, from Sacred Heart. “Yes, you know the feeling, all alone your back to the wall, and all the doorways, they’re starting to close in front of you. Well there’s no confusion, oh no it came in a spell, I found it in a wishing well. Now it’s a matter of mind, you know you can be free forever. So the next time someone points a gun at you, say shoot, shoot, I don’t care.”
The message here is the same as that in Southern Cross — let go and you’ll be free; let go and you’ll have the answer. I’d also like to point out the potent imagery of finding the answer in a wishing well. Writing those lines prompted me to refer back to the lyrics of Wishing Well by Black Sabbath, in which Dio sings, “Throw me a penny and I’ll make you a dream. You’ll find that life’s not always what it seems. Then think of a rainbow, and I’ll make it come real. Roll me, I’m a never ending wheel.”
That’s the funny thing about Dio. The closer you look at his songs, the more of a puzzle they become. They even refer back to themselves. Dio viewed life as a cycle, a wheel, and he wrote that way too. His whole career was a series of endings and beginnings, so naturally he tried to make sense of it by writing about endings and beginnings. If you stand back and look at all his lyrics as a whole, they seem to form a circle. You can dip your hand in the stream at any point in the chronology and you’ll likely find an ending and a beginning. As part of the stage show on the Sacred Heart tour, Dio brought leap of faith — the test of the hero — into visual existence. The stage set included a mechanical dragon. During the performance of the song, Sacred Heart, Dio battles and ultimately slays the dragon. He opens its chest to reveal, in all its shining digital glory, the sacred heart. In this act, the questing hero becomes synonymous with the fool. Of course, Dio’s telling of the tale predates the wise, old soul version of the dragon myth in circulation today. In the 1980s dragons were still treasure hoarding materialists. They were the direct enemy of the dreamer/hero and the final hurdle at the end of the journey. They were that leap of faith.
THE END IS THE BEGINNINGLet’s talk about endings a little more. The apocalypse, the end of all things, was a frequently considered theme in Dio’s writing. I refer again to Falling Off the Edge of the World, which you will remember captured Dio’s feelings on the ending of his time with Sabbath. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that he felt like a prophet of doom. “Help me, tell me I’m sane. I feel a change in the earth, in the wind, in the rain. Save me, take me away. You know I’ve seen some creatures from hell and I’ve heard what they say.” Later in the song, he’s again looking for a new beginning: “Look out there’s danger, nowhere to run. It seems like desperate measures, but sometimes it’s got to be done. Over, it’s over at last. There’s a message inside as we build a new life from the past.”
End of the world. Cycle of life. Repeat.
One of Ronnie James Dio’s most heartbreaking songs is The End of the World. It comes from his last solo album, Master of the Moon, released in 2004. The timing here is important. Like the period of time before and after Strange Highways, Dio found himself falling out of favor. He was playing much smaller venues and his albums were getting little to no notice at all. It’s crushing to hear him sing, “If I could sleep at night then somehow I’d see why everything’s wrong, or maybe it’s just me. Does anybody know this place that I’m in, why I might be alone? Imagination is a terrible thing. What if I’m wrong? But here’s what I’ve been thinking…it must be the end of the world.”
I have a hard time listening to this track. It’s tough to take because Dio seems to be telling us that imagination is a terrible thing. He felt so abandoned and replaced by popular trends that he questioned his own chosen means of expression. The second verse is even tougher to listen to: “What ever happened to the rock and roll song, breaking your brain, making you stronger? They say you never hear the bullet that kills, and I don’t hear a thing.” The silence here could be an acknowledgment that he didn’t see what musical trend (bullet) was coming to replace him, or simply the silence of an empty theater.
The final blow comes in the last verse: “Don’t get emotional but we’re out of time. The melody’s gone, fools have got the sunshine. If I’m mistaken and I see you again, don’t leave me alone.” Fools here refers to idiots, and that might be the most heartbreaking part of the lyrics. This is one of the only references to a fool that I can find in Dio’s words which is not interchangeable with the hero or questing knight. “You’re all fools!” on The Mob Rules may come to mind, but that song is more positive than you might expect. Consider the last lyrics: “Break the circle and stop the movement, the wheel is thrown to the ground. Just remember it might start rolling and take you right back around. You’re all fools!” In other words, Dio declares that all travelers, seekers and fools who have been cast into chaos will eventually cycle back to a happier place.
Lest you lose faith in our hero after hearing The End of the World, Dio rallies somewhat on The Master of the Moon’s closing track, I Am. At first, he continues on the theme set forth in End of the World with the lyrics, “I think I’m through with just pretending, knocking at a door that I’ve been through before. Congratulations, at last you’ve seen my light. Now it’s you against the night.”
It’s hard to know if this is Dio passing the torch to the listener, or if he is saying, “I’ve tried, you’re on your own now.” A later verse is more positive and seems to defend Dio’s catalogue of lyrics. “For all the words unspoken, silence isn’t gold, or the story’s never told. Investigation, at last I’ve found my light, and we shine.” The music fades with these affirming words: “I am stronger than before. I am more. I am ready to go on. I am.” Those were Dio’s last words on a solo album.
I’ll share with you a curious fact. The western bible begins with, “Let there be light!” But the original Hebrew Old Testament begins with “I Am.” Dio, always a man of circles, ends his solo journey with the same words that (allegedly) started this whole grand mess.
Three years after Master of the Moon, Dio reunited with Black Sabbath. There had been a brief reunion in 1992 that ended in mixed results. But in 2007, the band was a wiser, older bunch, and the affair proved to be a bit of a long-deserved victory lap of sorts for Dio. His own band had some success in the preceding years in the form of festival appearances and larger venues where they opened for more popular bands. Although Dio certainly enjoyed “legendary” status in the metal world, he could really only fill mid-sized theaters as a solo headlining act. The reformed Sabbath (now called Heaven and Hell) headlined a very successful arena tour. They’d intended to wrap it up after that, but enthused by their success, they recorded a new album and went on tour again.
It would be nice to say that Dio’s lyrics on the album, The Devil You Know, reflected a man fully satisfied with his renewed success, but the mental wounds of recent years were apparent, as was the simple, jaded exhaustion of approaching old age. Dio was 64 when the album was recorded. The album’s single, Bible Black, tells of a man tired and winding down: “At last alone, his fire’s dying, burned another day. Now to pretend and make up and ending, somewhere far away.” He then revisits more familiar metaphors: “He reaches for a book all bound in leather, something that he knows he’s never read. The first page says beware you’ve found the answer, the next page says I wish that you were dead.”
The implication here is that the “answer” when found, may hold a high cost. He was steadfast in his dedication to his storytelling style; it was part of the reason he was kicked out of Rainbow. Ritchie Blackmore was intent on becoming more commercially successful, and didn’t want to feature demons and wizards in the band’s songs. The pressure no doubt came from industry folk as well. One can imagine a record executive whispering in Dio’s ear, asking him to tone down the fantasy elements in his lyrics and try writing love songs. Dio’s dedication saw him move from label to label, and play to smaller and smaller crowds. When renewed success came around, Dio had to experience it as a band member and not as a band leader. Later lines in Bible Black include: “What’s this world I see? Who are you and who are me? Maybe I just stumbled in the dark.” And “let me go, I’ve seen religion, and the light has left me blind.” Dio follows this by referring to the cyclical nature of things again, but questions where the path has lead him. “Here I go again, from the start to the end, I wish I could remember what I’ve done.”
I think Dio was always a man of dreams and hope. Having been pushed out of the warm glow of the public eye for a time, he enjoyed the packed arenas of the Heaven and Hell tour. He and his bandmates were all in their 50’s and 60’s at the time, and the irony of their success was not lost on him. In an industry largely focused on youth, there was still room for heroes who knew the old ways.
The last song on a studio album to feature Dio’s vocals is Breaking into Heaven on The Devil You Know. The lyrics can be read as a commentary on his return to glory. “Someone said there’s a lost horizon, we must find our way to the throne. Take his gold, and the bed that he lies on, no mercy from hearts made of stone.” The chorus, though simple, holds even more meaning. “We’re breaking into Heaven, changing the rules. We’re breaking into Heaven, just a world full of fools.” Here, Dio saw himself as a fool; as a dreamer. He identified with his fans, and considered them dreamers and fools too.
And while this might seem an obvious place to stop, in a career of circles it seems perfectly fine to push on a little further after Dio’s chronological end. There are two more songs I’d like to mention; one in brief, and one in depth. Both come from The Lock Up the Wolves album, and as is usual with Dio, the circumstances of his career and life are relevant to the tone of his writing. Lock Up the Wolves was his third record in a row with a new guitarist, and more importantly it was his first without one single member of the Holy Diver lineup. Vinnie Appice (drums) and Jimmy Bain (bass) had been with him since the Black Sabbath and Rainbow days (in that order), but had ended their tenure after the previous album, Dream Evil. That was a blow to Ronnie. On Strange Highways he bid farewell to his record contract, but on this album, which directly preceded it, he bid farewell to lost bandmates – Ronnie was amongst strangers on Lock Up the Wolves. On the song Born On the Sun his disappointment is apparent. “There’s a crack in the rainbow, there’s a hole in the sky. You believed in something, now it’s just a lie.” He goes on “No jokes from the jester…” and again the identification with the fool, but this fool is out of jests.
The more powerful statement, though, comes in the track My Eyes, which concludes the album. This may be his most obviously self-referential track, and in it he retraces his career by invoking his own song titles. It begins “My eyes can see inside tomorrow. My eyes can get next to you. Time flies on wings that just get stronger. My eyes are true.” If you distrust Ronnie’s proclamation of his own ability to see the future, remember here his understanding of the cyclical nature of things. What goes up, must come down. He continues “My eyes could see the bodies shaking. My eyes were clear and bright. Goodbyes are easy to remember. You can still see the hurt in my eyes.” The “bodies shaking” could be a reference to the audience in the arena, but it could also be a reference to the Frankenstein-like body that is formed by the different personalities that make up a band. One can see when the friction arises and the end is coming, and Dio had witnessed such disintegrations many times at this point.
It’s here that things really take off though. Ronnie sings “I’ve fallen off the edge of the world. I’ve fallen from the top of a mountain, just to rise again. I’ve seen it from heaven and hell. I’ve seen it from the eyes of a stargazer.” The mountain top refers to the Rainbow track Man On the Silver Mountain, but probably to the proverbial ‘mountains turned into hills’ mentioned in Strange Highways as well. “…just to rise again,” is a reference to the Rainbow album Rising, but also to Dio’s repeated self-renewals after the dissolution of bands and partnerships. And then comes this: “I want to be invisible. Just get me out of here. Could the dreamer be turning to stone?” The last sentence is of course his concern at the hardening of his own heart at repeated disappointments, but the reference to his song Invisible is an interesting insight to his reaction to crisis throughout his career and life.
Invisible has three verses. In the first a young girl in dire straits realizes her best bet is to leave, to disappear, to become invisible. In the second verse a young man in dire straits does the same. The final verse though, is about Ronnie himself. “Well I grew up quick and I felt the kick of life upon the stage. So I bought the book and then I took a fast look at just the very last page. It was a single word that I’d just heard from the two that came before. The only way to really stay is to walk right out the door. So I’ll go away, I’m gonna leave here. I can be invisible.” Again and again that was his answer. When things fell apart, he left, he became invisible to those who could not share his vision. Taking a look at “just the very last page” restates his constant reminders that “good things never last” (Neon Knights). Put another way, “I know how this ends.” And if that seems defeatist, it is not. It was in fact his steadfast belief in himself and his vision that kept him going and that moved him to quickly cut away the dross of those around him that did not. That was the underlying current of almost everything he wrote.
The chorus of My Eyes is perhaps Dio’s definitive thesis statement about himself. “Rock and roll eyes. The keeper of rainbows, collector of lies. Rock and roll eyes. My eyes.” The final words of the songs cement his self-belief, and his doubts about those around him. “Rock and roll friends, with rock and roll trends. Rock and roll ends with my eyes.” This song perhaps more than any other illustrates something important about the singularity and wholeness of Dio’s vision. By using the same reference points again and again, he had created his own mythology – his own lexicon and language. It is populated with already existing myths, but it is his all the same. He made it his by constantly revisiting, mixing, and recalculating in an effort to better understand his own situation, and to find his own answer.
It would take an article much longer than this to fully explore all of Dio’s commonly used themes, but I’ll leave it to the reader to further research them should he or she desire. Watch for references to strangers, nighttime, eyes, and rainbows. These all represented specific things throughout Dio’s career. There’s much more than that though, so dive in and take a look around. You’ll quickly find familiar reference points to help you plot your course.
Ronnie James Dio was an objectively fantastic singer. His voice was powerful and beautiful, dynamic and complete. He did not receive formal training, nor did he warm up before performing. His voice was simply a natural wonder. As demonstrated throughout this essay, Dio was also a tremendously gifted lyricist. On the surface, Dio’s lyrics transport us to worlds of myth and magic, but when you peel back the layers they can also reveal something vital and cyclical about life in the present, and they often give us great hope for the journey ahead.
Of course, it was Dio’s talent for both singing and writing that truly created something special. The words he wrote made an impact because he knew how to sell each phrase with his voice. He knew how to get under a line and push it up into a place that enhanced its meaning, even if a song was about dragons and wizards.
There’s a part of me that thinks my Facebook post, “If Dio goes, we all go,” was a thought Dio might have had at the end of his life. If given the choice, I’d like to believe Dio would have gladly taken us all with him to that rainbow bridge above. He’d want us to stand there with him just to see how it all ends and begins again.
"Between the velvet lies there’s a truth that’s made of steel. The vision never dies, life’s a never ending wheel.” – Holy Diver, from the 1983 Dio album, Holy Diver. Lyrics by Dio.
DIO “DEEP DIVES” – A PlaylistBelow you will find a Dio playlist meant to act as a companion piece to this article. I’ve left out some of the more famous songs that Dio performed on purpose, because you have likely heard them many times already. This “mix tape” includes all the songs mentioned in the feature, but I’ve also added some of my favorite, less heralded songs from his catalog. I consider these tracks some of Dio’s best performances.
- Lonely is the Word (from the Black Sabbath album Heaven and Hell)
- King of Rock and Roll (from the Dio album Sacred Heart)
- Run With the Wolf (from the Rainbow album Rising)
- The Sign of the Southern Cross (from the Black Sabbath album Mob Rules)
- All the Fools Sailed Away (from the Dio album Dream Evil)
- Invisible (from the Dio album Holy Diver)
- Falling Off the Edge of The World (from the Black Sabbath album Mob Rules)
- A Light in the Black (from the Rainbow album Rising)
- Self Portrait (from the Rainbow album Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow)
- Strange Highways (from the Dio album Strange Highways)
- Tarot Woman (from the Rainbow album Rising)
- Lady of the Lake (from the Rainbow album Love Live Rock ‘n’ Roll)
- Gypsy (from the Dio album Holy Diver)
- Catch the Rainbow (from the Rainbow album Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow)
- Still I’m Sad (Yardbirds cover live from the Rainbow album On Stage)
- Neon Knights (from the Black Sabbath album Heaven and Hell)
- Don’t Talk to Strangers (from the Dio album Holy Diver)
- I (from the Black Sabbath album Dehumanizer)
- Heaven and Hell (from the Black Sabbath album Mob Rules)
- Kill the King (from the Rainbow album Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll)
- Falling Off the Edge of The World (from the Black Sabbath album Mob Rules)
- Sunset Superman (from the Dio album Dream Evil)
- Just Another Day (from the Dio album Sacred Heart)
- Children of the Sea (live from the Black Sabbath album Live Evil)
- Breaking into Heaven (from the Heaven & Hell album The Devil You Know)
- Wishing Well (from the Black Sabbath album Heaven and Hell)
- Rock and Roll Children (live from the Dio album Finding the Sacred Heart)
- I Am (from the Dio album Master of the Moon)
- Black Sabbath (live from the Black Sabbath album Live Evil)
- Bible Black (from the Heaven & Hell album The Devil You Know)
- End of the World (from the Dio album Master of the Moon)
- Die Young (from the Black Sabbath album Heaven and Hell)
- My Eyes (from the Dio album Lock Up the Wolves)
PLAYLIST NOTES:King of Rock and Roll from the album, Sacred Heart, is straight ahead rave-up and my favorite opener on any Dio album. Tarot Woman comes from Rainbow Rising, and illustrates just how important Rainbow was to the development of modern heavy metal.
Some of Dio’s best performances were delivered live, so I included several great examples. Still I’m Sad is Rainbow’s spiced up cover of a Yardbirds song. Dio really shines here. This song also appears on Rainbow’s first album, but without vocals. I’d also suggest you checkout the original Yardbirds track. It’s absolutely haunting.
Live Evil documents the original Dio-era Sabbath, and captures one of Dio’s best live performances. His voice is amazing throughout. Check out the last chorus of Children of the Sea (at the 5:05 mark), and hear Dio soar into the rafters of whatever arena that track comes from (Live Evil features performances from three different American cities). Not all of the Ozzy-era material worked well with Dio. They are great songs, but seem almost clunky with a voice like Ronnie’s on top of them – sort of like a corvette on a dirt track – it just doesn’t altogether work. But Dio singing the song Black Sabbath is fantastic. His sense of drama, and the dizzying heights he could take his voice brought new menace to the track. Lastly, Rock and Roll Children medley from the Sacred Heart tour is a great example of Dio’s enthusiasm and stagecraft. He was fond of covering great distances in his career with medleys, since he knew fans from all of his eras came to see him. This track is a potent mix of Dio and Rainbow-era stuff.
Perhaps the most notable absence on this playlist is Stargazer, which is often cited as a favorite among fans. However, I have included A Light in the Black, which you may not realize is the second part of Stargazer. It follows that track and closes the Rainbow Rising album. If you don’t know, Stargazer is about a man enslaved with a group of others by a wizard, who forces them to build a tower of stone that he intends to fly from. After years of labor the tower is finished and the wizard finally tests his theory. Instead of flying from its top he smashes to the ground. In Light in the Black, the protagonist finds himself free after the wizard’s death and heads home.
I hope you will explore this playlist a bit, as well as Ronnie James Dio’s career as a whole. Stick your head in at any place in his timeline, and you’re certain to find something satisfying and surprising. Try to figure out his lyrics (maybe you’ll come up with different answers than I have), daydream, or just sit in appreciation of a magnificent singer. There’s a vast body of work to devour. Dio’s catalog delivers great rewards if you give it your attention.