Fireworks Magazine Online 41 - Ronnie James Dio


The word legend is one that has been overused of late, being used to describe everything from second rate football players to talentless pop-star wannabees, but when it comes to the world of metal and hard rock, there can be absolutely no denying that Ronnie James Dio truly was a veritable legend. Here was a man that reached the top of his field with not one, not two but three different bands, a man who is cited by hundreds, if not thousands of singers as an inspiration and an influence. A man who was truly loved and respected by virtually everyone that had the pleasure to meet him.
It was Ronnie that got me into metal when I was a 13 year old ABBA fan. My brother Chris joined the Britannia Music company, and the first album he bought was Rainbow Rising. A few listens to that monumental classic was all it took me to embrace this musical form termed ‘Heavy Metal’, and I have lived with my music close to my heart ever since.
I never got to meet Ronnie – the one time we were due to meet in person at Nottingham Rock City, the gig was canceled due to sound-proofing repairs being carried out at the venue. I did, however, interview him over the phone several times over the years, and always found him to be an intelligent, erudite and humorous man, but also a man with a great dignity, humility and love for his fellow men.
The first interview I did with Ronnie was back in 1990, for the fanzine Boulevard. It was one of the most in-depth and revealing interviews I’ve ever seen with Ronnie, and as only several hundred people will ever have read it, I figured it would be a fitting tribute to the great man to reproduce it here, so that many more of his fans could have the chance to see into the heart and mind of the man who truly was the greatest hard rock singer ever heard.

Your original name is Padavona. Where did the ‘Dio’ originate from?

“Well Padavona is of Italian extraction. The name was a bit long and hard to pronounce and I felt if I had to carry on in this business and try to make something of myself I should have a name that’s a little bit easier to deal with. I saw the name in a book – it was the name of a Mafia leader. At least he was Italian though probably not a very nice person. I thought yeah, that will do and not until years later did I realise, when someone told me when I was with Sabbath, that it meant ‘God’. I certainly didn’t take the name because of that – I haven’t got that much of an ego.”

I bought a couple of ELF albums years back and was very surprised at the musical style – almost gospel, but since Rainbow everything’s been in a similar vein. How much influence has Richie Blackmore had in shaping your musical direction, or was it you that influenced Blackmore during that period of Rainbow?

“Deep Purple were my favourite band and I was lucky enough to tour with them when I was with ELF. We did about seven or eight world tours with Purple and I got to know them very well. But the most important thing for me was to see Richie play and the band play because I thought they were just magnificent. Before that, what I think shaped ELF was that the piano was one of the basic instruments of the band, as opposed to the guitar. The first ELF album was guitar, the second mainly piano and I think that tends to push you towards a certain kind of musical image, and in this case we were more honky-tonk, but honky-tonk with the influence of Sam Cook and Otis Redding on me as a vocalist, so you have a cross-over kind of thing. I guess some of it could be described as gospel. I was really influenced by the gothic style of music that Purple played and so when I joined up with Richie I’d always wanted to do that anyway. I think in Richie’s case and my case, we influenced each other quite a bit. I brought to him what I had in ELF, some of my R&B attitudes with my love of classical music and Richie’s love of classical music and his gothic approach to it. That’s what really made Rainbow what it was ... between Richie and myself anyway.”

Do you ever have contact with Richie and would you ever consider working with him again, or would that be a backward step in your opinion?

“I’ve seen him twice since I left Rainbow in 1978. I saw him once in Los Angeles and again at the Monsters of Rock shows we played in Germany, which was about three years ago. We did two shows with Purple and I only saw him from a distance, not to speak with him. He didn’t make any attempt to speak to me and I didn’t make any attempt to speak to him. It seems to be one of those very strange situations where two people who made such good music together, and who really liked each other, especially at the beginning, just seem to have gone their separate ways. I don’t understand why ... he’s never said anything bad about me in the press and I’ve never said anything bad about him. It’s very strange, although he’s a strange individual. As far as working with him goes ... I don’t know. I was never really that keen towards the end of it, about his musical attitude. I don’t really think he’s progressed that far. That rather bothered me a bit. I think he’s a bit too full of himself and his treatment of audience’s is bad. If it sounds like I’m slagging him off, I’m not trying to do that at all, I’m just telling the truth and my own feeling about what he does.”

Don’t you think it’s a bit hypocritical to say Blackmore hasn’t progressed when that is one of the main criticisms levelled at yourself?

“I think I’ve progressed more than he has progressed. I think he went in a different direction – at least I stayed true to what I’ve done. Rainbow went from a band like in Rainbow Rising and Long Live Rock and Roll to being a Foreigner sound-alike. I listened to the Purple stuff when they reformed ... the first album I thought showed some promise, it didn’t show a lot of progression but at least it showed promise. I thought the second was a complete and utter waste of time! As far as progression goes he still played very well but I thought most of the first album and all of the second was just a chance for him to look up his own behind, like the rest of the band. I think it was, once again, ‘Richie is our God, so let’s cater to him.’ As far as our music progressing, I don’t feel you can have a ton of progression within this kind of music because if you do, it isn’t the same music. You have to stay true to it. As far as progression goes, I think we’ve been more progressive than Richie has within the music he’s made, but I think I’ve had my stumbles and falls as well as he has. Some of the albums, ‘Dream Evil’ for example, I felt was a collection of nuts and bolts that weren’t tightened down and didn’t really make a lot of sense. But that’s a reflection on how you feel at the time as well. At least I’ve always been single-minded about the music. I’ve always felt it has to be one way, in one form and one shape and I’ve just tried to look a little more forward with the people I’ve played with. I think this album shows that now, getting into the 90s with some people who are thinking more modern, and that’s made a great difference to me personally.”

Your lyrics must be amongst the deepest and most well thought out in rock. How long does it take you to write a complete set and what experiences do you draw on?

“It depends on the song. Sometimes it comes very quickly; sometimes it takes a little bit more. My experiences are usually from life. Sometimes I take these life experiences and put them in a more shadowy form, whether it be the romantic attitude of medieval times or the fantasy of ‘Lady of the Lake’ or whatever. I happen to be a real romantic; I love that period of time, just because of the attitudes. I wouldn’t want to live in those time though – no running water, no toilets etc. I just like the attitude and the thought that the knight saved the damsel in distress and went off and killed the dragon. I thought it was so surreal and romantic, but I tend to, most of the time, draw from real-life experiences ... the hurt that I’ve had or the hurt I see other people having in the case of ‘Rock and Roll Children’. I try to write my songs for people, for people who are lonely, who feel they need someone or something to grasp onto. Most of the letter I get from people who have appreciated what I’ve done in a lyrical sense will write to me and say thank you for writing this particular song, without it I don’t think I could’ve gone on .. I’d feel like committing suicide. It’s very touching to me and very hurtful that there are people out there who would want to take their own lives. I don’t write songs so they will stop feeling that way, I write songs that come from my soul and obviously I must have some of their feelings within myself as well. I write sometimes not very directly so it allows the person to make up their own mind what the song is about.”

Many of your lyrics have an underlying theme of good versus evil, such as ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Rainbow in the Dark’ etc. Being introspective for a moment, would you sat that you, personally, are ostensibly good or evil, and what do you base your judgement upon?

“I am definitely good. I’ve never wanted to be evil and I’ve never thought of being. My feeling is that we all have good and evil inside of us and that is where God and the Devil reside. In my own opinion one does not have to go to a house with a cross or Star of David to find God because God resides in each of us and it’s up to us to make the decision whether we’re going to be good or evil.  Examples of me not being evil I guess are that I’ve just tried to live a life of good values given to me by my folks.  I was brought up a Catholic. I’m not a studying Catholic but I appreciate the fact that I was given those good values and so was able to make my own judgement. It’s difficult to say one is a good person without throwing compliments at myself ... I just am what I am. I know that when I look in the mirror each day I can ask ‘Are you a good person?  Did you do something good for yourself or someone else today?’ and my answer is always yes. I’m proud of me. That makes me a good person in my eyes.”

Now I’m not trying to be snide here Ronnie, but when I saw your photo in the inner sleeve I thought ‘Oh God, not the Devil sign again!’ Don’t you think you are in danger of becoming a mere joke figure if you persist in this?

“I’ll tell you what that is, and it’s not the Devil sign. Signs depend on what they’re perceived to be, and that is just something I have become associated with. It’s a sign from my culture, again Italian, which is to ward off the Evil Eye. It is not the Devil’s sign – it’s just what people make it out to be ... the same as with Black Sabbath.  What a wonderfully evil sounding name, so everyone thought Ozzy, Geezer, Tony and Bill were the Devil incarnate, which was not true at all. They were good people who had good values but you have people out there who want you to be something that perhaps you’re not. In most instances when they take the photo it’s the photographer who says “Give me the sign,” and that will be the picture that’s chosen. I don’t choose the photos.”

I know you don’t like dissecting your lyrics but there are a couple of questions I want to ask you. Firstly, what is ‘Children of the Sea’ referring to? Is it Armageddon?

“When I wrote that song it was meant to be a social comment that probably does refer to exactly that.  But the social comment was that we seem to be getting so far ahead of ourselves, now proven virtually eleven years later, that we should have learned to walk before trying to run – we have global warming, the environment just falling apart around us, extreme over-population, starvation – all the things that lead me to the song ‘Lock Up the Wolves’, which is a reflection of all those people who don’t care about our environment, who don’t care about humanity – the wolves of war, the wolves of destruction, the wolves of starvation. But ‘Children of the Sea’ was meant as a social comment by me to say ‘Let’s slow down, let’s look at ourselves. Let’s protect each other and be good human beings,’ and I learned a great lesson from that – that it doesn’t matter a toss what you say. I mean, you cannot change the world with a song, it just doesn’t work. You have to change it with your heart.”

Something that always bugged me for years is the line in ‘Heaven and Hell’ which says “When you walk in golden halls, you get to keep the golden falls”. What is that meant to mean? [I learned 20 years later the line is actually ‘the gold that falls’. D’oh!!]

“If you look at all the things that are said in that particular part ...The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams, it’s Heaven and Hell. They’ll tell you black is really white, the moon is just the sun at night” ... all those things are lies. Everything is a lie. And they say ‘When you walk in golden halls’, it’s the most wonderful thing you can do – to walk in Heaven’s halls – you get to keep the gold that falls. It’s bullshit. The next line should have said ‘It’s bullshit!’ Instead is says ‘It’s Heaven and Hell’. [In fact, the next night in Manchester, Ronnie did indeed sing the line ‘It’s bullshit!’ totally making my night.] It’s just impossible, it’s all promises and lies and I just wanted to say that as a warning. But the most important lie to me, of course, was ‘The world is full of kings and queens...’, these people out there who are looking to take the dreams of the young, their innocence, and then drop them like a shattered piece of glass. It’s Heaven and Hell ...”

That line is by far your most well known. Have you ever consciously tried to come up with something more profound?

“I’ve never tried to do that. I don’t look at myself as some kind of poet at all, even though I’ve been accused of that – it’s always the music that inspires me to write something. I don’t consciously sit around and just write words, although I am good at it. I’m good at writing and I probably will write a book myself someday. I’ve had so many experiences that I need to purge myself of my own devils. But as far as lyrics go, I let the music lead the lyrics. If there’s a statement that I make, it’s only the germ of an idea that I’ve had within my mind which has nothing to do with the music, but I think will give me a good working title and allow me to write some sort of storyline that will work for the music.”

Would the book be autobiographical or fiction?

“Well I’ve already written a screenplay which I’ll do when I have the time. It’ll mean 5 unadulterated years of my life to do it. Usually screenplays are not like books because you don’t have to go so in-depth, you can usually let the visuals take care of a lot of things you didn’t write. In the case of the book I’m sure it will be autobiographical. Again, a way of casting off my devils and to show myself that I can write without the music.”

I realise you probably don’t want to give them the satisfaction of rising to the bait bit I’d like to know  how you feel about the totally unprofessional conduct of so called journalists who have been reduced to making snide remarks about your height.

“Well, not replying to it is the best way of reacting. I think if you let it niggle at you and you do go on a big crusade about it, it’s their way of saying, “See, we got to you, didn’t we?” And it doesn’t really bother me.  I think the most hurtful thing about it all is that it doesn’t hurt me, but it may hurt someone who is a lot smaller than I am. I mean, after all, I’m not a midget and I’m not a dwarf. You know that and everyone knows that. But what about the people who legitimately are? It’s not very fair on these people. How must they feel in reading in a magazine that one of their heroes who has, forgive the pun, risen above what might be smaller stature than most, is having shit thrown at him for that? I think that’s the most hurtful part and I think that time after time, when they do use their unprofessionalism for their own ends, I think that says it all – and to reply to it just gives it a legality, so I don’t read it and don’t even think about it as I find it just rubbish.”

I was thinking in particular about KERRANG! When Wendy sent a telegram offering an interview as long as they made no pathetic jokes about your height, and what did they do? They published the telegram and made a joke out of it!

“Well, it’s a horrible publication. It seems to be published so the editor and writers can look at their own words and not really tell the truth about anything. You know, ‘Ronnie Dio baiting’ has become very fashionable by just a few people, but I would never let a few unconcerned fools sour me on the rest of the press. I’ve met too many wonderful people on the way who have always supported me, who have been my friends, and I’m not going to let that make me think that all journalists and critics are fools. That’s stupid, that’s the wrong attitude and again, they’re only hurting themselves. They’re doing nothing to me. It’s the people I care about, I’m not making music for critics, I’m making music for people and if they like me and like this band then they’ll come to the show. By continually writing these kinds of articles they’re only really hurting themselves.”

Looking back at the Hear N’ Aid project, has the experience put you off charity records and how disappointed were you with the apathy of the media?

“No, it’s not put me off charity work. I’ve continued to do charity work for an organisation in Los Angeles called Children of the Night, which is an organisation which takes young people, from the ages of ten to seventeen, off the streets of Hollywood – kids who’ve come to be successful actors and actresses, models and musicians and find themselves turned to prostitution, drug addiction and drug pushing. I’ve got very involved with this one. We did a charity show there at a place called Irvine Meadows and raised over $100,000 that night for them. I’ve continued to work within the organisation on a personal level and will continue to do so. After all, these are the people who buy the records I make, who have allowed me to be someone and something, so that is a charity I will continue to support. So it didn’t put me off charities but it did put me off people’s attitudes because I felt it was such a good project done by so many good people who had such a great talent, but who just got laughed at most of the time. We did raise more than a million dollars from the project – where it has gone and if it’s in the right places, I don’t know but I hope so. We put it in the hands of We Are the World, the famine relief for Africa organisation who I totally believed in then and still do now. The apathy was unfortunate. We all did it from our hearts ... the kids accepted it well, I just don’t think the media attention was nearly enough because the people that were doing it, of course, were always going to be looked upon as being evil, stupid, dirty uncaring drug addicts, alcoholics ... all the things that people at my end of rock and roll are perceived to be, so it wasn’t given any real substance. The song happened to be a hell of a good song, and the players that gave their time, their talent and their care and love ... I couldn’t ask for anything more than that. They did what I asked them to do – it’s unfortunate the media didn’t do what we asked of them.”

Is there anyone in the business you’d like to work with?

“I would like to, when Dio the band has taken a hiatus or ceased to be, work with Tony and Geezer again. I’d really like to do that one more time. I loved writing with Tony, I loved being around Geezer ... he was my best friend. It’s a shame that it kind of fell apart but it was so much fun to be in that bands because we were all the same kind of people – we were all from working class families with working class attitudes and we didn’t have any pretences about ourselves ... we just wanted to be happy and write music.  Life has got more difficult since then – once you start to have the success we had in Dio in the beginning, you always seem to have something that you have to live up to. In Sabbath we didn’t have anything to live up to ... we just did it because we liked it, we liked to be around each other. That’s what I’d like to do one more time. It’s a shame it couldn’t have lasted because we had so many more places to go, so much more music to write and so much more happiness to experience, but then, that’s life. I don’t look upon it as a regretful time. As I say, life is meant to be what life is meant to be, but I’d really like to give it a try again. I also want to go into the film side of things as I said before. It’s just a way for me to extend what I do now. I think in very visual terms.  When I write a song I see it come alive in my mind and I’d like to be able to do that in a film way. I hope I haven’t given you too many answers ... I’d just like one more go at writing a few songs with the lads.”

So, final question Ronnie. What would you like to be remembered for in 50 years time?

“Oh, I don’t really care what they remember me for. I’ll be dead by then anyway and my bones won’t care.  I’ve only ever tried to do one thing – to be true to myself and true to the people who have cared about me and have appreciated some of the music I have made in my life. I never set out to be someone who would be remembered ... Mr Wonderful. I only set out to enjoy myself in life and I’ve had that enjoyment by the music I’ve made and the people who’ve appreciated it. If they do remember me, I hope it’s just for caring.”

Ronnie, you will be remembered for so much more than that.
The man may be gone, but his memory and legacy remains, firmly etched into the annals of hard rock and metal history. And it may have taken 17 years, but I am so happy Ronnie finally got his greatest wish to join up again with Tony and Geezer and create the music that he loved.
And although we grieve for all the un-written words and unsung songs, let us also rejoice in the life and works of Ronnie James Dio, and remember him for the joy he gave us, and the edifying message he gave to the world – be good and love your fellow man.

Ronnie James Dio

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