Heavy metal, popular culture said, was dead and gone -- replaced by grunge and Prozac and Starbucks coffee
In his seminal biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter begins by noting the particulars of Tolkien’s personal and professional life -- he married, took on his career as a professor of linguistics -- and then “nothing else really happened.” Of course, quite a lot happened. Tolkien published two bestsellers which quite literally birthed the fantasy fiction genre as we know it. In terms of controversy and the sort of exciting and sexy things that biographers like to exploit, however, “nothing else really happened.” He lived and loved well and he died peacefully. Boring.
The same might be said of Ronald James Padavona.
His was a life lived simply and lived well. Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to a traditional Italian-American family, the Padavonas settled in New York where, at a very young age, Ronald Padavona became interested in music. In high school, he formed his first rock-and-roll band, The Vegas Kings, playing the sort of songs that attracted so many kids in the 1950’s. After high school, he pursued a degree in Pharmacology at the University of Buffalo. And then nothing much else really happened. That is to say, he would marry, remarry, and have children, all the while continuing to pursue his lifelong love of music. In the year 2010, he would pass away after a short and tragic battle with stomach cancer. He was not a man given to controversy or deception. He was uncharacteristically sincere and virtuous in an industry not known for such qualities. There is, altogether, not very much to report on.
However, between his attending the University of Buffalo in 1960 and his death in 2010, the man known as Ronald James Padavona would adopt the name Dio (which is Italian for “God”), discover heavy metal music, and blow a hole in that particular musical galaxy with his powerful vocals, lyrics of rainbows and magic and death and heaven and hell, and his commanding stage performance. He would be the little man with the big voice and rock and roll would never be the same.
My own life would lead me to Dio at the age of eleven. The year is 1996 and I have discovered heavy metal music thanks to a Black Sabbath compilation called We Sold Our Souls For Rock & Roll. Alongside this, I would be undergoing surgery to have metal rods placed in my back due to Scoliosis. I would spend that summer in a full-body cast, experiencing the sort of pain -- no, not just “pain” but anguish, torment, agony -- that redefines how you consider pain for the rest of your life afterwards. The years around this procedure would see me undergoing surgery every single summer for a few years. This period of my life is so muddled, so simultaneously filled with life-altering agony and mind-numbing monotony, that I’m a little hazy on the specific sequence of events. One thing is clear, however; one of the prominent voices leading me through this dark and dangerous time of uncertainty and sorrow belonged to Ronnie James Dio.
In that same year of 1996, the heavy metal scene was going through a dark and dangerous time of its own. Heavy metal, popular culture said, was dead and gone -- replaced by grunge and Prozac and Starbucks coffee. Metal bands from Metallica to Slayer to the Metal God himself, Rob Halford, were turning their backs on the genre in the pursuit of social relevancy. Even Bruce Dickinson had left Iron Maiden and hired Nirvana producer Jack Endino, and released the unfortunate Skunkworks album.
And then there was Dio.
Dio was the name of Ronnie’s solo band. They’d enjoyed a measure of success with releases such as Holy Diver and The Last In Line, but time took its toll. Musicians came and went. In 1996, Dio released an album appropriately called Angry Machines. It would be the last album to feature veteran Dio drummer Vinny Appice and there would be nothing else like it in Ronnie James Dio’s career. For Dio and for myself, this was a year where very much happened indeed.
If you listen to Dio’s 1993 release Strange Highways, you can see the beginnings of what would later happen in Angry Machines and fans often regard them together. But that’s not really how it happened. You might say Strange Highways is the fourth Dio-fronted Black Sabbath album without any of the members of Black Sabbath. Angry Machines, however, is like nothing else. It is the distorted, pissed-off, bizarro love child of a man on the edge, questioning man’s inhumanity to man, questioning even the musical genre he had devoted his career to.
Dio was never one of us. He was too good for that. No, Dio was like a mentor, a wise Obi-Wan figure dishing out wisdom to all us young metalhead padawans. What happens, though, when the master is uncertain? What happens when Dio, when “God”, doesn’t have the answers? When he’s just as messed up and angry as you are?
“Don't tell the kids
They'll never understand it
Don't tell the kids
Don't waste your time, yeah
Don't tell the kids
They'll never get the picture
Don't tell the kids
You waste your time, yeah
Don't tell the kids
They just don't understand it
Don't tell the kids
Don't waste your time, time”
-- “Don’t Tell the Kids”, Dio
On the surface, sure, Dio is experimenting with more popular forms and producing a very ’90’s sounding record. If you listen closely, you might catch a glimpse of Soundgarden here or there. It doesn’t sound like Dio Does Grunge though. Not the way those abominable “experiments” like Rob Halford’s 2wo project or Metallica’s Load/Reload do. You can hear the strain in Dio’s voice and you can hear that sometimes the band sounds awkward or out of place but what it FEELS like is Ronnie and the musicians collectively crying out and railing against this existential crisis that no one rightly understands. Gone is the laser precision of the early Dio albums with Ronnie James Dio acting as your Merlin-like leader, willing everything into harmony. Instead, songs like “Institutionalized Man” and “Don’t Tell the Kids” never rise above the chaos. Dio becomes the prophet Isaiah, admonishing the people and calling for a repentance that he knows will never come.
I know this chaos. I know the pain of a world where an innocent boy spends an entire summer encased in agony, in the dark, with the beep-beep-beep of the machine forming the rhythm of life, forming the nightmares that would haunt me for twenty-nine years. When I hear songs like “Don’t Tell the Kids”, I know that no one ever told this kid, no one bothered to explain why he’d be shut away, why he would have to come to understand the fun of summertime academically and not experientially. Angry Machines is an album that almost entirely eschews the typical sword-and-sorcery imagery that Dio has been known for ever since Ritchie Blackmore hand-picked him as the perfect voice of Rainbow. However, it doesn’t feel like Dio is doing this for commercial reasons. Rather, it seems to be not unlike the words of Pablo Neruda when he says:
“You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets...”
-- “I Explain Some Things”, Pablo Neruda
“Here’s what lies do: all things turn to
Here’s what love does: dies and fades to
-- “Black”, Dio
The guitar on “Black” wails while Dio barks and whines. It is probably the most un-Dio song ever. If you had any hope that this album would give you the sort of familiar heavy metal experience you wanted when you purchased it, that hope has been killed. Even Vinny Appice’s drums sort of dance around in the background, detached from the rest of the band. As ever, Dio surrounds himself with only the most exemplary musicians. Tracy G is a great guitarist. There are plenty of riffs and solos on this album to tell you that. This isn’t a fun record, though. No one is here to show off. The few times that Tracy or Vinny are allowed a moment to themselves, they are ultimately swallowed up again by the maelstrom that Dio has wrought. And so I remember...
The road between Children’s Hospital in New Orleans and my home was long and winding. If you’ve never been, the roads in New Orleans are called such because it’s the closest word that applies. They probably were roads at one time but now there’s a little bit of road around the potholes. The streets have cracked and busted as though the Earth itself is calling the ground back in, eating the city alive.
And so it was that after a long, grueling trip home, every bump in the road rattling my bones, shaking me to the core, it was discovered that I had to be sent all the way back, ushered away in the middle of the night. More procedures, more tests, more pain. Beep-beep-beep. Why? Don’t tell the kids, they’ll never understand it.
“In places where aces outnumber the queens
Jack is afraid of tomorrow
Colors are changing to red, white and green
As we all fall down
Once upon a hate, they told us they could fix it
If we’d wait for a while, killing you with smiles
Maybe you can still dream, sleep through screams
While we’re dying in America”
-- “Dying in America”, Dio
All these years later, I’ve learned to live with the pain as normal. I’ve learned how to experience normal, basic human touch without tensing in fear. I’ve learned how to face down true, unquestionable evil -- indeed, I’ve learned that absolute evil is a thing and that it often wears human skin -- without breaking. I’ve got children now, two beautiful and incredible living beings who don’t feel queasy and whose hearts don’t race every time they go near the hospital. My eldest daughter looks at the world with such wide-eyed optimism, such purity and singleness of heart that she hears the lyrics to Dio’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and can only find humor, never conceiving of the sort of dark and real human experiences that could lead to the song’s lyrics being written.
I don’t often pick up Angry Machines anymore, though I listen to one album or another with Ronnie James Dio on lead vocals practically daily. Instead, I opt for his work in Rainbow or maybe one of the early Dio records before the band split apart and things got dark and strange. I also have a deep fondness for the later masterpieces in Dio’s career, the albums like Magica and Killing the Dragon, that are just as good or better than any of his classic material.
There is one song from Angry Machines that I still think about, though. It might be the only ballad he ever did and it closes out the record. I’m not a ballad kinda guy and I suspect Ronnie wasn’t either. Probably why he didn’t do many. Ronnie Dio was about as rock n roll as they come. There is one line, however, that sticks out to me still. I think about it often. I think about it when the demons of the past are whispering in my ear, when I feel the weight of them on my shoulders, when I close my eyes and listen and I can still hear that “beep...beep...beep”:
“Right now it seems you’re only dreams and shadows
If wishes could be eagles, how you’d fly!”
- “This Is Your Life”, Dio
Yeah, Ronnie, I would. If you could see me through all these dreams and shadows, if the smoke ever cleared from my mind, if the red-hot fire ever left my body when I moved, how I’d fly.
Ronnie James Dio was a man for whom nothing much happened, much like me. We lived and we loved, doing both fully and with equal vigor. The rest of the world tells you to not think too hard, not love too much, don’t feel. This is a world that shackles your God and sells him back to you in bits and pieces, promising you that you can have your Best Life Now if only you walk right, sit straight, and leave a big check. Dio was not a part of that world but in the year 1996, he sent out a message to it, and I did listen, I am still listening:
“This is your life, this is your time
What if the flame won’t last forever?
This is your here, this is your now
Let it be magical...”
CT McNeely is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in such places as Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, Monster! and Fist of B List. He lives in the greatest city on Earth -- New Orleans, LA -- with his perfect wife and their mighty children.