Ronnie James Dio, Comic Genius
by Jeff Lewis

There really ought to be an Unintentionally Funny Hall of Fame because the comedic value of the bizarrely serious—Christopher Walken—surpasses all but the best comics.  William Shatner, Deion Sanders and Steven Seagal are other classic examples of individuals who’ve been unaware of their comic genius for large stretches of their careers.  Each of them is a one-man Spinal Tap, whether they’re in on the joke or not.  Drew Carey or Ray Romano would kill for their body of work.

The primary source of unintentional humor comes out of the grey area between coolness and the preposterous.  For example, the power of hip hop music, for me at least, is its unrelenting silliness, sometimes intentional, sometimes not.  Almost without exception, the landmark rap acts have been goofy in one way or another, a trait shared with the almost defunct heavy metal genre.

In its heyday, heavy metal was so absurd that the legions of Judas Priest fans mistook Rob Halford’s leather daddy garb for rock n roll biker apparel.  Heavy metal lost most of its audience in the early nineties when the hair bands proved to be less cool than grunge and not as much fun as hip hop, so only the dour fellows of Metallica and a few others survive from that era.  (I’m too old to comment on the funniness of the rockers—a silly term if there ever was one—of today, although Tenacious D and Marylyn Manson undeniably tap into this tradition.)

Thankfully, there is still one star shining brightly in the heavy metal universe:  Ronnie James Dio.  His official website describes him as:

The grand wizard of classic rock.  A poet of hope for the downtrodden.  The single most important vocal technician in the history of heavy metal music.  All of these accolades have been garlanded upon the royal roar known as Ronnie James Dio.

The one thing that they leave out is his comedic genius.

This is a man who, when asked if he knew that the “Dio” in olde english script on one of his albums spelled “Devil” when held upside-down next to a mirror, said, “I didn’t know that, but I…am…not…surprised!”  At his peak in the mid-eighties, Dio played stadiums with a laser-filled pyrotechnic show that saw him battle a robotic dragon on stage.  I didn’t catch his act until the early nineties, when he was well into his long slide into obscurity.  I’d never followed his music during his musical prime (he is still in his comedic prime), but when my friend Greg shared his collection of Dio tapes, I knew I had to see the man live.

A careful analysis of the titles of his songs hints at the genius of Dio’s oeuvre, which encompasses over forty albums with four different bands. If you look carefully, you may notice some similarities between the titles:

Rock n Roll Songs:

•    Rock n Roll Children
•    King of Rock and Roll
•    Rocking Chair Rock n Roll Blues
•    Long Live Rock n Roll
•    Rock & Roll
•    We Rock

Songs of the Heart:

•    Straight Through the Heart
•    Eat Your Heart Out
•    Sacred Heart
•    Like the Beat of a Heart
•    Between Two Hearts
•    Hunter of the Heart

Songs of the Night:

•    Rainbow in the Dark
•    Shame on the Night
•    I Speed at Night
•    One Night in the City
•    Night Music
•    Better in the Dark
•    Master of the Moon
•    Night People

The Evil and Not So Evil:

•    Holy Diver
•    Hungry for Heaven
•    Fallen Angels
•    Hey Angel
•    Heaven and Hell
•    Lord of the Last Day
•    Before the Fall
•    Dream Evil
•    Evil on Queen Street
•    Evilution

The concert that Greg and I attended, held at the Starlight Bowl in San Diego’s Balboa Park, didn’t disappoint.  The Starlight Bowl was at about 25% capacity, but everyone—save me and Greg—were there to bang their heads.  Dio still had enough money to muster a video screen below the riser that held the drum set, so we were treated to a video skit to start the show.  As a keyboard throbbed in the background, the screen glowed red.  Suddenly, an ugly, fat female judge appeared.  She sneered and sarcastically read a list of charges:  “You’ve been charged with rabble rousing, head banging, night stalking, insubordination, back talking AND ROCKING!”  The camera swung around and down to a pair of black motorcycle boots.  It moved slowly up the legs, clad in black jeans, to the crotch area.  It paused in the crotch area and moved to the belt, but then dipped briefly down to the crotch again before focusing on a man’s chained, outstretched arms.

The camera shot back to a close-up of the judge’s wobbly face.  “HOW DO YOU PLEAD?!”, she screeched.  The camera was back on the chains, then slid up the arms to frame Dio’s face and frizzy black locks.  He smirked, paused and yelled with full fury, “GUILTY!!!!!!!!”

The band began to ROCK and Dio ran out from under the video screen singing:

Holy Diver
You've been down too long in the midnight sea
Oh what's becoming of me

Ride the tiger
You can see his stripes but you know he's clean
Oh don't you see what I mean

And while we didn’t quite see what he meant, his trademark wail and a few modest explosions told us what to expect:  Dio might not have the budget to fight the robotic dragon, but he was going to rock with all his heart, be it eaten, sacred or hunted.

It was a special show, not necessarily because it was a good show, but because it showed that Dio really cared about rocking, about giving us music that would justify the mild case of whiplash that the majority of the audience would have the next morning.  To show us he cared, he made a point of clenching his fist above his head with each meaningful lyric—which was nearly every lyric—and pointing at a member of the audience, giving that fan a wise stare.  Since the attendance wasn’t too good, I’m pretty sure he pointed to everyone by the end of the night.

His lyrics reinforce this love for his followers.  (Transcripts of almost all of his lyrics are available at Tapio Keihaenen’s website, and to view a collage of original Dio-themed art, see Diomagic’s page.)  Dio’s early life was filled with sorrow so he understands heartache (this may explain the six songs he’s written with “heart” in the title).  His songs are a deep well of compassion that he shares with his fans, as you can see in the lyrics to “This Is Your Life”:

Right now it seems
You're only dreams and shadows
If wishes could be eagles how you'd fly
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
Who cares what came before
We're only starlight

While I’m not entirely sure what this signifies, I know that it is heartfelt.  It makes me smile, laugh and drift off into a magical happy place.

These days, the majority of fans that share this happy place come from countries that have dots over their vowels and unintentional comedic traditions that date back centuries to the works of Leibniz, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, von Pufendorf and others.  There are still avid fans of his comedy in America, though, thanks in large part to the hero worship of Tenacious D, who have sung about his greatness and included him in a music video.  This year, the group Dio For America has launched a grassroots movement to either get him into the White House, or at least beat that clown Nader.

I’d like to leave you with one last poignant lyric that illustrates why Dio belongs in the pantheon of heavy metal comic greats:

Rock and roll eyes
The keeper of rainbows
Collector of lies
Rock and roll eyes
My eyes

Rock and roll eyes
Tell rock and roll lies
And rock and roll lies
Never end

Rock and roll friends
With rock and roll trends
And rock and roll ends
With my eyes

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Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004