The Wizard of Words
Talking tete-a-tete with Dio

By Naughty  Mickie notymickie@earthlink.net
Photos by Keith Durflinger

After many months of anticipation, the National Association of Music Merchants show had finally arrived in Los Angeles. Then I heard that premiere vocalist Ronnie James Dio was to make an appearance, my goal had been set. I was going to find a way to speak with him.

It was surprisingly easy. Dio led me up the stairs to a small area atop the Dean Markley booth where we could sit and chat. He immediately made me feel like we were old friends, opening up to me on a variety of topics, including his past musical endeavors and his newest release, "Magica." And here is the result.

At NAMM, the impact of change always hits home. The event features the latest equipment and technology just before it hits the market; it also hints to the future.

"What do you think has been the biggest change in the industry?" I start off.

"To me the biggest change is always the fact that the people who run the record companies only care about how much money they're going to make at the end of the day and not how to take a band that has a lot of promise and develop it" replies Dio. "To me, that's the biggest change I've seen. It's black and white, black and red really is what it is. Your sales are in the black, then that band's okay.

"Green Day is a good example. First album, blockbuster, just sold millions of albums. The next time though, the album did nothing. Luckily they had sold so many that the record company was willing to stay with them. I've seen other bands who sold all kinds of records and the next album was a bomb and they went, `Good bye.'

"I think it's become a disposable industry. It bothers me that bands have become like Bic pens, once their ink is gone they're all used up. That's the biggest change I've seen in the industry. Accountants, CPAs control the industry; people with real musical flair and feel don't anymore.''

"So," I ask. "You feel that people who don't know much about music, but know economics are running the companies today?"

"That's very true," Dio confirms. "That's okay for them. But you know at the end of the day, I think you always needed the fact that the president of the company was a fan, because then he cared, he let you nurture. What if Led Zeppelin did one album and it didn't work and and they went, `Nah, you're no good,' and they threw them away and they never became Led Zeppelin or the Beatles or whomever? In the old days, they were given a chance to be nurtured and now they're really not. Now it's accountants and people without musical integrity.''

" Do you think that the record industry has become like the TV industry?" I venture.

"It's a disposable world," says Dio. "It's really become a disposable world. In any section of humanity, if you're a priest who isn't quite good you're probably out of there too. It's the same, it's in anything. It's become a media-driven world. It used to be, I think, Andy Worhall said, `Everyone is going to get their 5 minutes of fame or 15 minutes of fame,' now it's more like 5 seconds of fame. It's just become a disposable world. It's a real shame because there's no chance for people to be nurtured, to be cultivated and that's the biggest problem I see with it all.''

"But what about music trends?" I ask. "Don't you think that hard rock is coming back?"

"I see that too. Especially in Europe I see that," answers Dio. "I play in Europe a lot. Europe is really the cradle of metal music, hard rock music, they just love it for what it is and not because what the media told them.

Ronnie James Dio"I've seen, and I hate this resurgence word because there's no such thing, and I also don't agree with the `what goes around comes around' attitude as well, `Oh well, give it five years and metal will come back around again.' I don't think anything should come back unless it's better than when it started. Why regurgitate the same old vomit? I don't want to see that same old color again.

"For me," Dio continues. "All that means is there are people out there who want to hear some music that's different than what's been slammed down their throats for the last five years. So in that way it comes back around. Because in that way, `Oh, it's fresh.' It's been around forever, but it's fresh because you haven't heard it on your radio or it's not been given attention for five years so it's fresh again. And I don't like that because anybody can do that- suddenly it's fresh again. Well, what does that mean- `Let's make the same old crap'? No. The reason that metal music hasn't gotten more better and better or more acceptable is because the musicians have not taken it to any other direction. They just go, `Hey, it worked before. Let's be retro again.' No one has taken it and made anything more.

"I would like to think we have a little bit by trying a unique concept album this time and thought of it more forwardly. I'm not trying to set us up as what's going to be happening, but at least we care about what's going to come and now about what was before. You've got to take steps forward, you can't keep taking steps back all the time, all you do is stay in one place.''

"Is that where you see yourself in future?" I say looking into his dark eyes.

"No. I will never pretend that I will be the one who does this. I'm making the music now for the people who love it.''

"No," I clarify. "Where would you like to be in the future?"

"I would like to see it that way, but I just don't see it happening out there," Dio responds. "I mean, I don't think there are enough smart musicians out there to take it any place, but back. There just aren't any good ones any more. The good ones were the Deep Purples, the Led Zeppelins, Jimi Hendrix, you know the ones I can mention and mention and mention. Those are the ones who made a difference. They're the ones who created it all.

They gave you a standard that was so exceptional. That's the difference between maybe Green Day and Deep Purple. I'm not on an anti-Green Day kick, by the way," he pauses. "I mean I liked their first album very much. It's just mindless, senseless to me. Whereas Purple, Zeppelin, they played music. They really played- Jimmie Page, Ritchie Blackmoore. How can you compare the guitar players from today's music? You can't, you just can't.

"You can compare maybe Yngwie, he's from that mold, but he grew up with it; he loved that. You don't see that any more," Dio reflects. "Another thing is you don't hear music that is thoughtful, that is professional. I just hear to much amateur stuff.''

"The best record I've heard recently is a British band, two people, Skunk Ananasi. The girl has unbelievable talent, she is the greatest singer I have ever heard."

"Do you think that music is being affected by radio?" I ask. "Because some DJ says, 'I don't like
it,' so it doesn't get played?"

"Well, I think some of that happens," replies Dio. "But I think more and more it's down to the fact that does heavy metal music or music that relates to that kind of music sell commercials? So you have a radio station and on comes a commercial for some product. Sure you remember it. Heavy metal music doesn't sell advertising space. It used to. It used to when KNAC was happening, when KLOS was happening; when KIIS was happening in the old, old days. But now that doesn't happen any more. So it's an eye out for what's going to sell your commercial time. Sting sells you commercial time, country music sells you commercial time and Metallica used to. Nothing sells you any more. I'm not even using the right bands. Tool doesn't sell you time.''

"But do you think that DJs are afraid to play music because of the lyrics?" I say.

"No, I don't even think that's pertinent any more," Dio responds. "When you listen to radio these days, and I listen to sports radio all the time, they go, `That bastard.' Oh, you can really say that these days. `Kiss my ass, you son of a bitch.' Gee, I didn't realize you could say that. If you can get away with that in this country, you can get away with anything that comes after that. So now I don't think it's a matter of any kind of suppression of what you can do and what you can't do. No, I think the world has become- well, you can even hear those words on network television, not HBO that's something different, so I don't think it's that at all, no.''

"Have letter writing campaigns by Christians and other groups affected what is heard on radio?" I throw in.

"I think you'll find in very very small markets they'll be worried about that," Dio says.  "Like maybe in Athens, Georgia, well maybe not Athens, but maybe smaller like Hilton, Alabama, you'll find them fearful of that because they are a small market and they don't have the network strength to back them up. I think you'll only find that in small markets these days. The world is such an open place from speech to thought to action that I don't think any of it really matters any more. Because we're moving so rapidly toward a time when you have to say, `I can't let my child watch TV anymore from 1 o'clock in the afternoon until 9 o'clock at night' because even then you're going to see you know. Not that it's anything wrong with it, it's fine, you know, the body is the body, but it's what they do with it. You're going to find that happening.

Ronnie James Dio"And what does that mean?" Dio muses, "I guess, it's a political thing too. I mean, who is going to be our next president? Is it going to be Al Gore? I hope not. Is it going to be George W. Bush? No way. Let's hope it's somebody with some ground. Maybe it's going to be John McCain. I hope it is. Or Bill Bradley. I guess I'm showing you my political preferences. But those are people who grew up with the generation that I grew up in and who are willing to take more chances for the people who are in this world. Whereas George W. Bush, yes, I'm sorry, but he comes from money, the others come from heart.''

Seeking a deeper look into the man, I decide to take the conversation in another direction. Dio  and I talk about one of his biggest passions- sports. He was really into sports growing up and would have been a baseball, basketball or football player if he could, but his size may have limited him. Dio's favorite sport, though, is baseball. He is a tried and true New York Yankees fan and supports New York teams in all other sports.

But back to his first love, "When you are at home what kind of music do you like to sing?"

"I don't sing at home," Dio answers surprisingly. "I never sing at home. I only sing when I sing- when it's time for me to sing live I sing, when it's time for me to sing at rehearsal I sing. Otherwise I don't sing. I don't sing in the shower."

Being a vocalist myself, I am very interested in Dio's technique, so I ask him how he does it.

"I've never warmed up in my life," Dio explains.  "I'm just one of those people who knows how to use his talent very well. To me, singing is so much of a mental situation that if you don't think that you're going to be great, then you're going to suck. If I have a cold, I can get over this, I'm better than this, I can beat this cold. That's mental strength. You have to remember music is my life and how many years I've been doing this.

"And I've never warmed up once in my life. But I'm not saying that that's right for everybody. Warming up exercises don't need to be big arias. Just open up your voice and get it higher and higher. You don't have to kill yourself. But you can do it live.''

"When you start live you're not going to go it the first note, you're not going to go `aaaaa'," Dio sings. "You're going to say, `I'll to work my way into it.' For me, when I go out there and sing, I'll go out there first, the band's playing and I'll take the mic and go, `Hi!' just to hear myself. Just `Hi!' that's all you need to do. `I'm good tonight and I'm on.' I'm so in tune with my own vocal-ness that I can hear it even when I talk before I go on that `it's going to be tough tonight.' And then you deal with that. As a singer or a guitar player you can fake things, but you only fake the good things, you don't just fake. There are times when even I can't sing properly and I have to deal with it so that noone realizes that I'm not singing properly.

"Sometimes I'll think I gave really bad performance and someone will say, `You were great!' And I'll go, `Thank you,' but I really want to say, `Are you deaf or what?' It's only because of my own perception of what I must be is so high. It's so high that it's even above the highest place that I could reach, but that's what makes you good. If your expectations are always to the best you can ever be, then you're at least going to be good. If you really have some big expectations, then you're going to be great, but you can hardly ever reach those expectations. But that's good too because that's your dream. One night I'll be so amazing, I'll hit everything. I might have had a couple of those.''

I ask the question that I've been waiting for, "How do you take care of your voice?"

"I don't smoke," Dio says. "I'm smart. I know my talent very well. I can do anything with my voice, my voice is my instrument. I'm just very prepared for what I do. I think you have to be that, you have to know. First, as a singer, you have to know if you any have talent. If you don't, get the hell out of the business and if you do, work at it, work at your act.

"I started playing the trumpet when I was 5-years-old- greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life. And I was a great trumpet player at five. So I learned how to breathe and breathing is the answer. Breathing and a talented person. You can take all that talent and focus it all one direction and you can't go wrong.''

Dio started singing when he was seven years old in a band called the Vegas Kings.

"Any recordings available?" I ask.

Dio laughs, "You'd have to break into my mom's house.''

He continues his story, "They named a street after me in my home town. I'm from a small town called Cortland, New York. They named a street after me it's called Dio Way and that was like the ultimate complement ever given to me. The people in my hometown thought I was good enough to do that. It's around the corner from where I grew up.

"It's a little town with a lot of talent. So many great musicians came from that town. Not rock music- it was only me in that case. It's "Trumpet Player City,'' some of the greatest trumpet players on earth all came from that town. And I followed in that routine, I had a scholarship to Julliard.

"It was easy, just like singing is easy for me. But I did most of it for my folks. They gave me all they could give me as a child, as a grownup. They cared about me, they supported me. They gave me money to go to a university because I went to a university for five years too and earned a pharmacy degree. I've done it all.

"My folks supported my musical endeavors after I graduated from the university. My parents wanted for me what all parents want- they want you to be better than they are; to have more than they had. They never had the chance to go to any university. My mom had to stop going to high school because she had to start supporting her family. So this was their dream, `Our son will be the first in his generation to go to school.' I went to school and had a band at the same time.''

I bring the conversation full circle, asking Dio to tell me about his latest release.

"'Magica' is a concept album." Dio rightfully boasts, "It's brilliant, absolutely brilliant. The best album I've done since the '80s. Like `Holy Diver,' `The Last in Line,' put it in that category- `Heaven and Hell'.

"Because it's a concept album, there's a lot of new tricks because we've never done on a concept album. But it's a collection of songs more than it is a connection of concepts. There are concept albums like `Tommy' that go on and on. To me, that's a concept album- it connects this to that. This is songs, there's a concept, you have to hear the album- it has aliens in it. It's an amazing work. There will a video, DVD, of course DVDs. Everybody who has heard it loves it, so I think that's the best promotion you can get.''

"The last album we did, `Angry Machines,' was a bit too confusing to people," Dio says. "They'd say, `What's that? What are they doing?' People who grew up with Dio want to hear what Dio's going to do. I can't take these steps forward with out doing other things, I need to do what's important to Dio. So this album is very much that, it's a Dio album. It's so important to me, it's one of the best things I've ever dealt with in my life.

"Dio is a persona," he continues. "My persona has always been to do one thing and, by the way, this new album is very fantasy-based, just very Dio. People who grew up with Dio, who loved Dio for whatever reason, never stopped loving what we've done and I wanted to do this album for them. They stood with me through `Angry Machines' and they didn't understand it. Now, I'm going to give them what they do understand.''

"Do you like touring?" I ask.

"It's not that we tour because we're asked to," states Dio. "We only make a record because we can tour. I don't care about the rest of it though, I'm a live singer and player- we all are in this band. That's how you prove what you're worth, when people are applauding. I'll kick your ass- nobody can do what I can do. Nobody is better than I am live because of my attitude. I'm a singer, I always will be that. Forever. That's why I do it and I want to do it a lot, it makes sense to me.''

I smile and Dio further explains his attitude.

"It's not really having faith in myself, I just know how good I am- I can do it. That's what I do. I'm not saying I can do other things well, I can't fix the plumbing and I can't change a lightbulb very well, but I can sing.

"The other thing I can do very well is relate to people because all the songs I've ever written, I've written for people. That's why Dio's been successful, because people who like Dio, or like me perhaps, realize that I'm doing these things for them, I am what they are, I am them. I'm just a regular person. Some people think I'm this wonderful person- I'm not. I just happen to sing a bit better than most. And I've got conviction. So this album is for Dio fans- they stuck by me. I want to hear, `Thank you Ronnie, you've given us the album we wanted to hear.'''

Dio states that he will not go into the archives to pull out past recordings for a new album like many groups today. He believes in going forward, not back. He also has no comment on bootleg recordings as "there's nothing I can do about them.'' In fact, Dio has a best friend who does bootleg videos and, when he comes to his shows, Dio lets him tape because he knows it will be good.

We discuss the various venues where Dio has performed on tour.

"I prefer a larger venue because I can do a big production- what I think they should expect- like Disneyland. We brought dragons in, we brought in things that nobody ever brought before. And that's what I would always like to do.''

"What about the smaller venues?" I ask.

"Your life, your musical life, goes through changes," replies Dio. "And there comes a time when you're not accepted anymore. It's a generational thing, there are other generations who want to hear Tool, they want to hear Rage Against the Machine. So I'd like to play bigger places, but the places we do play we do our best. Ten people, 10,000 people, it doesn't matter.

But no matter the size of the venue, Dio is always out to give it his all. He really loves performing.

"I look around the audience, I see a face, `You're gonna love this, man.' 80,000 or one person," Dio pauses and smiles. "No gotta be two there. Two or two hundred it doesn't matter, I'm a player, I'm a musician. I want to prove to whoever is in there that this man is great. So they go away going, `Wow.' That's all I ever want to hear is, `Wow.' You won't hear that with any other band, we're the best at what we do. We do our music better than anyone else because we care.

"My voice is like an ax," Dio continues knowingly. "It can cut through anything and it can shave through easily if it wants to. I think of it as an ax because I'm really into hard hard singing. I consider myself to be an ax and a hammer, that's what I do.''

Dio takes a breath and looks me straight in the eyes.

"I don't stand up for what I believe in, I do it.''

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