“You don’t know Rainbow in the Dark?” Rachel asked. Her tone let me know how uncool she found my ignorance.
“So you’re saying you’ve never heard of Dio?” she added, her incredulity bordering on disgust.
I wanted to lie, but she had me. I shook my head in shame and I told her I would have a listen.
In 1983, this meant that I would have to wait for the weekend, tune into the late night rock show, and hope. I had a blank tape sitting in the cassette deck, my index and ring fingers poised press the two buttons simultaneously to RECORD.
The DJ previewed his playlist and yes, he promised, that the new one from Dio would be coming up.
Rachel was right.
The song Rainbow in the Dark was supercool. I listened to it over and over, writing out the lyrics on a sheet of paper. Later in the week, I pressured my mom to take me to Record Town in the mall so I could buy the cassette tape for $17.98 with my paper route money.
I had no intention of showing my mother what I bought. To steal a line from the movie This is Spinal Tap, Dio’s new album had a rather lurid cover – a chained, drowning priest being chain-whipped by a demon. No, this was not to be shared with the folks. This was just for me. I could not wait to get home and pop the tape into my Sony Walkman.
As I type these words, it’s 27 years later (whoa!) and I am listening to the same recording on my iPod. I nod my head in appreciation of the music that still holds up. Somehow all the lyrics have remained stored in my memory bank.
Ronnie James Dio passed away the other day, and I feel compelled to write him a note of thanks. The news of his death made me remember the impact that his art had on me.
Dio’s music was about dreams, magic, mystery. The light and the dark. Heaven and hell. If you were going to add a metal soundtrack to one of the Lord of the Rings movies, Dio would be your guy. His voice was powerful and piercing – listen to him sing and you’ll notice you can understand all the words.
I’d listen to his music over and over. I recall my exasperated father bursting my bedroom, commanding me to “turn that shit down!” as I was tracing out the DIO logo (did you hear? flip it upside down and it spells d-e-v-i-l or so the rumor went…) on pieces of paper for my walls.
Dio came to my hometown for a concert the next year (Dokken opened). My friend Matt and I were not disappointed by the lasers, fog, and metal music. I was thrilled to buy my first overpriced rock T-shirt so I could put my allegiance on display. I was 14 years old, in the beginning stages of forming an identity for myself.
I knew I wanted to be a good person. I wanted to do the “right” things. But typical of my age, few of the messages from adults, teachers, and the church resonated with me. I found most of them to be restrictive, contradictory, or hypocritical.
Up to this point in my life, I worked very hard to fit in, to be the person I believed everyone wanted me to be. But lately that didn’t feel so good anymore.
My new shirt? That was mine. I wanted everyone to know what I liked. The fact that my figures of authority would not like it? All the better.
Still, wearing my new shirt to school the morning after the concert (I had to prove I was there, right?), I remembering feeling self conscious as I strode into math class for first period. I had a demon on my chest, man – quite a departure from the collared shirts with the alligator on the tit that my mom bought me.
As I took my seat, Mr. Crisler’s eyes stopped on me. He said nothing, but looked me up and down. A small furrow appeared between his brow and he moved on.
In my mind, my demon shirt sent the message that I wasn’t going along with the game anymore. I was my own man. And I liked to rock.
Looking back, I am quite certain that no one really cared what I was wearing. Mr. Crisler’s look might easily have been directed toward Ernie behind me. But for the first time in my life, I felt like I was expressing myself.
The real test came that night at church school. This night we were meeting in the church as the priest had a special message for the youth. At the time, this man had a hard-on for lecturing us about how popular culture was delivering us to the gates of hell.
Like something out of Footloose, he came up with a list of “bad music” that we were not to listen to. Not if we wanted to be good. Not if we wanted to be saved. I never felt comfortable around the man. He (and the church in general) intimidated me. I made sure my jean jacket covered up my shirt as he began his rant. I did not wanted to be pointed out, made to feel bad, or be embarrassed.
The priest began by condemning the usual suspects from the world of rock music. But as he continued, he threw The Beatles and Billy Joel (“you Catholic girls start much too late”) into the mix. I felt my blood begin to boil. This guy did not know what he was talking about! Why wasn’t anyone calling him a liar? A hypocrite? Why wasn’t anyone pointing out to him that “LET IT BE” WAS IN THE DAMN HYMN BOOK?
No, I didn’t have the courage to open my mouth. I didn’t say a word. But I made a show of taking off my jacket and letting my demon fly. My hands were shaking during my act of defiance.
Looking back, I doubt that Father could have seen far enough to make out anything on my shirt. But then again, this really wasn’t about him anyway.
This was about what I liked. And I liked this music. No one was going to tell me what I could like anymore. That was for me to decide. Not my parents. Not my school. Not the church.
I know it does not sound like much. A silly T-shirt, marketed perfectly with dark imagery to an angry, disillusioned teenage boy. Big whoop.
But for me it was more than that. For me it was art. And the job of art is to evoke a feeling from us – whatever that feeling might be.
Mr. Dio’s art put me on a path where I could begin making choices based on my preferences, not just the expectations of others.
So, thank you, Ronnie James. Your art touched my life in a positive way.
And I think that is the sign of a life well lived.
STAND UP AND SHOUT
You are the strongest chain
And not just some reflection
So never hide again
You are the driver
You own the road
You are the fire
Go on explode
You’ve got desire
So let it out
You’ve got the power
Stand up and shout