Back for his third stint as Black Sabbath vocalist, 65-year-old Ronnie James Dio retains his booming vibrato, his commanding stage presence and his knack for dichotomous analogies. His current group, featuring founding Sabbath members Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi, christened itself Heaven and Hell to indicate it will be playing exclusively Dio-era material. While he's revisiting his back catalog on this tour, Dio remains creatively vital, releasing reliably awesome albums about dragons and magic with his eponymous band every few years. Our conversation with the venerable holy diver demonstrates that despite his unparalleled résumé (he also fronted Rainbow at that group's creative peak), he isn't too high and mighty to praise Pink and bark like a dog.
B-Sides: In the song "Heaven and Hell," you sing, "The world is full of kings and queens/who blind your eyes and steal your dreams." Are you referring to your music-industry experiences?
Ronnie James Dio: Totally. Those kings and queens are managers and agents, all those people who take the dreams of a musician and say, "Hey, I could make some money from that," so they grab them and stick them in their own pockets. When they're through with them, they wad them up and chuck them into the wastebasket, and there goes a poor musician who's now lost everything because his eyes were blinded by these people who just stole his dreams.
The first song you wrote with Black Sabbath was "Children of the Sea," which deals with ecological awareness. Do you ever interject any commentary about current environmental issues when introducing that song live?
It's not my job to be a politician, to chastise the audience or the world. My job is to be a singer and a performer. There are times that you write something that means something to you, that has a political agenda that you need to cleanse your soul with. And when I wrote that song [in 1980], I thought I could make a difference: If you're important enough for them to buy your product, you're probably important enough for them to listen to and respect. I learned after doing "Children of the Sea" that nobody gave a damn, so I stopped doing that. I think that Pink song "Dear Mr. President" is one of the coolest things I've ever heard, absolutely brilliant, but I'm not in the game of making those kinds of statements. I'll leave that to Pink, and maybe Tim Robbins, if he put out an album.
Your standing with your peers is well established, with metal's biggest names offering testimonials to your influence. Discussing your legacy in terms of your relationship with your fans, of what accomplishment are you most proud?
I'm very proud of the fact that I made them think, because that's what separates us from some lower forms. We have a language that we thought about and created, and now we can communicate without using arfs and meows. I'm proud of the fact that with what I've done, I've lent myself to that portion of the population that does have a brain, who likes to think and be challenged. I'm not saying that my challenges are anywhere close to Keats or Edgar Rice Burroughs, but in my small way, I've made people think not only about themselves, but also about others and the world we live in. Andrew Miller 6:30 p.m. Sunday, September 23. Family Arena, 2002 Arena Parkway, St. Charles. $49.50 to $79.50. 636-896-4200.
A Tale of Two Rappers
To be a successful critic is to be a contrarian. When you are handed a story line by a publicist or manager, you are skeptical, and you immediately look for weaknesses in the story you're being sold.
So it was with the massively hyped (and simultaneous) September 11 releases of Kanye West's Graduation and 50 Cent's Curtis. The contrast, and the official perception, could hardly be more clear: Kanye is the smart, artistically brilliant star who should be lauded for trying, with his ambitious third album, to push hip-hop into a new age. The former Curtis Jackson, however, is interested only in sales and chart position, a fact reflected by his simplistic, derivative latest. Yet it couldn't really be that simple, could it?
Well, part of being a successful critic is also knowing when things really are exactly as they seem. That is not to suggest, as the ever-modest Kanye already has, that Graduation is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It might not even be the best hip-hop disc of 2007 (El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead certainly deserves consideration), and it's not without significant missteps. (Dear God, hasn't the statute of limitations on Chris Martin collaborations run out?) But the ways in which Kanye's ambition has served him before continue to elevate his game. He is the only artist who can not only assemble such a diverse guest list (T-Pain to Daft Punk, via sample), but can also make the results cohesive. He is the only artist with the stature and the savvy to give a rhyme called "Barry Bonds" the far-reaching cultural references it deserves. He is the only emcee whose tributes to others Jay-Z on "Big Brother," the MIA Lauryn Hill on "Champion Sound" are more than just treacle. For all his excesses and tiresome boasts, he's on a Stevie Wonderesque run of consistently intriguing pop music. Can you say that about any other hip-hop artist of the last twenty years?
You can't say it about Fiddy, nor would he expect it. Seldom has an artist delivered so precisely what was expected and in that sense, you could almost call Curtis a success. Millions of fans probably will, since the disc is a pop-hook-packed recap of every chart-tested move 50 has made thus far. The one difference is that in many cases "Ayo Technology," featuring Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, or "Follow My Lead," with gentle crooner Robin Thicke the star is content to cede the spotlight, neatly sidestepping the question of his own involvement or growth. The query gets answered anyway, though, on "Fully Loaded Clip," a weak rewrite of 50's true, pre-fame classic, "How To Rob." He must now resort to lampooning fellow emcees and their famous girlfriends; instead of imagining ripping off other rappers, he's content to rob himself. The theft is understandable, but it also illustrates why the conventional wisdom about these two very different albums was, indeed, very wise. Dan LeRoy