By Michael Grasso / October 16, 2017
Ronnie James Dio broke out in a big way in the spring of 1983 with the release of his solo debut LP, Holy Diver. Formerly the lead singer for heavy rock/metal pioneers Elf, Rainbow (Ritchie Blackmore‘s followup project to Deep Purple), and Black Sabbath (joining the band after it parted ways with Ozzy Osbourne), Dio brought to his new eponymous project over a decade of experience as a foundational heavy metal vocalist and lyricist. He also brought a certain eldritch aura as frontman, a hard-to-pin-down witchy presence made even more uncanny by his trademark vocal range and power. Trained to play the trumpet from the age of five and surrounded by the sounds of opera thanks to his Italian-American upbringing, Dio’s background helped provide a power, endurance, and versatility to his rock vocals that was unlike anyone who’d come before him. One could argue that all subsequent heavy metal vocalists, whether they soared through the clouds like Bruce Dickinson or growled from the pits of hell like pre-vocal-blowout James Hetfield, owe a huge stylistic debt to Ronnie James.
But it wasn’t just Dio’s unique vocals that made him a foundational figure in the history of heavy metal. In his work with Elf and Rainbow, Dio turned his lyrical eye to mystical, mythical themes and narratives. In this era where the lines between heavy rock, proto-heavy metal, and prog rock were yet to fully solidify, Dio’s lyrics were at once wholly typical of these genres and at the same time personal and unique. Like his contemporaries Robert Plant and Neil Peart, who loved J.R.R. Tolkien and used motifs and stories from Tolkien’s legendarium to their work, Dio brought an authentic, long-lived respect for Arthurian legends, Sir Walter Scott, and other fantasy and sci-fi literature to his lyrical narratives.
Dio’s evocation of mythic themes was arguably made more powerful by where he situated the attention of his lyrics: on the personal struggles of his songs’ protagonists, painting psychological portraits of the marginalized suffering under the boot of power. These protagonists are often the little people, the outcasts, the left behind, those who live out their lives in the shadow of more epic, world-spanning fantasy figures. In song suites like Rainbow’s “Stargazer”/”A Light in the Black” (the two songs that made up the entirety of side B of 1976’s Rainbow Rising), we are not asked to hear the tale of the powerful wizard or even a champion who comes to defeat him. Instead, Dio sings in the voices of the enslaved, people (or perhaps demons?) who have been bound and forced under punishment from “whips and chains” to build the wizard’s tower, simply so this wizard can enjoy the luxury of being able to fly. A cosmic struggle is brought down to earth through an examination of exploitation and suffering of the masses—just who has to labor to allow this wizard his world-shattering magic?
While Dio found inspiration in fantasy literature and science fiction, he also had first-hand experience of older, real-world mystical traditions. Possibly the most famous myth surrounding Dio is that he invented the heavy metal “devil horns.” The story that inevitably emerges is that Dio was copying an apotropaic gesture that his grandmother would use to ward off malocchio, or the evil eye. The gesture itself has myriad meanings in various world cultures (including a related meaning in Italian culture signifying that a man “wears the horns” of a cuckold). For all the subsequent controversy and “Satanic” hype that the devil horns have received in the decades since Dio added it to his stage presence in the 1970s, the gesture is ultimately a piece of homely, traditionally female-centered magic. Dio admits in an interview that his grandmother used the warding sign while she was out every day walking on city streets. In this syncretic mix of ancient pagan magical tradition and Italian Catholic superstition, the complementary half of Dio’s worldview can be seen: an acknowledgement of a profoundly earthly struggle between good and evil, luck and misfortune, holiness and temptation.
The Holy Diver LP is suffused with this imagery of a Manichean struggle of good vs. evil, of individual lives caught in the battle between God and the Devil. The title calls to mind Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, an apocryphal tale that became part of Catholic creedal teaching since the church’s earliest days. The battle of good and evil is embodied right on the iconic album cover, painted by Randy Berrett, a fantasy artist who also did the cover art for the third installment in The Bard’s Tale computer game series, The Thief of Fate (1988). (He now works on Pixar films.) On first inspection, it’s a little on the nose: a giant devil figure has wrapped a drowning priest in chains—the titular Holy Diver, one assumes. But Dio himself was always very cagey about the cover and its interpretation. Surely conscious of the increasing scrutiny of Satanic imagery in pop culture, especially heavy metal music and iconography, Dio said it’s not a foregone conclusion that the Devil has the priest wrapped up and on the hook. Perhaps, Dio would often argue, it’s the opposite? This priest is gamely struggling, trying to bring the Devil to heel, in a sea of holy water? Moreover, the chain is broken. Who exactly has broken free? This sort of ambiguity, while possibly merely expedient in an era of moral panic over heavy metal, gives another clue to Dio’s worldview: appearances can be deceiving. (We’ll see more of this when we discuss the video for the title track.)
The Devil figure on the cover of Holy Diver was nicknamed “Murray.” This illustrates another trend in the birth of mainstream heavy metal in the late ’70s and early ’80s: bands with mascots who’d appear on album covers and on stage, representing the band symbolically. (Probably the most famous example is Iron Maiden’s skeleton mascot Eddie, who’s been through myriad incarnations.) The history of the word “mascot” itself, like the origins of the heavy metal horns, is interwoven with a history of everyday household magic, concerned with blessings and curses, luck and misfortune. A mascot (or mascotte in the original French) was a small totem or lucky charm, often used by gamblers. It entered English thanks to a late 19th century opera titled La Mascotte. The word’s origins go all the way back to medieval Provençe: mascotte is a dimunitive of the word masco, which means a female fortune-teller or witch. Luck, magical protection, fortune-telling, and women’s everyday magic: all linked magical concepts which came down to the 20th century in the form of the mascot.
In line with his earlier work, like Rainbow’s “Stargazer/A Light In The Black” suite or the title track to Sabbath’s 1980 Heaven And Hell (“The world is full of kings and queens/Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams”), all throughout Holy Diver we’re asked to identify with the lost, the dispossessed, the outcast, the powerless. On “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and “Caught In the Middle,” the standard rock narrative about the temptations of the big city yields to a positive message, that with faith in oneself, one can resist temptation. Possibly Holy Diver‘s most intriguing track, “Invisible” asks us to consider the trials of three young people who feel alienated from their upbringing and run away from home: a young girl who bears some kind of trauma, a young man searching for answers about his sexuality, and, in the final verse, Dio takes on the first person to include himself and his own life story among these forgotten and exiled youth.
“Holy Diver” lyrically follows these ideas of pursuit, persecution, and identity. The song’s narrative zooms back out to an epic scale as the titular character, a “soul/sole survivor,” emerges from a dark sea to ride a tiger, marked with stripes but “clean.” The tiger here is a Blakean totem of power, shining brightly, full of righteous fury, its stripes inspiring fear, but actually a vessel for holiness and purity. The image of a deliverer of divine justice riding a beast harkens back to the Book of Revelation, where the Four Horsemen ride forth on their steeds to bring the world to its just end, or the Whore of Babylon‘s seven-headed, scarlet-skinned Beast. Dio also sings of an eternal struggle between good and evil: “life’s a never-ending wheel.” Given the images of heroism we’re about to discuss in the music video for “Holy Diver,” this line from the song evokes both Nietzsche’s idea of “eternal recurrence” and the Jungian idea, as popularized by Joseph Campbell, of the heroic myth cycle. The journey out of comfort to face the evils of the world and the subsequent desire to return to peace once the work is done fits perfectly into Dio’s lyrical worldview.
The music video for “Holy Diver” begins with an extended instrumental intro featuring foreboding synths and a howling wind. Bright green foliage slowly gives way to bare branches, evoking the circle of the seasons (yet another “never-ending wheel”) and letting us know something dark is creeping into our field of vision. Perhaps the very land is sick, as it is in the myth of the Fisher King before he is healed by the Grail. A dissolve into the broken architecture of a ruined church, and a brief glimpse of Murray, from the cover of the album, seemingly hovering over all. Then, that crunching killer riff from the guitar of 21-year-old Vivian Campbell thunders forth as we pan down to look down the nave of the church, its altar suffused in an eerie red glow.
Dio, in this video, does not ride to the rescue as a gleaming paladin clad in silks, oriflammes trailing behind. He is instead a barbarian warrior, clad in furs, an obvious outsider to the church and the forces of civilization that built it. He represents the forces of the pagan, which literally meant “of the countryside” in late ancient Latin. The strands of straw in his unruly mane betray these pagan origins. He is not here to pillage the ruins, but he does explore them. He is beyond the religious concerns of the holy men who once prayed here, or the eerie unholy presence that now inhabits the ruins. Dio’s sword appears pitted and old, perhaps scavenged from a previous civilization. Within the ruins Dio confronts a man in rags; after his defeat, he’s revealed to melt away into a plague of rats. The silhouette of Murray intercuts with Dio’s penetration into the church; under this silhouette play images of rocks, fog, lava. Is this devil figure some kind of elemental, a primitive natural force that Dio must bring to heel?
Dio next encounters a blacksmith working on a sword as the lyrics speak of the “truth that’s hard as steel.” Can we avoid being reminded of the “riddle of steel” as so memorably discussed in 1981’s Conan the Barbarian? In the hero’s journey, before his descent into the underworld to battle the beast, he will be gifted with supernatural aid, often in the form of a helper, a talisman, or a weapon that evokes an older legacy from heroes gone before. It is apparent that the smith is a helper, not another rat-servant of the demonic presence. Dio tosses away his old sword and sings of the “never-ending wheel” as he catches his new weapon, his face lit only by the fires of the forge. His journey to the underworld to face the evil can now begin.
Dio has now entered the most sacred (or profane) inner sanctum of the church. Metal bars open for him, looking like the teeth of a great beast. With his bright new sword leading the way, we see Dio’s destiny: three hooded and cloaked figures, attended by a lone bird, who swoops out as the guitar solo cracks free—perhaps a psychopomp meant to send word to the surface of the impending battle. These cloaked figures look, from a distance, like monks or mystics, their robes apparently white, but turning red under the same eerie glow we saw at the outset of the video. When we see them on their own, they are posed in front of the Murray silhouette and the backdrop of bubbling lava. Their robes are now unmistakably a velvety red. More dualism: these scarlet cloaks are evocative of the Catholic Church’s cardinals, but given the eventual split-second revelation of unsettling cats’ eyes floating in the void under their hoods, their evil nature is apparent. Were these corrupted holy men from the heyday of this church? Dark wizards who summoned this presence to earth? Demonic figures who decided to take on the guise of holy men?
Whatever the case, Dio now approaches the altar, determination still on his face, but sword no longer swinging. It’s instead in his hands, almost in a supplicatory posture. The red glow from the altar now lights up Dio’s face as he looks directly at us, Murray’s face overlaid on his, as he raises his sword. Is there a danger of corruption here? Will Dio succeed in banishing this presence from the church? We’re left to wonder, as the camera pans over the rat once more and then back to the barren trees that we saw at the beginning of the video. But, notably, there’s no return to green fecundity, and only a fleeting final shot of the church’s steeple through a crack in the ruins. The ambiguity here is deliberate: Dio, the pure-hearted barbarian hero, might be able to banish and slay individuals who are corrupted by evil, but evil yet remains, crouched hidden in the edifices of our everyday life.
Michael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.