It was an unusually cool August summer night alongside the Chicago lake shore as I swung the chrome kickstand down on my Harley Davidson Fatboy and began the walk to what would be my last meeting with the incredible Ronnie James Dio. A powerful storm front had moved through the area earlier in the day, and considering the vulnerable location of the Northerly Island concert venue, many thought this show would never happen. My boots smacked against the standing water on the sidewalk as I looked up at the large banner over the main gate “Dio, Iommi, Butler, Appice.. Heaven & Hell” O fuck Yeah… I live for this!
As usual, the corporate radio bastards that I worked for at the time had sent me as their ambassador. The suits hadn’t set foot inside a real metal concert in decades and they certainly weren’t going to show up tonight. Good. The last thing we needed was a bunch of executives in pressed white shirts getting drunk in their secluded VIP area, pulling me from one client to another, all while telling stories about their frat days in Michigan. No sir, not tonight. This show was for true fans of the music. I had gladly accepted the assignment, slipped the complimentary front row tickets inside the breast pocket of my leather jacket with a grin, and assured them I would take care of everything. One of the younger execs who looked like Mr. Bean said “Tight!” and held out his hand for an awkward fist bump. I pretended to ignore it as I walked out of the office. Dorks.
The mission was simple. I was to watch masters of their craft perform songs from some of the most iconic metal albums of all time.. Right in front of my face.. And then, 20 minutes before the end, slip out to a special side gate to meet up with the LiveNation representative and chaperone a couple dozen extremely excited contest winners to a meet and greet with the band.
It was clear from the fully packed stands and the roar of the massive crowd that nobody was going to miss tonight’s concert. Tony came walking out in front of his wall of Laney amplifiers as Geezer hammered thunder out of his bass rig.. But it was when Ronnie darted across to the front of the stage, throwing his hand high in the air, and with classic Dio style and precision he screamed an unearthly “COME ON!” that seemed to echo clear across lake Michigan and into infinity. Now that’s a FUCKING METAL SHOW!
For the next hour and a half I was once again mesmerized by the incredible vocal power and range that Dio unleashed on the willing audience. Looking straight up at the stage, it is easy to forget that he only stood a petite 5 feet 4 inches. But that voice, a rich articulate baritone that could slide up and down the octaves with ease while still pulling a growl that sounded straight from the abyss. Impressive. Hell Yes! So impressive I almost lost track of time, and with a quick juke to the isle I was off to randevu for the meet and greet.
As I arrived at the specified side gate, several very excited fans were already waiting in anticipation. More were walking up, all smiles, patting each other on the back. We could hear the echo of Neon Nights bouncing off the stands, and in between selfies and hand shakes I was glancing over the corner trying to let my eyes grab a last look at this amazing performance. Damn, they sounded good.
The LiveNation representative showed up in their usual caffeine induced panic, juggling a cell phone and clipboard and not really focusing on anything. “Thank God you're here! I know you got this. When the manager opens the gate, can you escort them all backstage? You’re the best. I have to go”. She handed me a bunch of VIP passes and ran off to some other emergency.
Our backstage winner's quickly huddled around me like well behaved school children ready to go on their first outside field trip. They hadn’t understood a word she said and I think they were worried it was cancelled. You would have thought I was giving them all puppies as they each received their purple VIP sticker and proudly stuck it on their shirts. I felt a bit like Wonka outside the chocolate factory ready to start the tour.
“You are all in luck today”, I said with a big smile and pointed to the fence. “In a few seconds this gate will slide open and we are going to take a short walk backstage to meet the band. Remember that we are their guests and it is extremely generous of them to take the time to see you after they just performed a show. As you will shortly see, you are about to meet some of the coolest, nicest, and most polite people in rock and roll. Please be aware that Tony has been suffering from some seriously painful problems with his right hand, so it would be nice if you offered your left hand to shake instead.”
The chain link gate suddenly slid open with a noisy clatter and a grizzled band manager in a t-shirt 1 size too small exclaimed “Ah, Mr. Capone!.. Are these all yours?... Follow me and don’t touch anything.”
The dark backstage area was abuzz with roadies everywhere. These are the true hero’s of rock and roll, the first on the scene, the last to drive away when it's over. This was their game time and they were straight to business like a well oiled machine. Most barely looked up to give us a glance as they pushed ridiculously large rolling cases across the pavement to the waiting semi trucks.
Upon arriving at the large white rental party tent I was surprised to see that the band was already waiting for us. Several folding tables were lined up next to each other with Vinny and Geezer sitting behind them like kids ready to eat dinner, each holding a black Sharpie like it was a fork. Tony was standing behind the tables gripping his right hand chest high like an injured dog. How the man performed a whole show like that is unbelievable. Ronnie was on the far left with a plush white towel around his neck. He had chosen to move in front of the tables so that he could be closer to the fans who were lined up in a long single file.
Over the next hour, I stood off to the side smiling as I watched Ronnie James Dio take the time to talk with every single person. He would look everyone in the eye, intently listening to what they had to say. He would graciously thank them for their kind comments, even though he had heard the same thing twenty times already that day. It was never a problem to take a picture, or sign an item. A hug? You bet! He was glad to do it. This was the DIO I knew and loved.
The scruffy manager stood by me, “aren’t you going to get in line? I know the guys would like to thank you.”
“O no, it’s OK. This is for them.” I pointed to the winners. “I get to do this stuff all the time. Thanks for setting it all up. The boys have made a lot of people very happy tonight.”
It’s true, in all my years in this crazy business I don’t get autographs, or take that many photos with the artists that I meet. That’s just not my style really.
As the last person finished, the assistants offered to take the winners out the back gate for me. Geezer and Vinny stood up and stretched a bit. The tent was now mostly empty.
“Look, I know the guys want to say thanks. It will only take a minute” insisted the manager.
Tony was close, so I offered my left hand for a shake, he was surprised and said thank you. I told him that I couldn’t believe he played so well with the hand like that. When are you going to get the surgery? We talked about our Rottweilers, Laney amps, and vintage guitars... as two old guitar players will do.
Ronnie came walking up to us. He always seems so frail and small. Where does that voice come from? He wanted to thank me for all that the station had done to help promote the show and the band. I talked about how well the sound system was that night, and how great the vocals cut through the mix. How was Wendy? Just a couple of long haired guys talking a bit of shop and family without any agenda.
“Well, I better get going”, I said. “I’ve got a long ride on the bike back home tonight and the dogs are probably wondering where I am. I’ll see you the next time you're in town. Thanks for another great show!”
Ronnie gave me a genuine firm hug and said “No, Thank You!”
Only a month or so later, Ronnie was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Like most men he hadn’t gone in for regular doctor visits. On the 16th of May he died, and the world lost not only one of the greatest voices in rock and roll, but one of the coolest most genuinely sweet people I have ever met. I miss him.
But you know, you and I are lucky. You see, we are part of a very special tribe. Because when you scrape off all the corporations and sales people, the contracts and bureaucracy, the money and the merchandise, what’s left is the real marrow of rock and roll.. The artists and the fans. The tribe. Our tribe.
And our tribe is unique my brothers and sisters.. For we have wizards. These wonderful artists have learned how to manipulate harmonic frequencies in such a way that they can cause physical and emotional effects on those who choose to listen. Amazing! But what’s even more amazing is that these wizards have mastered the ability to lay down a timeless imprint of themselves, thus creating a true immortal snapshot with all the magic still intact. No other tribe has this gift. Immortality.
You and I can put on an old Metallica vinyl and visit with our brother Cliff and revel in his aggressive bass style, and he is there in the room with us once again. A young guitarist today will hear Randy Rhoads for the first time, and will try as best he can to emulate that crazy classical metal hybrid sound into his own guitar playing, and Randy is with him at that moment, and now truly even a part of him.
These wizards, these fallen brethren, have all left us a piece of themselves that we can revisit anytime we wish. Or like the young guitarist, to learn from, and absorb into our own artistic style and creations. What an amazing gift we have.
I often look back at my last meeting with Ronnie James Dio and wish I would have talked to him more that night, or maybe even held that hug just a little longer. I wish I would have told him how much we all appreciated and admired his work. But you know, even after all that, I don’t think anything would have changed. Even after all that, I’ll bet he would have done the same.. And gave me a big hug and said “No, Thank You!”
So, today I will grab a stack of righteous vinyl to bring into my rock radio show. I’ll jump on my Harley Davidson Fatboy and take that ride out to the small cinder block broadcast studio in the middle of an Illinois cornfield. I will play DIO, and Cliff, and Randy, and Mr. Bonham, and share their stories and magic… and perhaps you and I can take some comfort in knowing that radio frequency signal of mine will continue through the atmosphere carrying their work into space, where it will travel forever and ever. Immortal.
Originally published in Via Omega Magazine 2017