Heavy Metal Saved Me From Catholic Guilt; RIP Ronnie Dio

As I open out my new blog, first let me give a shout out to my loyal readers, especially Desiree, who graduated from Penn over the weekend: congratulations! Thanks for joining me here. Let’s see how many people I can shock and make think before it’s all over, starting with this blog post.

I actually began several different blog posts but decided to start out by writing about the passing of a great metal “god,” Ronnie James Dio. Dio lost his battle with stomach cancer at M.D. Anderson in Houston May 16, 2010. You might wonder why someone who writes about the things I do would like Ronnie James Dio. Most people wouldn’t take me for a headbanger (surprise)!

I’d like to think Ronnie Dio and I would have had a great chat had we ever met. Dio grew up Catholic, and was lead singer for a several groups, including Rainbow, Black Sabbath (replacing Ozzy Osborne),

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Dio, and Heaven and Hell. Dio’s recognition of religion and his ambivalence towards organized religion—especially Catholicism—was read by outsiders as “devil worship” in part because of the graphic depiction of demons on various album covers. The cover of “Holy Diver” (left) sported Murray, the band’s mascot. Dio’s use of the popularized “devil’s horns” salute common at metal concerts also did nothing to endear him to the Christian faithful, yet Dio’s use of the horns came from his grandmother’s use of the hand symbol to ward off the evil eye (corna). I have to wonder if Dio’s grandmother ever saw him use it in a concert.

Without Dio, and other “satanic” metal groups, right wing Christianity would have had a hard time remembering what to do with the devil. Dio made it cool to question religion, to embrace the darker side of things, to embrace the obscure in lyrics of songs like “Rainbow in the Dark.” I can’t tell you how many incredulous looks I received when people heard Dio blasting out of my beat-up car in the late ’80s, only to see a black woman bobbing her head.

But Dio and other metal bands hold an important place in forming my intellectual interest in religion. The imagery their album covers drew upon was more interesting than the mundane depictions of evil employed by the Church harkening back to a Hieronymus Bosch sensibility. Staring at the covers and listening to the throbbing music accompanying Dio’s operatic voice was like a metal Wagnerian opera. Besides, it’s hard to be ambiguous about good and evil when a giant demon named Murray is casting a priest into a lake (or, as Dio often pointed out, maybe it’s the priest escaping from the demon, depending on your point of view). Even though Dio went through some hard times, he continued to play well in this generation, appearing in South Park’s “Monkey Fonics” episode playing Cartman’s school dance, as well as a memorable appearance as an answer to a prayer in the 2006 film Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.

As I continue to flex my interest in religion in different ways, I am grateful to rockers and musicians like Dio who’ve not been afraid to let their childhood questions become part of their artistic personas. Most of us who went to Catholic school or were raised Catholic have a pretty healthy sense of guilt, but Dio let you face those demons of guilt and doubt in a way that was palatable and provocative. It makes me sad that Dio died in Houston, where I drove down many a street with his music blasting, but perhaps it is just as well. That way, the next time I’m home, I’ll feel like a little bit of my teenage rebellion is still alive on the city streets. I hope you’re rocking it out man, wherever your Rainbow in the Dark is.

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