In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

Dio: Holy Diver (1983)

 Ronnie James Dio rules. In fact, he may be my second-favorite metal solo artist aside from my number one guy, Alice Cooper. I don’t know anyone who loves metal and who doesn’t at least respect Dio, even if they aren’t fans of his work. And if you ask me, I think Dio was strong in the Red Lord Typhon Seth, even if he didn’t consciously realize it.

That demon bears a striking resemblance to Big Red, eh?

Just look at that bitchin’ album cover, which has incited so much controversy and rage from the Religious Right. You can probably guess why; it’s not every day that you see a big demon drowning a priest. But as Dio himself would point out, is that really what’s happening here? Is it actually a demon drowning a priest, or could it possibly be a priest drowning a demon? Could it be that the “demon” is actually some kind of shaman or wizard? Could it be that the man wearing the clerical collar is the one who’s truly evil? When I look at this album cover, I see a wicked person being drowned in the waters of chaos by Seth-Typhon Himself…

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong. But if Dio were still with us today and I could tell him what I see in this cover art, I bet he’d just laugh and say, “Sure, why the hell not?” That’s the kind of guy Dio was. He was a man of riddles; he delighted in giving us powerful messages that could be interpreted in any number of fascinating ways. He wrote some of the deepest and most soul-searching heavy metal lyrics anyone has ever produced, and he had one hell of a singing voice to boot. He also continued singing at metal shows well after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, right until that fateful day in 2010 when the Gods called him up to join Them in the Field of Reeds (peace be upon him!). That’s how metal this guy really was, and if you ask me, I think the Red Lord must have been keeping one of His fingers on Dio’s shoulder for his entire life.

(Incidentally, Dio popularized the “sign of the horns” in metal, which is when people extend their index and little fingers while holding their middle and ring fingers down with their thumbs. Many people associate this symbol with the Christian devil, but it’s actually far older than that, going back to ancient Nepal at least. It was most often used in pre-Christian folk traditions to ward off the malocchio or “Evil Eye.” In other words, it’s an apotropaic symbol, which means that the so-called “demon” on the Holy Diver cover is actually execrating evil rather than causing it).

Ronnie James Dio was born Ronald James Padavona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1942. At the time, no one could have guessed that this little Italian American boy would grow up to become one of the world’s greatest superheroes. All it took for him to start walking the road to Valhalla was for him to step in front of a microphone and sing for a high school rock band. Some say Dio chose his name of power because it’s the Italian word for “God,” and that he wished to acknowledge his singing talent as a gift from the heavens. Whatever his reasons might have been, Dio’s high school band went through many name changes of its own. First they were called “the Vegas Kings”; then they were “Ronnie & the Rumblers,” “Ronnie & the Redcaps,” “Ronnie Dio & the Prophets,” “the Electric Elves,” and then just plain old “Elf.” It was under this last name that their first proper album was released in 1972. Elf soon became a regular opening act for the band Deep Purple in the mid-1970s, but they went through yet another name change when the Gods commanded Ritchie Blackmore to leave that band and join Elf. Together, Dio, Elf and Blackmore all became the band Rainbow, and it was then that Dio really started getting noticed.

Unfortunately, Dio and Blackmore would eventually part ways in the late 1970s over creative differences. At about the same time this was happening, Ozzy Osbourne was being fired from Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi was desperately seeking a new vocalist. He and Dio ran into each other completely by chance, and it wasn’t much longer before Dio became Ozzy’s replacement in Sabbath. I’ll never forget what it was like for me when I first discovered that this happened. It seemed so blasphemous to me at first, and I just wouldn’t give Sabbath’s Dio albums the proper respect they deserved. But one night, I finally broke down and listened to both Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981), and I was absolutely blown away by them. (May Dio grant me a thousand pardons for ever doubting him!) I’ll always prefer my Sabbath with Ozzy, but the Dio era is every bit as good. In time, however, the Gods arranged to have Dio leave Sabbath and to start his own band (appropriately called “Dio”) in 1982. It was shortly afterwards that Dio finally released his very best album, his pièce de résistance: 1983’s Holy Diver.

The album opens with “Stand Up And Shout,” in which Dio talks to someone who’s unhappy with their life. This person’s dissatisfied with his or her social, familial and/or professional responsibilities, but Dio points out that responsibility is actually an indicator of power. We’re only responsible for what we can control, so if we have responsibility for something, that means we also have some amount of control over it. It isn’t the concept of responsibility itself that holds us down, but our tendency to view responsibility as a burden. The next song, “Holy Diver,” is about someone who’s searching for all the answers to life’s mysteries, but who only becomes more confused with each new answer that is found. It’s like trying to fit all of your possessions into a single box; some things just won’t fit no matter how many times you re-pack them. If we want to spend more time actually living (and not just wondering how to live), we must accept the fact that there isn’t an easy answer for everything. Sometimes, we just have to “ride the tiger,” “follow our hearts,” “go with the flow” or [place your preferred metaphor here]. Truth can be found inside ourselves as much as it can be found outside, and while it’s good for us to question and think about things, we can drive ourselves insane if we “over-think” them too much.

In “Gypsy,” Dio’s approached by a woman who nomadically drifts from lover to lover, mentally and emotionally abusing them (but who continues to seem lovely and desirable after the fact). Dio, who’s about to set sail for some great adventure, finds that he now has a choice: he can either kick the “gypsy” right out of his life and continue being free and adventurous, or he can be the one the gypsy kicks around for a while. He knows that if he stays with this woman, he’ll lose both his freedom and his quest; but he ends up “ridin’ on the gypsy” anyway. The message of the song seems to be that everyone wants what’s bad for them (even if it means giving up what’s best for them). I love the way Dio tells this story with his trademark sword and sorcery lexicon; it adds an extra dimension to the conflict, making it more than just a song about a toxic relationship. At the same time, I wouldn’t say that the gypsy character is really “evil” or that she’s responsible for what happens to Dio in the story. The blame for that clearly rests with Dio himself, who allows the gypsy to take control (and who fully understands what he’s doing). This echoes the message about power and responsibility that we find in “Stand Up And Shout.”

The next song, “Caught in the Middle,” is decidedly more optimistic. Dio posits that there’s a powerful force within each and every person, but that most of us remain unaware of its presence. To truly find our way in the spiritual darkness of this world, we must let this power flow outward, and we must bring ourselves to love our fates (i.e., amor fati, the idea of accepting everything in life as good, including the things that hurt us). By doing this, we can “feel the rush of it all” and “walk along the bloody road, like the hero who never ends.” In my opinion, this song captures the strangely ecstatic fatalism of Friedrich Nietzsche. I also think the title of the song refers to (1) being caught between the “slave morality” of the masses and the “master morality” of the overprivileged, as well as (2) the desire to transcend these opposites and to create a new morality worthy of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (i.e., “the hero who never ends”).

(People have this unfortunate tendency to associate Nietzsche’s philosophy with fascism, nihilism and evil, but this isn’t accurate at all. I’m not prepared to explain Nietzschean philosophy in depth here, but I will say that Nietzsche would have gotten along much better with Ronnie James Dio than he would have with Adolf Hitler, and you can take that straight to the bank.)

In “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” an overprotective parent tries to completely insulate his child from the outside world. He lists off a number of activities (e.g., talking to strangers, dreaming of women, etc.) and categorically discourages the child from doing any of them. But while each of these activities can lead to harmful consequences, they can also lead to good things as well. Is the parent actually protecting his child, or is he stunting the child’s growth? Halfway through the song, a voice introduces itself as “the one that lets you look and see.” This could be a God, a demon or even the child’s own subconscious. (Personally, I think it’s Seth.) Either way, the voice encourages the child to think for him or herself. It also says it’s “the evil song you sing inside your brain,” which reminds me of how some parents try to prevent their kids from listening to bands they think are “satanic.” Doing this only makes the kids want to listen to such “devil music” even more – and considering that he was so often accused of being a “devil worshiper,” I imagine this is exactly what Dio meant by that line. As someone who became a Typhonian during my teenage years, “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is probably my favorite song on this album; it captures all the emotions I experienced as I progressed through that tumultuous phase of my life.

In the next track, “Straight Through The Heart,” Dio talks to someone who’s never been able to move beyond some traumatic event that occurred in his or her past. It seems this person just can’t accept the fact that life isn’t kind or fair. On the flip side, Dio reveals that while he accepts the dark side of life, “living in a world of make believe” is what helps him do so. He then posits that “wearing your emotions on your sleeve” is what caused the other person’s tragedy. The message I get from this is that “Life can really suck sometimes, but as long as you keep exercising your imagination and as long as you’re careful about who you share your innermost secrets with, you’ll survive.” Now that’s a realistic but positive message if there ever was one.

Then there’s “Invisible.” It’s difficult to be sure what Dio’s actually singing about in this one; there’s talk of circles being broken, of finding “the chalice of the soul” in “the palace of the virgin,” of a girl who’s had “thirteen years of teenage tears” and “fourteen more of rain,” of an abused boy who seems to be gay, bisexual or at least effeminate in some way, and of “going away” and becoming “unseen.” Perhaps the most powerful moment is when Dio says, “The only way to really stay is to walk right out the door.” I have no clue what any of this really means, but I feel that Dio’s talking about having a troubled childhood, running away from abusive adults, and never being seen or threatened by them again. In real life, Dio had great compassion for children who are abused or who are otherwise prevented from having safe and stable childhoods; he even started a charity devoted to helping such children that was called “Children of the Night.” I think “Invisible” is about how people who are abused often feel pressured to stay in their situations because they’re afraid things might get worse if they leave. Sometimes, running away can be a smarter and more courageous thing to do than “standing your ground” and trying to “man up” to your problems.

Aside from “Holy Diver,” “Rainbow in the Dark” is probably the single most well-known song on this entire album; this is the one that’s most often played on the radio or on classic music video lineups (e.g., on VH1 Classic’s “Metal Mania”). “Rainbow” is about feeling trapped and oppressed by the dark realities of life, of longing for magic to generate hope and provide an escape, and of wanting to be free like the elemental forces of nature. At first glance, these themes echo what Dio has already expressed in “Straight Through The Heart” – but in that song, Dio gives advice to someone else who’s feeling pain and doubt; this time, he’s the one who feels lost. I also like the way he identifies with lightning, which gives this song a very powerful Typhonian edge. It was definitely a perfect battle anthem for a teenage Typhonian in Texas like me.

The album then concludes with “Shame On The Night,” which is perhaps the most enigmatic track of all. Dio admonishes the night for causing scary dreams, but he also seems to admonish the Sun. Throughout history, people have most often believed that the Sun is greater than the night and that light will always defeat darkness. But in this day and age, we now understand that the Sun is really just another star, and that it’s infinitesimally small compared to the vast black emptiness of space. If anything, darkness is more powerful and ever-present than light, and Dio seems to criticize the Sun here for misleading us all into thinking otherwise. (If nothing else, this song reminds me of an axiom we have here in LV-426: “The Earth revolves around the Sun, but in Heaven, it is always night.”) One can also interpret the song as a revisitation of the old Neoplatonic idea that this world of darkness is but a illusory shadow of some higher perfect world of eternal light; but Dio (or at least his character in the song) seems to sense that this notion really isn’t true at all.

At first glance, Dio’s Holy Diver resembles David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World in that it sees our universe as a fundamentally dark place. Yet I would argue that this album actually has a very positive message, overall. In my review of the Bowie album, I interpret it as claiming that existence is ultimately meaningless and that the most we can do is distract ourselves with sex and drugs until we die. This kind of post-modern nihilism is exactly what Friedrich Nietzsche warns against in his philosophical works (and I think that way of thinking leads to Apophis, the Enemy of all things). But Dio’s Holy Diver takes a significantly different view. Yes, there are many problems in this world; there are parents who abuse their children, there are people who try to rob us of our autonomy, and there is more darkness in the universe than light. But we still have the capacity to imagine, we are still in control of our own actions, and we can at least fight to make our dreams come true. Our actual accomplishments may never fit our ideals, but life wouldn’t be any fun if there was never any room for improvement. Dio invites us to take up our swords and to valiantly walk “the long and bloody road” with him as heroes who will never end. While David Bowie seems to just throw himself into the mouth of Apophis in The Man Who Sold The World, Dio invokes the Iron of Seth and battles the hungry vacuum of nihilism with all his might.

Good Gods Damn! It’s DIO!

We have a rule in my house: Nobody says anything bad about Dio. Even if someone holds a gun to your head and tells you to say “Dio sucks!” or else, you just look them in the eye and say, “EAT YOUR HEART OUT! YOU’VE BEEN A BAD, BAD GIRL! YOU’VE BEEN HUNGRY ALL OF YOUR LIFE…SO EAT IT OUT!” Better to bite the bullet and let Dio welcome you into the Field of Reeds with open arms than to forsake him and possibly incur his righteous wrath. Dio was taken from this world much earlier than he should have been, but he’ll always be an inspiration to people like me.


4 responses to “Dio: Holy Diver (1983)

  1. dukederichleau April 28, 2016 at 12:26 am

    In my top 5 albums of all time, without a doubt. So many moments on this record that make me glad to be alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Darren's Music Blog November 25, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Love this album and got it on vinyl when it came out. However, it was one of those albums that I never bought on CD and I find my vinyl never gets played as much these. But I picked it up Best of Dio second hand on CD two weeks ago at a charity shop (thrift store) and it’s been on my stereo countless times since then. Making up for lost time..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 14jakdoe July 26, 2017 at 10:12 pm

    Beautiful man. I like your interpretations as it struck a chord with me. Dio and Bowie are two of my favorite artists and I love looking into their song meanings–though I haven’t gone deep enough into bowie’s lyrics as much as I should. You also mention Nietzche in the more nuanced way that isn’t just the “muh nihilism” garbage that most people think he is.

    Did you write this for me, by chance?


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