Mick Wall / “The book is exactly how Ronnie James Dio planned it”
10 August 2021
Rainbow in the Dark, a collection of memoirs by Ronnie James Dio, begins and ends at precisely the right place, just as Dio headline Madison Square Garden in June 1986 on their Sacred Heart tour, a time argued by many to be the height of Ronnie’s commercial success.
The book was edited by Mick Wall, and MetalTalk editor Steve Ritchie spoke to the legendary writer to understand how the final edition was put together.
Ronnie James Dio – Rainbow in the Dark: The Autobiography (Constable)
Edited by Wendy Dio and Mick Wall
Release Date: 27 July 2021
The book is a superb read and covers Ronnies life from age six up to the June ’86 New York show. “Ronnie had done a great deal of the writing in draft form,” Mick told MetalTalk. “He had worked on it for quite a while. He wrote longhand, so he would give the handwritten notes to Wendy, who would get the office to put them on the computer.”
Ronnie became ill, however, but he made even more detailed notes about how he wanted the final chapters to go. “He wrote a lot of notes, very extensive notes,” Mick says.
Ronnie’s work on the book was to a high level of detail, making Mick’s job ‘only’ an editor. “The book Ronnie wrote was a draft,” Mick says, “and it is normal to punch it up to get it to a level of literary biography.”
This detail was of high quality too. “He was a really smart guy,” Mick told us. “I’ve worked with a lot of rock musicians on their memoirs, and he was definitely in the top three in terms of writing and writing well and knowing what he wanted to say. All I had to do was a normal editors job, take out the repetitions, and enlarge on certain bits.
“I worked with Wendy on the parts where we didn’t have Ronnie’s actual words. There was such a large archive. He had done hundreds and hundreds of interviews, not just in the music press as his career progressed.”
Mick and Ronnie go back a long way. “I met Ronnie in 1980,” Mick says. “I was 21, and I became the UK PR for Black Sabbath. We stayed close. Ronnie, Wendy and I were close. I interviewed Ronnie dozens of times. We hung out, we talked. In the mid-’90s, I started doing his PR again. We had many dinners, sitting around in hotel rooms talking, so right now, I can still hear his voice in my head because it was so distinctive how he would articulate himself and tell his stories. So I had my massive archive, and Wendy had this huge archive, so we took it from his words.”
In fact, there was so much that a possibility exists for a second volume. “We ended up with far more than is in the book,” Mick says. “If this book goes well enough, then we will talk about volume two, which would bring it from Madison Square Gardens right up to his death in 2010, and probably after. There is the Dio cancer charity which has raised millions.”
Working on the draft was a great experience for Mick. “The book focuses on the first period of his life, from childhood,” he says. “I did not know any of that, given all the years I had known him, and he had written this by hand.”
The book is mostly Ronnie’s words and was certainly delivered according to his plan. “So, from Madison Square to Madison Square is very neat, and it is exactly how he planned it,” Mick confirms. “The last two or three chapters were from Ronnie’s extensive notes. I’m bad at many things, but one thing I am good at is capturing voices on a page, and Ronnies voice is more distinctive than anybody. No one could talk like Ronnie.”
The book reads as if Ronnie is speaking to you, and that goes through all the book. There are many great stories in there. Knowing Wendy as he does, when she gave Ronnie a bollocking after his cocaine arrest, does Mick think Ronnie got away lightly?
“I’ve had the privilege of working with many women in the music business who are incredibly strong characters,” Mick says. “As in any industry, if you work towards the top, then you do not do it by being sweet and nice 100% of the time. You are in a male-dominated business, particularly the rock business of the ’70s and ’80s, and you have to be kind of twice as full-on as the guys. And Wendy was somewhat like Sharon Osbourne. I’m on tour with Francis Rossi. I ghosted his momoir and his PA, dude, you do not want to take her on. We call her PBS, pocket battleship. Not all the time, just when it is needed. And Wendy was like that. I hear a lot how tough she is to deal with, but I never found that.”
Was Mick aware of Elf? “No, I thought someone was pulling my leg when they said he had been in a group called Elf. I was obviously aware of him in Rainbow, Rising and that period. But that Elf period, in the ’70s, you had to have an amazing vocalist in a band. There was Ian Gillan, David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Paul Rogers, Robert Plant, the list goes on and on. But Ronnie was in that realm.”
My journey of discovery was from Sabbath, backwards thorough Rainbow and then Elf. There was a rumour that the last Elf album had Blackmore on guitar before the Elf band became Rainbow, but that has never been confirmed. “I doubt that very much,” Mick says. “How many records have you heard that Ritchie Blackmore played on? Not from when he was a session guy, but from when he became Deep Purple famous. I can’t think of any record he played on as a friend for anybody.”
Elf was playing with Deep Purple at the time, so maybe that is where the rumoured connection came. Ronnie, at that time, was not at the same level as Blackmore. “Ronnie was not in that place,” Mick says. “It’s explained in the book. Towards the end of Purple, Ritchie got Ronnie in for a couple of tracks, which was going to be a solo single.
Does Mick think Ronnies description of the situation leaving Rainbow, should he have been treated better, or was that how things were done back then? “If Ronnie was less of a gentleman, that story could have been told in a lot darker fashion,” Mick says. “But Ronnie would not hear a bad word against Ritchie in public. In very, very private moments, he showed how badly he was treated. When I first met Ronnie, he would not hear a bad word about Ritchie. But that is Ronnie, really exquisite manners, good-hearted man. It didn’t mean he didn’t have those dark thoughts, but Blackmore gave Ronnie his break at the end of the day, and it was long overdue. Ronnie was in his 30’s when he joined Rainbow, and that is one of the reasons the story is told at great length in the book.”
But those were different times. “By the time Ronnie joined Rainbow, he had lived a whole life, in Rock singer terms, particularly in terms of the ’70s when the idea of a band being around for 30 years have just not been done,” Mick says.
“Even Deep Purple with Ritchie only lasted five to six years. Ronnie was always grateful for the opportunity Ritchie gave him, but at the same time, was always aware of his massive contribution to Rainbow. If you talk to anyone interested in Rainbow, there is only one lineup, and that is the Dio lineup. Bonnet did an album, Joe Lynn more than one, but their whole reputation is founded on the songs Ronnie wrote with Ritchie, the sound they conceived together, the medieval Metal which was not around at the time.
“Bands like Zeppelin were still very much blues-based, and Rainbow took it to this very different area of music. And Ronnie was so delighted to be involved in that. It fitted him perfectly.”
Did Mick see Rainbow play live? “Incredible,” he says. “I saw the lineup with Jimmy Bain, Ritchie, Ronnie, Cozy Powell and Tony Carey on keyboards. I saw them in London. I’d like to say I saw them at the Rainbow, but truthfully I can’t remember. It might have been the Odeon, but it was amazing. I was young. I used to see 50 concerts a week, but that was one I had bought a ticket for. I could not wait to see them.
“I remember that show better than I remember my show last night. It was staggering—the level of musicianship. Ritchie always had this yin and yang, sun and moon, this cold edge, like cold fire, but Ronnie, between the songs, had this great rapport with the audience and just exuded warmth. Then they would launch into another star chasing epic, and we were off again.”
Throughout the book, Ronnie talks at great length about a sense of fair play and loyalty and about how he left Rainbow with practically nothing. He says how he stuck by his friends Jimmy Bain and Vinny Appice and how he was scrupulous about paying his band members with Dio. As an objective journalist and possibly having interviewed all sides, does Mick endorse Ronnie’s perspective?
“100%. I think the fans have a romantic sense when they think of their favourite bands,” Mick says. “They tend to think of it like The Monkees, all great friends in a house. The reality is, it is not like that. I think it’s interesting with the arc of the story. Ronnie in Rainbow is very much a second banana. It was not meant to be that way. It was not the way Ritchie presented the opportunity to Ronnie, but at the same time, and Francis Rossi and I talk about this, it is show business. It’s no use crying over spilt milk.
“I don’t think the fans understand this. It takes a lot of fucking guts. And not to just get on the stage. Writing great albums, great music, of course, but that is the tip of the iceberg. There are all sorts of mind games, shit going on, not deliberate, well with Ritchie it was. We see it now with reality shows.”
And that is today’s entertainment.
“Yes, but with music, it means so much to a person, so deeply on so many levels, the best of which can’t be put into words. It is like finding out that Picasso was a fuckin wanker, I’m not saying he was, but that is the reality. Ronnie was completely shafted. He did not get any royalties for those amazing songs he wrote with Ritchie until after his death, and only after persuing with legal redress.”
The big leagues
Mick paints a bleak picture of parts of the music industry. “Everyone gets shat on, big dog shits on the little dog. Look at Blackmore, his career in the ’60s, he played on so many sessions, and he still just got his 20 quid, or whatever. It is just the business, and big boys don’t cry. And, I think what Ronnie took from Rainbow was that lesson. He is in the big leagues, and big leagues have no room for sentiment. They big it up for interviews and hug each other every night for encores, but that’s not the other 22 hours of the day.
“He learnt a lot of lessons from Rainbow, but Sabbath was another level. He really was an equal partner there.”
There is a sense in the book that Ronnie really regretted leaving Black Sabbath and was disappointed that they could not work out their issues. He says if they stuck together, they could have been the biggest band in the world. How does Mick think Heavy Metal would have looked in the ’80s and beyond if Ronnie had not left Sabbath?
“Sabbath missed a fantastic opportunity,” Mick says. “1980 was very much a changing of the guard. Purple were gone, Zeppelin were gone, or on their way out. Sabbath had kicked out Ozzy. Suddenly, in 1980, you had AC/DC, you had Judas Priest, you had Iron Maiden, not just the NWOBHM, but a changing of the guard. Motörhead, Ozzy as a solo star, Sabbath would have survived that transition for sure if Tony and Geezer had not been shovelling buckets of cocaine up their noses, or Bill Ward was not sticking shit tons of heroin in his arm every day.”
Ronnie was not a drug guy. “Ronnie loved to smoke weed, but he liked to drink a good stong English ale and eat good stong Indian curry. In those days, cocaine was like champagne. I’m sure he would have tried it, not just that time outside the Rainbow, but it was not his deal,” Mick says firmly.
Making Sabbath amazing
The Black Sabbath situation was covered in Mick’s Sabbath biography. “If you read my Black Sabbath biography,” Mick says, “you will see in excruciating details just how fucked up, particularly Iommi, was at that time. One of the reasons I got to know Ronnie was my experience working with them, and I could not relate to the other guys when I first worked with them. They were so fucking miserable. Nothing was ever good enough. Nothing impressed them. They had seen it and done it a million, million times.
“Ronnie was not in that position and wanted to embrace things and build and make them amazing, and you have to say on that Heaven And Hell album, the man delivered. That generation still considers Heaven And Hell to be the best Black Sabbath album. I would say it’s one of the best because I’m a little older, and I grew up with Ozzy in the band, and that era made some absolutely monumental albums, but Heaven And Hell completely reinvented the wheel in terms of Black Sabbath.
“You look at the success of Dio, Holy Diver, was written to be on the next Black Sabbath album. Dio was a living, breathing band. He worked great with Blackmore, he worked great with Iommi, and with Sabbath, it could have gone on.
“You only have to look at what happened to Sabbath when Ronnie left. Dio, overnight, becomes a multi-platinum act, and Sabbath turned into a fuckin ghost ship. No one knew who the singer was anymore. No one cared, an absolute fucking disaster. Right up until Sabbath get Dio back, and then Sharon gets the Ozzy lineup together.
“People eulogise about Ozzy era Sabbath now, but I worked it, and I can tell you, I lived through it. They were considered a joke in the music press. It was just the die-hard fans that kept them going. They were seen as downer music. They would tell me stories of their American shows in the ’70s, and after the shows, ushers would be sweeping up syringes. Dio comes in, and suddenly the direction is up. The sound is up, the songs are amazing, there is more melody, and of course, Ozzy, who was a tremendous vocalist in the same way that Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Tom Wait were tremendous vocalists, but Dio was a singer. A singer. A trained singer.
“They were still called Black Sabbath, but Dio brought something really fresh and rekindled their entire career. So, absolutely, if you see what happened to Dio and what happened to Sabbath after he left, if he stayed, Sabbath could have been one of the biggest bands in the world in the ’80s.”