The first concert I ever saw was Black Sabbath at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1980. Consequently, I was practically shaking the first time I met Dio (due to that gig and a youthful obsession with the Rainbow On Stage album). I thought of that day when I heard the news he’d died, and of the other times our paths crossed over the years, but one occasion in particular loomed up.
From memory, it was a gig at the Long Beach Arena, a triple-header featuring Dio, Anthrax and Helloween. It must have been around 1989, Dream Evil time for Dio, and just when hair metal was reaching its peak. It was impacting on all of the more traditional bands, and Long Beach was only half sold. When we got there, the road crew had assembled the stage in the middle of the arena and blocked off the remainder with large black curtains. The result was a huge area of bare concrete behind the stage, where some of the crew had built a five-a-side football pitch. While the bands drifted in to soundcheck, a revolving cast joined in and left the match. Various members of Anthrax and Helloween arrived and started playing. Then Ronnie appeared by the sidelines. He wasn’t really dressed for football – as I recall he had cowboy boots on – but he got a few decent hoofs in.
After a while, he drifted off and was standing behind one of the goals talking to our photographer Ray Palmer [now sadly also no longer with us]. Ray had known Ronnie for years. Dio beckoned me over. We must have talked for half an hour or so, and I realised, probably for the first time, that you could speak to these rock star guys as normal people. We talked about all sorts of sports – he was a big fan of American football, and so, he said, was his son. He talked about Ritchie Blackmore, and how much Ritchie loved football. I told Ronnie about a match I’d played in against Ritchie – it was raining, and Blackmore had his driver pull up right by the touchline, get out and hold an umbrella over him while he tied his boots up. He was a decent player though, good on the dribble. Ronnie laughed and said that sounded like him. After a while, the game broke up. We watched the gig from the very side of the stage. Dio’s voice was as huge as ever, and he really didn’t seem to care that the show wasn’t sold out. He still gave it the works.
I remember it clearly, and yet the memory is a strange thing. When I tried to check the details of the show today, I saw that Dio did play Long Beach in 1989, but the support acts were Savatage and Megadeth. Anthrax and Helloween toured together too, but I couldn’t find a listing of them playing with Dio. That day stands out amongst many, though, because it was the day a hero showed a human side – a lesson well delivered and learned.