Mick Wall Interview

Prior to his death in 2010, legendary metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio had been writing his autobiography, documenting the incredible life that led him from his hometown in upstate New York to the biggest stages in the world with Rainbow, Black Sabbath and his own Dio project. This included the arena that represented the pinnacle of success to him – Madison Square Garden, where the book begins and ends. After Dio’s death, his longtime friend, veteran music writer Mick Wall, set about finishing the book in collaboration with Dio’s widow Wendy. The end result is Rainbow in the Dark.

For the uninitiated, the UK-based Wall has penned more than 40 books, including biographies of Iron Maiden, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses, Foo Fighters, AC/DC and plenty more. He’s also co-written progressive rock maestro Steven Wilson’s upcoming book A Limited Edition of One: An Autobiography. We spoke to Wall about the Dio book project, the Wilson collaboration and his recently launched Patreon page.

Brendan Crabb: So Ronnie had begun writing the book prior to his death. At what point did you become involved in the process of helping finish it?
Mick Wall: I was kind of, not pestering, but consistently inquiring with Wendy over many, many years since Ronnie died about a book. I was aware that there was talk of a book before he died, a few years before he died, but obviously he died and it just seemed like nothing was going on. But every time I inquired, because over the years I would do magazine stories and I’d interviewed her for various things, I would bring it up. And it was always a case of, she just wasn’t ready yet.

And to cut it short, this went on and on, and then in 2018 we started to talk about it more seriously. Finally in 2018 she seemed to be ready. It got together slowly. She was in London, I saw her; then I was in L.A and I saw her, and it went on like that. Then finally in early 2019 we started talking about it properly, drawing up contracts and talking seriously about how it could be done. So that was the beginning of it, really.

It’s made clear in the book’s introduction that the plan was always that the story would start and end in 1986 at Madison Square Garden. You do mention there though that there’s potentially a whole other book to be written about Ronnie’s life from that time until his death. Do you see yourself carrying that mantle perhaps, and when could you see that happening?
It’s really up to Wendy. I think a lot of it at the time was, ‘well, let’s see how this goes, let’s see if this is doable’. Because Ronnie had written a a substantial part of the book in his own handwriting. Ronnie was a super smart guy. This is a guy who would read a book in a day – very into literature. But he wasn’t a writer. He could write songs, but to do a literary autobiography, unless you know what you’re doing… It’s like saying, ‘I love music, so I’m going to produce a record’. Hmm, yeah, come back when you’ve produced about 50, and then we’ll talk.

So he needed someone to come in and look at this stuff, work on this stuff and make suggestions as to how it could go forward. I’d known Ronnie and Wendy since 1980. I worked for Ronnie on two different occasions – in the early ’80s with Sabbath, and in the mid-’90s with Dio. Then between those times, when I wasn’t doing PR, I was writing, and on television, radio. I’d interviewed Ronnie a zillion times. And we’d also become friends, I’d go to his house. Whenever he was in town we’d have dinner – he loved Indian food, as do I. So we both had an archive of stories of Ronnie talking about his life. But of course, Wendy’s is even more considerable than mine.
So I took what he wrote originally, as I would with anybody, and built on it in the sense (that I) was an editor. There’s lots of things that people who aren’t professional writers do that a professional editor can just tidy up for them.

Usually I work with someone from the get-go, and had we been working on it together when he was handwriting it, I would have prompted him for more stories on particular aspects, more detail on certain things. Because people aren’t always the best judge of their own lives. The things that they think people wouldn’t remotely be interested in can sometimes be the very thing that would make it jump off the page. So I was able to go in and find from his own interviews and my own experiences and memories stuff that we could build on. And Wendy was fantastic in that regard – her archive is like a museum. She’s got everything. Hundreds and hundreds of newspaper and magazine interviews, radio and TV things, and of course her very own vivid memories of those times. And so using that, you’re able to build on that. The idea always at that stage was, truth is, we don’t know. It looks all doable now, but at the time, it was, ‘can this work? Will there be enough archive to draw on?’ Turns out there was, turns out we’ve ended up with a great book, very much in Ronnie’s words and voice.

And so now I think we’ve got something where we can say with confidence, you know what? We could do the second half. It’s really going to be Wendy’s call, though. And in the lifetime of a book, this book isn’t even middle aged yet. It’s just come out in Australia, it’s already been a bestseller in America and the UK, and translated into eight languages with more on the horizon. So we’re not anywhere near the end of this cycle of the book. But when we finally get to that point, in about a year or so, I think at that stage, a decision will have to be taken as to whether there is a follow-up, and if there is a follow-up, what kind of shape it’s going to take.
I think if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, we’d have been sitting down and talking about this stuff by now more seriously. But as it is, everything has slowed to a crawl. I can’t get over to L.A., she can get over here, it’s just not as simple as it used to be. There’s no hurry, but we’ll get to talking about it at some point. Right now I’d say it was 50/50, as to whether it will happen.

I remember reading a story you wrote in Classic Rock magazine about the making of Dio’s Holy Diver album, where you essentially described Ronnie as being a real hard task-master when he wanted to be off-stage. Did knowing his personality traits color the way you went about finishing the book?
It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind; forefront in my mind was getting Ronnie’s voice right. And yeah, he was a tough guy. He was fucking tough. But you think about his story, and no wonder. He didn’t get his break with Ritchie Blackmore until he was in his thirties, at which time I think most of the people he had worked with had quit, given up, figured if it was going to happen it would have happened by now. And don’t forget, this was the ’70s – people didn’t suddenly make it as a rock star when they were 35. That was considered absolutely ancient. But he did.

Of course, it was a baptism of fire with Blackmore. It must have been a bit like Interview With the Vampire. There’s this idealistic young guy coming in, having his own ideas and how great it could be. And this one thousand-year-old rock immortal undead completely turning the tables on him. And then he gets into Sabbath, and suddenly Sabbath is more equitable. On paper, in terms of money. He didn’t get any Rainbow royalties until after he died. It took Wendy all those years to get the royalties. Sabbath, it’s completely equitable from the start, he feels he’s very much part of the big picture. That was when I first met them, before (1980’s) Heaven and Hell came out. And he was the boss. At that point, he was absolutely the boss. While (Tony) Iommi (guitars) was the whip-cracker (musically), Ronnie just took the reins.

John Lennon once said that The Beatles were some of the biggest bastards of all, because you’ve got to be. You don’t get to that level of success through being a nice guy. The music business eats up nice guys and shits them out. He was a nice guy with Blackmore – where did it get him? Penniless and fucked. And that’s a very familiar tale in the music business.

So in Sabbath, he brought his full force to bear, and this New York guy wasn’t taking any shit. And of course that ends badly, and then he has his own band with his wife managing him. And suddenly it’s Ronnie’s way or it’s fuck off. And it worked really well for him. So yeah, he was a fucking tough guy. I’ve worked with loads of tough guys – this is not unusual in the music business. You often meet someone and go, ‘what was that guy like?’ ‘Oh, he was really nice, really nice’. Of course he was fucking nice – you were interviewing him, you met him for ten minutes. It’s easy to be nice for an hour or two hours. When you work with someone on a tour or an album, then you find out just how fucking nice they really are.

Nice guys get gobbled up and fucked, badly. So do bad guys, but nice guys more often. And I think he learned from all that. He came from the school of hard knocks. I mean, look at the pictures on the internet. Here was a guy that was wearing a fucking bow tie and crooning, then tries to make it as a pop singer and in a rock band, and this and that. It was long, long road, and to survive that… To somehow just make it, no matter what. People died in the band, every kind of discouragement you can think of is offered to him, and still he prevails. So yeah, he was tough. He had to be.

I thought an interesting aspect of the book was the discussion of guitarist Vivian Campbell being unhappy with this pay while a member of the original Dio band. For decades afterwards he was publicly critical of Ronnie and Wendy. Are you mindful when covering issues like that, that it can be difficult for it not to come across like the writer is trying to settle an old score?
Well, again, it was just a case of following Ronnie’s lead. He gave a million interviews about this sort of stuff. Wendy did, Vivian did, Jimmy Bain (bass), who I knew before I even knew Ronnie. Everybody had their say. But at the end of the day, this is Ronnie James Dio’s autobiography. It’s not a biographer coming in, it’s not a Mick Wall book, writing about Ronnie James Dio’s life and career. This is Ronnie James Dio telling you what he wants you to know. And if Vivian Campbell ever does his own book, I’m sure it will be exactly the same. He will tell you what he wants you to know. It’s the same for everybody who does their own book – they are telling you what they want you to know.

And so it wasn’t about what I thought should happen, or should we make this a bit more balanced? It was, what did Ronnie think? What did Ronnie say about him, how did Ronnie feel about it? And then try and find him talking about it so we could put it into his own words. So there weren’t any judgement calls in that regard. It was just a case of, let’s find out. He talked about it often enough, so let’s find this stuff, identify it, and get it on the page.

Shifting topics, I wanted to ask you about the Steven Wilson book. How did that project come to happen?
As I’m talking to you, I’m getting emails through right now about the book cover. Because there’s going to be a regular book, then there’s going to be a special edition with like a second book, a kind of supplemental book. And then there’s going to be a super deluxe edition, which will have that plus lots of other stuff. I can’t get into detail at the moment, just because it’s still being finalized and discussed. But there will be at least one, almost certainly two special editions.
It’s been extraordinary, it’s definitely been a unique experience for me because of two things. Number one, Steven did not want to do, ‘once upon a time I was born, then I did this and then I did that.’ That isn’t how his mind works. Also, he can write. Steven can write. He’s not a professional, and he’s learned a lot working with me on this book. We spent about a year-and-a-half on this together. It went back pre-pandemic. We met and had lots of discussions and it was all groovy, but both of us had a really busy 2020 coming up. And then suddenly in March of that year it’s all out the window. At that point he got back to me and said, ‘look, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m doing fuck all. Should we do this book?’ So we did.

It’s non-linear, it’s non-chronological. I began by sending him a lot of different books to kind of spark his imagination and show there are lots of different ways these books can work. So what we’ve got is, we’ve got him talking about his life, but in more kind of refracted ways. So, for instance, there’s not a big old section about Porcupine Tree. But there is nevertheless plenty of Porcupine Tree and some really insightful stuff, but done through a prism. It just isn’t chronological, and it’s thematic. So there’s one chapter all to do with the design of sound. He’s got a short story of his own in there.

He started out by saying to me, ‘my life is so boring, no one’s going to be interested. I’m not that rock star that flamed and burned out. I haven’t had the big hit single, I’ve never taken drugs.’ I’m like, ‘dude, that’s already interesting. Everybody’s life is interesting, let’s just chat.’ So I used a number of devices to get him to focus on things, and the stuff that came pouring out was unbelievable. For me, I’d say it is easily one of the best books that I’ve ever been involved in.
What we did is, because of the pandemic, we did hours and hours of Zoom. And each time I would come up with a new way of talking about certain subjects. And I would get it all professionally transcribed. Most of these conversations would come back 20,000 words long, and then I would sit there and weed it out, edit out all the repetitions or stuff we talked about elsewhere, and just get it down into a tighter form. But it would still be like 13,000 words long.

In the early days, I wasn’t anticipating that he would do a hell of a lot of writing. I would sculpt that, but not so that it was finished. But just sculpt it, so that it was now moving in a particular direction. Send it to him, and then he would work on it, complete carte blanche each time we did this. And he would decide with that what he wanted to do, what he would add or take out. He built on a lot of it, and would send it back to me. And I would then turn it a more professional manuscript. But very much in his voice.

That’s obviously a crucial part of any book project like this.
Those early meetings were all about musical tastes, books you like, food you eat. Just who you are as a human. So we got on really well in that regard. So I just ran with it, I just turned stuff into what I thought would work, gave it back to him and we’d keep doing that until finally he would say, ‘we’re done with this one.’ So we’ve ended up with about 100,000 words in the regular book, and there’s another 40,000 words on its own in the supplement. We just had so much stuff that it’s very much two distinct books that are companion pieces. And there’s a lot more visuals in the supplementary book. A few more way out ideas.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but the origins of Porcupine Tree go back to him and a pal of his just having fun. Two school kids in a bedroom making up stories about a fictional group, fictional characters… And he sent me the original story that he and his friend wrote. It’s very sweet and cute, and I believe we reproduce that in the supplement. But he also loved my Jimi Hendrix book (Two Riders Were Approaching: The Life & Death of Jimi Hendrix). He was very taken with that. And he asked me if I could write a chapter on the story of Porcupine Tree, an origin story, as if they had been a real band back in the early ’70s, and this is what happened to them, based on his and his friend’s original made-up essay. And I turned that into a 5000-word tour de force. I figured, this could go either way. He’s either going to go, ‘oh no’, or ‘yeah.’ And he loved it – absolutely loved it. So that’s in the supplement, as well as lots of other things. He’s got more short stories in the supplement.

And there’s all kinds of subjects. In the regular book we talk about his lyrics, his life, people he’s worked with, and he’s done so much stuff I wasn’t aware of. I don’t know how much of his story you know, but once you start, there’s so much there.

I’ve interviewed him several times and he’s a fascinating subject. For instance, his background writing advertising jingles.
Yeah, music for TV commercials. Like, ‘we need something that sounds like Metallica, but of course, we can’t get Metallica because that would cost too much money.’ So he’d do it, and it was a useful source of income. I think like everything it’s a great discipline. I mean, all the years of writing magazine articles goes into everything I do, whether it’s a piece of fiction, a story, or a blog, or whatever it is. It all comes with you, whatever you do next. So for me, it’s completely extraordinary, and it’s going to come out here in March. I don’t know about elsewhere. I’m not sure what the timeline will be as far as the rest of the world.

I also wanted to ask you about the recent launch of your Patreon and The Mick Wall Podcast. You’ve hosted a couple of previous podcasts, Dead Rock Stars and Getcha Rocks Off. When they kicked off, my initial thought was, ‘I’m surprised Mick hasn’t done something like this sooner’. And I feel the same way about the Patreon. Can you tell us about the decision to launch the Patreon and what you hope to achieve from it?
I didn’t know anything about Patreon, and the reason it didn’t happen earlier was because I didn’t know anything about it. I’d heard about crowdfunding and the like, and I’d always kept an eye on that because I thought that was very interesting.

But the fact is, I’ve always had other books I want to do, it’s just been the case that no one will give me any money to do them. But on those very rare occasions I manage to find a way to do it without money, they’ve turned out to be my most popular books. I mean, Paranoid I wrote for two thousand pounds; I never saw a royalty statement let alone got a royalty. And they flogged that book to death. They brought out updated editions where they altered… It was originally Paranoid: Black Days with Sabbath & Other Horror Stories. And the cover was of a cross that turned into a syringe. All the future editions would have pictures of Ozzy on-stage, or some fucking thing. And it would be (titled) Black Days with Sabbath And Other Rock Stars.

(At the time) they were the only people I could find to put a book like that out, this real ramshackle company. And then finally because I owned everything… Many years later I made it available myself through Kindle and that kind of stuff, and there you get the pure, unedited version. From that I do get some minuscule royalties.

Wow, interesting.
So anyway, the thing is I’ve always wanted to do my own writing. But because I’ve been so busy paying bills, and when I say bills, I mean debts. Kids, wife – as Zorba the Greek said, ‘wife, children, the full catastrophe.’ My life has not been my own for decades. I’ve been on the fucking rat wheel, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul pretty much all my fucking life. But particularly the past 20, 25 years. Just as I got good at writing, suddenly I could only do books that paid money. And the books that pay money, more and more and more are rock star books, to the point now where I’ve been told I’m almost the last music biographer in the UK that can command any kind of decent money to write a book about a band I want to write a book about. And even then, the money I ‘command’ is now about 40 per cent of what I used to get. The market has just completely shrunk. So they want more books on rock stars, they want more collaborations, ghosted memoirs. And that’s why I’ve done so many in the past few years. I think I’d done about two in all my career, and in the past five years I’ve done about five.

But I’ve had enough of that now. Ronnie’s different – I had a personal connection that goes back over 40 years and I’ve been talking to Wendy about this for decades. There’s a real investment there, it really piques my interest and it’s a project that excites me. Steven Wilson is completely different from anything else I’ve ever done, for different reasons, and again, it excites me. So if there’s an opportunity to do others like that, I’m in, because they really are creative endeavors. As opposed to just carving a living person’s, ‘I did this and then I did that’ story into a very polished manuscript. That doesn’t interest me so much any more.

What does interest me is finally getting back to doing my own stuff. I know from the reactions I’ve had over the years to my own writing that people are definitely interested. That’s where my best work tends to be. But I haven’t really had an outlet. So the Patreon thing was mentioned to me, early days with Getcha Rocks Off, and I just didn’t see it, I didn’t want to be behind a paywall. I didn’t see that as a way of earning money, I saw that as a way of getting mindshare, and then from that, there might some stuff you could monetize. There were talks of doing live shows, all kinds of conversations. And then the fucking pandemic hit, and it all went out the window. It’s just coming back a little bit.

The guy in Australia who was funding Getcha Rocks Off lost interest… But he was talking about, ‘why don’t we do it on Patreon?’ Then at least he wouldn’t have to pay for it. And I said no. Then I started looking at Patreon, and I saw it wasn’t just putting out podcasts – there are a million things you can do with it. So I grabbed hold of it. It’s still really early days, but the idea is I will produce books that will only be available to Patreon subscribers. Maybe further down the line they might come out elsewhere, they might not. I’m going to try and jumble it up, so there’s stuff that can only be accessed if you’re a Patreon subscriber, and stuff that you can get if you’re not. But the idea being that it’s much better for you to be a subscriber because there will be way more stuff available through that than in the normal channels.

I know we have to wrap up. Any famous last words?
I’m excited about the Patreon. It’s early days, it’s incredibly time consuming, but at the same time it’s very interesting for me. The possibilities are endless. There’s a lot stuff being planned – livestreams, concerts, merchandise, I’m starting to bring other people in on the pod. And it will move out into interviews as well where it’s interesting. I’ll get Steven Wilson on there when the book comes out. And we’ll see what happens.

It’s nice for me not to have an exact plan, because so much else in my career because of money is planned out. I don’t have a strong plan for this, and I like it that way, because the plan changes every day. But the Patreon will be there, it’s going to get bigger and bigger, and I’ll see where it goes.

(interview published December 2, 2021)

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