Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sojourning with Black Sabbath

We pulled into the backstage entrance shed of the International Amphitheater recessed in the screeching railroad yards of Chicago’s south side.   Sandwiched between four lengthy, sleek limos, my fluorescent lime green ’68 Impala must’ve looked odd amidst those luxurious onyx sedans.   Me, my photographer, Sam Smith, and old high school chum, Chuck Brown, had been asked by drummer Bill Ward of Black Sabbath to accompany their high-falutin’ fleet from the Lake Shore Hilton to the gig in order to continue our interview.

As we leapt out of my goofy ride and I slapped the keys in the hand of an attendant to go park the beast, I’m sure the groupies and metal heads gathered to get a glimpse of their long-maned heroes wondered who the hell we were.  And honestly, we were thinking the same.

Here I was, still in my teens, interviewing one of the most notorious bands on the planet for my Wheaton College student paper, The Record.  Of course, I had bluffed the Warner Brothers publicist into thinking it would be put in print in some much more influential rock mag (so much of the entertainment biz is about putting up a front that’ll get you where you wanna go).  As we were led through the labyrinth hallways out of public view, my mind wandered back five years to when I heard the thick, pulsating music of this quartet for the first time. 

(L-R): Chuck Brown, Geezer Butler, and me. 
(Photo by Sam Smith)

It was the spring of ’70, and my brother, Jim, tore the shrink wrap off this haunted looking album cover featuring a mysterious, out-of-focus green-tinged person standing in a dusky English village.  He plopped the needle down on the opening cut, the vinyl crackling slightly as the sounds of a dense downpour muffled the foreboding clang of a distant church bell for over a minute.  And then it came…the initial death knell of canyon-filling fuzz guitar and bass with coffin pounding drums that can still send shivers down my spine.  Musical theater had never been so ominous…this heavy.  Ozzy Osbourne’s voice makes it’s debut low and pensive as he plays the part of a man awaiting his sentence on the final judgment day…that black Sabbath.

What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me
Turn around quick, and start to run
Find out I'm the chosen one

Then, a blood curdling extended scream, “Ohhhhh nooo!” And the apocalyptic chords come crashing down again before another exasperated breath…

Big black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan's sitting there, he's smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me!  

(“Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath from the album Black Sabbath, 1970)

Jim had loved loud stuff in the previous few years like Blue Cheer, Fat Mattress, the first Zep LP that had just come out a couple months before…but nothing sounded like this. Pretty much everything in minor keys…as if the soundtrack had been created for the Nazi buzz bombings of London.. 

As the sixties came to a close, a heaviness began to set in on music that had never existed before: distorted, shrieking guitars, wailing singers, throbbing rhythm sections.  It encapsulated a growing unease, and undercurrent of anger and distrust as the summer of love in ’68 was disintegrating into an age of angst…and no one captured that emotion like Black Sabbath. And I dare say no one ever has since.

I still put their first five albums, released from ’70 to ’74, up against any heavy metal that has been birthed hence, and there’s little comparison.  I believe the likes of Judas Priest, Metallica, Slayer, Type O Negative, and the rest would unhesitatingly agree.  Such is the power and enduring influence of Sabbath’s early repertoire. Forged in the smoke, fiery skies, and long shadows of Birmingham, England’s scalding steel mills and depressing coalmines, school chums Tony Iommi, Terrence “Geezer” Butler, Bill Ward, and John “Ozzy” Osbourne pounded out a tribal dance…a kinetic trance that has influenced the harsh side of music for the next forty years in much the same way the Beatles have for melody.

Our discussion with the friendly, but surprisingly sedate Ward continued in the bowels of the creaky arena. We had gone over how they had met and started creating their malefic sound, and how their moniker was chosen.  “Originally we called ourselves Earth, and were probably more of a blues rock outfit, kinda like Cream.  But we found this even heavier side that was reflective of our surroundings,” he reminisced.  “Then we thought about Hammer.  And another name we actually threw around was The Heavy Metal Kids, as a tribute to the pounding of the foundries.  But one night we were watching the telly at two AM and on came a Boris Karloff horror film called Black Sabbath. It just sounded like the perfect encapsulation of our vibe.”

I was curious about the spiritual nature of some of their lyrics…

Have you ever thought about your soul - can it be saved?
Or perhaps you think that when you're dead you just stay in your grave
Is God just a thought within your head or is He a part of you?
Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?

“Well, I’m just the drummer…not much for poetic words.  Geezer writes quite a bit of them, and I guess he’s been influenced because there are some priests and other clergy in his family.   He’s told me that some wildly intense visions have come upon him in his dreams about Judgment Day and things like that.  In fact, not long ago, someone told us that the term ‘black sabbath’ comes from legend or prophecy that just like Easter, when Jesus was raised from the dead and there was so much celebration, he will also return on a Sunday.  But this time it will be to mete out justice…definitely making it a Black Sabbath for many.”

I think it was true it was people like you that crucified Christ
I think it is sad the opinion you had was the only one voiced
Will you be so sure when your day is near, say you don't believe?
You had the chance but you turned it down, now you can't retrieve

Perhaps you'll think before you say that God is dead and gone
Open your eyes, just realize that he's the one
The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate
Or will you still jeer at all you hear?
Yes! I think it's too late.

(“After Forever” by Black Sabbath, from the album Master of Reality, 1972)

By the time their second album, Paranoid, was released the band had tapped into the full zeitgeist of the time.  Young people were frightened by the Cold War, especially how it was being carried out in southeast Asia. The peace marches were becoming more militant, and there was a righteous anger about it all. “We hate violence and killing,” explained Ward.  We were outraged by the Vietnam War, and we wrote “War Pigs” as a response.”

Now in darkness world stops turning
Ashes where the bodies burning
No more war pigs have the power
Hand of God has struck the hour
Day of judgment, God is calling
On their knees the war pig's crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan laughing spreads his wings

(“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath from the album Paranoid, 1971)

“We were very much exasperated young men when we first started touring,” Bill said, gazing retrospectively at his calloused hands. “That was really reflected in our material which was even sharper edged back then.  We were honestly pissed about a lot of the injustices happening in the world, the rip-offs, all of the deception. We wanted to realistically look at those things, and put them in their place, so to speak.  It sure seems like a lot of people have resonated with that.”

Children of tomorrow live in the tears that fall today
Will the sunrise of tomorrow bring in peace in any way?
Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear?
Can they win the fight for peace or will they disappear?

So you children of the world, listen to what I say
If you want a better place to live in, spread the words today
Show the world that love is still the life you must embrace
Or you children of today are Children of the Grave

(“Children of the Grave” by Black Sabbath from the album Master of Reality, 1972)

When people tell us we’re Satan worshippers and terror mongers, we just tell ‘em they’re full of shit,” Bill asserted. “Listen, those who are evil go to hell, and those who love good will be saved…what’s so sadistic or demonic about that?  What’s wrong with warning people of the wayward evils and subsequent impending doom?”

Your world was made for you by someone above
But you chose evil ways instead of love
You made me master of the world where you exist
The soul I took from you was not even missed

Lord of this world
Evil possessor
Lord of this world
He's your confessor now!

You think you're innocent you've nothing to fear
You don't know me, you said, but isn't it clear?
You turn to me in all your worldly greed and pride
But will you turn to me when it's your turn to die?

(“Lord of This World” by Black Sabbath from the album Master of Reality, 1972)

At various times of the interview, Ozzy, Geezer, and Tommy walked by and gave clipped greetings. I met Osbourne on several other occasions in the eighties when he was at his zenith as a solo act.  Always an amiable chap, although notoriously difficult to understand due to his slurred accent and likely inebriation from alchohol or various chemical inducements.

You see, sadly, all of the members of the band caved to the pressures of drug and drink which they had avoided and even berated on their earliest work.  Ozzy’s weaknesses became so pronounced that he was dismissed from the group in ‘78.  But the remaining three also wrestled addictions, with cocaine taking the highest toll on the Sabbies throughout the late 70s into the 80s before each got clean.   Black Sabbath has gone through an array of various lead singers since that time, and even had the odd reunion with Ozzy every fifteen years or so.

But those first albums still carry an iconic weight that is timeless. To this day you will hear the rumbling laments from those songs seeping out of teenagers’ headphones, as they confront the hypocrites, deceivers, and power mongers of the day.  And in the midst of the of that heartbreak, that just maybe, there is a hope that will eventually bring peace to those who surrender to it…

Take my hand my child of love, come step inside my tears
Swim the magic ocean I've been crying all these years
With our love we'll ride away into eternal skies
A symptom of the universe, a love that never dies

(“Symptom of the Universe” by Black Sabbath from the album Sabotage, 1975)

Just remember love is life
And hate is living death
Treat your life for what it's worth
And live for every breath
Looking back I've lived and learned
But now I'm wondering
Here I wait and only guess
What this next life will bring

(“A National Acrobat” by Black Sabbath from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1974)

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