Black Sabbath (without Bill Ward) isn't giving any interviews in advance of its show at Rogers Arena this Thursday (Aug. 22), but that's okay with me. It just gives me an excuse to crawl back into my '70s time machine and reminisce, home movie-style, about what the heavy-metal heroes have meant to me over the years.
Okay, set the dials for the Year of Our Lord 1972. Location: Chillliwack, B.C. Cue in the strains of Ozzy Osbourne howling along to "Paranoid". Fade in on a longhaired bone-rack in flared jeans and a lime-green Mott the Hoople T-shirt, taking his first-ever swig from a mickey of lemon gin.
Now fade out before he pukes behind the pool hall...
The first time I heard the words Black Sabbath I became a fan. It was just such a wicked-sounding band name, something I knew my parents wouldn't even want to hear. They were destined to hear plenty of Black Sabbath, though, because when I was 14 I brought home Paranoid, and my favourite pastime was drumming along to "War Pigs" on the red velvet armchair in our basement. That old lounger also took a severe pounding thanks to the drum intro on Alice Cooper's "Billion Dollar Babies" and Ringo's nifty solo on the Beatles' "The End", but there was always a little more elbow grease involved when "War Pigs" had me tracing Ward's stop-start dynamics.
I used real drumsticks, and my parents were delighted that I never graduated to a full drum kit. One Christmas my mom did get me one of those six-inch drum practice pads, though. She liked to keep the furniture in nice shape.
Just when it seemed that Paranoid was the pinnacle of what legendary rock critic Lester Bangs termed "heavy metal", Ozzy and company unleashed Master of Reality in '71, and with it such shock-the-teacher ditties as "Children of the Grave" and "Into the Void". The first time I heard the coughing-fit intro to that trailblazing grunge classic "Sweet Leaf", I didn't get the joke, because I was one of the few holdouts among my high-school buds who wouldn't toke up. It sounds corny, but back then heavy music gave me all the buzz I needed. And if it didn't, there was always lemon gin.
As if there was any doubt, guitarist Tony Iommi proved himself riffmaster extraordinaire when the scrappy Vol. 4 came out in '72; the relentless chords of "Supernaut" and "Wheels of Confusion" were soon imbedded in my mind forevermore. About this time I started to think that getting an instrument like Iommi's--a Gibson SG--might be the best thing in the world. Evidently, AC/DC's Angus Young liked the idea, too, because a few years later he made that guitar an integral part of his demented-schoolboy look.
For me, the last really great Black Sabbath LP--until the new one, 13, that is--was 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which showcased a more musical and varied side of the band. I used to enjoy drifting off at bedtime with the headphones on, wrapped in the acoustic embrace of the mellow instrumental, "Fluff". But sometimes my mom, convinced that I was asleep and concerned about the Hydro bill, would slip in and turn the power off on my compact Lloyds stereo. There's nothing more troubling than the sound of a needle grating to a stop on the prized vinyl you've just scored with the last of your lawn-mowing money.
I continued to pick up mid-'70s Sabbath albums like Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy, but the thrills just weren't so readily forthcoming from those patchy LPs. Then after 1978's Never Say Die, Ozzy did the unthinkable. (No, he didn't bite a dead bat's head off--that was later on). He left Black Sabbath--got booted out, actually--to be replaced by Ronnie James Dio, whom I knew from his days with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and, before that, the overlooked boogie band Elf. It may seem sacrilege to some die-hard Sabbath fans, but I quite enjoyed the Dio-era group, especially on faster-than-Ozzy tunes like "Neon Knights" and "Turn Up the Night".
Although Dio's Sabbath stint was impressive, Osbourne didn't waste any time in stealing back my affections, thanks to his discovery of exceptionally gifted guitarist Randy Rhoads. One day in the early '80s, when I finally found my car after being hopelessly lost in the Pacific Centre parkade--yes, by this time I had discovered the effects of pot--an astounding rock noise came blasting over the car radio. It was "Crazy Train", from Ozzy's solo debut, Blizzard of Oz.
The metal maniac was back with a vengeance, and shortly thereafter I braved the acoustically absurd din of Kerrisdale Arena to see him and Rhoads in action. A few months later the 25-year-old Rhoads died in a small plane that crashed after buzzing Ozzy's tour bus. It was the worst day for rock guitar since the passing of Jimi Hendrix.
Throughout the '80s, the solo Ozzy had some ups (Bark at the Moon) and some downs (The Ultimate Sin), whereas, after Dio quit in '83, the Iommi-led Sabbath had mostly downs. Ozzy's health got shaky, and his live performances steadily more embarassing, but in '91, with talented Zakk Wylde on guitar, he was back on the charts with the No More Tears CD and single.
In December of '97, after almost five years of trying, the four founding members of Black Sabbath managed to put aside their differences, embrace the glory of cold, hard cash, and re-form for two shows at the Birmingham NEC Arena. Recordings from those gigs became 1998's double live album, Reunion, and led to a tour that visited Vancouver's Thunderbird Stadium on July 16, 1999.
I'm ashamed to say that I missed that gig, but I don't plan on missing the Sabs (without Bill Ward) this time around. It's quite possibly the band's last show in Vancouver, ever, so let's hope Ozzy takes that claim to heart and tries to sing in tune--or at least complete a full set. The painful sight of him lurching to the side of the GM Place stage in '96 and spewing, before cancelling the show after two terrible songs, still lingers in my mind.
Guys like him should know when to lay off the lemon gin.