Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Jan 26, 2005


When it comes to politics rock ’n’ roll bands usually have more to say in or more that can be read into (which amounts to the same thing) their music than when they actually talk about it. Ozzy Osbourne is basically about as politicized as the average musician, and while he responded to a comment from the other end of the room to the effect that Nixon should be shot with a wave of the hand—"They’re all as bad as fucking one another, politicians"—he saw the songs themselves in quite literal terms as graphic depictions of the state of things today: "The day of writing bullshit songs is over, as far as I’m concerned. Why breed people to believe, like, fight because America loves you or England loves you, that’s all bullshit propaganda. The last guy who was a heavy dude with that was Hitler, and look what he did for the world. Why not just give people truth for a change, instead of just hyping ’em to believe what you want ’em to believe? I like to think that if people listen to the words they’ll get the truth of the song, like the lyrics to ‘Children of the Grave’. It’s about the kids of today and what we see. In America the revolution that’s in people’s minds is ridiculous, because if they believe in it strongly enough and it’s for good and they wanna get something out of it, then by all means revolt. You’re gonna hurt something on both sides, whether you let it stay the way it is and just ride it out or do something different. You couldn’t get it into a worse state than it is now, and you could get something much better. I don’t personally think that there will be a revolution where everybody will start freaking, because everybody’s gotta get old someday, and we’ll be complaining about something else."

His words reveal him to be at least as sincere as Mark Farner, and if both positions seem a little naïve, they still can be taken not only with a grain of salt but with the music itself as indications of a genuine concern, leading even to the conclusion that for all the ugliness and hatred in their music, for all the spectres of wicked enemies crawling on their knees through brimstone toward the base of a white-hot mushroom cloud, the ultimate thrust of what Black Sabbath are saying or trying to say is an uncommonly humanist impulse. And because they do care, and because they hit the nerve square-on as often as they do, and because even their phantasmagorias of malediction and punishment are so vivid, and because they are better at all of this (musically and thematically) than Grand Funk and just about any other working Third Generation band with the possible exception of Alice Cooper, and because Alice Cooper doesn’t really mean it and Black Sabbath does, it’s mighty difficult to overstate how much we’ve needed them and still do.

So let the "downer-rock" slander stand, because at this point it’s hard to imagine anything that could really drag Black Sabbath down. They have a pretty good idea where they stand in the mythic arena behind the public eye, and take the drug culture and the staples connecting them with it the only way they can, with equanimity: "We get knocked by a thousand people saying it’s downer rock," observes Ozzy, "like ‘Take your reds, man, and go see Black Sabbath’ and all this. If we weren’t here, they’d still be taking the downers. People are gonna take dope whether they go see fucking James Taylor or Englebert Humperdinck. I really can’t see that we’ve enticed it at all, but people tend to say that we entice people into taking drugs. I mean, since you’ve heard our music, you haven’t started taking dope..."

"Not since."

"If you take dope," he continues, ignoring the preeningly hip wisecrack, "you take dope because you like to get high. You don’t take it because four guys are making loads of money out of the people saying ‘You must take dope’. If they want to use us as an excuse, go ahead."

The only trouble with that position, which is perfectly correct, is that people pick up on things in the ghastliest, most uncalled-for ways. Black Sabbath have a song on the subject of drugs called "Hand of Doom":

Take you little dose
You join the other fools
Turn to something new
Now it’s killing you.

First it was the Bomb
Vietnam, napalm
You push the needle in.

Your mind is full of pleasure
Your body’s looking ill
To you it’s shallow leisure
So drop the acid pill!
Don’t stop to think, now!

You’re having a good time, baby
But it won’t last
Your mind’s all full of things
You’re living too fast
Go out, enjoy yourself
Don’t worry then
You need somebody to help you
Stick the needle in.

Now, as far as I’m concerned that song, aside from having an arrangement with incredible dynamics including upwards of half a dozen breaks, is one of the strongest, starkest statements on the chemical plague to come out of pop music. It’s almost as good as Lou Reed’s "Heroin," and absolutely demolishes such false sentiments as "The Needle and the Damage Done" or John Prine’s "Sam Stone," because it doesn’t romanticize too much (the element is inescapable) and doesn’t turn the subject into grist for a soap opera. Instead, in grim, straightforward language, it describes a person dying slowly by their own hand, and points out the insanity of it firmly.

But there are people, and I’ve known some of them, who will come along and take a song like this and automatically pick out some of the harshest lines with peculiar logic, taking them as an affirmation of that self-destructive cycle. They think Ozzy is saying, "Take the acid! Stick the needle in! Don’t stop to think about the consequences, because we could all be minute specks of radioactive excreta in just four seconds now. Among other good reasons." I must admit that, having lived that syndrome to some small degree myself, I sort of get that out of it, perceiving it as tangible thrill to hear a rock star backed up by a driving rhythm section spit out the most nihilistic, amoral injunctions possible; I often felt this way listening to the early Velvet Underground, and Mick Jagger communicates the same sensation in some of his more decadent moments. That’s exactly what it is, a sensation, like the feeling you get at the movies when you see a shotgun blast somebody’s guts through their back in slow motion, a rusty kick turned to when schticks more moral have begun to pass your jaded palate with scarcely a glint of recognition, and you just want to come as close as you can to the bloodlust orgies, death or utter degradation without actually having to experience them firsthand. It’s the least honorable form of vicarious entertainment, not to mention being the essence of cowardice. But that’s the way it seems to be today.

Ozzy expects such reactions, and manages to be philosophical about them: "The weird thing about audiences is that they’ll get a song and fuck it around to the way they want to think. The lyrics to ‘Hand of Doom’ are the goriest, most filthy lyrics you could find for drug addicts... It’s like if you see a Western film for instance, when I was a kid I’d see it and say, ‘Wow, the Range Rider just shot Dick West in the ‘ead, and it’s really ridiculous seeing this guy do this dramatic death.’ But now it’s gotten more realistic, where you can see them shoot somebody and it actually just blows them to pieces. And that’s the way it really is. People don’t die like, ‘Oh, Jules, don’t forget to feed the cat tonight,’ and fuckin’ die in their mother’s arms. When somebody puts a gun to your head and pulls the trigger you’re fucked, and it’s like somebody puts a gun to your arm and shoots you dead when you do dope this way. We went to one concert in America, I don’t remember where it was... after the show, on the floor, there was about a thousand fucking syringes; I was amazed, I felt sick, I really felt ill to think I had just performed to people that were that one step nearer to the hole. I can understand why people want to take dope; it’s pressure, basically, and fear. This country is frightening for the younger generation because it’s at war. I know I’d go insane if I had to go to Vietnam, I couldn’t go, they could call me a coward, they could fucking brand me for life, but I just couldn’t do anything like that because I value life. Why should anybody have to go in a fucking trench, popping people off, just because somebody’s saying [gruff voice]: ‘More war! More war! Send thousands more troops out...’"

Hearing him talk was at times almost like something lifted directly from one of the band’s songs, but that’s only because the songs are so reflective of the general attitudes of young people in this country and Europe today. Ozzy Osbourne is somebody you could have gone to high school with. The only trouble with his reasoning is that it can’t be totally swallowed that the war in Vietnam and the spectre of the draft are heavy enough to be an absolute factor in so many people trashing their lives with drugs; there’s got to be something else. So I said that when I went to rock concerts I often had the impression that people were sitting in trenches almost as degraded and unpleasant in their own way, and asked him if he thought that they were doing all that they are doing to themselves to keep from sitting in a trench Over There, if people were actually killing themselves as a response to the possibility of having to kill someone else.

He thought a minute, straightened the towel wrapped around his hair (freshly-washed for the evening show). "I can’t really say. I think it’s having to live in the city, because all cities are like a big garbage can. My hometown Birmingham is just like this place [Detroit], violence and such, and I’ve been through it all. I’ve been in fucking prison, I’ve bummed around, but it’s only the city that makes you do things. I’m lucky—I could portray the way I was reared and brought up, I went through a lot of the stories your people are going through now, violence, getting cut to ribbons and stabbed and everything... so a lot of this naturally comes out in our music. I don’t know if we’re always as close to the edge as people seem to think our music is, I would think not, but sometimes we feel pissed off, so we write that kind of song. Other times it just comes out, like ‘Paranoid’ just happened, we wrote that and recorded it in half an hour. On the next album Geezer wrote a song with some very strange lyrics, called ‘Snowblind’. You can interpret it, I suppose, as being about taking cocaine. People are going to interpret it that way, anyway. People in America like fantasy, they like to think they can suss it all out. If you were going to write a song that is definitely about one thing, you’d write it definite, you wouldn’t put two meanings to it. And if you wanted to write ‘Smackin’ up’s good,’ you’d write it that way."

Such a statement overlooks whole vast genres of doublespeak-rock, all those dope lyrics of 1965-8, not to mention the incredible sexual fantasies gleaned over the years from "Louie Louie" and endless numbers of old R&B songs. But perhaps that’s one of the distinctive things about Black Sabbath; for all their phosphorescent imagery, they do tend to think quite literally, and the ratio of artifice and contrivance, not to mention plain attitudinal dishonesty towards the audience, in their music is unusually small. Just compare them with someone like Alice Cooper, who is a great rock ’n’ roller and true original and fine singer in the Freddy Cannon tradition and all that, but wraps himself in more tissues off the rotting haunces of P.T. Barnum and Belasco every tour, who doesn’t really mean anything he says as far as I can see, and regards the whole thing with cynical good humor and high-energy professionalism as simple Show Business. Alice Cooper is selling a product; so are Black Sabbath, I guess, but they don’t exactly know it, or at least are far more concerned with sharing their understanding of the world than with being the flashiest, hardest workin’ band in show business. And, raw as the product sometimes gets, this quality demands our respect. They say what they must and mean what they say, even if the collisions between their perception of the hurricane whose eye they ride in and the audience’s reality can sometimes be jarring.

Ozzy remembers, "We did a gig once, and they were all sitting down at the front shaking their fists and scowling at us... gettin’ off on our downer music." He laughs, but not too heartily. "I was holding the mikestand tight, shaking, and the first five rows all have fucking bottles in their hands. I had visions of somebody blowing my head off. I like to see people getting up, grooving around, dancing and having a good time. But sometimes I think to myself when people are really going nuts, are they aware of what they’re dancing to, are they aware of the lyrics and the concept of the song? I mainly just want to go onstage and give people a good time, but I still wonder exactly where they’re at sometimes, especially with this fucking downer-rock thing."

Now deep in the heart of a lonely kid
Sufferin’ so much for what he did
They gave for his trouble so much
fortune and fame
Since that day he ain’t
been the same.

See the man with the stage fright
Just standin’ up there
Givin’ all his might
And he got caught in the spotlight
But when he gets to the end
It’ll start all over again.

—Robbie Robertson, The Band,
"Stage Fright"

I attended a Black Sabbath show not long after the interview with Ozzy, and contrary to legend found it pretty much like any other rock concert, no excess of ODs or obnoxious incidents obtaining from too many people at one time in one place being so fucked-up they hadn’t the slightest idea what they were doing or why. I’d heard tales of Black Sabbath concerts that would make a fragile soul blanch; Sandy Pearlman told me that at the last one he attended, nobody in the audience could even stand up, barely managed to applaud, and bodies were sprawled everywhere. And that’s just a routine recounting.

On the other hand, Sabbath’s current tour is with Yes, who have just begun to come into their own superstardom via "Roundabout" and their Fragile album, and, as you might expect when the act puts titles like that on its creations, the fans tend to be a slightly different breed of mutt. Pushing the mean age up towards college level, I would think.

I didn’t see much real downhome degeneracy this night—in fact, I was amazed at how well-behaved and in what good condition the crowd seemed to be. Wandering among them, you just noticed faces and bodies and clothes in the most normal way that you sometimes all but forget, this being one time you couldn’t routinely read somebody’s psychic centigrade on their face like some strange barometer. If more than a minority were flying blind, they were putting up an awfully good front.

Almost as good as the one that Yes put up, playing a slick, flashy set of formica art-rock that wowed ’em to the rafters. They got an incredible standing ovation encore, where Sabbath, the headliners, didn’t even come back or get asked to; at the exact instant that "Paranoid," the last song of their set, died away and they started off, the audience began to flow down into the aisles as if cued. And I thought encores had become an unbreakable social custom!

They didn’t play a particularly mindbending set that night; the chemistry between an audience and an act is always a somewhat more delicate thing than some people think. Ozzy had commented on this very matter a few hours earlier: "I feel bad some nights when we go onstage and we don’t play well, but every new audience you play to, they think you should play superior for them. So if you do one duff gig, there’re about 20,000 or however many people in the audience and they think, ‘Oh, Black Sabbath is shit,’ but they don’t think of how you’ve been working for a long time. And I’d really like for a lot of people to do the work a band does, just to see what it’s like. You might go for a couple weeks, doing okay, but then you have a problem, you might phone home and something’s happened, or something will crop up which will really disturb you, and that’ll put you right off the show. Or you get needled easily, people can bug you, because it’s the stress of the tour. It’s very strenuous work, not physically hard, but mentally very hard, Fucks your nerves up, it does, this business. Sometimes I feel like it’s eating me up, like I’m going fucking crazy. Like on one tour I was smashing up hotel rooms, just for the fun of it, just for something to do...

"Every time you come in backstage and walk out and take a look, it looks like fucking eternity out there. We played the Albert Hall for the first time last year. I’d played in fucking monstrous places in America, 20,000 seats, before 70,000 people at festivals, but at the Albert Hall I got so stage frightened I was trembling by the time I got on. It’s monstrous, like we played the Forum in Los Angeles last week, and it was fucking unreal. I must have looked that fucking big "—he illustrates, holding his forefinger a quarter-inch from his thumb—" from the back. The promoters think, ‘Well, if we can use this one hall we can get 10,000 people, but if we use the one around the corner we can get 20,000 people and make twice as much money.’ Like at the Forum, how can you get into any band in a place like that? Also, they ought to have one fixed price, because who’s got the money to pay for the good seats? At the Forum it’s the straight people who want to know what it’s all about, their father’s a lawyer or something, and they just sit here and... "—and here he went into a pantomime, putting his face into the most insipidly uncomprehending expression imaginable, staring straight up in utter solemnity and making with a few slow, stiff claps, like a paraplegic wheeled up to the edge of the stage at a telethon—" ...and then you look at the back of this fucking cavern and they’re all scroungy, normal people, going Aaarrrgggghhhhhhhhh..."

Rock concerts and halls are a bit perplexing, these days. Cobo Arena, where I saw Sabbath in Detroit, pretty well fits Ozzy’s specifications of the non-ideal theatre. (It’s the biggest pleasure palace in these parts, where they have hockey games and Big Time Wrestling on off weeknights and only the very biggest draws in rock ’n’ roll can fill it.) The Black Sabbath-Yes bill sold the joint out, but even aside from the gneral draftiness of such a place, where any amount of volume can get lost in the mouldy corridors and spacious obscurities, the audience was at least 60% a Yes turnout. On top of that Sabbath, to my utter amazement and again confounding the legend, played a set a volume level roughly average for a scuffling non-sequitur band with one album out second-billed at the Eastown Ballroom, a trashy dive of local repute. When I saw Grand Funk I didn’t regain my equilibrium or lose the ringing in my ears for a full 24 hours after they left the stage; I had never heard anything that loud in my entire life. Now, after all the slush in the press about Warner Brothers executives packing special earplugs at all times in the event of having to attend a Black Sabbath show in the line of duty, I couldn’t believe this spate of whispery feedback and conversational vocals—I was pissed! Oh, they played all right, but hell, I used to go every chance I got to see The Stooges in their decline, when every song was the identical wall of noise and you couldn’t tell one note from the next; I don’t care if he gets the fucking solo exactly like it was on the album!

Since the original scam on this story was that it was going to be a graphic tragic survey of the littered battlefield of the contemporary concert, with pitiful panoramas of passed-out pubes and other alliterative gimmicks, most of us from CREEM prepared ourselves for this harrowing experience by consuming a down or two ourselves. Now there we were, practically (or so it seemed to me) the only barbiturate reprobates in sight for miles. Ever alert for lurid detail, CREEMer Jaan Uhelszki reported to me that someone tried to sell her a pill called Carbotrol in the bathroom, and that at one point she saw a girl puking. One miserable fucking puke!

Also, marijuana was legal in Michigan now and for about the next three weeks, due to a high state court ruling that since the possession law was about to convert to a misdemeanor the old one would be unenforceable in the meantime, so everybody can smoke themselves silly wherever they want with no fears greater than emphysema. Journalistic dynamite! I expected people to be walking around casual as dons puffing languidly on joints just like they was cigarettes, never even removing the things from their mouths, or maybe indulging in mass orgiastic smoke-frenzies such as prophesied by John Sinclair and Jerry Rubin, but damned if I didn’t see nary a public toke all evening. Everybody just sitting there in their seats with their hands folded listening to the music. It was positively spooky.

Finally, though, Black Sabbath came on and I settled myself on my concrete perch to enjoy the flak. It must be remarked that they don’t have the stage show of the century—Geezer Butler gets in some nice hunchover-and-rearback english on bass, Bill Ward is about average for drummer histrionics, but Tony Iommi plays guitar in a fixed stance with eyes glued to the frets, as if he were concentrating so deeply on what he was doing that he could be home in his Birmingham parlour and the audience a solitary titmouse. Ozzy has fun onstage, more than you might expect with material of the type they specialize in, confirming his earlier remark that "Our music to an extent relieves the tension which builds up in people. When I get on stage and start looning around, I feel a big relief, I know that something’s getting released."

Yeah, me too, whether I’m listening to your records stomping off a bad day with a bottle of wine in my own parlor, or watching your stage hop, which is pretty nifty kid. You ain’t no Mark Jagger, but you ain’t pretentious when it comes to wigglin’ either. In fact, your bouncy enthusiasm, conveying the same sense of ingenousness that your manner and conversation do in person, is infectious, and I really wanted to have a good time even if my big Teenage Wasteland expose piece was shot and even if the volume was on vacation and even though my back and feet hurt and I was tired and cold and basically bored. I wanted to have a good time not only because I like Black Sabbath but because you made me want to, and I guess that’s why I’m pissed off, because except for a few minutes of churning and growling roar-along with "Children of the Grave" and the much-too-short "Paranoid," I just killed time that set, I just sat and waited half-hearing like I usually do at these thing, and it wasn’t really anybody’s fault, not even my own. I almost wonder if I don’t prefer it when everybody’s drugged and obnoxious.

When you took off your shirt it didn’t have quite the James Brown drama of Mark Farner’s customary symbolic Unveiling Of The Plowboy Rock Prince biceps, but it was a nice gesture anyway and one of the two crazy teenage girls behind me who squealed for you all night yelled, "Take it all off, Ozzy!" They were wearing dark-velvet suits with swirling Edwardian capes and black wooden crosses hanging on leather thongs around their necks even though I noticed that of the band only Geezer was still sporting his lucky crucifix, and at some point early in the set one of them actually yelled, "You devils!" Which give you a lot to live up to, maybe.

And when the human sea surged down the center aisle in a massive jam just as your set was beginning, I began to get my hopes up, especially when a dozen or so harried ushers and rentacops came scurrying from the open spaces at the sides of the stage and began to make a series of futile attempts to break up the bobbing Black Sabbath congregation by hand and accusing flashlight. The faithful stayed put, though (most of them couldn’t have moved anyway), and pretty soon a large crucifix made out of two boards wrapped in tinfoil and nailed together, which some dizzy zealot must have actually lugged down to this gig from Pontiac or somewhere, was hauled aloft near the rear of the congregation and passed from hand to hand, slowly and cumbersomely without doubt, up to the front until somebody was actually holding this big silver elephant of an icon right in front of your face as you sang, obscuring the view of people behind them and becoming a bit absurd in the urgency to do something that might provoke a sign of affirmative recognition from their heroes, signifying that they’re on the Same Trip. Even if it’s only because they think that you’re strange (but don’t change...) and must be at least incredibly eccentric and at most unspeakably depraved and hope to catch a glimpse of some telling gesture that will hint at the lives you must lead. From the interview:

Q.: "As thing stand now you must be one of the two or three best selling bands in the world."

A.: "I really don’t know that. People say, ‘Fuck, man, do you realize how big you are?,’ and I’m gettin’ on a plane, gettin’ off a plane and goin’ home... Everybody thinks a tour is just one big rockin’ dope sex orgy, and you do meet some incredible chicks on tour, and they’ll do anything to get at you. Like one morning I’m sleeping and the phone rings: ‘Hello.’ And this very breathy voice on the other end: ‘Hellooo.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m the Blow Job Queen.’ Now, really! So when she said, ‘And who are yooo?,’ I said Geezer and gave her his room number. Next thing I know he’s calling me up saying she’s in his room and he can’t get her out. So we all go over and say, ‘Please leave,’ and she says, ‘No! Why? I give the best blowjobs in the West. Don’t you believe me?’ We don’t want to hurt her, we don’t know fucking what to say or do, so finally we all threaten to piss on her if she doesn’t leave, and she does. Or this other one that was up the other night, so nervous that every time I’d look at her she’d freeze, and look at me like she was having some kind of epileptic fit. So I asked, ‘Are you all right? Do you want a glass of water or something?’ but she couldn’t speak a word. Half the time I don’t even bother. I can wait till I get home. Wouldn’t want to bring a case of crabs back to my wife, anyway.

"People really go weird, man, it’s fuckin’ funny at times, like ‘Touch my hand!’ and you go ‘What?’ and they go ‘He’s touched my hand!’ and run off in the crowd." He laughs. "They tend to think of you as a fucking miracle man or something. A great person I met once was Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac. And I asked him why he quit the band and he told that he’d been slogging around for about ten years or so, and when it did eventually happen he said he started completely to lose his identity. And that’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t wanta be ‘OZZY OSBOURNE,’ I just wanta be me, like you are you, and live an ordinary life. Now I’m a bit financially secure, I’ve bought my own house, I’ve got my own wife and two kids and that’s all I want. Sure, people think that after we do a gig we go and sleep upside down on the rafters or something. This chick says, ‘Is it true you all live in a big castle in Scotland?’ They think we run around the fucking fields with no clothes on, with big pitchforks in our hands. I mean, I’m just an ordinary guy making music, I’m very depressed; personally. I’m a fucking neurotic. I’m always going to psychiatrists and things to have my head looked at because I’m so down all the time. But people tend to think that we live Black Sabbath. Well, I love the band, I’ve worked through all the stages with it, but I love my home and my family a thousand times more. Because that’s reality, that’s what I live for. People tend to fucking think that I go home and whip my wife to shreds, you know... I’m not saying I don’t," he laughs again, "but they think my mother was a vampire bat, and my father was a fucking graverobber. It’s just that people think that that sort of thing, that and violence, is exciting. Kim Fowley told me, ‘I tell you what you wanna do next man, you oughta go to Mexico and buy a corpse, and take it onstage and stab it.’ And it’s getting to that point. We intend to be around for awhile, but we don’t nurse any illusions either. Black Sabbath was just a successful thing that happened, you can’t predict how or why, it’s just one of those freaky things in life that happens. I can’t go doing this forever. Sooner or later it’s going to fizzle out, when fucking Adolf Hitler and the Gestapo start coming after us or something. And then there’ll be a new thing called Gas Chamber Rock: ‘Bring your mother to the gas chamber!’"

thanks to for this gem