When we first came to the States and we stayed at the Hyatt House in Los Angeles, I thought, ‘Fucking hell, we’re in California,'” Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne says in a way that sounds both amazed and matter-of-fact. “The people were cool, the weather was great, we were swimming in an outdoor pool at midnight, we had drugs, alcohol, women and fucking parties. It was a great way to spend your young years.”
“Now we have private planes, the best suites in the best hotels, but the downside is there’s no drugs and no women,” the group’s generally more reserved bassist, Geezer Butler, age 66, says with a laugh. “You come offstage and have a cup of tea and go to bed.”
“I was the fucking rebel for so many years,” says Osbourne, age 67. “Now I can’t understand why I was going out, getting full of Jack Daniel’s, having a bag of white powder and talking shit ’til daybreak, thinking that was fun. I would poke my fucking eyes out if I had to do that now.” The singer is now three years clean of alcohol and drugs, and it’s been 15 since he had a cigarette.
Black Sabbath may no longer live every day like Caligula on his lunch break, but by Osbourne’s estimation, their career has come full circle. On Wednesday, they will play the first date of their farewell tour, which they’ve dubbed “The End.” “I don’t want to drag it into the dirt,” the singer says. The band members — Osbourne, Butler and guitarist Tony Iommi, who is 67 — so far have signed up for 80 gigs around the world that stretch into next year, though they may extend the run. And even though they opted out of recording a follow-up to their doomy comeback LP, 2013’s 13 — which earned them their first Number One in the U.S. — they’re not ruling out recording together when the tour is done. For now, the bassist has mixed emotions about the final run of Sabbath shows. “It’ll be bittersweet,” he says. “I’m glad we’re finishing on a high note but sad that it’s the end of what I’ve known for most of my life.”
The decision to do a final tour “just kind of happened,” according to Osbourne. The band, which formed in 1968 and settled on several names including Earth before issuing their 1970 debut Black Sabbath, has been through many incarnations since it arguably founded heavy metal (“I hate that terminology,” Osbourne says, “because it goes from Poison to fucking Black Sabbath and there is quite a fucking difference”), but it has been mostly stable in recent years. It had played several runs of dates in support of 13 in 2013 and 2014 and took a year off in 2015. “I thought the last tour was going to be the end,” says Butler, who would like to see the trek stretch to Sabbath’s 50th anniversary but isn’t counting on it. “This time, we thought, ‘Well, we got one more tour left in us — let’s go out and do it while we can. We’re all aware of our mortality these days. So while we still can all play really well, we decided we’d do one more tour and go out on top.”
Mortality has been on the bandmates’ minds since Iommi revealed in early 2012 that doctors had diagnosed him with lymphoma. They had been impressed by his resilience and fortitude during the sessions for 13 and subsequent tours. “Tony, I’m amazed he agreed to a farewell tour,” Osbourne says. They’ve also scheduled “The End” around the guitarist’s necessary blood tests. But both the singer and bassist report that Iommi is doing much better these days. “I don’t like to say it, but I think the cancer’s sort of at least gone away,” Butler says, “for now, anyway.”
“Time ain’t on our side. By the time we’d have written and recorded another album, it would have been another three years.” —Ozzy Osbourne
Pacing is everything on the tour, which finds the group playing six weeks on, six weeks off through September, with dates in North America, Australia and Europe. “We’re not killing ourselves,” Osbourne says, adding that he is not retiring but no longer wants to spend two years on the road. “It doesn’t get any easier physically. I don’t know how the fucking Stones do it. … I don’t want to kill myself on the farewell tour. I want to enjoy it. If my energy goes, I’m fucked.”
Around the time Black Sabbath decided to embark on a final tour, they also mulled the idea of making another record. In the fall of 2014, Osbourne had told the press that the plan was to do an album and farewell trek but by a year later they’d confirmed that that would not be the case. Shortly after that, Iommi revealed that he had prepared “a whole load” of riffs for the record but said “the others … well, Geezer didn’t particularly want to do another album.”
“I was just being logical,” the bassist says with a laugh. “At the time, we were given six months to write and record an album and I said, ‘There’s absolutely no way we can do it in six months.'” He laughs. “Then they came up with, ‘Well, you can do a blues album,’ you know, just eight 12-bar blues songs and that’s it. It’s like, ‘No. This is Black Sabbath. It’s not the Earth blues band anymore.’ It was ridiculous.”
“Time ain’t on our side,” Osbourne says. “By the time we’d have written and recorded another album, it would have been another three years. … I’m not saying I’ll never record with Tony or Geezer again, but I don’t think I want to go touring again with Black Sabbath after this.”
Butler, too, says, “There’s nothing stopping us from doing another album after the tour.” In fact, it would be good by his estimate because there would be no rush.
“We just couldn’t possibly spend three years in the studio and then do a final tour,” he says. Then he adds dryly, “We’ll probably all be dead by then.”
Instead of starting from scratch with a new LP, the group looked backwards. “After the 13 album, we still had four tracks left over,” Butler says. So they’ve taken those tunes — “Season of the Dead,” “Cry All Night,” “Take Me Home” and “Isolated Man” — and put them on a limited-edition CD, The End, which they’re selling on tour. They’re rounding out the set with live versions of three 13 tunes and Vol. 4‘s “Under the Sun,” which they recorded in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
By Osbourne’s estimation, the fans aren’t interested in new music. “One of the things we learned on our last tour is that the people want to hear the classics,” he says. “We did a bunch of songs off that new album, but people want to hear ‘Iron Man,’ ‘War Pigs,’ ‘Children of the Grave’ and the rest of them. We’ll do maybe one or two off the 13 album this time.”
Does Butler ever tire of playing “Paranoid” and the other big hits? “No, because the reaction of the crowd puts new life into it,” he says. “It’s so hard doing them at rehearsal — you just go through the motions because you’ve played them so many times — but when you get onstage, you get that reaction from the crowd and realize what great songs they are and get into them.”
A teaser video for the tour offers a glimpse of some of the fan favorites they’ve been rehearsing: “Black Sabbath,” “Fairies Wear Boots,” “Into the Void,” “Snowblind,” “N.I.B.,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep.” Butler says they’ve also added “three old numbers that we haven’t done in God knows how long,” including “Hand of Doom,” a number on 1970’s Paranoid about a heroin-addicted Vietnam soldier, and “After Forever,” a seemingly antireligious cut off 1971’s Master of Reality that, Butler says, was actually commentary on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Butler has spaced on the third old number they’re bringing back.
When Osbourne thinks about the vintage of the songs he’s playing, he marvels at the interest level of the multigenerational audience. “To be honest with you, if my father had said to me when I was a kid, ‘Come and see this guy, he’s really a great singer,’ just the fact that my father liked it, I would have gone, ‘Fuck this.'” He laughs. “But at the gigs, we have fathers, sons, grandchildren and fucking everybody. I’m just amazed at the longevity of that early music.”
The one piece of classic Sabbath history that won’t be a part of “The End,” though, is the group’s original drummer, Bill Ward. The band fell out with Ward shortly after the 2011 announcement that they’d reunited when he claimed that they had not offered him a “signable contract.” They recorded 13 with Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk and toured with Tommy Clufetos, who sits behind the kit at Osbourne’s solo shows.
The band and Ward have shared a war of words ever since. The singer claimed in 2013 that Ward was “incredibly overweight” and unfit to play. In a lengthy interview with Rolling Stone last April, Ward refuted that claim, said he still wanted a worthy contract and lamented the end of his friendship with Osbourne. “I actually grieved the loss of his life in my life,” he said. “It was fucking terrible. I cried.” The singer replied with a statement: “I cannot apologize for comments or opinions I may have made about you in the press during Sabbath’s 13 album and tour. Physically, you knew you were fucked. Tony, Geezer and myself didn’t think you could have done a two-hour set with a drum solo every night, so we made the decision to move on.”
Now, when the topic of Ward comes up, Osbourne changes the subject. “I’d rather not talk about it, actually,” he says. “As soon as I start talking about Bill Ward, I get about 500 fucking slaggings in the post.”
“It’s really sad that it’s not the original lineup,” Butler says. “I would have loved for Bill to be in the band.”
“We overcame a lot of negative stuff and stuck to our music and never sold out.” —Geezer Butler
The bassist saw Ward shortly after the online feud when the two of them, along with Iommi, accepted lifetime achievement honors at the Ivor Novello Awards in London last May. Osbourne was not present, due to a medical appointment. “We still get on great,” Butler says of his relationship with Ward. “We still can talk to each other. It’s just that I have no idea what went on in the background. Ozzy says he wasn’t fit or he was too fat, and Bill says he wasn’t offered a contract. I stayed out of it. I don’t know who to believe and I don’t really delve into it.” As for the recent tours without Ward and the upcoming trek, Butler says, “Tommy’s a great drummer.”
As the band stares down its last run of dates, Osbourne is adamant this will be it for Black Sabbath. “You could put money on it,” he says. But part of the reason he feels that way is that he’s happy with Black Sabbath’s legacy. “The very fact that people remember us today is enough for me,” he says. “There ain’t many bands that I know that have lasted as long as Black Sabbath have and are still considered somewhat relevant.”
“We stuck to what we wanted to do instead of listening to other people, all the press slagging us and the record companies that wouldn’t sign us — that’s what I’m most proud of,” Butler says. “We overcame a lot of negative stuff and stuck to our music and never sold out.” These days, he says it’s worth it for what he shares with his bandmates. “It’s like three brothers getting together,” he says. “It’s old friends coming together and getting the set list together … and it’s a lot more professional these days.” He laughs.
“When I think about that first tour, it was just everything I ever dreamed of and more,” Osbourne says. “I was always the guy who’d go, ‘Wonder how long this is going to last.’ When the first album took off, I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, this will be fun for a few years, then it’s back to the fucking factory.’ None of us were expecting this.”