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How Black Was My Sabbath

Twelve homesick hours with the dark princes of downer rock

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath, CIRCA 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“It’s different.”
“What do you mean different?”
“It’s Heavy.”
“Heavy?”
“It’s freaky. It makes you feel you’re in a graveyard.”
“You like that feeling?”
“Yeah. It makes you feel more alive.”

The limousine pulled up to the side of the Rhode Island Arena and the riders, some with musical instruments, piled out and started walking towards the door. The path was interrupted by a two-foot cement embankment which everyone jumped down as gracefully as possible, guitar cases and all. Policemen with clubs stood still and stared, fascinated by the four tough-looking rock stars, the limousine, chauffeur, and instruments in black cases. A waiting policeman banged loudly on the side door three times. The door opened and a man in a red usher’s jacket, bald and 5’2″, leaned out.

“Yeah?” he said.

“They’re here,” said the policeman.

“Who?” said the little man.

“The group that’s playing here tonight, Black Sabbath,” said the policeman.

“No one comes in this door,” said the man, shaking his head. “They go in the other side.”

“Just a minute here,” said the group’s manager in a delicate English accent. He was dressed in a light blue fitted suit with a white ruffled shirt, snow white shoes with no socks, and a white wool shoulder bag. “We’re the group that’s playing tonight.”

“I don’t care who you are, buddy. I’ve got my orders. No one comes in this door. Go around to the other side.”

“Now really, sir,” said the manager in a reasonable tone. He could see through the slightly opened door that the door the man referred to was directly opposite on the other side, identical to this one. “You’d better let us in.”

The man in the red jacket wouldn’t budge, so the policeman and the chauffeur interceded for the manager, and tried to convince the man to let the group in. But he was adamant and repeated, “No one comes in this door. Use the other side.”

“Alright!” screamed the manager. “Alright, there’ll be no concert if you don’t let us through.”

“What do I care,” said the little man with a shrug. “It don’t mean nothing to me. No one comes in this door. Go around to the other side.”

“Alright,” said the group’s manager, seething, and then firmly, quietly, distinctly: “Alright, there’ll be no concert. Back to the car everyone.”

“Fucking Providence,” yelled one young fan. “They don’t know how to do nothing right.”

The entourage climbed back over the embankment, some walked around it. In the car Ozzie rolled his eyes, Billy shrugged, Geezer smiled and Tony remained impassive. They were relaxed and in good humor, knowing what the outcome would be. But the manager was still furious.

Somehow they weren’t tired. This was their third concert in as many days in as many cities, and they had two more to play that week, and planes to catch for each. They had arrived that afternoon at the Rhode Island airport from Philadelphia. It was the third week of a six-week tour of the eastern United States. They’d do the West after a month’s rest back home in England. That is if Ozzie, the singer, could keep it together—in the airport the others had been calm, but Ozzie danced from foot to foot, his green eyes wide open darted nervously around. He chattered continuously on the ride to the Holiday Inn in Providence, and reacted violently when the newscaster on the radio announced that there had been a record low of dead men that week in Vietnam. “Only twenty-five he says! Really, that’s disgusting, that’s human lives they’re talking about.”

“It’s the devil’s work,” smiled Geezer.

In the lobby at the hotel, the group had gathered around the manager, who, like a camp counselor, called out names on letters for the boys to claim. None for Ozzie, or Tony, or Geezer, but one for the roadie, and one for Bill, the drummer, from his wife at home in Wittington outside London. He glanced quickly at the neat writing on blue paper, and put the letter in his pocket to read more carefully later, after lunch.

Everyone filed into the Holiday Inn dining room. “Disgusting,” muttered Ozzie at the red plastic furniture and walls. Tony, the lead guitar, sat at a table with the road manager. His long hair, worn with Prince Valiant bangs, sat on his head like a wig. He looked like a big burly bouncer, or a heavyweight boxer in drag. He hunched over a picture-perfect fruit salad garnished with tiny paper umbrellas, which he carefully removed.

“He’s the quietest member of the group,” said Bill gesturing at Tony with the paper Japanese umbrella he’d just plucked from his shrimp cocktail. “He’s the oldest, 23, and the best musician, really, of us all.” Bill had a gentle manner, and bitten fingernails.

Geezer, the bass player, delicate, impish, ordered a vegetarian lunch, smiling coyly. He ate his grilled cheese sandwich with a knife and fork, and only tasted his fake mashed potatoes once. He had a way of staring at people when he spoke to them, as if he could see through them. He was the seventh son of a seventh son, and claimed that he was Lucifer, and could see the devil. He struggled to get a spoonful of his cantaloupe, which was rock-hard but umbrella-less.

“It’s a satanic world,” he sighed, speaking softly. “The devil’s more in control now, and happier than ever before.” He smiled an impish smile. “People can’t come together, there’s no equality. The higher you climb, the more people you have to cut down. You feel you’re better than other people, that they’re inferior to you, and it’s a sin to put yourself above other people, and yet, that’s what people do.”

On the last tour, the year before, Geezer had taken acid with some people in Los Angeles, and had had a few bad trips where he saw evil all around. “Even in freak communities,” he continued. “People are trying to be freakier than the other person, to be one up on them, to be better. That’s the devil’s work, that’s why there is war.”

“This pea soup tastes like gnat’s piss,” said Ozzie, who wasn’t very hungry anyway, perhaps because of the antidepressant medication he’d been taking for a few days after having some difficulty with his wife long distance.

“They’re crazy mad in love,” said Bill when Ozzie left the table to get some cigarettes. “He really can’t stand being away from her. The problem they’re having is something too complicated and personal to talk about now. It has to do with something that happened some time ago.”

Everyone who walked into the dining room recognized the group from their picture in the Providence Evening Bulletin, and stopped by to wish them good luck at the concert that night. “Don’t mind me,” said one lady in a bouffant hairdo. “I don’t know anything about any of this, but it’s for my daughter.” She shoved a piece of paper and pencil in front of Geezer’s face, blocking a forkful of peas. “And do you have any tickets for the show tonight?” she wanted to know. Her daughter would really appreciate it.

“Fucking groupies,” muttered Ozzie, returning to the table. “I’m telling you, the next one who pushes herself at me, I’m going to piss all over her. Me and Bill decided to do that. Ain’t that right Bill? Just piss all over them. They’re disgusting. Remember, Bill, that time in Atlanta, Georgia? This bitch called me on the telephone and said, ‘I’m the best plater in the world’ — you know, blow job —— can I come up to your room?’ So I gave her Geezer’s room number, and told her to come up, just for a laugh.

“Well, she went up to Geezer’s room, and without a word took all her clothes off, and lay down on the bed with her legs apart, Billy, me, and Geezer looking on. ‘Well, isn’t somebody going to fuck me?’ she says to us. We all just stood there looking at her, kind of horrified. She looked pitiful and disgusting. Finally, she got pissed off when no one went near her, got up and dressed. ‘You English boys are disappointing.’ A bunch of fags, she called us, and left the room. But the next time I’m not going to stand there. I’ll fucking piss all over them.” He laughed a laugh that sounded like a sob. “Wait till me mother reads that, she’ll never speak to me again.”

The boys had come a long way from their childhood spent in Aston, a tough section of Birmingham where street fighting was the rule. They’d belonged to street gangs beating up each other. Their families worked in factories, which would have been their fate, too, but they started a band. “A paid hobby, if you like,” said Ozzie, “a good excuse not to get a job.”

The band was formed in January 1969 under the name Earth, Which they changed to Black Sabbath a year later. They spent that first year touring Europe, but remained unknown in England until the release of their first album Black Sabbath which quickly appeared in the Top Ten charts.

They all started to wear iron crosses, made by Ozzie’s father, to ward off evil spirits, shadows which they felt were plaguing them. “We all live with a shadow over us,” said Geezer. “The shadow of the next world war. You’re not going to get out of life alive, so it’s not worthwhile. And people don’t live a spiritual life, they only live for now, the devil rules them. That’s what my poems are about, things that are happening now. War and paranoia, death and hate. It gets people to thinking about what’s going on.”

“Our music is aggressive, people can get off on it,” said Ozzie. “It gives them a release. I can see it happen at concerts. We get people’s aggressions out. Then they won’t go out and beat some old lady over the head. It works for me too. Like when I’m at home for a while, not working, with no outlet for me energy, my wife and I are hammer and tongs at each other cause I’m all pent up. But our music gets it out, for me as well as the audience.”

“We used to have fun in the old days,” said Bill.

“Before we got all exploited and things,” put in Ozzie.

“It used to be anything goes and we’d have fun. But now it’s more of a business. We got to watch what we say and do — more people watching.”

“You’ve got to be clean English boys,” said Ozzie.

“Well, not exactly, but we’ve got to be more cautious now that people are aware of us. Before we really didn’t give a damn. We played small clubs in England and Germany. Like the Starr Club in Hamburg. Remember that night that chick gave Geezer some pills, told him they were ups? But it turned out they were laxatives, and Geezer had to run off the stage to shit every five minutes. His ass was fucking raw!” They all remembered and laughed. “We’d finish playing — we did five sets a night then—and we’d go out on the town and tear the place apart. We could have parties then, but we can’t do that any more. We have to get up early and fly somewhere to do a concert the next day.”

“It’s more a money thing now,” said Ozzie. “I’m going to make as much money as I can then shoot myself.”

“I wonder which one of us will die first?” said Geezer.

“Oh, it will be me definitely,” said Ozzie. “I’ll die before I’m 40.”

“But things have been going well for us,” Bill continued. “We like to play our music, and the concerts have been sell outs, knock on wood.” He started to knock on the table, for good luck, but it was Formica, as were the walls, as were the chairs and everything.

After lunch Bill and Ozzie went upstairs to Bill’s room to drink some beer and lie around. Sometimes at hotels they’d use the pool, but mostly they’d just pass the time talking until concert time. In the room everything was still Formica, the two double beds, the desks, and bureau. The TV set stared blankly at two identical pictures of three orange horses on the cement wall across from it. Ozzie’s room was down the hall. He and Bill used to share a room. “But Oz gets up too fucking early, 8:00, and turns the TV on. One time, the hotel was on a lake, and Oz was fishing out the window. I’m sitting there, having me tea, and a huge fish flies through the window. He’d caught a sand shark. We put it in the tub, but it died by the time we got back that night. We cut it up and hew it out the window, back into the lake.”

Ozzie threw himself down on a bed. Touring did not agree with him. “It’s all so horrible, flying around, and around, landing again. The hotel room’s the same, everything’s the same, the walls, it drives me mad. I really freaked out on the last tour. I got pissed off — those hassling bastard groupies screwed me up for one. Next time I’m going to piss on them, right Bill?” Bill nodded, not looking up from the blue letter he was reading. “We have a lot of nervous trouble in our family. I’m very high strung. On the last tour I had blackouts. But I don’t care what happens as long as everything goes well in January.” That’s when his wife was to have their child.

“I used to do some crazy things. I was quite yappy, really. When I was 18, I nicked some stuff, a load of woman’s clothing. I was going around selling stockings in the pubs. Eighteen years old, they caught me and I went to prison. That’s where I got all tatooed.” On each hand he’d printed “Ozzie,” on each knuckle there was a letter. And on his knees he showed two smiling faces “to cheer me up when I looked down. I did it all to pass the time in prison with a needle and India ink. I’m quite sane now, but I won’t be sane for long, after I take this pill.” He took a bottle with huge capsules in it out of his pocket. “Metrospan, they’re called. They really give you a hit on the head. A doctor gave them to me for depression a few days ago. They must have some ups in them, they make me crazy.” He leaned back on the bed, and sighed, his eyes filled up with tears.

“I’ll be OK as long as there’s me and my wife, and my kids and my group. But sometimes I start to wonder if my family’s going to wait for me. I wonder if she’ll get pissed off while I’m running around, recording and all. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Bill had finished his letter, and opened another warm beer. He was happy. He and his wife had just moved to their own house in the country. He said he wanted to make as much money as possible, and he enjoyed the way he made it. From his suitcase he took out two pictures and looked at them. One was a picture of his wife standing’ by their bed in a red bathrobe, and the other was a picture of “me pub.”

Also in Bill’s suitcase were plastic bags full of wet clothing. “There’s no time to hang them out to dry. So all my clothes are either wet or filthy and smelly. I’m down to my last clean shirt.”

Tony came into the room and lifted up his pantlegs to reveal the new pair of boots he’d just bought. He had no shirt on and his body was covered back and front with hair. His physique was a perfect rectangle, flat in front and back, straight up and down on the sides. On his lower back were two band-aids, one on each side, symmetrical. Bill explained— that he’d gotten the wounds at a swimming pool a few days before. He told them that in Geezer’s room there were two groupies, who had found their way there somehow. Bill and Ozzie went to investigate, Ozzie muttering “fucking cunts.”

Geezer was standing in front of the mirror, brushing his long hair out, trying on a new shirt, modeling for his friends. One girl sat on the luggage rack, her friend stood close behind her, her arms crossed in front of her. Both smiled grimly, nervously when anyone looked their way. The road manager thanked the girl in hot pants for ironing his pants for him.

“That’s OK. It was nothing,” said the girl gratefully. Then they remained mute, watching the boys talk to each other about the coming concert and the events of the day. While Tony had been out shopping, two girls had followed him from store to store “asking silly questions and giggling. It would have been alright, but they were ugly,” he said.

The two girls stiffened, and finally said goodbye after they were told that the boys were about to get ready to leave for the concert. Out in the hall they said they hadn’t had a very nice time. “They were so unfriendly,” one girl said.

“Well, after all,” said her friend, who wore a long dress to conceal her baby fat, “we did invade their privacy.”

“Well, even so, they could have been a little nicer. I thought they were mean.” Inside the room, Black Sabbath was laughing.

* * *

At the Arena, the concert was another full house. Though the seating capacity of the Arena was close to 7000, the promoters reported a crowd of 4000. That afternoon, the ticket seller had said that he didn’t expect any trouble. “They seem like nice kids coming in here. A couple of weeks ago we had a colored concert and there was trouble, but there won’t be any tonight.” Even so, the place was crawling with cops. In order to get a permit for a concert at the Arena, promoters had to allow as many as 72 policemen as well as putting up a $300,000 bond.

“Their music is so loud it’s painful,” said one executive at Warner Brothers who was unable to account for the group’s popularity. “I’ve been driven out of places by the noise. They play to a young crowd, say 14-17 years old, but who knows how they hear about them? The word just gets around that this is a group to go see.”Another executive put it this way. “It’s really incredible. They’re not like our other performers and we don’t understand their popularity, no one can figure it out. They haven’t had that much publicity, but their concerts are sell outs and their albums sell millions. The baby teenyboppers all just boogie up in the balconies and then run out to buy the records, and we love ’em.” The group’s first two albums. Black Sabbath and Paranoid had together sold a million times, making Black Sabbath some of Warner Brother’s top recording artists to everyone’s mystification.

Even people at the concert that night were unable to explain why they liked Black Sabbath. Many when asked about their music just shrugged, or said “It’s creepy,” “freaky,” “eerie,” or “Strange.” One girl in a sweatshirt bearing a smile like Ozzie’s knees said, “Nobody built them up. We heard their music before we heard about them. It’s like we discovered them ourselves.” Some people there didn’t like the music at all, or had never even heard of Black Sabbath before, but when asked why they had come said, “Wasn’t nothing else to do.”

“I’m scared of them.” said one girl. She chewed her gum slowly, her skin was pale between her freckles. “They’re evil and strange.” Why did she come then? “I like to be scared.” She chewed her gum a little faster. “I hope they sacrifice something tonight. A human sacrifice would be good. I’d do it myself if I wouldn’t go to jail for it.”

Another pale youth stood in a circle of friends who all wore T-shirts which bore an eagle insignia and read “Italian-American Rights League.” Why did he like Black Sabbath music? “It’s different.” he shrugged and said. The others standing with him in the same James Dean slump, shrugged and solemnly nodded their agreement. What did he mean different? He, took a pack of cigarettes from the rolled up sleeve of his T-shirt. “It’s heavy,” he said lighting a Marlboro, his eyes narrowing to slits as he inhaled. Heavy? He scowled at the question; then brightened and gave the nod to a compatriot, a lad with acne whose hair, like his friends’, smelled of pommade.

“It’s freaky,” said a friend. “It makes you think you’re in a graveyard.” He said he liked the feeling. “It makes you feel more alive while you’re there.”

Most of the people in the crowded vestibule were tan from hanging out on the Scar-borough Beach Boardwalk in the hot Rhode Island summertime and cruising in customed convertibles listening to AM radio and drinking beer. They were kids whose, parents didn’t take them to a summer house in Westport or Cape Cod, or Narrangansett, kids who had to stay home and work instead of hitching to Colorado or Berkeley.

There was one disgruntled long-hair in a maroon Indian shirt and sandals who boasted trips to Berkeley and Denver that year, and who complained bitterly of being in Providence. “I hate it. The green water in the ocean here bothers me. And this auditorium is a piece of shit. The acoustics are terrible, and look at these people. Nothing but a bunch of goddamn greasers, gas jockeys. I can’t stand it. I’m leaving as soon as I can get some bread.”

One group of kids looked quite contented, lying on the cement floor to beat the heat, leaning against a set of garbage cans which stood under the Rhode Island Red Hockey Team Player of the Month plaque, which had no picture in it now. “We dig Black Sabbath,” they all agreed. “You can get high on their music without even being stoned.”

Across from the entrance hung another plaque which said: “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds which in other years on other fields will bear the fruits of victory — —General Douglas MacArthur.” It had an eagle with a flag on it, and a picture of football players, boxers, and hockey stars doing battle. Leaning on the wall next to the plaque was a young black man with an earring in one ear. Why did he like Black Sabbath? “I hear they’re bad, that’s why I’m here.” Bad? “Not bad, bad.” A white friend came up and gave him a fraternal handshake. He too wore an earring in his ear. “What’s happening, brother?”

“Nothing, man, what’s happening?”

“A friend of mine just got busted.”

“That’s heavy.”

“Yeah.” He also thought Black Sabbath was a bad group. “They’re dynamite, man. They’re what’s happening. They got it together, they’re a cool group. I dig ’em, man, they’re bad.”

Three people in the vestibule stood out in sharp contrast. They were three fashionably dressed middle-aged people, one of them a woman named Jane. They had been given free tickets to the concert, and had come to see what it would be like, A bunch of teenagers walked up to them and said to Jane, “Hey lady, how old are you’?”

“What do you think?” replied Jane.

“She’s 29,” said one boy who wore a Spiro Agnew sweatshirt.

“Hah,” said another. “She’s got to be 40, at least.”

“Come on lady,” insisted Spiro Agnew. “How old are you?”

“Fuck off,” said Jane to the boys, and stunned, they walked away.

Two plump girls with shiny black hair held in place by clips ran squealing through the crowd, shouting in their Cranston accents, “We got their autograph, we got their autograph.” Black Sabbath had arrived. They were waiting in the dressing room for their time to go on stage. In the wintertime the Arena was a skating rink and housed the famous Rhode Island Reds, a hockey team. Over the entrance to the arena itself hung posters of the Hockey Players Hall of Fame. Underneath them filed hot and sweaty teenagers to take the seats they’d been assigned. They sat quiet, subdued and attentive while Black Oak Arkansas played.

But when Black Sabbath came on stage the crowd electrified, jumped to its feet and rushed the stage. They pushed past the ineffectual policemen, jumped over the divider that separated the $6.50s from the rest. People jammed in, crushed against each other and the stage. Further back they stood on chairs and sat on each other’s shoulders. The cops gave up law and order and let the crowd enforce itself.

“Sit down,” screamed some $6.50s, “or I’ll beat your fucking head in.” The threat soon became a chant. But when the music began, Ozzie, Bill, Tony and Geezer took over. The music blasted over equipment shipped from England, with volume so powerful that a few weeks before in Winnepeg, according to Bill it had busted one fan’s eardrum. The music filled the huge Arena, and even overfilled the rafters, which ricocheted the sound and sent back echoes which intensified the din. It was steaming hot in the Arena now, and sweat rose from shirtless bodies, forming a mist which turned colors from the spotlights above. The smell of dope and steaming bodies enveloped everyone in a moist cloud which blended with the music and the words that Ozzie belted out, screaming on the stage now, shaking his fist in the air as he jumped up and down.

Everyone marched in place, following Ozzie, shaking their fists in the air. Some upraised hands held little red Mao books. The Arena shook with the stomping of feet and vibrations from the sound as Ozzie sang “War Pigs”:

Generals gather in their passes
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death’s construction.
In the fields of bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brain-washed minds.

Politicans hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they have to fight?
They leave that all to the boy
Time will tell on their power-worn minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people like boards and chairs
Wait till their judgment day comes.

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

The group went on to play such tunes as “Black Sabbath,” “Wicked World,” “Electric Funeral,” and “Paranoid,” a song about a man in pain, who cries at jokes and finds love unreal, cannot feel happy and wants to die. All the lyrics to the iron-hard rock songs contain images of a doomed world, hell on Earth, man’s frustration, atomic tides, and through it all the Devil laughing—all this set to painfully loud and dirge-like music. The audience loved it.

They also played a few numbers from their newly released album, Masters of Reality. The music and theme of the songs on the album were exactly like the previous two—aggravated, angry assaults on the ears and existence of the people in the world around them. One song, “Children of the Grave” explained their feelings well:

Revolution in their minds— — the children start to march
Oh! the hate that’s in their hearts.
They’re tired of being pushed around and told just what to do
They’ll fight the world until they’ve won
and love comes flowing through.
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 alive, you must be brave
Or you children of today, are children of the grave.

Up at the top of the Arena, in the balcony it was hottest. The mist was like rain up there, and there was little air to breathe. One young man was peaceful, though, lying asleep on the cement floor. People stepped politely over him as they milled and moved around. The policemen had retreated to the ramp leading to the upper floor of the Arena. They winced at the loudness of the music and looked mystified. One cop shook his head sadly, another held his ears. One laughed and held his nose. Between songs one cop said, “They’re the worst one yet. Too loud. No class.” But inside, the audience didn’t agree.

From the top of the Arena, looking down at the spectacle, it seemed uncomfortably familiar, like a scene from a nightmare, or a glimpse into a firey mythological world. The writhing bodies, half-naked, bathed in purple, red and green light, the sweat, the mist, the smoke, the screaming inescapable racket, the dirge-like music, and the sound of Ozzie shrieking over the speakers: “No! No! Please God, help me!“— Black Sabbath had created an Inferno in the ice skating rink. Ozzie had marched his followers into hell.

When the concert was finally over, everyone was exhausted. Ozzie, Bill, Tony, and Geezer, stood on stage in pools of their sweat while the audience applauded. Their clothes and hair were drenched. The group left the stage, the audience filed out, the evil spirits had been exorcized.

Black Sabbath rested in the dressing room, dazed, peaceful and happy that the concert had gone well. After a while they peeled off their wet clothes and Geezer sprayed them with Faberge. Hardly a word was spoken, except by two young fans who had sneaked into the dressing room.

“Whadda yuz, go out in big cars, or do yuz slink out?” Bill gave him his autograph.

“How come ya use ‘Black Sabbath’ just an idea, or what?” Someone else gave them some beer.

After the Arena was empty the group departed through the littered vestibule and locked themselves into the waiting limousine, while the crowd stood by and stared. One lad came up to the car and put his sweaty hand on a window, leaving a greasy handprint as the car pulled away.

“Look at that one. She’s not bad,” said the manager.

“There’s the one with the nice tits,” said someone else.

“Fucking bitches, I’ll piss all over them,” muttered someone in the back of the car.

The black car glided through the people and the traffic; the chauffeur knew his business. Inside the car it was plush and peaceful with the soothing sound of “Shadow of Your Smile” coming over the radio. In a few minutes they were back at the motel. Tony slipped quietly away, telling no one where he was going. Bill and Geezer went up to Bill’s room to lie around and drink some warm beer. And Ozzie went to his room alone to write a letter to his Mum and Dad.

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