BUT I DIGRESS: Thoughts and memories after seeing Black Sabbath for the last time
I saw Black Sabbath live for the very last time in my entire life on Friday, Aug. 19 in Camden, New Jersey.
It was an amazing show, and the power and brilliance of the performance ultimately took some of bite out of the fact that it was, as the title of the tour indicated, “The End.”
As I’ve made abundantly clear, I am a proud, virile, vigorous, and potent (as well as entirely unapologetic) metalhead. For people like myself, a Black Sabbath concert is our version of pilgrimage. It is our Mecca, our Vatican, our Bodhi tree.
Black Sabbath is arguably the only legitimate heavy metal band that has ever existed, as their music not only created, but was the paradigm for the entire genre.
That debate aside, they are, without the possibility of argument, the single greatest influence on every and all heavy bands that have come since, despite claims to the contrary by anyone involved in any of those same bands.
Saying goodbye to heroes is always a difficult thing, but this departure has the added sting of what seemed an entire lifetime of not being able to see Black Sabbath (at least in the classic lineup) because there simply was no Black Sabbath to see.
With the exception of their legendary and ultimately carrot-dangling Live Aid reunion, it was Tony Iommi and whatever iteration of decidedly non-original band members issuing forth rather lackluster albums of songs that seemed unworthy of even Sabbath cover bands.
The notably awesome exceptions were the late, great Ronnie James Dio-fronted 1980 “Heaven and Hell,” 1981’s “Mob Rules” (my personal favorite non-Ozzy Sabbath album), and the oddly functional mismatching of Sabbath and Deep Purple alum Ian Gillan on the 1983 blast of weirdness “Born Again.”
Glenn Hughes? Tony Martin? No. Thanks, but no thanks.
To me, listening to those albums, despite whatever creatively interesting content they may or may not have contained, was akin to attending the wake of a once vivacious friend. After the wake, the only memory you have of them is as a stiff in a box.
So fuck fake Sabbath and fuck open casket wakes. Food for thought in case any of y’all that’re fixin’ to die are expecting a visit from me at the corpse house. Fuhgetabouddit.
I’ve been lucky; I’ve seen Sabbath around seven times. Four (or five, the actual count is hazy for some reason…) with the full original lineup of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bill Ward (whose presence was sorely missed Friday night, despite a capable performance by Tommy Clufetos and his very 1970s Bill-like appearance), once as Heaven and Hell (a reprieve from the 20-year disappointment of a cancelled Dio show in Binghamton, New York due to poor ticket sales when metal was temporarily un-hip in the late ‘90s. Who’s considered shit now, Firehouse? Ungh!) and, of course, last Friday’s near-complete lineup.
As kids, we coveted the memories of the uncles, older brothers and visiting cousins who would recount the glory of a Black Sabbath show, the passing of many stanky joints from one hand to another, circulating through the crowd and filling the general admission pit area with the wafting and glorious skunk smell of heightened metal awareness in preparation for the clanging bell of the opening strains of “Black Sabbath.”
The description of the sound and the linking of it to that which the last people on Earth will hear as the sun plummets upon them, or the last of the rogue nukes vaporizes them into darkness…
As the epic tales of Sabbath shows poured forth, we sat, transfixed, begging the gods of noise to realign the stars so that Don and Sharon Arden would once again see eye to eye and reunite the Four Horsemen so that we could be deafened by them, as those who came before us had been deafened…
See, Black Sabbath spoke for us. They voiced our disenfranchisement from the world. We couldn’t understand the blind acceptance and patriotism of the generations before us. We were children of WW II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans. We were conflicted as to what our place in the universe was. We admired the strategies of Patton, but resented the folly of Westmoreland. And MacArthur never finished the job and left us kids wide open to the fear of commie nukes.
Seriously, you younger cats and kittens know that “emergency broadcast” beep on the TV and radio as a storm warning. When we were kids, that had us running to the windows and looking up for incoming warheads. Considering things like this, perhaps the aggression and anger metalheads seek to relieve by means of our music doesn’t seem so baffling.
We were judged before we were old enough to actually have any opinions by the most “pious” in our town, trod upon by this church because we were born into that other church, despite the fact that the majority of us had zero proof and even less faith that any gods existed, save their invention to prevent us from thinking and doing what we wanted.
This stuff went deep, yo. We didn’t listen to Sabbath so we could wear denim and leather. They resonated within the deepest recesses of the oppression and fear that we were faced with every single day. Not so much in school, as when there is a force outside the prescribed parameters of “normal” within a high school environment that is as tight and non-shit-taking as ours, it commands respect. Sure, Johnny Varsity Letterman may have called us fags behind our backs, but he never made a peep outside of his own clique and made sure never to make eye contact between classes.
People only attack those who make them uncomfortable when they outnumber them, dig?
But this music, the people who made it and what they had to say, this mattered to us! It spoke to and for us!
And, most importantly, it helped forge bonds between us that are as unbreakable now as they were 30 years ago, when all we had was one another and Black Sabbath.
Allow me to elaborate: I attended this concert, as I have literally attended hundreds of concerts before, with my best friends in the universe.
Sand and Phil have been together since they were, I believe, 13 and 15 years old, respectively. I was there the day Phil chased Sandy down Madison Avenue in Jermyn one summer’s day, tackled her, and sat on her, refusing to let her up until she legit kicked the crap outta him.
We knew it was true love from that moment on.
I am honored to this day that I was asked to be the best man at their wedding some 10 years after, and they have remained my closest friends across nearly four decades.
Phil and I, after school, would get off the bus at my stop (he lived across town… about four blocks… but we had different stops… but I digress) and we would proceed to beat each other mercilessly in my front yard – violent, vicious hour-long battles leaving us both exhausted and bloodied.
Why, you may ask? Were we angry? No, we’ve never had an actual argument. It was for the sake of our own amusement.
You see, there was this incredibly nosey, judgmental, superior, and despised neighbor across the street from my house. We would brutally beat one another to terrify her. She’d be peering through the drapes, aghast, when we’d suddenly break and run, charging her front yard.
She’d fall backwards in terror and we’d collapse in the middle of the street due to the combined effects of kicking the shit out of one another in order to give a busybody an eyeful and the roaring laughter we simply couldn’t contain because we were so proud of having actually succeeded… again! (We did this a lot, yo!).
Phil got a later start than Sandy as far as concert-going, however. His first-ever show was, epically enough, Lollapalooza ‘93. Basically, you’d think it’d all be downhill from there, but he is so overcome with glee, aggression, and the spirit of all things metal that every show seems like his first, to this day, especially a particular Motörhead show we attended several years back – more about this in a bit. All this despite his absolute, burning hatred for driving to shows (which is weird, since he builds hot rods…).
Sandy, on the other hand, had been attending Judas Priest shows since she was a tween with her older brothers and continued to attend with the rest of our crew. As mild-mannered, even-tempered, non-swear word using a human being as you could ever hope to meet, Sandy, by all outward appearances, looks like she’d be more of a boy band fan, but she is transformed into a head-banging, expletive screaming, seat punching, floor stomping maniac for the duration of a metal show.
Our late, great friend Jeff, a huge, naturally muscular giant of a dude with a strength of literally three men that he would gleefully use to playfully abuse us (he’d whip you around like a ragdoll while giggling like a maniac, but only if you gave him the go-ahead first).
But his real use of all that strength was holding Sandy aloft during entire multi-hour shows. “Dude, you weigh, like, a gram!” he’d tell her when she’d ask if he needed to put her down and rest for a while.
Phil never feared for Sandy’s safety as long as his crew was around. I only remember one incident where that notion was tested and proven correct.
We were attending an “Operation Rock ‘n’ Roll” show at the armory in Kingston. Alice Cooper, Judas Priest, Megadeth – it was an awesome show!
During which, as was customary, Jeff had Sandy on his shoulders. He’d recently wrecked his bike and banged up his ankle pretty badly, but he had no problem holding her up on one foot!
A very drunk, very foolish young lady and her even drunker, dumber boyfriend were behind them, screaming, “We can’t fuckin’ see! Get the fuck down!” Mind you, this was a general admission show that was not at capacity. All these doucheozzles had to do was take one step to the left or right. Not to mention that there were at least 50 other girls up on shoulders. Difference being, they weren’t on “Lysander’s” shoulders (we all have nicknames, as “Fud” may indicate).
Jeff turns around, tells the drunken little man to cool it and move, then resumes enjoying the show. At which point, the single stupidest act I have ever seen took place. This turdburglar reaches up, grabs Sandy’s belt, and pulls her backward!
Now, Jeff has her, she isn’t going anywhere, but this puts all his weight on his bad ankle. This, combined with somebody fucking with his friend, whom he has promised his other friend he’d look out for, simply infuriates him. It was awesome to behold.
In one fluid motion, Sandy is lifted off his shoulders and placed gently and safely between Jeff and myself. He then has the dimwit held aloft by his throat, his feet literally 36 inches off the floor, and very calmly asks him, “Are you trying to get fucking killed, man?”
The dude motions that he, indeed, is not trying to die, so Jeff places him back down on the ground with a “Get the fuck outta here” and sparky takes off like a scalded dog.
It was a prime example of our “all for one and one for all” ethos.
It’s of no small significance to mention that I have also seen Fun Lovin’ Criminals with Sandy when they opened for (and subsequently, in my humble opinion, blew the doors off of) U2 at Giant Stadium in ‘97.
Sandy’s sister, Ellen, whom I’d only ever heard of in passing until she started coming to shows, is an example of a friend I would otherwise never have made if it weren’t for metal.
Another unlikely metalhead, Ellen had moved out of our hometown of Jermyn by the time we’d all started being horrible teenagers, so she was like our version Chuck Cunningham. When our ages had sorta evened out (as they tend to do once you hit 20 or so), she and Sandy reconnected, and she has rarely missed a show since. Actually, it may have been that FLC/U2 show!
What the fuck was my point?
I’m not sure, because a large portion of my brain was chicken fried in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the only evidence of a lot of my memory is the small pile of ashes that appear on my pillow under my ear each morning…
I think what I’m trying to say, amidst what amounts to me reminiscing and dragging you all with me like I was marching you out of Bataan is that music (in this case metal, but it affects people the same way, regardless of genre) is a the strongest social weld there is.
We come together, find one another because of our individual love of a collective pool of sound.
The music we gravitate towards pulls along with it like-minded people. The voids of social need that the music temporarily fills eventually bring in the permanence of lifelong bonds of human interaction and friendship to ensure they never become empty again.
There are few types of music I dislike. Fewer still that I do not respect. Those that I have no respect for are the types of music that have no significance past Jell-O shooters at the local budget version of Limelight on a Saturday night. Disposable product. Aural shit tickets. Yes, you can dance to them, but you can’t even remember the name of the person you danced with while it was playing, so you’re certainly not going to be clubbing with that person to that song for the next 30 years.
It’s not a “kids these days” thing. Taco, Baltimora, Stacey Q, and Nu Shooz were equally devoid of substance, and the only reason I remember them is because of the deep loathing they stirred in my soul. The frosted tip madras wearers who were doing the whiteman’s overbite, Ringwald style, while listening to them being played over a crappy gym public address system most certainly do not.
People who saw the Highwaymen live together, people who saw the Clash together, people who saw Nirvana together, people who attended real, actual underground raves DJ’d by Gemini or the Chemical Brothers, people who were at Woodstock together or Big Sur, or any of the first three Lollapaloozas together – the bond those people share is permanent, exclusive, and goes deeper than any boot scootin’ line dance or today’s diluted, knockoff Molly-infused USB drive throbathon.
Here’s an example as to how music is a part of our very nature, in our DNA. At the last gig I played (more about that in the future), there was a very happy older fellow dancing his legs off to every single song we performed. He was on his feet from the first note to the last. It was only afterward, when I spoke to him and his friend that I was made aware that he was deaf.
He felt the beat and it moved him to dance. He couldn’t help but dance! Consider that for a moment. He has never heard music, yet the feeling music created was nevertheless aroused in him. He felt it. Literally. The power of music was not lost on him simply because he couldn’t hear it. He felt it! That is as near to miraculous as we mortals will ever run alongside of.
Consider this also – a blind man might feel the brush strokes on the canvas of the Mona Lisa, but he’d never truly know her smile… but…
If the Mona Lisa had a killer backbeat and some pumping bass, anybody could feel that smile all night long!
Music of depth, be it polka, house, bluegrass, rockabilly, pop, classical, Great American Songbook, doo-wop, or doom, it draws people together and binds people together.
It is a roadmap to direct people who need to find kindred spirits, who need to find others who feel, think, live, fight, lose, and love the same as themselves towards one another.
Music is the blood that courses through the collective consciousness of every single human group. The protesters, the anti-protesters, city folk, country folk, tranquil folk, angry folk, privileged folk, self-made folk, champagne folk, tequila folk, the status quo and the fringe, the good, the bad, and the brutal – we all revolve around the music of our lives.
It’s possible there are groups for whom music does not enter the picture, does not play a part, although I have luckily never encountered them and pity them and their barren subsistence if they do exist.
I know there’s a ton of you out there who only stop by to disagree with me. And, I must say, your vilification is a matter of great pride for me. But, this time, you simply can’t argue that what I’m saying about the nature of music and its place in our lives is the absolute, unequivocal truth.
Think about it – if you had a friend when you were 15 that played Barry Manilow records whenever you hung out in his room, would that relationship have survived?
I think not.
Unless you’re actually a Barry Manilow fan. In which case, stop reading my column this instant. You’re fucking up my reputation.
POSTSCRIPT: The opening act for Sabbath was the absolutely fucking amazing and necessary Rival Sons. I was stunned that so many people hadn’t heard them, or of them before, so I am urging anyone who has not to go and purchase their music today.
Purchase! Not steal it by downloading it for free, yo.
This is how we feed our kids, people. How’d you like it if your boss simply stopped paying you but continued to use your services?
Don’t be a scumbag. Pay for the fucking music.
John "Fud" Zavacki has been a working musician since the age of 15. He owns well over a thousand LPs in every musical genre and erroneously presumes this makes his opinion noteworthy.