I don’t think before tonight I had realized just how much Black Sabbath mean to me. Three months ago, I saw Clutch in concert, and for a while now, I have been saying that Clutch is my favorite band. And really, they are! And it was a great show, the Clutch show! But this? This was so, so much better. This was something religious. There is something transcendent about Black Sabbath to me, something primal, like it is the sound of, I don’t know, the ineffable or something, coming into the world of the here and now. It’s all in that guitar tone, really, that ringing, leaden, drone, that can nonetheless take off like a butterfly at a moment’s notice.
While I was standing in line, waiting to get into the United Center, a guy next to me mentioned that Tony Iommi had cancer. And, maybe it was under control, or something. Right now, I still don’t know if it’s true or not. But this show was billed as the end, and that possibility, that there might be actual death hanging over the band, over Tony, hadn’t really occurred to me. I thought, if anything, saying it’s the last tour was just a sweet marketing gimmick! Now there I was thinking about that show, this tour, might actually be the end, like the band knew they wouldn’t be able to do this again, and that gave it a kind of momentousness I hadn’t been expecting.
For the weeks running up to this show, I realize now I didn’t totally buy in that it would happen. I didn’t think it would happen. I kept thinking I had forgotten the date, and the show might have already happened. I thought Ozzy might die, because if Lemmy is going, then Bowie, geez, who else is next? (Tony?) I thought I wouldn’t be able to find parking (I did, on the street 1000 feet down in a residential area, on my way there, no sweat). I thought I would have car trouble (I stopped and topped off my gas tank and put air in my tires on the way there). I thought I would be late. I thought the show was going to suck, that it was called The End because the band could barely play, and everyone was garbage now.
And then the lights went down, and they starting playing Black Sabbath, the song, and I thought, ‘oh, shit, I’m really here,’ and suddenly nothing felt real, precisely. I couldn’t actually be here seeing Black Sabbath play, could I? And then it dawned on me that I was really watching Black Sabbath play.
And they sounded like Black Sabbath.
I mean, Bill Ward wasn’t there, so that was bittersweet but the drummer who played was amazing (he even got a drum solo! They actually played Rat Salad!). But Geezer and Tony were, well, they were perfect. And Ozzy was in strong voice! And on key! And hyping the crowd! It was four guys, just four guys, making the most colossal sound you could imagine. Honestly, the way they played it might as well have been 1970.
They played Fairies Wear Boots! After Forever! Into the Void! Snowblind! And Behind the Wall of Sleep into NIB! Hand of Doom! War Pigs! Iron Man! Paranoid and Children of the Grave! There were more, including three songs towards the end I wasn’t familiar with, God is Dead, Under the Sun, and Evil Women, and you could feel the energy of the crowd lagging during those, but Under the Sun had some of Tony’s best soloing of the night, and I appreciated them pulling out some deep cuts. Maybe they are pulling out a couple random deep cuts at each show. It could be the last time they play any of them. For all I know, I might have just seen the last performance of Under the Sun.
And I did appreciate that, getting to see those solos. Tony Iommi is my favorite guitarist. I love what he does. The reason I love Black Sabbath? It’s really Tony. There were several times during the night, after Tony was playing some inhumanly perfect passage of a solo, that Ozzy was just pointing out how incredible the guy was.
There was a jumbo screen behind the band, and sometimes it would focus in on one of the players, and there was a camera down front that allowed them, sometimes, to show Tony’s fingers on the fret board, and you could actually make out, if you knew to look for them, the place where Tony’s fingers ended and the false fingertips began, and then you would realize again that this guy was playing this amazing music and he is missing his fingertips. Tony isn’t just my favorite guitarist; I think he is actually the closest thing I have to a personal hero. To think that someone, a guitarist, could lose the tips of his fingers? On his fretting hand? And somehow bounce back from it and create the sound of Black Sabbath? Birth Heavy Metal?
Black Sabbath doesn’t sound like other metal bands. The same way Black Sabbath failed to play the blues, Heavy Metal is really just bands failing to play like Black Sabbath. No other band has figured out quite how to sound like that, because no other band has Tony Iommi. Tony’s guitar isn’t harsh. It’s heavy, and it’s menacing, but the tone has so many layers, he can go from punishing brutality to soaring beauty in moments. And it’s all there, all the time. And he composes these passages. Nobody solos like him. His solos aren’t noodling, they are instrumental passages. And I got to be there while he played them.
So, yeah. I hadn’t realized going into that how much it would mean to me. That wasn’t just a rock concert for me. It was like the completion of a circle, one that started all the way back when Andrew played Iron Man for me for the first time on a tape cassette, and it sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before. Twenty some odd years later, I actually saw those guys play that song. I had never, ever, thought I would see that. Music from the 60’s was something that had come and been. Even then. But there they were, doing it. I got to be in a room and watch Black Sabbath play. Maybe it was the last time, the only time. I hope it’s not. I hope Tony lives for years and years. I hope they come play again, and I get to go. I won’t mind the false advertising! But at least I got to see it, at least once. At least I got to overlap with it.
I really don’t think I will ever see a concert that will mean as much to me as that one. See music played live that means as much to me as that. And that’s ok. It’s wonderful to just to have such fleeting moments. Time passes, people die and we go our separate ways. But sometimes, we can show up, in the same place together and witness Beauty.