We learned two things at the Black Sabbath concert:
- Ozzy loves us.
- Ozzy can’t hear us. I beg your pardon, Ozzy “CAN’T FUCKING HEAR US!”
We know these two things to be true because Ozzy repeated them somewhere between 12 and 47 times during the band’s ninety-minute performance. Now, it may have been that Ozzy couldn’t hear us because he is 67-years-old and has spent most of his life singing in front of a stack of Marshall amps as big as the Sears Tower. But, I prefer to think that he just wanted us to scream louder than we already were.
For the uninitiated, “Ozzy” is Ozzy Osbourne (nee John Michael Osbourne), reality TV star and lead singer of the archetypal heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Ozzy has been somewhat of a hero to my 14-year-old son, Alex, and me as we separately discovered hard rock music over thirty years apart.
I first became enamored of Ozzy in my early teens when I purchased his 1980 debut solo album, The Blizzard of Oz, the cover of which features a red-caped Osbourne holding a giant cross above what appears to be some sort of ritualistic animal sacrifice. I loved the loud, belligerent guitars and the dark, brooding themes. What pairs better with teenage angst than belligerence and brooding? The answer is nothing.
After purchasing Ozzy’s equally sinister and ear-splitting second album, Diary of a Madman (The cover has a maniacal-looking Ozzy in some sort of castle library with a giant crucifix on the wall. Only this time the crucifix is upside-side down in case you doubted for even a second the presence of evil.) As I was wearing out both albums, I discovered that Ozzy had previously fronted Black Sabbath before being unceremoniously fired by the band in 1979. This was before the internet when you had to learn these things from an older sibling or a subscription to Creem Magazine, both of which I lacked. Upon diving into the back catalog of Ozzy’s original band, I fell in love all over again. Sabbath were even more dreary and menacing collectively than Ozzy was by himself. I spent hours listening to cuts from Sabotage, Master of Reality and Volume IV (a hilarious title for an album considering there were no Volumes 1-3). Never had anyone been so happy listening to such depressing music.
Ironically, Alex came to appreciate Black Sabbath and Ozzy in chronological order. He first heard Sabbath’s most popular song, “Paranoid,” when we got Rock Band for our Wii. We must have played that song a thousand times with me on guitar and him on vocals. It got to the point where neither of us had to look at the screen for music and lyrics. When he found out that Sabbath and Ozzy had other songs, he asked me to put a bunch of them on his iPod. And when he wanted to go see a live concert for the first time, Black Sabbath was at the top of his list.
Over the past six years, events and circumstances have prevented us from seeing Black Sabbath together. First, Sabbath was going to reunite in 2010, but in typical fashion, they didn’t get their shit together until 2011. Then, Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma and they canceled most of their 2012 tour. (To pass the time, Alex and I attended a Rush concert.) Then, Bill Ward left the group over a contract dispute and Alex was like, “Who’s Bill Ward?” and I was like, “Exactly.”
In 2013, the band finally got into the studio and recorded the fairly excellent album, 13, and followed that up by announcing a summer tour. We were all set. My brother, Dan, had a connection that provided us with three great seats for the August show at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Everything was going according to plan until my wife informed me that Alex would still be at overnight camp in New Hampshire on the day of the concert. No matter how hard I tried to make it work, I couldn’t take him out of camp, go to the show and get him back in a reasonable amount of time. So, my friend Kurt took Alex’s ticket and three old guys had a great time watching three even older guys rock out on a warm, summer night. But, I still wanted to share the experience with my son.
In September of 2015, Sabbath announced that they would be doing one final tour from January 2016 to February 2017 unapologetically dubbed “The End.” Like most things Sabbath, the name of the tour is ingeniously simple with its double entendre of the “end” of the band, which it surely is, and the “end” of the world, which they sang about constantly over their nearly 50-year career. Either that or Ozzy just said, “Fuck it! Let’s just call it ‘The End’” while snorting fire ants through a straw. In any case, a show was scheduled for late August in Mansfield when Alex would actually be home from camp. So, I bought two prime tickets dead center about a hundred feet from the stage. At last, we were going to see our man Ozzy together.
The night of the concert was hot and humid, like every night this past summer. Alex and I made our way down Route 95 exiting onto smaller and smaller state roads until we reached the two-lane disaster that is the way to the Xfinity Center. All around us, cars were blasting Black Sabbath or equally aggressive music from one of the hundreds of bands they spawned. Older, balding guys with bandanas that once held back flowing locks and former glitter chicks who probably should have re-thought the whole spandex thing before leaving the house poured into the parking lot along with Alex and me.
In general, I would describe the crowd as medium dirtbag. But, the good kind of dirtbag. The kind of dirtbag I picture myself to be given the opportunity. Sure, there were clouds of pot smoke as large as weather fronts hanging over the venue. But, there were also fathers and sons and, in some cases, whole families slurping down frozen lemonades as they waited in line for forty-dollar concert t-shirts. Alex had the good grace to ignore the pot and the munificence to share his frozen lemonade with me.
About ten minutes before show time, we found our seats and waited for the beginning of The End. (Ha!) Despite the fact that there was almost zero buzz ahead of the show, I had been eagerly anticipating this moment for nearly ten months or, if I’m being honest, more like six years. (I had a small panic attack when Ozzy and his wife, Sharon, separated early in the summer over Ozzy’s infidelity thinking it might derail the whole tour. Only Julie Chen was more distraught than I.) I don’t know why I wanted Alex to see Black Sabbath so badly. Maybe I wanted to nurture this shared interest that was exclusively ours. Perhaps I was afraid that he’d outgrow Black Sabbath and we’d lose a connection, one of the threads that held us together. Or it could simply be that I made him a promise and I wanted to keep it. Whatever the reason, I needed this show to happen and I needed it to be great.
The lights dimmed and the crowd erupted. Ozzy sauntered onto the stage and yelped (what else?) “I can’t fucking hear you!” So, we howled even louder. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Ozzy. But, if Mr. Osbourne is Black Sabbath’s mouth, guitarist Tony Iommi is its brains and bassist Geezer Butler is its heart. Tony writes most of the music and Geezer pens the majority of the lyrics. The two of them have also combined to create some of the most memorable riffs in rock along with a signature sound that has reverberated throughout heavy metal. Watching as they took their places on either side of Ozzy and launched into the opening song, I felt the same thrill that I did when I first heard them over thirty years ago.
The set list was clearly crafted for the diehards. If you were a casual Sabbath fan, you were probably at sea for the majority of the show. They opened with the song “Black Sabbath,” which Rob Halford of Judas Priest has called “the most evil song ever written.” High praise coming from a man who co-wrote “Beyond the Realms of Death” and “Saints in Hell.” “Black Sabbath” is the closest thing to a horror film put to music that I’ve ever heard.
“What the hell was that?!?” asked Alex after the song ended. “I couldn’t understand anything they were saying.”
“It’s probably best that you didn’t,” I replied.
The next four songs were “Fairies Wear Boots,” “After Forever,” “Into the Void” and “Snowblind” which is about cocaine. (Not to be confused with “Sweet Leaf,” which is about marijuana. Let’s keep our drug references straight, folks.) Then, came “War Pigs.” If you know one Black Sabbath song, it’s probably “Paranoid.” But, if you know two Black Sabbath songs, the second is most likely “War Pigs.” It’s been covered by everyone from Cake to Gov’t Mule to The Flaming Lips. My mom can sing along reasonably well to “War Pigs.” It also happens to be a concert favorite and it was the one time during the show that Ozzy didn’t tell us we weren’t loud enough. Probably because we were screaming every word and confusing the hell out of him.
“Behind the Wall of Sleep” was next followed by one of my favorites, “N.I.B.” If you don’t have a favorite bass line of all time, you will after you listen to “N.I.B.” “Hand of Doom” and its instrumental companion “Rat Salad” got a good reading and then came another audience participation song, “Iron Man.” In my short tenure as a guitar student, I learned “Smoke on the Water” and the opening riff to “Iron Man.” So, my air guitar during this song was impeccable.
“Wait a minute!” you’re saying. “Where’s ‘Paranoid?’”
Funny, that’s exactly what Alex said. Then, in the course of taking his bow, Ozzy bellowed, “If you scream really loud we’ll play one more song.” This was in lieu of dragging his ass off stage, waiting for the applause and then coming back on for an encore. At his age, pretense is out the window.
So, we made with the screaming and Ozzy and the boys ripped through “Paranoid” while even the casual fans belted out the lyrics. When the lights came up, Alex and I made our to our car along with the rest of the benevolent dirtbags. We had seen Black Sabbath. Father and son.
I hope Alex continues to listen to Black Sabbath. But, even if he doesn’t, I hope that music always matters to him the way it does to me. I hope he listens until he can’t hear it anymore.
I beg your pardon.
Until he CAN’T FUCKING HEAR IT ANYMORE!
Photo courtesy of the author.