By Jeb Wright
Black Sabbath will head out on the road for their final world tour. It may take a year to two before it is over but, according to the band, this really is the end of Sabbath. The band will tour no more. They seem to be sincere about the finality of the situation.
In the interview that follows, bassist Geezer Butler discusses the tour and the set list. GB talks about how happy he is with the guy who will be sitting behind the drum kit and why, in his opinion, Bill Ward is not in the band. We take time to talk about a few classic tracks and why Geezer didn’t like writing the lyrics for the band.
This is a nice chat with a true icon. Long live Sabbath and, according to Geezer, it really is the end.
Jeb: Black Sabbath is about to do their final tour. A lot of band’s say it is the end Geezer, but then it isn’t the end. Is THIS tour really the end of Black Sabbath?
Geezer: It is one hundred percent the end. We’ve all agreed that this is it.
Jeb: How did you come to decide to call it quits? Was it Tony’s illness?
Geezer: It was our decision. Tony’s condition was an influence on it, but we all felt the same. The 13 tour went great. We just felt we’d do one more tour… to make it official, we called it “The End.” We are all in agreement that this can’t go on forever so we should go out on the top.
Jeb: If this is really the conclusion, then it is nice that three out of the four of you can stand arm in arm and go out and do it just one more time.
Geezer: We have enjoyed being together so much, this time. We are all glad that we are friends again. It is good to keep it like that. It is nice to leave on top rather than to drag it out and not be into it anymore. We can all play well, still. It is just our time to go out.
Jeb: Are you looking ahead to the date where you are playing that last gig? Or is that just too much to think about right now?
Geezer: No, I have not thought about it yet. I won’t think about it until that last date is confirmed. We don’t know where and when it will be. We are still going to finalize where the last gig is going to be. It is better not to think about it yet. We are just taking it one day at a time at the moment. We are always looking forward to the gig that comes next. We take it one gig at a time.
Jeb: There have been rumors there will be one more studio album, but lately I’ve heard that is not the case.
Geezer: If there is then fine… but I don’t think there will be. It would be nice if there was another album. We had some songs left over from the 13 album, but we’re putting it out as a sort of EP that can only be bought at the gigs from this tour.
Jeb: I got that press release regarding the EP ten minutes before our interview. It is four studio songs which were not released, and then four ‘live’ songs. Each market gets its own artwork.
Geezer: Is that so? That sounds good. I wish they would tell me things like that. I have not even seen it yet.
Jeb: Well, you can read the press release to get caught up.
Geezer: [laughter] that’s the usual way.
Jeb: I have to ask this question: I’ve heard that you were in a band with Ozzy Osbourne before he was with Black Sabbath. You were called Rare Breed.
Geezer: That is true, yeah. We only did a few gigs, locally, in Birmingham. That is how we got together. Ozzy lived literally two streets away from me and I used to see him around. He went to the same school as Tony Iommi. We lived so close together that we would see each other in the streets. I heard that he was looking for a band in the music shop… I didn’t even know it was him. I went to his house and it was Ozzy. He was a skinhead at the time. I thought, “This isn’t going to work out.” Skinheads at that time were into soul music and reggae. He liked Robert Johnson and blues so we got together and formed the Rare Breed. When that finished we were looking for a drummer and we went around to Tony’s house to see if he knew of any drummers and Bill Ward was there. Bill said he would join the band if Tony would come along and that is the way we got together.
Jeb: At the beginning, you would have had no idea that almost 50 years later you would influence the world of music. Does that ever freak you out, what you accomplished?
Geezer: It is great, as so many bands tell us that these days. In the 1970s the music press hated us and the record company wasn’t really into us, either. They were when we were selling millions of albums, but when we were not selling as much in the late ‘70s the record companies didn’t want to know us anymore. It think it was Metallica that actually praised Sabbath. They said that we influenced them. I said, “That’s weird. After all of the people have dismissed us they are saying we influenced them.” Then all of these other bands started saying they were influenced by Sabbath. After all of these years as being put down as a non-entity, we were being noted as major influences to hard rock and heavy metal bands. It is great.
Jeb: On the upcoming tour, you’re going to sell out everywhere you play on the planet. Success like that is good marketing and good management much of the time, but in this case it is a testament to the music.
Geezer: It is the last time anyone will ever see us. People will come to see us so they can tell their kids and grandkids they went to a show on the last tour.
Jeb: Will this be the greatest hits or will you throw in some rare songs?
Geezer: It is mainly… we are doing practically the whole of the Paranoid album. We’re doing everything but “Planet Caravan.” We tried that but it didn’t really work live. We’re playing mainly older stuff. We’re doing “Hand of Doom.” We have not played that for god knows how many years. It will be mainly old stuff.
Jeb: Tommy Clufetos is the drummer for this tour. I’ve known Tommy since he hit the scene with Ted Nugent. Tommy can flat-out play. A drummer and a bass player have a unique relationship.
Geezer: Tommy is absolutely phenomenal. I’ve played with other drummers, but Tommy really gets the way Bill Ward played. A lot of drummers don’t play like Bill does. Tommy is just so versatile. He always asks me if he is playing the part right. If he is not doing one particular thing we will tell him and he will take it in. There are no big ego trips. He just loves playing. Even through rehearsals he was saying, “I wish we could go and do gigs” instead of going home when he was done. He has a ton of enthusiasm. He is an amazing drummer. He is a great guy. He doesn’t do drugs and he doesn’t drink.
Jeb: As thrilled as I am for Tommy to do this tour, the elephant in the room with every Sabbath fan is that Bill Ward is not present. I will be blunt… why not just give Bill the money?
Geezer: It’s beyond the money thing. It is not really anything to do with that. It is whether he’s capable of touring or not. On the 13 tour, he was not on that tour. About a week after we started he had to go into the hospital for major surgery. We would have had to cancel the tour if Bill was still with us. He hasn’t been well for a long time. He’s had a couple of heart attacks. You have to face facts when you get to our age and you’re not in great, great health rather you can go out on the road for two years, or whatever. It is a hard life to do. The easy part is when you’re on stage playing. It is all of the traveling and everything else that comes with it that is the hard part. I think Ozzy, in particular, didn’t think Bill would get through it. He certainly wouldn’t have got through the first part as he was in the hospital. We can’t keep cancelling tours just because the drummer can’t play.
Jeb: It is nice to hear you say it was not an easy thing to do.
Geezer: We started out with Bill on the 13 tour. That is the way we all thought it was going to be, that Bill was going to be part of this whole thing. It just turned out that is wasn’t to be. His health has to come first before anything.
Jeb: Is it true you were originally a rhythm guitar player?
Geezer: Yeah, when I was in the Rare Breed with Ozzy I was playing rhythm guitar. It wasn’t until we met Tony that I’d gone off the idea of playing rhythm guitar. I wanted to be a bass player. When we met up with Tony, he didn’t want any other guitarist in the band, so it was perfect. I could switch to bass.
Jeb: You have a very powerful way of playing bass. Does your background on guitar bring something to how you approached the bass?
Geezer: I think you learn how to fill out the sound and the rhythm section, which is what rhythm guitarists do. They fill out the rhythm section. If there is no rhythm guitar then the bass player has to do that, and that is sort of what I did.
Jeb: You said you’re not playing “Planet Caravan.” That has a groovy little bass line.
Geezer: It is a simple one, as well.
Jeb: Are there any songs from a bass standpoint that you’re looking forward to playing?
Geezer: I am looking forward to doing “Hand of Doom” again as it is very bass orientated. I think 1972 is the last time we played “Hand of Doom.” We are always asked if we can do it, but for some reason we’ve never included it in the set. We have a lot of old classic Sabbath songs; to do that, it is hard to drop stuff to put songs like that in. This time we decided to put “Hand of Doom” in.
Jeb: Were you ever happy and satisfied to be the lyricist in Black Sabbath?
Geezer: [long pause] No.
Jeb: I’ve heard that about you Geezer. You were so good at it.
Geezer: When Ozzy would come out with his vocal lines he would just sing anything from off the top of his head. It really didn’t make sense what he was singing. For some reason, I got the job of doing most of the lyrics. Ozzy has done quite a few himself. It just gets really hard, you know, to do a whole album of lyrics. Once you know what the subject is then it gets a lot easier. It was particularly hard with Ozzy. He comes up with a vocal line and he never changes the vocal line. You have to fit every syllable to what his vocal line is. If you come out with one syllable too many then he won’t sing it. That is the hard part. It’s easy---well it’s not easy—it’s hard enough writing the lyrics, but the really hard part is fitting all of the syllables together.
Jeb: Tell me about the lyrics to “Iron Man.”
Geezer: I suppose it came from the fact that I love science fiction. Tony came up with the riff to “Iron Man.” It was one of the heaviest riffs I had ever heard. I wanted something that reflected the heaviness of the riff. Because I was really into science fiction, at the time, I wanted to write about space travel. America had just put a man on the moon so there was a lot of things about space travel going around the news at the time. It just clicked and it came out like that.
Jeb: One of my favorites is “Children of the Grave.” Those are some gloom and doom lyrics, Geezer.
Geezer: Yeah, they are. There is a lot of talk about pollution and climate change going around. There was a lot of talk about the end of the earth and there was a lot of fearmongering about nuclear war at the time. The Cold War was still going on with Russia back then. It just seemed like that if we don’t do something then we’ve all had it. It is going to be the end for all of us.
Jeb: It still fits today.
Geezer: It does. That’s the good thing about the lyric.
Jeb: Tell me about “Symptom of the Universe.”
Geezer: That was me. Ozzy would come out with a vocal line off the top of his head, and the first thing he comes out with, that is what he usually sticks with. He has a great knack of being able to do that.
Jeb: So you were not writing lyrics as much as crafting them.
Geezer: You could say that, yeah. That’s the way I had to work. I had to fit in all that stuff. It does get frustrating because sometimes you have a thing in your head of what you want to say but then you have to do it in so many syllables, and that is the hard part. You have to take what you want to say in less syllables than if you were just writing stuff down.
Jeb: Talk about “Paranoid.”
Geezer: That was the easiest one to write. We were given two hours do it. We finished the Paranoid album and the producer said to us, “You still need a three or four minute song as the album is too short otherwise. The record company won’t accept this. Come up with a quick jam.” Tony came up with the riff to “Paranoid” and I quickly scribbled down the lyrics to Ozzy’s thing. The whole thing was written and recorded in two hours.
Jeb: Sabbath, especially in the Seventies, had such a negative connotation. Some of your songs are very dark and Heavy Metal is not mainstream church music. You got a lot of shit, and still do, about being evil. But you’re a Vegan, and an animal lover and a good guy.
Geezer: I think we haven’t really had that much trouble from people these days. Usually it is a local politician that wants to score some votes by saying something negative against Metal in general. We don’t get that these days. People listen to the lyrics and they know that there is always something uplifting at the end of them. I think it is just people who are trying to score points with themselves like local politicians or local churchmen who do that.
Jeb: The fans know better.
Geezer: The fans know much better.
Jeb: Last one: Geezer what do you want to say to the fans of Black Sabbath that have stuck with you all these years?
Geezer: Thanks for keeping us here. Thanks for being with us for all of these years. It has been great. They really are the best fans that anyone could ever wish for. They’ve been with us since day one. They have been fighting for us and they are so loyal. It is incredible. We are so blessed to have them.