The title of the new Black Sabbath album, 13, worries Ozzy Osbourne. During the making of this album, the first that Osbourne has recorded with Sabbath in 35 years, guitarist Tony Iommi has been battling the potentially fatal blood cancer lymphoma, and drummer Bill Ward has quit the band in a dispute over a contract he described as “un-signable”.
Ozzy: "With Black Sabbath Nothing Is Ever Easy. It’s Never Been Easy"
After reuniting in LA in 2011, things quickly spun out of control for Black Sabbath, Iommi's cancer, Bill Ward's controversial departure, Ozzy falling off the wagon, how did 13 ever get made?
To paraphrase an old blues song, if it wasn’t for bad luck, Black Sabbath would have no luck at all. And for Osbourne, the new album’s title is at best grimly ironic. At worst, it’s tempting fate.
“I’m superstitious,” he says. “So I’m not crazy about calling the album 13. Every time this band gets together, some shit happens. Somebody – usually me – will fall down a flight of stairs and nearly fucking kill himself. There’s always a spanner in the works. So when Tony got diagnosed with cancer, I was like, ‘What next?’ You’re almost waiting for a bomb to go off or a fucking earthquake.”
Ozzy laughs when he says this, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. It is only a few days later that it becomes apparent why he’s in LA and not, as previously scheduled, in London with Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler.
News breaks of a crisis in Ozzy’s relationship with wife Sharon. It’s revealed that they have been living apart since he relapsed into drinking alcohol and using prescription drugs. Ozzy will make a confession via Facebook, describing his behaviour as “insane”. Sharon subsequently states on US chat show The Talk that Ozzy has been in “a very dark place”, but quashes rumours that they are separating.
When he speaks to Classic Rock, Ozzy gives no indication of the trouble in his personal life. His focus is on the new album, and of the struggle to get it made. “With Black Sabbath, nothing is ever easy,” he says. “And it’s always, always been the same.”
The new Sabbath album has been a long time coming. It’s now 16 years since the band’s first reunion tour with Ozzy. Up until 2005 they had continued to tour, on and off, despite Bill Ward having time out to recover from a heart attack in 1998. But while Sabbath flourished as a live act, making new music was more difficult. They recorded two new songs, Psycho Man and Selling My Soul, which were added to the 1998 live album Reunion. But both songs were underwhelming. And an attempt to record a new album in 2001 with producer Rick Rubin was aborted when Osbourne chose to make another solo album, Down To Earth.
After their 2005 tour, it seemed that Ozzy and Sabbath had gone as far as they could together. Ozzy resumed his solo career. Iommi and Butler reunited with Ronnie James Dio, the singer who had replaced Ozzy in Black Sabbath in 1979, and Vinny Appice, the drummer who had replaced Bill Ward in 1980. This group, named Heaven & Hell, released the album The Devil You Know in 2009, and planned to make another. But on May 16, 2010, Ronnie James Dio succumbed to stomach cancer. And it was on the day after Dio’s funeral that Ozzy called Tony Iommi.
Iommi knew what was coming. “Ozzy told me he missed the old band,” he says. “He asked if I wanted to get it back together.” But both Iommi and Butler had a proviso. “We wanted to tour again,” Butler says. “But we didn’t want to do it without anything new to play.”
And so, finally, a new Black Sabbath album was born. It’s not quite what was planned. Without Bill Ward, this is not the full, original Black Sabbath. But in Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk, they found a capable substitute, and with Rick Rubin again installed as producer, they have created an album comparable to their classic 70s work – the albums that defined heavy metal. Above all, what this album represents – for Black Sabbath, and for Tony Iommi in particular – is a triumph over the very worst of adversity.
“When the doctor said it was cancer, I just thought, ‘Well, that’s it for me,’’” Iommi says. “I would go to bed at night wondering, ‘Will I be here tomorrow morning?’ You think all the doomiest bloody things. But in the end you realise that life carries on. And the one thing that you’ve got to do, more than anything, is fight for it.”
Geezer Butler believes that 13 would be a fitting end to Black Sabbath’s career.
"If this were the last thing we ever do, fine,” he says. “We’ve completed what we were put on earth to do.”
Butler turned 64 on July 17 last year, and says he would happily retire at the end of the band’s current world tour. After a 44-year career in rock’n’roll, he now prefers to live quietly, spending most of his time at his home in Los Angeles with wife Gloria – also his manager – and their six dogs and seven cats.
“I rarely go out,” he says. “I just keep to myself.”
Iommi’s illness has had a profound effect on Geezer and Ozzy. It has drawn them all closer together. Even so, they have little contact outside of their work with Black Sabbath.
They are never far from each other. Ozzy’s main home is also in LA. And where Iommi lives, in an upscale suburb of Birmingham, Butler has a house on the same road, just a mile away. Butler laughingly admits that it’s not unlike a heavy metal version of Stella Street. “But we don’t ever really socialise together,” he says. “We have our own lives.”
And for Butler, the new Black Sabbath album is the culmination of their lives’ work. “This is the perfect way to finish,” he says. “It’s an album that we’re all proud of. As far as I’m concerned, that’s it. That’s my life done and completed.”
After all that has happened in the past few years, did you ever believe that you’d finally get this album made?
Geezer Butler: Sometimes it felt like there was a curse on us. That’s why we called the new album 13. First, Bill had a heart attack. Then Tony got cancer. And before that, Ronnie died. We’ve had to overcome a lot.
What went wrong when you tried to make an album in 2007?
We went to this place in Monmouth, where we always go. We had six or seven songs. But Ozzy wasn’t really into it – he was doing his own solo stuff, so he was hardly ever there. So we didn’t really have a direction. Rick Rubin got involved – he’d always wanted to produce Sabbath. But when we played the songs for him, we realised that they just weren’t very good. So we left it.
After the last Black Sabbath tour with Ozzy in 2005, did you think that was the end?
I thought it might be. But I was always hoping that there would be a last Sabbath album.
What was different this time?
There was real commitment from Ozzy. Also, Rubin really brought out the best in him. Ozzy had gotten into the habit of singing above his range. Rubin got him to sound like the Ozzy of the first few Black Sabbath albums, rather than Ozzy of his solo albums.
How else did Rubin guide you?
He said: “Don’t do a typical heavy metal album – and forget Metallica and all the metal stuff that’s come since then.” Right at the start, he got us all together in the studio and played us the first Sabbath album. He said: “This is what you were. It’s not really metal, it’s blues-based but with these evil riffs.” He wanted us to keep it like that.
And is that how it turned out?
Well, it’s definitely evil [laughs]. And there’s one track that’s out-and-out blues. It was a jam we did to warm up one day. We played it for 18 minutes and Rick recorded it. We’ve called it Blues Jam [laughs again]. The problem was, Rick kept playing it over and over. It drove me nuts. I couldn’t stand it. But on the album it’s been cut down to seven minutes.
Bill Ward is no longer in Black Sabbath. There have been various reports about what happened. So did he jump, or was he pushed?
Well, we’re the ones that get the blame. But, to be honest, I don’t think Bill would be able to get through a whole set now. Bill has had a couple of heart attacks. He’s a strong guy, but you just don’t know.
Has there been any contact with Bill since he left the band?
We asked him when we did Download [June 2012] if he’d come up and do a few songs, but he took it the wrong way – or his management did. He took it as an insult.
You recorded the new album with Brad Wilk on drums in place of Bill. Is it true that you also considered using former Cream drummer Ginger Baker?
It’s a good job it wasn’t Ginger Baker... after seeing that bloody documentary, Beware Of Mr. Baker. It’s aptly titled. He beats up the guy who’s making the documentary! The bloke says: “I’m going to interview all the people that you’ve worked with.” And Ginger Baker gets his walking stick and – whack! He says: “Don’t you dare talk to anyone else. This is my film.” And the bloke’s covered in blood. What a pissing nutter!
As nutty as Ozzy?
It’s a different madness.
You’re the principal lyricist in Sabbath. How many lyrics has Ozzy written for the new album?
Out of 16 songs we recorded, Ozzy wrote four sets of lyrics. But a lot of the song titles are his, and I expanded on them. God Is Dead? was Ozzy’s title. I wanted to call that song American Jihad. Ozzy was going: “Jihad? We’ll get assassinated if we say that!” But that’s what the song is about – a religious fanatic that sets out to prove that God isn’t dead. He’s read people – philosophers, communists – saying God is dead, and he wants to prove them wrong. To be honest, I thought American Jihad was less likely to get us assassinated than God Is Dead? You offend everybody with God Is Dead?
Are any of your lyrics on the new album autobiographical?
There was one, but it’s not on the album now. It was about problems in families. It’s too personal to talk about.
But not too personal to be part of a Black Sabbath song?
Not if nobody knows it’s about me. It’s like Paranoid – that was about me, but nobody knew. Everybody thought that Ozzy wrote it.
So you really did finish with your woman 'cos she couldn’t help you with your mind? It’s a good reason.
It is, yeah. And it was at the time.
You mentioned God Is Dead?, but was death a subject you tried to avoid on this album, given what Tony is going through?
Yeah. But when Ozzy was writing lyrics, everything was about death and dying. So I had to change them around a bit.
How has Tony’s illness affected you personally?
After the shock of what happened with Ronnie, that really brings home your mortality. You realise you haven’t got that much time left on earth. But the way Tony kicked it aside and carried on with the album, it gave me a lot of inspiration. I’m not sure I could be like that if I had it.
After losing Ronnie, you must have feared the worst for Tony.
I did. When Ronnie started complaining about these aches in his stomach, we thought it was bad gas, maybe food poisoning. You never expected that in six months he’d be gone. So when Tony said he had cancer, I just thought that’s the way it is with everyone. But luckily Tony caught it at stage one, whereas Ronnie was stage four, inoperable.
In such challenging circumstances, how do you all stay positive?
You have to stay positive for his sake, and for all our sakes. And you realise that it’s not going to last forever, because that’s life – you die at the end of it.
Ozzy is a self-confessed hypochondriac. Are you?
I’m the total opposite of a hypochondriac. I fear doctors, dentists, hospitals, everything.
Ronnie died, Tony has cancer, Bill has had heart attacks and Ozzy almost snuffed it in 2003 when he crashed his quad-bike. Have you had any brushes with death?
I did in the 70s. I was in a bad car crash in my Jensen Interceptor. I took some downers, went down the pub and had about eight pints, and on the way home I was overtaking this car that was going really slow. It was on a bend, I lost control of the car, and it literally took off in the air and landed on its roof. Luckily I wasn’t wearing a seat belt, so when the car took off it threw me into the back. The roof cut the driver’s seat completely in half. If I’d been wearing my seat belt I’d have been killed. Well, I was young at the time.
Have you ever had the feeling that somebody up there likes you?
I believe in fate. When we got back together with Ronnie, I hadn’t spoken to him in 18 years, and then suddenly we were doing Heaven & Hell. It was fantastic. And it’s the same now with Sabbath. It’s almost like somebody else is guiding us. I’ve always wanted to finish with another Sabbath album, and now we’ve done it.
The last time Sabbath made an album with Ozzy, they named it Never Say Die! But the defiance in its title fooled no one. It was 1978 and Sabbath’s career was in free-fall. They had been one of the biggest-selling rock acts of the 70s, but a combination of naivety and profligacy had left the four band members close to broke. The years of heavy touring, drinking and drug taking had rendered them physically and emotionally drained. On a creative level, they had little left in the tank, and on a personal level, relationships were at an all-time low. Ozzy had quit Sabbath in 1977 and the band had attempted to carry on with a different singer, Dave Walker, before Ozzy was persuaded to return.
But Never Say Die! bombed – peaking at No.12 in the UK and 69 in the US. And following a tour on which Sabbath were routinely blown off stage by their young and hungry opening act, Van Halen, something had to give. In 1979 Ozzy was fired. And it was Bill Ward, his closest friend in Black Sabbath, who had to tell him he was out.
It wasn’t long before Ozzy had his revenge. By the mid-80s he was a major solo star, while Sabbath, with Tony Iommi the only remaining original member, were in decline. “We were at war,” Ozzy says now.
“It was one-upmanship, and you can’t beat success.” But in the 18 years that followed his sacking, Ozzy never stopped singing Paranoid. And, deep down, he always felt that he had unfinished business with Black Sabbath. He reunited with Iommi, Butler and Ward for Live Aid in 1985, and again in 1992 for a show in Costa Mesa, California that was billed as Ozzy’s farewell from live performance. And ever since 1997, when the band resumed touring on a semi-regular basis, Ozzy has wanted to make one more album with Black Sabbath.
“In my heart and soul, it was always my desire to round it off nicely,” he says. “Everybody falls out, and everybody makes up. And I’m glad that we made up by doing a great album. I’m just happy that we’ve pulled it off at the end – even without Bill.”
When you think back to 1979 and the day you were fired from Sabbath, are you still bitter?
Ozzy Osbourne: It was never: “Poor old me. How dare they fire me?” It was my own fucking fault. I was fucked up all the time, and I’d lost interest – it’s true. I wasn’t into the band anymore. I was just moaning all the time and getting off my face on some fucking shit or other.
Does it feel surreal to be in Black Sabbath again?
There’s one thing that’s been hard for me to get my head around. Since my departure from the band, I’ve been the master of my own shit. So to go back, you have to stop that thought pattern and just be the singer in a band called Black Sabbath.
Who is the boss in Sabbath?
Tony has always been the leader. Because without his riffs we wouldn’t have had a fucking chance in hell of doing anything. And he’s still the boss. He comes up with the riffs and I have to work around that.
Who calls the shots when it comes to business?
I don’t know. I’m not the manager of this fucking thing. My wife Sharon manages me. Tony and Geezer have their managers. And no manager ever agrees with the next, because they all want the best for their artist.
When Bill Ward resigned, many fans blamed Sharon, saying she tried to sell him short.
Here’s the bottom line: being a drummer is the most physical part of any band. And when Bill turned up he looked like an old guy. I don’t think he had the stamina to play for an hour or so on stage. If I’d had a heart attack like Bill had, I’d go: “Fuck, I’m going to lose some weight.” I train – I work my arse off. So you can’t expect someone who’s been sitting on their fucking arse, eating shit, to come along and go: “Equal split.” It’s insane. I honestly don’t know what went down with that deal, but I suppose it’s something along those lines. There wasn’t any other reason. We didn’t gang up on him. And it wasn’t like, “Bill’s just the drummer...” I didn’t go: “Oh, if Bill’s not here I get more money.” I don’t fucking need any more money, man.
Isn’t Bill Ward as important to Black Sabbath as John Bonham was to Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon was to The Who?
I’d be a fucking liar if I said I’m glad Bill never made the album. It’s kind of a Sabbath album to a point, but it would have been great if Bill could have worked on it. But if we’d had Bill, I honestly don’t think we’d have been this far up the road. It was time to shit or get off the pot.
Are we going to do this fucking album, or are we going to sit with our thumbs up our arses forever? It was time to stop fucking around and get on with it. I’m 65 this year , Tony’s already 65, Geezer’s coming up to 64. We all realised that if we keep hanging on any longer we’re going to be fucking dead! I mean, fuck me, Tony could have croaked.
You’ve always said that Bill was your closest friend in Black Sabbath.
I love him. We were the Crazy Twins. Tony and Geezer would always travel on their own because they didn’t want to be around us. We were always doing some fucking shit or other. Bill is a very dear friend of mine and he will always have a place in my heart.
So is the door still open for him?
If he gets his shit together. I’m not going to slag Bill off. But it’s not our fault. For some reason, getting us all on the same page is the hardest thing in the world.
Can you talk to Bill right now?
Yeah, but it’s a bit soon. I don’t want to cause any shit. Let’s just get this album out and get out on the road and see what happens.
It’s taken a long time to get this album made.
This was not the first attempt. We’ve tried to do an album about five times, probably more. But the end result is mind-blowing. I’m my own worst critic, but this album is a work of art. When I got the finished master, my wife was in Europe. I called her and said: “Sharon, I can’t believe what I just fucking heard. It’s fucking incredible!” And she said: “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say anything like that. And if you’re saying it’s good, it’s got to be good!”
How did you relate to producer Rick Rubin?
Rick had a vision. And there were times when I thought: 'He don’t know what the fuck he’s doing.' Some days he had me in the studio for five hours doing one song. But if he’d told me to stand on one leg and do it, I’d have fucking done it, because I wanted to make a good record.
What was Rubin’s vision for the album?
We started off as a jazz-blues band, and Rick was going for the bluesy angle of the first record. But I’d put this album between Vol. 4 and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. It has the vibe of that era. It’s funny, this guy said to me: “I heard some tracks and it sounds like Black Sabbath.” I said: “I’d have been pissed off if it sounded like Deep Purple!” Tony was having chemotherapy during the making of the album. He’d come in the studio some days after having chemo and he looked like he was going to pass out. He hadn’t slept for two days, because the fucking chemo keeps you awake. He’d be ashen, weak. The treatment is worse than the fucking illness. Having chemotherapy is like having a headache and going to your doctor and he kicks you in the bollocks. You don’t have a line of chemo and go for a night at the fucking Rainbow.
You’ve been here before, in 2002, when Sharon was battling colon cancer.
I thought she was going to die. I never knew anybody that had survived cancer. As far as I was concerned, patient plus cancer equals death. But my wife is a very strong woman. And Tony is a very strong guy. If it was me that had been diagnosed with cancer I’d have been dead by the end of the fucking day. But Tony would just come into the studio and play through it. I thought, “How the fuck does he do that?” I don’t know. But he’s my fucking hero.
Geezer says Tony’s illness has given him a more powerful sense of his own mortality. Have you felt that too?
I’m 65 in December. My father died at 64. If I croak now, I croak. But I don’t really get fucked up anymore. I might have a drink from time to time, or I may do a joint, which is very rare now, but I don’t go to bed with my heart jumping out of my chest because I’ve done too much fucking cocaine or heroin. I don’t go to bed wondering if I’ll wake up. In a way I was fortunate to have the kind of job that allows for the fact that I’m a lunatic. But more than anything, I’m lucky that I ain’t dead. It’s the luck of the draw. When Gary Moore died a couple of years ago, I was stunned. He was nowhere near as bad as I was, as far as I know. That really did shake my fucking tree.
Do you feel at peace in your life?
I’m never 100 per cent at peace, but on a scale of one to 10, I’m about an eight-and-a-half now. I don’t see many people walking around with halos. I’m human, you know? I’m not from hell. I’m not from heaven. And I’m certainly not from Heaven & Hell! [laughs]. I’m Ozzy. I’m me.
What do you do when you’re alone?
You probably won’t believe it, but I like being quiet.
Anyone who watched The Osbournes would find that hard to believe.
That was a period of my career that I’m fucking glad is gone. Sharon’s turned into this television person now. And she’s great. But she’s always saying to me: “You are coming on to the show, aren’t you?” And I’m going: “No! I fucking hate doing TV!” I didn’t start off playing music to be the fucking weatherman.
Do you think The Osbournes damaged your credibility as a musician?
How do I know? I’ve never watched one fucking episode, ever. I hate to watch me on TV. Fucking hate it.
What is left for Ozzy Osbourne to do?
Nothing. I can honestly say that if I drop dead now, I would die a happy man. And if we never do another thing together, I can say that I was fortunate enough to mend the harm that I created.
After what Tony’s been going through, it would certainly be ironic if it was you who dropped dead now.
Tony is fucking Iron Man! He’ll probably outlive us all. And when he does die, they’ll have to shoot him as well to make sure he’s fucking dead! God bless him.
Tony Iommi has never been a quitter. Throughout Black Sabbath’s long and eventful career, it is Iommi alone who never once gave up on the band. In the 45 years since Black Sabbath was formed, Iommi has remained the sole constant, leading the band through good times and bad. And he’s still the driving force in Black Sabbath – even at a time when he’s facing the biggest challenge of his life.
It has always been this way. “From the beginning,” he says, “Ozzy and Geezer and Bill all looked to me to say, ‘Let’s do this,’ or ‘Let’s play that.’ And it stuck.”
Now, as then, Sabbath’s music begins with Iommi. “It all starts with a riff,” he says. The band’s new album was created mostly from music that Iommi had written and stockpiled over a number of years: dozens of riffs, and a handful of more fully structured songs. In addition, he wrote some new material from scratch during the recording of the album at Rick Rubin’s studio, Shangri-La, in Malibu.
The result is an album befitting one of rock’s most legendary bands. There are echoes of Black Sabbath’s greatest music in the elemental power of God Is Dead? and The End Of The Beginning, in the epic scale of Age Of Reason, and in the melancholy beauty of Zeitgeist, an acoustic piece Iommi crafted in the image of Planet Caravan from the Paranoid album. And the strength of this new Sabbath music is all the more remarkable given the circumstances in which it was made.
“It’s been tough,” Iommi says. “But I’ve had so much support – from my wife, my friends and family, and from fans – and that’s really what kept me going. With cancer, the worst thing you can do is sit around thinking about it all the time. So to work on this album– to play with the band and have a laugh with them – was all good medicine for me.”
How did you discover you had cancer?
Tony Iommi: It was in 2011 when I first started feeling really tired. I was in New York promoting my book [his autobiography Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven And Hell With Black Sabbath]. I was doing a lot of work, but I had to keep going for a wee every bloody five minutes. And then this lump appeared in my groin. So I saw a doctor out there. He said it could be an infection and gave me antibiotics. I was off to LA to start writing with the guys, so the doctor told me: “If the lump hasn’t gone in two weeks, see another doctor in LA.”
Were you worried?
I didn’t think anything of it. But after a few days in LA I started getting a bit of pain in my groin. Ozzy kept saying: “You don’t look too well. You ought to go to a doctor.” So I did. And the doctor found I had a problem with my prostate, that it was too large. He said that he should operate to cut it down, and that he should take some of that lump off and check it. But I said: “No, I’ll get that done back in England.” So when I got home I had my prostate operation. And after the surgery, the specialist said: “Your prostate is fine now. But the lump – it’s lymphoma.” I didn’t know what that was. He said:‘ It’s cancer.” I was in shock.
Did you start treatment immediately?
There was nothing else I could do once I knew I’d got it. At first they said it was stage one lymphoma. But just before Christmas they called me to say they’d found it was stage three – there are only four stages. So that was a terrible moment for me.
You thought you were finished?
Oh God, yeah. I really did. After what happened with Ronnie, your friend has passed away, you think, “That’s it for me, then.” I’d started having chemotherapy, but I didn’t think, “OK, I’m going to carry on with this and I’m not going to die.” I just thought, “It’s going to happen now.” You can’t think of any other outcome.
What is your prognosis now?
I have treatment every six weeks and we just have to see how it goes. When I’d had all of the chemo and radiotherapy, I asked the specialist: “Am I alright now?”. He said: “No. This is an ongoing thing. You’ve got only a 30 per cent chance of the cancer going. But we can treat it.” I just have to plod on, and if it all flares up then I have to have chemotherapy and radiation again.
Was the chemotherapy an ordeal?
It was very hard. It really does take it out of you. It makes you very tired and sick, and very depressed. You have these weird feelings. I’ve had my hands and my feet going numb. And the mental feeling drives you up the wall.
How did you manage to work on the new Sabbath album while going through that?
When we were writing, they guys came over to England and we worked at the studio in my home. Some days after treatment I couldn’t work, but they understood. The worst thing was this tingling sensation in my fingers, like somebody’s banged you on the funny bone. My fingers were numb. As a guitar player, that’s not what you want [laughs].
But you got through it and completed the album.
We did. And we’re very proud of it. The big thing was that Ozzy was really into it this time. When we’ve worked with him in the past, even on the tours, he’s been in and out. Like: “I won’t be in today.” That’s just the way he was. But with this album he’s really put his mind to it and he’s come up with some great stuff.
It took you a long time to get this album finished, but once you were in the studio with Rick Rubin, how long did the recording process take?
About eight weeks, I think. Not long. And some of the stuff happened really fast. Like when Rick emailed me and said: “We could do with another Planet Caravan.” This was on a Friday night. So I wrote a song at the weekend, went into the studio on the Monday and played it to Ozzy, and on the Tuesday we recorded it. It’s just an acoustic guitar, bass and Ozzy singing. It’s called Zeitgeist. And it’s turned out to be one of the best things on the album.
Is it true to say that this album would not have happened had Ronnie still been alive?
We were planning on doing another album with Ronnie. No doubt about it. And after Ronnie passed away, I think that might have been the spark for Ozzy to contact us. Actually, it was the day after Ronnie’s funeral that Sharon phoned and said Ozzy wants to talk. And that was the first time I’d spoken to him in a while.
Had you always hoped that you’d make one more album with Ozzy?
I never wrote it off. I always thought there was a chance of something happening again.
But this is Black Sabbath without Bill Ward. Had you recorded anything with Bill before he quit?
No we hadn’t. But it was Bill who made the choice not to do it. He did the same when we got back together with Ronnie in Heaven & Hell. Bill was going to do it but he just pulled out. The funny thing is, he was going to apologise to Ronnie, because he hadn’t seen Ronnie since he walked out of Sabbath in 1980. And, fuck me, he did exactly the same thing again! Bill is so unpredictable. He’ll just walk out. And that’s what he’s done this time. We’ve tried three times now with Bill. You’ve got to give up at some point.
Although Bill is gone, do you feel close to Ozzy and Geezer after all that has happened in the last two years?
We’re really close. They’ve been great. And really, all through the years, we’ve always remained friends.
That’s not how Ozzy remembers it. He says that you were “at war” in the 80s.
Well, all that stuff that went on... yeah, it was hurtful. But we’ve never hated each other.
Do you still have regrets about firing Ozzy back in 1979?
That was difficult. And it wasn’t just Ozzy who was having problems back then. I was doing loads of bloody coke and downers and God knows what else. None of us were in a great state. It was just a matter of time until it all fell to pieces.
How would you describe your relationship with Ozzy and Geezer now?
It’s like a family. You have disagreements but you still see each other. We’ve always had that kind of relationship. Whatever problems we’ve had over the years, it’s never been personal – it’s always been about business. But after all that, we’re still close.
Sabbath went out on the road in April 2013 for a tour of Australia and New Zealand, and there are UK dates in December. Is it a case of taking one step at a time?
We have to plan it carefully, because I don’t know how I’m going to feel. When we did the shows at Download and Lollapalooza last year it really did help me. It felt great. But on a whole tour I can’t stay up late, I have to make sure I get to bed at a sensible hour. It’s a bloody nuisance, really, but you have to do it otherwise you burn out. I just live my life differently now. If I go out for dinner with friends, I’m always the first to leave and get home to bed. If I lived the life I was leading before, it – the cancer – is likely to come back quicker than it might.
Do you now have a greater appreciation for everything you have in your life now?
You really do. You look at life so differently. And it comes down to basic things. You have to think differently about how your life can work now. It’s not like it was before.
And the same is true of Black Sabbath?
Oh, it’s so different for us now. We’re in a really good place. We get on so well. And, unlike the old days, we’re not on drugs all the time.
Or rather, you’re on different kinds of drugs.
Ha ha, yeah. Tea bags and bloody chemo.
Tony Iommi’s health is what will determine the future for Black Sabbath. Iommi remains cautiously optimistic. “Right now,” he says. “I feel alright.” He also looks better than might be expected. Even if he has lost some weight due to the treatment.
When he reflects on the events of the past two years – when he talks about what has kept him going through the darkest days of his life – Iommi says that the importance of making the new Sabbath album cannot be overstated. “It was such a big help,” he concludes. “I needed something to focus on, and that’s what this album gave me.”
Black Sabbath will continue to tour as Iommi’s treatment progresses and his condition is regularly assessed. But for Ozzy Osbourne, one thing is certain: if 13 is the last Sabbath album, they will have gone out on a high, and with no regrets.
“I don’t know if we could make another album,” Ozzy says. “We couldn’t go through another two years like we’ve just had. But we don’t need to. With this album, I can honestly say that we’ve gone full circle now.”
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #186.