This month’s Behind the Curtain finds journalist Steve Rosen recounting some extracurricular fun with Black Sabbath in the 1970s…
Out of the gate, Black Sabbath was a species unto themselves.
They were louder, darker and more vicious sounding than any other bands around. When they released their self-titled debut in February 1970, the Birmingham, England quartet brought together electric blues, dirge-like rock riffs, and lyrical content that had more to do with demons, devils and the dogs of war than what most of the late-‘60s bands were singing about which was flower power and peace signs.
Black Sabbath came out in early 1970 amongst a flurry of releases that included George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Van Morrison’s Moondance. Sabbath had about as much to do with this other music as a pitbull did with a poodle. Sabbath was an anachronism and by anyone’s yardstick heavy metal was loosed upon the world on February 13, 1970 on the day the album was released.
Almost four years later to the day on February 12, 1974, I flew to St. Louis to interview the band. They were in the midst of the North American leg of their Sabbath Bloody Sabbath tour. I already had a pretty well-defined idea of who Ozzy was and who Black Sabbath were.
By the time we met, they’d already had four or five years to develop their musical profile, which was—supposedly—based on the dark and nether-shadowed side of things. I’d listened to the Black Sabbath album and was immediately taken by the pulsing guitar riffs and the sense of melody in Ozzy’s vocals.
Incidentally, I picked up on the eerie face floating on the cover and the way the shrubs and twigs in the foreground suggested crosses and such but I never paid much attention to that.
I’d heard the stories about dancing with the devil and worshipping evil, slimy things that went oozing in the night but I hadn’t believed it.
So, the logical side of my brain embraced their hellish image and explained it away by saying just that—it was an image and not who they were. There was no way, the analytical part of me said, that they were into black magic or creatures of the underworld. For all I knew, in ’74 they were God-fearing, church-going people just like everybody else.
But a tiny voice inside me kept chanting, “What if? What if?” Like a bad mantra, those two words danced in my head like witches circling a bubbling cauldron. The illogical side of my brain couldn’t let go of half-harbored doubts full of trepidation and superstition. Coming from Hollywood, the weird and strange were daily occurrences so it’s not that I was easily spooked by things I didn’t understand.
It was just that I did remain the least, tiny bit suspicious of who Ozzy and his three-man coven might really be.
I landed in St. Louis after a three-plus hour flight. The band had sold out the mammoth Kiel Auditorium and a limousine was waiting there curbside to whisk me to the hotel.
If Ozzy was a believer in the dark arts, he wasn’t ignorant of earthly pleasures.
He’d sent a mile-long black (of course) stretch limo. I cruised to the hotel in the back of the spacious vehicle, checked into my room and saw a red light flashing on the telephone. A red light? Why was there a red light flashing on my telephone? A blood-red light winked at me like a bloodshot Cyclops.
Weren’t these types of call-waiting message blinkers usually yellow? Or blue? I picked up the receiver and dialed into the hotel operator.
The voice on the other side of the receiver told me, “Black Sabbath wants to meet you. Come to room 666. Immediately.”
At that point, I just about dropped the phone on the floor. I’d seen enough Exorcist movies to know that 666 was the sign of the beast, the devil’s own digits. The Antichrist’s arithmetic. Wait, I’m kidding. It wasn’t room 666. I can’t remember what the suite number was but I bet I have your attention now.
I sauntered down to their room, cassette player at the ready. I knocked softly and the door opened slowly. Some assistant ushered me in and I saw the backs of four heads huddled around something bloody in the middle of the floor.
Wait. Stop. Cue voiceover (imagine somebody speaking over a microphone through a huge P.A. and the words echoing as if in a cavern) “No, journalist Steve Rosen did not find any blood, animal parts or anything evil. He did encounter four of the nicest and most down-to-earth Englishmen he’d ever met.” End voiceover.
As my imaginary voiceover just told you, I walked into the room and met four genial, cordial, anti-Satanists who couldn’t have gone any more out of their way to make me feel comfortable. An assistant introduced me to Ozzy, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward who had been scattered around the room.
They all walked over and said hello and shook my hand as if they genuinely meant it. They were as polite, professional and genuinely sincere as any group of rockers I’d ever interviewed.
Geezer, Tony and Bill vacated the suite and left Ozzy and I to talk. As he spoke, what struck me immediately was how normal he was. As normal as you could be singing for one of the world’s biggest rock bands. But that notwithstanding, John Michael Osbourne didn’t even come close to the strangeness I’d encountered with a lot of other musicians.
He had a very thick Brummie accent, which made him a bit difficult to understand at times. What consistently poked through the conversation was his love and passion for the band and his sense of humor. Ozzy was funny as hell. He grew up in the UK in the late 1940s and then heard the Beatles when he was 14 and knew he wanted to be in a rock and roll band.
“We got sick and tired of all the bullshit,” Ozzy admitted to me when we began talking. “Love your brother and flower power forever. We brought things down to reality. Our songs had real things behind them, which I think people wanted at the time. We didn’t go out to say that we were the best musical or technical band in the world. We were just ornery backstreet guys who learned to play guitars, drums and sing. Suburban rock. Slum rock.”
That’s exactly who Ozzy was—an untrained singer who made up for a lack of natural talent with a truckload of determination. He talked about the band’s early days and that sinister image. “We used to jam and play a few gigs together. We wrote original music and it worked. I had gone to school with Tony and I was working in a semi-professional group with Geezer called Rare Breed. Then we all formed and met and we chose Black Sabbath as a name. I mean we didn’t plan it and expect it to make such a profit as it did. It’s just one of those great things in life.
“We tried to put music over in a different angle. It had an evil sound, a heavy doom sound. And then there were all these fucking witches and freaks phoning us, wanting us to play at black masses and all this crap.”
Ozzy laughed at the memory. Talking about laughing, the other thing I remembered about Ozz was how incredibly funny he was. I mean fall out of your chair, side-splitting hilarious. It was a deadpan delivery. He wasn’t looking to make jokes or be funny, which made the comments even funnier. He was also self-deprecating and had no problem taking a shot at himself or another bandmate.
Here are a few examples. You had to have been there to feel the full thrust of these comments so pretend you’re reading these in Ozzy’s voice [think: The Osbournes].
“We were the biggest hypochondriacs you’d ever met in your life. We must have spent most of our earnings on doctor’s fees. It was like, ‘I’ve got a pain—go to bed for three days.’ And all it was was fucking indigestion from eating too much Chinese food from the night before. Or, ‘I’ve got cancer.’ We’d say, ‘Sure you have.’ We always said, ‘If I die, bury me in England.’”
I asked Ozzy who was the biggest hypochondriac in the band?
“Bill Ward used to have a bag so full. I mean, it got to the point that we went on the road one time and he even had a snakebite kit. I said, ‘Where the fuckin’ hell are you ever going to see a snake? Where on this earth are you ever going to see one? Or are you going to fucking drive to a zoo or something?’
He says, ‘You never know because some of these snakes run pretty fast when you’re driving across the desert.”
At that point I was near hysterical with laughter.
But Ozzy was just warming up.
“I mean if the snake ever bit him, the snake doesn’t have a fucking chance. We used to call him Dr. Bill and Valiums Forever. If you had anything wrong with you, you’d just go and see Bill. He was fucking full of them—he had things for everything. I mean when he came up with that snakebite kit, it was like the ultimate. I’d never seen one of those things. He had a big old razor like your dad might have, and I said, ‘What if it bites you up the ass, Bill?’ He said, ‘Somebody’s going to have to suck the poison out.’ I said, ‘Don’t come to me, man. Find a new friend to help you.’”
I am doubled over and can barely catch my breath. Even Ozzy was laughing out loud in talking about the drummer and his snakebite kit. I kept thinking, “This was the Prince of Darkness?”
Yes, years later he would do some crazy things like bite the head off a dove and accidentally chomp down on a bat that was thrown onstage during a Sabbath concert—he thought it was a rubber toy—but that was about as far as his bloodlust would go. But it had nothing to do with devil worship or inverted crosses and everything to do with giving in to a moment of impulsive zaniness (an emotion we’ve all felt-whenever we wanted push the limits—many times in our lives).
He would succumb to drugs and alcohol and almost die after getting kicked out of Black Sabbath only about four or five years after this conversation but he would overcome those nightmares in one of the most stunning comebacks rock would ever see.
Ozzy sat there patiently in anticipation of every question. In the back of my mind was the thought that he was about to go onstage in front of 9,300 rabid fans at Kiel Auditorium. If it had been me, I would have kicked this journalist out of my room 20 minutes ago. But he was absolutely gracious and giving of his time. We finished our interview and I went back to my room and readied myself for the concert that night.
That same black limo picked me up and drove me over. I watched as the Sab Four annihilated the crowd with a setlist that ran as follows:
- Tomorrow’s Dream
- Sweet leaf
- Killing Yourself to Live
- War Pigs Play
- Sabbra Cadabra
- Guitar Solo
- Sometimes I’m Happy
- Drum Solo
- Drum Solo
- Iron Man
- Guitar Solo
- Children of the Grave
- Black Sabbath
Following a remarkable show, I was driven back to my hotel room and had just started watching some television when there was a knock. Ozzy and Tony Iommi stood there in the hallway—they may have been accompanied by some roadies or sound crew—and barged in the second I opened the door.
Several thoughts immediately flooded my overloaded brain after I accepted the fact that Tony and Ozzy were there standing in the middle of my room staring at me. But the first thing that came to mind was “Had I said something wrong during the interview?”
Before I could formulate any kind of reasonable response, the pair of them proceeded to trash my hotel room within an inch of its life. The television stand was forcibly ripped away from the wall frame that connected it. They carried the demolished TV out into the corridor, pressed the button for an elevator and placed it inside a car heading down. I was simultaneously astonished and confused.
I still wasn’t sure what was happening because nobody had said anything. At that point, somebody threw a match or a lighter on the sofa and it started to smoke and burn. Ozzy—it might have been Tony or one of the crew—went out in the hallway, found a fire extinguisher, and sprayed everything in sight. My room looked like a winter wonderland or more accurately, the remains of nuclear fallout.
Everything was soaked in extinguisher foam, dripping on the carpet from the chandeliers, down the walls. Pictures on the walls were yanked from the screws that held him and then smashed over chairs and tables. Glass littered the carpet. All the furniture was knocked over. The couch continued to smolder so the room filled with smoke and the smell of burnt sofa cushions.
I watched speechless. It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I now knew what it meant to wreck a hotel room rock and roll style. My initial thought about having done something wrong was banished.
I realized this was my initiation—a trial by fire both figuratively and literally—into the fraternity of Black Sabbath.
On some level, they had accepted me into this very elite club. I was ecstatic. I may have done some vandalism myself—I would like to think I did participate and had squeezed some shampoo on the bathroom floor or threw some hotel magazines around the room—but I honestly can’t remember. That would have taken a lot of self-confidence and throwing fear to the wind and that’s not who I was—or am—but I hope I did something just the least little bit out of control and stupid.
It was an amazing sight and when they were done wreaking havoc, they just left. Shut the door behind them and left. I looked around at the damage and estimated there was at least $4,000 worth of damage—which was a lot of damage in 1974—and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how that bill was going to be paid. Would the magazine who sent me pay the damages? Honestly, I really didn’t care.
I just had my hotel room destroyed, dismantled and demolished by half of Black Sabbath. How unbelievably unbelievable was that?
I left the next morning to return to my guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills. As I was checking out, I expected them to give me a bill for the carnage but there wasn’t one. I didn’t want to press my luck but had to ask. “Uh, my room was slightly messed up last night. I was wondering…” Before I could even finish the sentence, the very nice checkout lady said, “That has all been taken care of, Mr. Rosen. Mr. Osbourne has put that on his bill.”
Ozzy picked up the tab. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard of. He had given me a front seat to take a look at his life for a couple days. I would eventually interview Ozzy and the rest of the band many, many times down the road. I interviewed Tony Iommi for Guitar Player and would eventually write a book on the band called The Story of Black Sabbath: Wheels of Confusion.
The book would go into second and third printings and be retitled Black Sabbath. I got Ozzy to write a foreword for these revised editions. There was even a French version that came out.
Ozzy never changed during any of those subsequent interviews (some of them happening decades later). He remained one of the sweetest people I’d ever met. He had a big heart and was genuinely a nice person. Those two days in St. Louis were some of the most fun days I’d ever spent on the road—and not a single drop of blood was spilled.