Tony Iommi on Black Sabbath’s Final Shows, His Cancer Battle and Future Plans: Exclusive Interview
Black Sabbath guitar hero Tony Iommi will always have rock ‘n’ roll in his soul. He won’t, however, always have it on the stage: Iommi is weeks away from retiring from the road.
On Nov. 12, Black Sabbath wrap up their final Stateside tour in San Antonio (where in 1982, while dressed in drag, singer Ozzy Osbourne urinated near an Alamo memorial and got banned from playing the city for a decade). Sabbath’s last-ever show will on Feb. 4 in their hometown of Birmingham, England.
After his long battle with cancer, Iommi reflects on Sabbath’s past, enjoys the band’s present and thinks about how to keep music part of his future, including a possible studio project with ex-Sabbath frontman Tony Martin.
What was it like to get the news that you’re cancer-free?
Well, it was really interesting how I got the news. I only got it because I was presenting the hospital [where I received treatment] with an award, and [a writer] who I was doing an interview with asked me if I was in remission. I turned to my doctor and asked, “Am I in remission?” The doctor said, “Yes.” And that’s how I got to know.
That’s one way to find out. Were you expecting that kind of news?
I’m always feeling around for lumps and bumps, and so I’m never comfortable. I had a friend that went into remission and she planned a big party, and then the cancer came back. You just never know. It’s just one of those things. I certainly didn’t expect it to come out that I was in remission because, well, I don’t know.
As you get closer to the end of this tour are you getting nostalgic? Are you wishing you added more dates?
Oh, yes, it’s very nostalgic, because it really is that last tour. As far as any more dates, no, that won’t happen. I get really tired now with all the traveling. It’s just not good for me to be flying all around. I start getting pain where I had cancer in the lymph nodes. We have to draw the line somewhere and end it.
Once the idea of the final tour came together, did you immediately know your last show would be at home in Birmingham?
We didn’t. We thought it would be nice if we could end there because that’s where we started, but it just worked out. It’s really peculiar to think that we are going to stop at all. For me, I love the playing, I love being with the guys onstage, but it’s all the other stuff I don’t like -- the traveling, being away from home for such a long time.
Playing your last shows must have you thinking about your first shows. What was the vibe of those first pub shows when you were just kids?
Those first club shows we did, well ... [Laughs] That was a long time ago. Back then, you were excited just to be able to play somewhere. Just to get a gig was amazing, because in Birmingham places to play were few and far between. And our music was quite different from anything that was around then so we had to build up pockets of followers. It was difficult, but the pockets we built up were brilliant and they lasted.
When you wrote the song “Black Sabbath,” did you know immediately how revolutionary it was, or did the accomplishment take a while to sink in?
No, we knew straight away. We just felt it. When we started playing the riff, we got chills. We knew this is what we wanted to be doing, this is what we wanted to play. We all got so excited and we loved it. Now, we didn’t know what it was or if anyone else would love it, but we loved it.
How did you hit on this sound? Was it just pushing the blues scales to darker, louder places?
It did come from the blues, a lot of 12-bar stuff we used to play. I started coming up with riffs. “Wicked World” was the first one I hit on and then “Black Sabbath.” But after those two, we knew exactly what we wanted to play.
Those gigs must have blown some people’s minds, what was the reaction?
We were playing in this blues club one night right after we had wrote “Wicked World” and “Black Sabbath.” We were asking ourselves, “Should we do it? Should we actually play these for people?” But when we did people came right up and asked, “What was that mate? I loved it.”
Looking back, what’s the best Sabbath album? Just the tip-top LP?
It’s hard to do, but I always did like Paranoid as a record. And I like the first one. But then you have Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, where we went to different levels in terms of writing. I have favorite bits from every record.
Did you notice you were at the front of a movement? There were bands behind you trying to copy you, but at the beginning you were very alone.
Totally alone and we had to break a lot of barriers. Just finding places to play was hard. It’s been great watching bands come through saying Black Sabbath has influenced them. The amount of them has been amazing and hearing that is always a great honor.
I really enjoyed Sabbath’s latest album 13, but I see you’re not playing any of those songs on tour, are there too many classic songs to do?
That’s it exactly. We just don’t have the time. I’d like to do more of them but if you don’t play “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” “War Pigs” and all the rest, it doesn’t feel like the final shows, do it?
So the set list must have been pretty easy to put together?
It was. We all made lists of what we’d like to play and compared them. I had more songs I wanted to put into the set list but there just isn’t the time. Also, [bassist] Geezer [Butler] and I can play anything, but Ozzy’s voice is different. Voices change, and he can’t sing a song as high as “Symptom of the Universe” now, which makes sense. It was high back when we first did in the ‘70s.
So what are you plans after that last gig, do you just hang up the guitar and go on a long vacation?
No, a vacation for me is to be at home. But I’m not going to leave the music business. I still want to write and play and I’ll be doing some TV for something over here in England called “Guitar Star.” But I love the playing, I love gigs, I just can’t travel anymore.
So what happens with Black Sabbath, is there any future?
Maybe. As I said, I’ll be doing some writing. Maybe I’ll be doing something with the guys, maybe in the studio, but no touring.
I loved the Heaven and Hell reunion with Ronnie James Dio, are there any old Sabbath bandmates you’d like to work with again?
After Ronnie, well, Ronnie was just so good and those tours were so good, I don’t know. I could maybe get together with someone else but there no plans. I did see [former Sabbath singer] Tony Martin a while back at a dedication for a plaque for [onetime Sabbath drummer] Cozy Powell [who died in a car accident in 1998]. Tony was there and I was there, and we had good chat. But I don’t know. I don’t want to plan anything too much, because I don’t want to get off the tour and suddenly I have people say, “Let’s do this and let’s do that.” I want some quiet to think about what I want to do.
This band has had a lot of lineup changes, but you must be happy that Ozzy, Geezer and you could get it together to do the final run together.
It’s such fun. Every night in the States, it’s been quite sad thinking this is the last night in a city. But like I said, it has to end. People ask, “Can’t you do just one more tour?” I say, “Well, we’ve done almost 50 years of it, isn’t that enough?”
Well, I hope you enjoy that break. From the reunion record into that tour and into the final tour, it’s been a busy end.
Thank you. When I got diagnosed, I had to think about my life a bit differently. That’s what has made things happen for us.
At least the illness gave you some focus to make some great music.
Absolutely. During 13, I was in treatment and the guys came over to my house because I had the studio. It gave me a good opportunity to work while getting treatment. But I was thinking, “Is this the last thing I’m ever going to do?” So I’m glad it spurred us on to work so hard.
And for a band that’s had so many rough times, probably nice to have a bit of stability at the end.
Oh yes, nice to have some good times to go out with.
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