Friday, February 26, 2016

Black Sabbath. Final Final?

My darling daughter got me a special birthday gift this year. We’re going to see Black Sabbath’s “The End” tour! I’ve been to some good shows lately, but this was different. This was the BIG Rock show! I’ve already been to a couple of goodbye, farewell shows for Ozzy, and we had gone to the last Black Sabbath reunion fifteen years ago. Anita’s boyfriend Destin was at the wheel, and we were off to San Jose! 
We passed five bail bond places on the way to the SAP Center. San Jose still has a bit of a rough edge. After parking, we got in the now obligatory line to go through the metal detectors. The show was sold out. Thirteen thousand. Scalpers carefully walked the line asking for extras. Guys selling bootleg tee shirts were not as discrete. “Twenty dollars! Forty five inside!”  
The SAP Center is the home of the San Jose Sharks. It’s modern, with a lot of steel and glass. It had been a while since I’d been there. Hockey arenas do have a different vibe.  
There are a lot of interesting people in this crowd. The male to female ratio had to be at least seventy-five percent male. There were a sprinkling of older couples and a very few young kids. The tradition was being passed on. Years later the kids could say they saw Black Sabbath, the guys who started it all.     
I wondered what the black tee shirt ratio was. Not all the tee shirts had Black Sabbath or Ozzy on them, but most of this crowd wore a black tee shirt of some kind. My shirt was black. There were many Raider shirts. A perfect combination: Black Sabbath and the Raiders. There were some Raider/Slayer tee shirts, another scary combination.  Most of the crowd were old rockers who looked they had many a tale to tell. You may not want to meet them, but it was an interesting looking crowd.  
  There were two large merchandise booths set up. About a hundred people stood in front of them, staring at the samples and the prices displayed on a large board overhead. It verged on a merchandise mob. The cheapest shirts I could see were fifty or sixty dollars. Business was brisk. There was an exclusive CD available “only at the show.” It had out takes and live versions. A separate table sold posters of the show.  
Our seats were in the last row at the top of the arena. We could do whatever we wanted to up there. It was quite a view. While waiting, at least a quarter of the crowd had their cellphones out. We could see the screens glowing across the crowd. There would be a red pinprick of light, probably someone smoking a joint. This would have been reversed not so long ago.  
My daughter Anita is a DJ. She is known as “DJ Durt.” She’s a founding member of Ships In the Night, “A radical queer transbay dance party” in Oakland that will be celebrating its tenth year. I’ve been able to see her in action, including a benefit where she performed at the Temple of Music bandshell in Golden Gate Park. I learned that being a DJ isn’t just about spinning records. She’s got to get the crowd up and dancing.  DJ Durt plays dance music for the parties. I would tease her about straying from the fold. There was no doubting her enthusiasm for Heavy Metal and Ozzy tonight. 
The opening act was The Rival Sons. The Rolling Stone web site said that the Osbourne family had seen the band at an awards show and become fans. They were good, but maybe a bit too polished for a Heavy Metal band. They sounded very Zeppelinesque. Some songs sounded like Led Zeppelin covers. They could have been a Led Zeppelin cover band, not that there’s anything wrong with that. 
The same bootleg tee shirt entrepreneurs we saw outside were working the crowd. They sure didn’t seem concerned with security. They were bold and insistent. They looked and acted like they were the arena’s licensed vendors. There didn’t seem to be that much visible security once we were inside the SAP Center. Venue staff wore natty suits. They were quite a contrast with the crowd. 
You could feel the anticipation during the intermission. This will be the original Black Sabbath except for drummer Bill Ward. In the crowded men’s room a guy yelled, “It’s time for fucking Black Sabbath!” It set off a scary roar from those at or waiting for the urinals. Yeah! We’re reliving our stupid youths! This could be the last time. 
The first time I saw Sabbath was 1971 at Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theater. I was excited, but I remember they weren’t very good that night. It looked like they were going through the motions until near the end of the show. Then they turned it on and had the place rocking.    
There’s a large screen behind the middle of the stage and two more on the far right and left. The lights go down and there’s a huge jolt of noise, a sonic explosion to announce the start. Everyone is standing. On the screen, an alien egg has landed from outer space. It flies through a hellish landscape as it morphs into some kind of placental bag. Something is squirming inside, trying to get out. It reminds me of the pod in the movie Alien. A huge demon pops out of the pulsating bag. A large curtain lifts up from the stage and is swept away. The first droning riffs of “Black Sabbath” fill the air. This is the song that started it all. The crowd explodes. The sound is huge and powerful. Geezer Butler’s bass rattles bones all over the arena. Tony Iommi’s guitar wails over the slow beat.
And there they are. The originals. “The Founding Fathers of Metal.” Ozzy is one of the great front men. He’s wearing a long black robe. He hunches over the mike. He looks very serious, focused and intense. He looks very pale, and a bit heavy. His face is almost white. Tony Iommi is on Ozzy’s left in black leather. Geezer Butler is on the other side. The Black Sabbath logo is overhead in flames. 
This is live show Ozzy. It’s not reality show Ozzy or the addled Rock star seen in Super Bowl commercials. That’s the Ozzy most of America knows now. This is the “real” Ozzy. The King of Heavy Metal. The crowd loves Ozzy. Ozzy loves the crowd. The song speeds up and Ozzy works the crowd, “Let me see your fucking hands!” The crowd doesn’t need much encouragement to clap in time. “Is this the end my friends?”  
Ozzy is the voice of Heavy Metal. We’ve heard it so much, I think we take it for granted. He’s the ultimate Rock survivor this side of Keith Richards. There are so many legends surrounding him. He’s a twisted inspiration. There’s no more sinister laugh than Ozzy’s. “Let’s go fucking crazy!” 
I still remember getting their first album and playing it down in the basement. I was hooked from the first song. It was the start of the Seventies and the dreams of peace and love were almost dead. Many bands had been playing a Hard Rock Metal sound before Sabbath. The Kinks had a huge hit with “You Really Got Me.” The Rolling Stones sounded more metallic when they played live, and they gave us “Sympathy for the Devil.” Rock and Roll had always been loud. Blue Cheer broke some boundaries. The MC5 and Iggy Pop kicked out the jams! Alice Cooper did some crazy stuff. There were many roots of Heavy Metal. Songs with three or four chords poured out of the garages of America. 
But Sabbath was different. The sound was simple and went right to the gut. There was an aura of evil that other bands hinted at. The Sabbath sound may have been diabolically designed to sell records, but I doubt it. They seemed oblivious to the critics. It was the music of misfits and made no pretense at having any redeeming value.  The slower songs were the prototype of Grunge. The first album showed they weren’t afraid of the occult. It looked like they weren’t afraid of anything.  
It’s a spare stage with the focus on the band. There are neatly arranged stacks of amplifiers with flames shooting over them. Ozzy reminds us that, “The crazier you get, the more we’ll play!” The second song is an odd one from the early days: “Fairies Wear Boots.” It’s clear they will be playing the older era hits tonight!
It’s almost impossible to understand Ozzy sometimes, but tonight the vocals sound surprisingly clear. We learned on the reality show that it’s harder to decipher what he’s saying when he’s talking. Maybe there should always be subtitles when Ozzy is involved.  
He doesn’t run and jump around like he used to, but he still works the crowd, and has his own special way of getting the crowd going. There’s still that mad glint in his eyes. “Let me see your hands!” Most of the crowd fist bumps in unison. He shuffles from one side of the stage to the other. Sometimes he moves like a little old lady. Even Ozzy has gotten old. It’s another medical miracle. Ozzy introduces the band before “Into the Void.” 
On the screen behind the band white snow starts to swirl around members of the band. The snow becomes long strands of white that wrap themselves around the guitar necks. The strands start to turn to gray. It looks like a spider’s web as it grows towards the musicians’ faces. It turns into a ghastly green moss. In the old days it might have sent those on mind altering drugs running to the exits. They follow with “After Forever.”     
To my right a young man was doing some serious head banging. His long hair hung over his eyes. I realized he couldn’t possible see any of the show. He didn’t look drunk, or screwed up, but he never stopped all night. He never watched the show, but he was there, in his own Heavy Metal world. He didn’t need or want to see the stage.
“Snow Blind” is supposed to be an anti-cocaine song. If anyone knows the results of cocaine abuse, Ozzy knows.
When we hear the air raid sirens we know what song is coming. “War Pigs” is Sabbath’s antiwar song, but sometimes it sounds like a war. Heavy Metal and politics usually don’t mix. Everyone knows the words to this one! Most of the crowd is singing. Ozzy points his mike at the crowd and we sing the next line. “Generals gathered in their masses. Just like witches at Black Sabbaths.” “Sorcerers of death’s construction.” There are scenes of destruction on the screen, “As the war machine keeps turning.”  
There’s a certain cult aspect to most Rock groups. “These guys are the best.” “My favorite group (fill in the blank) is the only one that means anything.” “They saved my life!” Sabbath’s message always attracted the alienated misfits. Ozzy has a unique charisma.  
“Satan laughing spreads his wings...”
Which brings up the scary question, do members of this crowd believe in or practice the Dark Arts? Is it a harmless, comic book occultism? Did they come for the last rush only Black Sabbath and Ozzy can give? How many believe in the existence of Satan or demons? Like I said, there are a lot of interesting people in this crowd. Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the band and the sound tonight. It’s all about the beat. It still amazes me how much sound, energy and power a great Heavy Metal band can produce.  
“Behind the Wall of Sleep.” Another classic from the first album. The screen shows skulls, caskets and crucifixes bouncing around. Then bassist Geezer Butler gets to stretch it out a bit with “N.I.B.” 
Anita later said that it was the most laid back Ozzy show she’d ever been to. The crowd’s age was a factor. The show was also “seated” and not the dread “festival seating.” The first Ozzy retirement show I went to at The Warfield had a wild mosh pit scene, but that was twenty years ago. Anita later said that it was the most laid back Ozzy show she had ever been to.  
“Hand of Doom” is another scary addiction song. “Push the needle in.”   
  “Rat Salad.” Drummer Tommy Clufetos has a great Heavy Metal drum solo. Bill Ward was the original drummer. He’s not here tonight because of a “contract dispute” according to the Rolling Stone web site. I wondered how much money kept him from joining the party. Like most very successful bands they had feuded for years about money. The reunions were minor miracles.
Ozzy tells us that, “Tony IS Iron Man!” Iommi has been battling cancer. This added some urgency to the “last time ever” tour. “Iron Man” has one of the most recognizable riffs in Metal history.  
A “new song” from 13. “God Is Dead.” It has a great beat, and sounds like one of their classics. The sing along on this one isn’t as loud or enthusiastic as others tonight.  Is it because it’s a new song, or is there is some hesitation, even in this crowd, to sing a song that sounds so blasphemous?  
Next is “Dirty Women.” They recorded it just before Ozzy was kicked out of the band. Black Sabbath just wasn’t the same without Ozzy.  
Ozzy says that if we’re really loud and crazy there will be another song, “Show us your cigarette lighters!” They leave the stage for the encore ritual. Most of the crowd has been standing through the whole show. They don’t make us wait long for “Paranoid.” It’s  the ultimate anger and alienation song. “And so as you hear these worlds telling you now of my state. I tell you to enjoy life, I wish I could but it’s too late.” The lyrics reek of despair, but the driving beat leads us to believe that the narrator will do more than survive. The first speed metal song ever!    
A big show like this can keep you buzzing for a while. The Sabbath riffs do stick in your head. It was one of the best Birthday presents I ever got. It was great to see Ozzy and Black Sabbath for the last time with my daughter and Destin. Wait a minute. They’re playing the Oracle Arena in Oakland in September!