Reliable sources inform me that Black Sabbath, the inventors of heavy metal, will headline The Voodoo Experience music festival in 2012.
Granted, “Voodoo Fest,” as it’s known, is still 11 months away and former Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne just played there last year … But here’s a sweetener: the four original members of Black Sabbath recently put aside their squabbles and reunited. Next year they’ll record a new album and embark on a world tour. So that means guitar legend Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward might appear with Ozzy at Voodoo.
My sources say Black Sabbath is already scheduled to play the 2012 Voodoo Experience at City Park, presumably on Oct. 28, the Sunday before Halloween. It will be the first time in 40 years that Sabbath’s original members have performed in New Orleans. Their last concert here was on Sept. 8, 1972, at the Municipal Auditorium. Gentle Giant opened. Sabbath’s only other visit to New Orleans was on March 27, 1971, during their Paranoid tour. According to this fan site, they played “a warehouse” at 1820 Tchoupitoulas (now demolished). I’d LOVE to hear a firsthand account of that night.
Heavy metal music traces its origins to an appropriately bloody industrial accident. While working at his day job in a sheet metal factory, Tony Iommi sheared off two of his fingertips. The doctors told him he’d have to give up guitar playing, but Iommi, just 17 at the time, continued to practice despite the agony it caused him. He made plastic tips to cover his fingers and blunt the pain, then loosened the strings to make them easier for him to bend. This radical down-tuning eased his finger distress and also created a heavy sonic effect which became the backbone of Iommi’s new band, Black Sabbath.
Inspired by a horror movie, the band decided to create horror music. Butler wrote spooky lyrics for Ozzy to wail, and Ward clobbered his drums with the butt-ends of his drum sticks. For his part, Iommi merely invented the heaviest guitar style anyone had ever heard.
Writing for the Rolling Stone Album Guide (fourth edition), Scott Seward described Sabbath’s contribution to music this way:
They took the blues out of blues-rock and replaced it with Wagner, creating epic battle rhythms filled with a tension and release that any adolescent boy would know about firsthand.
Then Seward explained why even casual fans still misinterpret the band:
What people forget about Black Sabbath — and it’s understandable given their demonic imagery and All Hallow’s Eve vibe — was that it was one of the most God-driven, puritanical, wet-blanket rock bands in history. Its “mankind is evil and must repent for its wicked ways” thesis would influence almost all the future bands of the metallic arts.
It’s true. The Sabbath catalogue is full of warnings about temptation and Judgment Day. Better repent and wise up, they say, or else everything will get even more miserable. But implicit in those dark themes is the idea that Earth really is a battlefield between God and the Devil. You have to buy into the assumption of widespread spiritual warfare, at least temporarily, for Sabbath’s sermons to grip you.
What distinguished Sabbath from their predecessors was the way they fused their apocalyptic message with such a heavy, severe sound. Sabbath’s song lyrics described impending doom, but their music actually sounded like doom. The effect was totally new, and went beyond Led Zeppelin’s bluesy hard rock and Tolkien-inspired lyrics. Sabbath’s concept required dramatic song arcs and otherworldly guitar modes, or else their whole presentation would lack metaphysical force. And it’s not as if Sabbath fans were all young eschatologists with the Book of Revelation in their pockets. Not even close. Early on, the band mainly played to curious acid rockers who liked any hard music with cool-sounding words. But similar to the way “The Exorcist” movie rattled a lot of agnostic viewers, Black Sabbath’s dark sound shook up their listeners. Both the movie and the band first had to scare the hell into their audiences, before they could scare it out of them again. (Note: I’m referring to a two-hour experience in a theater, not a life-altering conversion.)
Unfortunately, that theory led me to disappointment twenty years ago, when I finally saw Ozzy perform in concert. When the lights dimmed, I expected something ominous. Instead, I witnessed an impish Ozzy constantly tell the crowd how to have fun. Clap like this, wave in unison, scream now! The music sounded great, but during the power grooves between verses, Ozzy kept yelling “I love you all. I love each and every one of you!” His happy cheerleading diluted the dark power in his songs. I had bought my ticket expecting to see a prophet of darkness; instead I got a bedazzled Leo Buscaglia. It disappointed me that Ozzy didn’t have more faith in the potency of his Sabbath songs. I wanted him to dispense with the crowd-pleasing happy talk, and start grimacing maniacally and thrashing around. I wanted the concert to have a sense of horror, but the whole episode felt like an ironic celebration of the past. The real message seemed to be: Kids, don’t let any of this Satan talk disturb you. Just have a safe, fun time and buy a black T-shirt on your way out the door.
Now, twenty years later, it’s even more unreasonable for me to expect a “Black Sabbath concert experience” that measures up to my youthful fantasies. (Although I do hope Ozzy honors his bandmates by cutting out the mid-song banter with the crowd.) The Voodoo audience will likely be an embarrassing mixture of nostalgia and ignorance. Old metalheads will cheerily sing along to “Iron Man” as if the song’s about an old friend rather than a destructive avenger. Among them will be younger kids who don’t even know the lyrics, because they mainly know Ozzy as a scattered reality-TV character, not a pioneering voice of heavy metal.
I guess I shouldn’t leave out my own demographic, either. No doubt there will be thirtysomethings who attend the show because they’d feel guilty if they missed a last chance to see Sabbath with Ozzy. Like me, they hope that if the original Black Sabbath performs outdoors in New Orleans on a Sunday around Halloween, we’ll all get an inkling of what audiences felt forty years ago.
Hopefully there will be an early chill the night of the concert. At least that way I’ll be guaranteed a few shivers.