Losing his fingers didn’t stop Tony Iommi, and now he has reunited Black Sabbath and brought out a book. Meet a rock legend
Jeff Dawson Published: 27 November 2011 (Sunday Times)
You could say that heavy metal was an industrial accident. It was on a slack Friday afternoon in 1965 that Tony Iommi, a welder by trade, was reassigned to operate the sheet-metal press at a Birmingham foundry. “They said, ‘You push that through here, you put your foot on it there,’” he says, describing the guillotine contraption that slammed the steel under thousands of pounds of pressure — a machine he had never operated before.
Like an episode of Casualty where they tee up an impending mishap, you just know where it’s all heading. Cue a momentary lapse in attention and the press coming down on Iommi’s right hand, trapping the middle two fingers down to the top joint.
He mimes the instinctive reaction to yank your hand away. “And, as I pulled my hand back, I pulled the ends off.” He was reacquainted with his fingertips at the hospital later, stuffed by a colleague into a matchbox, but by then they’d turned black, beyond hope of a happy reattachment.
“I was in shock. Terrified. All my world just collapsed.”
In what seems the cruellest of ironies, it had been the then 17-year-old’s final shift. He had jacked in the day job to become a professional guitarist, set to tour Europe with a pop combo, the Birds & the Bees. Worse, he was left-handed — it was his fret fingers that had been mangled.
In pre-litigious times, his boss popped round with his compensation package: a Django Reinhardt EP. The jazz guitarist had been similarly handicapped. Look on the bright side, son.
Inspired, Iommi melted a Fairy liquid bottle, took a soldering iron and fashioned a pair of “thimbles” that he fixed to his vestigial digits with superglue and gaffer tape, coating them, for purchase, with leather cut from an old jacket.
It was, he says, “a bit of a Heath Robinson job — but it worked”.
Playing was painful, and still can be, with the skin liable to split open. But Iommi’s loss was hard rock’s gain. To ease the strain, he slackened his strings, tuning down three semitones. He kept his strumming to a deep, riff-driven chug. Inadvertently, he created a brand-new sound.
It’s a signature we are set to hear once more. A few days back, Sabbath announced that their original line-up — Iommi, the vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, the drummer Bill Ward and the splendidly named Geezer Butler on bass — are about to record again, 43 years and 70m album sales after the band’s formation. Next summer, they will play the metal mecca that is Donnington. Iommi also has an autobiography out — Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath — spanning six decades in the music business. “People ask, ‘You must have had some times?’ And we did have some good times. They’d say, ‘Why haven’t you done a book?’ So I just did.”
He’s an affable bloke, is the Black Sabbath axeman: a laconic Brummie, solid, down to earth and with an accent you can cut with a knife. But let there be no doubt that this gentleman is a rock god, a man whose palette runs the full Henry Ford — any colour you like, as long as it’s black: jeans, bomber jacket, his trademark Gibson SG guitar propped against the wall of the hotel room. Iommi’s glasses are tinted. So, one might venture, are his hair and goatee. Around his neck hangs the huge gold crucifix he has worn for 40 years. “It’s just something you do, like putting your watch on — put your cross on,” he says.
People ask, ‘You must have had some times?’ They’d say, ‘Why haven’t you done a book?’ So I just did
One thing you can say about Sabbath: they were never fashionable. Yet, after the paisley whirl of the late 1960s, the nihilistic grind of working-class West Midlanders seemed perfectly in sync with a Britain riddled with unemployment, strikes and casual violence. “Where we came from was what we wrote about. It was bleak and grim.”
Osbourne’s reinvention as a television personality may have exposed the band to a new audience, but a feeling persists that Iommi has never received the public recognition he deserves, never being put on a level with virtuosos like Hendrix and Clapton, or an iconic licksmith such as Jimmy Page.
“Well, with the type of music we did, it wasn’t mainstream,” he shrugs. “We weren’t a pop band. Paranoid was the closest we came to it. Doing Top of the Pops, for us, was a kiss of death.” Yet Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and Dave Grohl rate him as one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time, rappers sample his riffs and he’s a constant poll-topper among the cognoscenti.
Iommi tells the story of 2002’s Party at the Palace concert, after which he strolled into the Buckingham Palace reception to be accosted with a yelp of “Tony! Tony!”, and a frothing Anthony Blair, prime minister and amateur twanger, all over him like an excitable puppy. “He said, ‘I’m a big fan, I’ve got the albums.’ He told me how he played Iron Man.”
The memoir runs from the pub’n’club days through to Sabbath’s later lapses into self-parody, playing to enormo-domes full of college youths flashing devil signs, and with a revolving door of band personnel (26 at the last count). So confused did their roadies become, when one briefly associated singer, Tony Martin, stage-dived into the crowd, they refused to let him back on, assuming him to be a fan trying to rush the band.
Iommi has flown in Elvis’s jet, and been jailed, mortar-bombed and involved in intra-band punch-ups that make the Gallaghers look like Jedward. Moreover, he has been the continuum throughout, the only ever-present Black Sabbath member. The catalogue of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll can make for uncomfortable reading at times. On tour in America, fearing that a groupie had died on them, Iommi and the band’s manager, Patrick Meehan, had gone to throw her from the hotel balcony. The fortunate young woman came round just as they were heaving her over. Iommi shakes his head — “That was awful, awful.”
Mercifully, most of the stuff is funny. And if some of it sounds very Spinal Tap — like the commissioning of an oversized Stonehenge stage prop based on a misinterpretation of the dimensions scrawled by Butler — that’s because Tap drew heavily on Sabbath. Like Tap, Sabbath had their own dancing dwarf. There was the incident, too, where the band, in full rock rig, were booked to play a dinner/dance for couples in black tie and ballgowns. They even had a line in combustible drummers — Bill Ward was hospitalised with third-degree burns after Iommi poured cleaning fluid over him and set him on fire. (“I’m surprised he’s still alive. I mean, it’s horrible to say that.”) Cozy Powell, who featured in a later band assembly, expired in a car crash while talking on his mobile (famous last words: “Oh shit”).
Born into a family of Italian immigrants who ran an ice-cream shop, Iommi nearly wasn’t part of the success story at all. Though he had founded a band in 1968 with Ozzy and Geezer, he left soon after to join Jethro Tull, appearing in the film Rock and Roll Circus with the Rolling Stones and John Lennon. Uncomfortable among the London glitterati, he returned home, shaping the erstwhile Polka Tulk Blues Band into Earth, then something more distinct, taking a new name, Black Sabbath, from a Boris Karloff movie. Righteous Bible-thumpers have been protesting outside gigs ever since.
Clearly someone has been watching over Iommi, though. He has outlived a number of his contemporaries, not least John Bonham, the fabled Led Zep skin-smasher and best man at the first of Iommi’s four weddings. Yet, after cranking out an album a year for eight years, combined with constant touring, even the iron-constituted “Sabbs” were heading for a crash, snowed under in an avalanche of cocaine. “Yes, we got through loads of it. As soon as it was mentioned that we were going to LA, it was, ‘Oh, good [he rubs his hands together]. What? We’ve got some gigs as well?’ But we were really young, and you experienced whatever you could.”
Osbourne cracked first, in 1979. After Ozzy had been given the heave-ho, there was no question of disbanding, Iommi says. “You work in a factory, when someone leaves, you don’t close it down, you carry on.” Enter Ronnie James Dio for Sabbath Mark Two. The original Sabbath did reunite for 1985’s Live Aid, and toured again in 1998, winning a Grammy for their live album, Reunion.
The recent settling of a lawsuit in which Iommi and Osbourne had wrangled over the use of the band’s name had suggested that a comeback might be on the cards. (Iommi’s last line-up had been performing as Heaven & Hell until Dio’s death from cancer last year). “We talked a lot and had met up. We had a bash and, yeah, it was good to play some of the songs.”
He doesn’t rate a lot of the nu-metal plank-spankers. “You go back to the old players, Pagey and Ritchie Blackmore and Brian [May] and myself, and you can tell who’s who.” He’d rather listen to Sinatra or, as ever, Django.
Iommi still can’t pick up a guitar and play spontaneously, not without his thimbles. It has caused him embarrassment in guitar shops, he says. The leather jacket he still uses to patch them is down to a few square inches — “I’ve got that much left” — a measure of his longevity. These days, though, he no longer moulds his own. He has an arrangement with a hospital that sends him rejected prosthetic arms. He snips off the fingertips and discards the rest. It has, he says, alarmed a few bin men.
Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath is published by Simon & Schuster at £19.99