Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dealbreaker: On the Black Sabbath "reunion"

If you haven't been following the saga of the latest Black Sabbath "reunion," I'll fill you in. Basically, the band's original line-up made a big fuss of announcing its re-formation last November. A press release went out, promising a new Rick Rubin–produced album due in 2012, plus a world tour. Many grumbled that Ozzy, for one, was in terrible shape and that the effort would be a wash. Personally—as I said on the radio—I was thrilled at the prospect of getting to see one of my favorite bands live, since my Sabbath obsession bloomed too late for me to catch any of their late ’90s or mid-aughts Ozzfest shows.

The whole thing went to hell this past February, though, as drummer Bill Ward went public about the un-"signable" contract that the band's management had handed him. A few months of back-and-forth followed, and yesterday, Ward finally put the matter to rest. Barring a miracle, he won't be participating in the reunion. You should click that link and read the full statement; it's really pretty wrenching. Ward tells the story of an acquaintance of his brother's, whose son was dead-set on seeing Ward perform with the band.

My heart sank when Jimmy told me about this young boy. I know this boy is going to be disappointed, and I don’t know how to amend it, other than to put my arms around the boy and tell him I love him. Sabbath fans have a voice and a face, to me you’re human, you have families and despair. You have ferocity and emotions and graciousness, and at this moment as far as I’m concerned you are also that young boy in England.

There's another intense moment near the end:

Since Spring of 2011, I’ve waited patiently and hopefully for a signable contract, you know the rest. I stand for the boy in the U.K., for the coming drum student, for all the drummers, who write their parts out and get stiffed on the publishing, I stand with the Sabbath fans chanting “Bill Ward” and asking “why?” and I stand with Tony and Geezer and Ozzy.
Of course, this is a statement of drummer's rights, for one—a "We're not gonna take it" manifesto, with haunting echoes of the late Levon Helm's decades-long vilification of Robbie Robertson for unfair royalty-royalty hogging with respect to the Band's catalog. ("…Rick [Danko]…died with his money in their goddamned pockets… People ask me about The Last Waltz all the time. Rick Danko dying at fifty-six is what I think about The Last Waltz."—This Wheel's on Fire) But it's also, as I see it, a statement of consumer advocacy: In part what Ward is saying, or at least implying, is that just as band members deemed less than essential need to stand up for their essential-ness, fans have a right to an "Accept no substitutes" policy when it comes to endeavors like this latest Sabbath reunion.

Ward has remained admirably humble throughout all this. He hasn't called for any kind of boycott of a Sabbath reunion that continues in his absence. But his frankness about his treatment by management sends an important message, i.e.: Fans want the real thing. I certainly know I do. Now, I can't say for sure what percentage of the world's Sabbath-fan population agrees with me. The band has gone through so many lineup changes over the years that maybe at this point, there's a huge swath of that community that couldn't care less who's behind the drum kit; they just want to go to a big festival and hear Ozzy sing "War Pigs" and "Iron Man." But without getting into some kind of "casual fan"/"true fan" distinction, I know for a fact that, for many, there is no "Black Sabbath reunion" without Bill Ward.

And I say this with no ill will, and in fact, quite the opposite, toward the Heaven and Hell effort of a few years back. What I loved about this reunion—which revived the incarnation of Sabbath that subbed Ozzy and Ward out for Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice, respectively—was the respect it showed both the musicians and the fans. That 2.0 Sabbath was, as I've come to realize over the past few years—during which I've probably listened to The Mob Rules and The Devil You Know (two albums by the Dio/Appice line-up) as much if not more than any of the Ozzy material—(A) a great band but also (B) a different band, one deserving of the distinctive name it eventually earned. The message is simple: You change the personnel and you change the band. Anything less than the whole thing is not, in fact, the thing.

Now of course this principle doesn't apply in every case. Some bands can sub out a member and retain their essential mojo. (Though, at the moment, I'm trying and failing to think of an example of a truly great band that changed members and continued undiminished.) But—and I say this as a member of a band that's cycled through four different bassists over the course of a decade, all of whom have contributed vitally to the sound of the project at their respective juncture—sometimes, no one is expendable. The classic example is, of course, Zeppelin. As I understand it, the rest of the band didn't even think of continuing after Bonham died. You could argue that it's because his drumming was in many ways the band's central feature, but I don't think the surviving members would've reacted any differently if it had been, god forbid, Jones, Page or Plant had passed. There simply was no band once there was no Bonham. For a less prominent but equally clear-cut case, look at the Jesus Lizard. They did soldier on after original drummer Mac McNeilly left, but as David Yow has so often said, it just wasn't the same.

Now, again, Sabbath has been in many ways the polar opposite of one of these "All or nothing" ensembles. Tony Iommi has kept the band running for four decades, often with no other original members included. And I'll fully admit that as much as admire Iommi and respect his willingness to see the project through, I've still yet to warm up to (or more fairly, fully investigate) the greater part of the non-Ozzy, non-Dio Sabbath, of which there is a whole lot. But the crucial point here is that what was promised at the press conference back in November of 2011 was the original Sabbath. That's a very clear-cut thing, and you need all four members in order to deliver as promised. Sure, Ozzy's the figurehead, with Iommi probably being the second most famous in his own right of the other three, but a Ward-less "original Sabbath" reunion is simply not an original Sabbath reunion. Given the band's endlessly complicated history, no one can argue with Osbourne, Iommi and Geezer Butler's decision—assuming they go through with it, which they appear to be doing—to go ahead without Ward. But the message that Ward's sending is that fans have the right to see and hear what they were told they'd get to see and hear, namely the Osbourne/Iommi/Butler/Ward line-up.

Bill Ward, to me, is not like John Bonham, this towering colossus whose contribution to the instrument transcends his band, transcends all of rock & roll, really. But as The Drummer in Black Sabbath, he is a hero to me. When I think about his time feel on the verses of "Snowblind," that gloriously draggy slog, or the stoner's shimmy he busts out during the "War Pigs" prechorus breakdowns, or his jazzy ride-cymbal tapdance on the uptempo interlude in "Electric Funeral," I want to weep. (If you don't know the 1970 Paris footage, you need to sit down and give this your undivided attention; buckle up around 1:40, when Ward starts busting out those gut-punch fills during the stop-time section.) What he does is so natural, so perfectly integrated, so goddamn rocking, so integral to the flowing blues-metal magma that is early Black Sabbath. (For the record, Ward sounds just as good—maybe even heavier, actually—on the 2000 reunion video The Last Supper.) Money matters aside, you just can't separate Ward out and still pretend you're selling people the genuine article.

Ward's stand isn't a matter of ego; he's speaking for the fans as much himself. All he's saying is: A band is a band is a band. As the Band demonstrated, the songwriting is only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Rock & roll is about a sound, and whether or not you consciously notice every specific member's contribution at any given time, that contribution is part of your sense memory, part of the holistic DNA of these songs and albums that we so cherish. Band-dom is, in the end, what makes rock music rule, and when that's compromised, you don't just gloss over it. You make a fuss about it. You stand up for a fan's, let alone a player's, right to the genuine article. I think of the whole Funk Brothers endeavor, to bring to light all the anonymous session geniuses that served as the engine of the Motown hit machine. The last couple decades have in any many ways been a vindication of the idea that it only takes one pretty-faced/-voiced singer to make a song, as more and more of these "supporting players" are given their due (I think of ?uestlove's incessant championing of Bill Withers drummer James Gadson). You need cohesion; you need a team. And you forsake that principle at the expense of the music, the band—and, more crassly, the brand—the fans and the legacy. For an endeavor like this Sabbath reunion, a missing drummer is not merely a bummer; it's a dealbreaker.

P.S. I riffed on the Sabbath un-reunion in a TONY preview of this Saturday's Pallbearer show, written a week before this latest Bill Ward dispatch appeared.

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