Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe By Mick Wall St. Martin's Press, 400 pp., $27.99
In one of the most memorable scenes of the fictional rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, the clueless heavy-metal rockers endure some disastrous and embarrassing stage incidents involving a Stonehenge stage set that is far too small. And then comes the appearance of some dancing dwarves jigging around who...well...dwarf what was supposed to be an impressive and looming mound of stones.
That the real-life Black Sabbath once had a Stonehenge set that was too big for its stage, and a dwarf dressed as a demon baby whose (usually scripted) screams went on a little longer than normal one night -- the stack of mattresses that normally broke his planned fall from atop the set were not in place -- gives the band today a comical edge. Original lead singer Ozzy Osbourne's befuddled reign as a reality-TV patriarch also did Sabbath no favors.
But make no mistake, when Black Sabbath's first record appeared in 1970, the doom-laden music, image, seemingly bizarre players, and even the creepy album cover made them unlike any other band before, even with contemporaries like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. And they were scary as shit.
Symptom of the Universe is an all-encompassing bio that covers the whole (at times sordid) story of the group, from its earliest formation to massive lineup changes, reunions, and breakups, right up to today's still-churning controversies on and about the group.
Wall is one of today's best and most respected rock journos, who has also penned tomes on AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Axl Rose, Lou Reed, and the Doors. But on the subject of Sabbath, he's a bit closer, having served as a PR man for the whole band and later Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio as solo artists.
Thus, Wall also includes a lot of personal stories and observations that only an insider could have.
Some of the most interesting tales are not about the band members themselves, but the managerial struggles and battles between original (and later) Sabbath manager, the bellicose Don Arden, and his equally ballsy daughter, Sharon. She would later take similar reigns for Ozzy, marry him, revamp his (and Sabbath's) career, and then become a reality/game/talk-show star on her own.
Story continues on the next page.
Wall spends a lot of pages on the various substance abuse problems of the four original members (Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward) and how it affected their personalities, music, and inter-band relations. In fact, Iommi has his nose exploring in "mountains of coke" so often, you'd think he need his own goddamn Sherpa guide.
There are also ample details about Osbourne and Dio's solo careers as they weave in and out of the Sabbath story. And if anything, it's Dio's reputation that gets burnished most positively on a number of levels (the singer's own posthumous autobiography is slated for publication sometime this year). Houston even gets a few mentions in the form of M.D. Anderson Hospital, where Dio sought treatment for his stomach cancer, and were he eventually died in May 2010.
There have been many other Black Sabbath bios and memoirs, including those for former roadies, Osbourne and Tony Iommi, and Joel McIver's fine (if hagiographic and Ozzy-era-heavy) 2007 effort Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. But Wall's is the most comprehensive effort, bringing the still-unfolding story up to date with the controversial Bill Ward-less 13 album release/tour and Iommi's ongoing cancer battle. Thus, it gets two (devil's) horns up!
Like what you read? Or are we missing something? We'd love for you to join our team.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!