'Welcome to the end," Ozzy Osbourne says to 20,000 fans at Chicago's United Center. He's dressed head-to-toe in black, and his band has just wrung every ounce of Gothic gloom from its opening dirge, "Black Sabbath", but now Ozzy sounds more wistful than scary. "Can you believe it, man? From 1968 till now."
Nearly half a century after they first scared the bejesus out of rock fans, Black Sabbath have begun their victory lap. The End, a big, fiery farewell tour for some of rock's most primal visionaries, includes stops in New Zealand and Australia in April, their first shows here since 2013, and could stretch at least into next year, band members say.
Osbourne says the idea to call it quits "just kind of happened" – a mutual decision among him, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler. By ending now, Black Sabbath are saying goodbye before overstaying their welcome. "I don't want to drag it into the dirt," Osbourne says. "The best thing that happened to Sabbath the first time was we went our own ways for a while [in 1979]. It was good for them and good for me." Osbourne is sure the decision is final. "You could put money on it," he says.
"It'll be bittersweet," says Butler, looking ahead to the eventual last show. "I'm glad we're finishing on a high note but sad that it's the end of what I've known for most of my life."
The scene in Chicago, however, is more like a celebration than a funeral. The audience trades verses with Osbourne during a fearsomely heavy "War Pigs" and headbangs on live rarities like "After Forever" and "Hand of Doom". The band seems as carefree as the crowd. Iommi nimbly refigures some of his guitar leads into outré blues experiments, and Butler toys with a wah-wah during his solo break before "N.I.B.", giving the concert an air of unpredictability. Most surprising: The band is all smiles throughout the show. "We love you all," Osbourne tells the crowd.
As has been much reported, one key part of the Sabbath story is absent from the party. Drummer Bill Ward split from the group shortly after the bandmates announced they would reunite in 2011 for their first new album with the original lineup in 33 years; he claimed they did not offer him a "signable contract". He has feuded publicly with his former bandmates in the years since, after Osbourne described him as "incredibly overweight" and unfit to tour.
The group enlisted Tommy Clufetos, who plays in Osbourne's solo band, to drum on tour. Ward tells Rolling Stone in a statement that he and his management reached out to Sabbath's managerial team with an offer to return to the band for the End tour. "We were told there was no interest," Ward says.
Butler, for his part, claims neutrality, or at least ignorance. "We still get on great," he says of his relationship with the drummer. "We still can talk to each other. It's just that I have no idea what went on in the background. I don't know who to believe, and I don't really delve into it."
"I'd rather not talk about it, actually," Osbourne says. "As soon as I start talking about Bill Ward, I get about 500 fucking slaggings in the post."
After deciding to move ahead without Ward, Sabbath faced another, more serious crisis. In 2012, Iommi revealed he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Still, he dedicated himself to writing the band's 19th studio release, 13, which debuted at Number One on the U.S. chart in 2013. "I thought the last tour was going to be the end," Butler says of Sabbath's 2014 run. "This time, we thought, ‘Well, we got one more tour left in us – let's go out and do it while we can.' " Iommi's outlook is looking up, according to Butler. "I think the cancer has sort of at least gone away, for now, anyway," he says.
Before the tour, the band batted around the idea of recording a follow-up to 13, with Iommi reporting that he had "a whole load" of riffs at the ready. But Butler says he had put the kibosh on the idea. "I was just being logical," the bassist says. "At the time, we were given six months to write and record an album, and I said, ‘There's absolutely no way.' " He laughs. By his estimation, the last LP took three years to make. "We'll probably all be dead by then," he says dryly.
"It'll be bittersweet. I'm glad we're finishing on a high note but sad that it's the end of what I've known for most of my life." — Geezer Butler
Instead of making a new record, the band is selling a limited-edition tour-only CD, titled The End, on the road. It contains four outtakes from the 13 sessions, which range in tone from the trudging, tumultuous "Season of the Dead" to the murky, bluesy "Isolated Man", as well as four live recordings. After the End tour, they'll decide whether Black Sabbath will ever hit the studio again.
"Time ain't on our side," says Osbourne, 67. "To be honest with you, if the new record wasn't another Number One, we would have been pissed off, so we just left it on a high note with 13. I'm not saying I'll never record with Tony or Geezer again. I just don't want to tour with Black Sabbath after this."
Life on the road these days couldn't be more different from their initial run in the 1970s. The band is taking regular breaks so that Iommi can have his blood tested, and Osbourne is looking out for his health as well. He's three years sober and does an hour of cardio a day. Butler, a lifetime vegetarian, has become vegan. It's a stark contrast to the band's heavy-partying days, when its drug and alcohol intake was the stuff of legend. "We're not killing ourselves [anymore]," Osbourne says. "It doesn't get any easier physically. I don't know how the fucking Stones do it."
"Now we have private planes and the best suites in the best hotels, but the downside is there's no drugs and no women," Butler says with a laugh. "You come offstage and have a cup of tea and go to bed."
"I was the fucking rebel for so many years," says Osbourne. "Now I can't understand why I was going out, getting full of Jack Daniel's, having a bag of white powder and talking shit till daybreak, thinking that was fun. I would poke my fucking eyes out if I had to do that now."
From issue #773, available now.
The Australia/New Zealand leg of Black Sabbath's final ever tour kicks off mid-April. Full dates and details available via LiveNation.
Topics: Black Sabbath