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A Black Day Dawning

Sabbath Drummer Outlasts Hard Times, Fights for Another Second Chance

August 19, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Ward's life has been a lesson in the importance of second chances. Now Ward, drummer of the tremendously popular and influential British heavy metal band Black Sabbath, needs another one. His efforts these days are focused on doing all he can to make his next second chance come through.

Three months ago, Ward and the other founding Black Sabbath members--singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler--gathered at a studio in Wales to rehearse for the original lineup's first tour in 20 years.

They had played an entire set and were rumbling through the finale, "Paranoid," when Ward's arms began to hurt. He finished the number, thinking it was just muscle spasms, but the pain shot into his chest and Ward was soon in an ambulance racing to the hospital. Drum technician Phil Sedillos rode with him, clutching his boss' hand. Ward's mind flashed on the recent death (in a car wreck) of friend and fellow drummer Cozy Powell.

"I said, 'I'm not going to die. We've already lost one great English drummer this year, and we're not going to lose another.' "

Ward survived his heart attack. He spent more than a month in Welsh hospitals, underwent angioplasty surgery and began working out lightly on drums even before his release. Last week, he was back in his modest, rented home in Seal Beach, where the only displayed memento of his 30 years in rock is a framed poster advertising his 1990 debut solo album, "Ward One: Along the Way."

There are also a few drums and cymbals scattered on the carpet; Ward has been playing two hours a day, just to get his timing back. Soon he will begin more vigorous, stamina-building workouts at the Long Beach home of Ronnie Ciago, the ace drummer who backs Ward when he's fronting his own band. Ward also is making dedicated use of the two exercise machines that dominate his living room. One is draped in a bedsheet, signed by the Welsh hospital staff that cared for him.

"I put that on there a few days ago to give me a bit more inspiration," the soft-spoken rocker said. Having quit his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, Ward fiddled with a leather belt with "Bill" inscribed on a buckle etched with Black Sabbath's gothic cross symbol--a gift, some 25 years ago, from the band's manager. "I have to make my way back from that," Ward said, his ice-blue eyes beckoning toward the hospital bedsheet--"to being 100% fit again. The doctors say that's absolutely possible."

Ward, 50, is used to mounting difficult comebacks.

"A counselor came to visit me in the hospital. I said, 'I don't give a damn about my heart attack; I've been through worse than this. Try shaking it out behind heroin and booze.' When you come through stuff like that in your life and lived in total despair--I don't want to make light of it, but with the heart attack, I was in pain for about 15 hours, and that was about it."

"Along the Way" chronicled much of the worst Ward has had to shake out of his head and body. The album traced his life's arc of meteoric rise, abject fall and new beginning.

Black Sabbath was one of the monsters of rock, the band that, along with Led Zeppelin, put the bang into head-banging music and, in so doing, earned massive, enduring popularity while drawing a blueprint for hard-rock generations to come.

But by 1983, Ward had a monster of a booze problem that left him in a Huntington Beach alleyway, contemplating whether to pull the trigger on a borrowed shotgun. He sought treatment instead, and his solo debut seven years later showed that he had made much of his second chance: He emerged as a fine melodic-rock composer and affecting, intensely personal singer intent on stretching far beyond the boundaries of head-banging.

More bad luck followed: Ward's record company dropped him, and "Ward One" didn't get the exposure it deserved. His marriage broke up, with two young children involved.

Ward suffered bouts of agoraphobia, the potentially debilitating illness that makes people afraid to leave home. Once more he rode out the rough times, and last year he emerged with an even better album, "When the Bough Breaks," and began to tour for the first time since his Black Sabbath days.

But Ward's luck hadn't entirely changed: His fellow Sabbath members snubbed him last year, reuniting without him for the Ozzfest '97 tour. "Bough" caught no breaks from radio, and Ward, who paid for the album's production and subsequent touring with his earnings from Sabbath catalog sales, says that money-wise he "got beaten with a big stick."

But the year ended on a high note. In December, he was called back into the Sabbath fold to play two nights at the National Exhibition Center in the band's hometown of Birmingham, England. Highlights of those performances are captured on "Reunion," a double-disc live album, also featuring two new studio tracks, that is scheduled for release Oct. 20.

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