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Master of Reality

Bill Ward Views Black Sabbath's Impending Death With a Stiff Upper Lip

July 23, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, Bill Ward, the drummer in Black Sabbath, one of the signature bands in British rock, can identify with the most famous words of Oliver Twist, one of the signature characters in British literature: "Please, sir, can I have some more?"

Poor Oliver just wanted another bowl of gruel at the orphanage. Ward has surmounted a daunting array of personal difficulties to resume the mega-rock touring life after 16 years away.

He would like it to go on indefinitely. But, like Oliver, it looks as if he will be disappointed.

Word is out that, after the current reunion tour by the four original members--Ward, singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Terry "Geezer" Butler--Black Sabbath, which shares with Led Zeppelin the distinction of being the world's most influential and enduringly popular heavy-metal band, will not play again, ever.

A headlining show Saturday capping the daylong Ozzfest hard-rockathon at Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore is being billed as the last Sabbath concert in California--long the home base for Ward, an Orange County resident since the early 1980s.

Since New Year's Eve, the start of a North American tour of 55 concerts, Ward has been driving Black Sabbath with his signature pounding, tromping beats, playing to packed houses and good reviews as the original lineup of once-controversial, now-revered rockers plays its first tour since Osbourne said goodbye to his bandmates in 1979.

It took some doing for Ward to get to this point. He survived a near-fatal bout with alcoholism in the early 1980s and gave up touring in 1983. A case of agoraphobia--a mental illness that can prevent sufferers from leaving home--sapped momentum from his just-launched solo recording career in the early '90s.

When Black Sabbath reunited for the first Ozzfest in 1997, Ward was ready to rock 'n' roll, but his old mates snubbed him and used a different drummer.

Instead, he released his second solo album, "When the Bough Breaks," an excellent, decidedly un-Sabbathlike CD full of melodic riches and sensitive feeling. Ward went back to touring as front man of the Bill Ward Band but lost a bundle trying to finance the recording and cross-country travel.

Finally, in December 1997, Ward was welcomed back by Osbourne, Iommi and Butler, all of whom had continued as touring musicians during the years he mainly stayed home living off royalties from the Sabbath catalog.

The original band played two shows in its hometown, Birmingham, which resulted in a live CD, "Reunion." In May 1998, Black Sabbath gathered in Wales to rehearse for a European tour. During "Paranoid," the final song of the first day's run-through of the planned set, Ward suffered a heart attack.

He convalesced in Britain, then came home to Seal Beach to work himself back into playing form.

"After the heart attack, it was like going into unknown territory," Ward, 51, said this week from a Seattle hotel room. He had spent part of an open date on the Ozzfest itinerary taking a three-mile walk around the city's harbor; his agenda called for a swim later.

Last December, rehearsals began for Black Sabbath's American tour. Ward felt good as he settled into his drum chair, but he still had a glimmer of doubt. It didn't help that he was playing in the same room where he'd had his heart attack.

"There were thoughts in my head, 'Oh my God, is it going to happen again in the same place?' But I felt fine. If [his bandmates] were concerned, they certainly didn't show it, which was nice. I didn't want to be nurtured: 'Do you need to sit down, Bill? Do you need to relax now?' I wanted to do my job in Black Sabbath, and I didn't want to be treated like an invalid."

The reunion experience has been a musical delight, Ward said, and the band members, who have had their contentious times in the past, have gotten along.

"I feel extremely comfortable with all the relationships we have in the band right now," said Ward, a sensitive, thoughtful man with an uncommonly gentle manner that belies the the primal heaviness of his rhythmic attack. "This band is very much in unison. It's playing, in my opinion, unbelievably well.

"It's almost like it's circumnavigated every kind of obstacle, kind of like it did in the old days. When this band wakes up, it's like waking a sleeping giant, and I feel like it's woken up to itself."

Which is why Ward is so disappointed that this behemoth of rock apparently will be put to sleep for good at year's end. After the American tour ends next month, Ward said, the only thing on the Sabbath agenda is a possible brief European tour in December.

Ward has voiced his objections to ending Black Sabbath, but he isn't banking on a repeat of Osbourne's last rescinded farewell: a 1992 concert at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa in which the other original Black Sabbath members joined him for a few songs to end a show billed as Osbourne's last concert ever. Soon after that, Ozzy changed his mind and was back touring.

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