Legendary guitarist Tony Iommi tells Andy Coleman how the past few months have been hellishly heavenly.
It can be heaven and it can be hell being in heavy metal band Heaven and Hell.
The group has experienced the highs and lows of life in recent times, reveals guitarist and Black Sabbath legend Tony Iommi.
The line-up of Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, singer Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinny Appice, had previously recorded and toured as Black Sabbath in 1980 – 82 and 1991 – 92. They reformed for just one tour in 2007, taking their name from the outfit’s first album. But things went so well they stayed together and released an album of new material, The Devil You Know, last year.
Everything was heavenly but then came the ‘hell’ part of the equation. Last November Iommi was forced to take a break for an operation on his hand so 67-year-old Ronnie James Dio arranged a tour with his band, Dio. However, it was suddenly cancelled when the singer was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Meanwhile, Vinny Appice was forced to have surgery on his shoulder, injured while touring, putting him out of action for five months.
‘‘It sounds like Emergency Ward 10,’’ says Aston-born Tony, who now lives in Lapworth. ‘‘Geezer is the only healthy one at the moment.’’
He has good news on all three casualties, however.
‘‘Ronnie’s doing better, he’s been responding well to treatment,’’ reports 62-year-old Tony. ‘‘He’s very positive and has been in the studio in LA this week doing a bit of singing. He has to fly to Dallas (from his Los Angeles home) for chemotherapy every two weeks and has injections daily in his stomach.’’
Tony says the diagnosis of cancer came as a surprise. ‘‘On the last week of our tour he was saying he’d got pains in his stomach. We just thought it was indigestion or something like that. It was a real shock when we heard what it was.’’
Tony’s hand is also healing well. The operation, involving stem-cell treatment, was something he’d put off for some time.
‘‘The cartilage between the thumb joints of my right hand, my fret hand, was rubbing, bone to bone. They’ve cured that but the bone’s been pushed back and I’ve been told I may need another operation to pull the bone up. I don’t particularly want to go there because I have a friend, also a guitar player, who had that operation and it all went pear shaped which put me off a bit.’’
As long as he can carry on playing he can cope with a bit of pain, he admits.
‘‘I haven’t taken any anti-inflammatories, which I had to before, all the time, and it’s never going to be like it was but it’s fine for playing.’’
And the news on 50-year-old Vinny?
‘‘He’s doing alright, he’s doing all his exercises. I don’t know if he’s started playing yet but he soon will be. I had the same operation on my arm four or five years ago.’’
This has all cast a cloud over what should be a landmark year for Tony. It’s the 30th anniversary of the release of the Heaven and Hell album and the 40th anniversary of Black Sabbath’s debut album. Deluxe editions of Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules and Live Evil are being released in April and the band are set to perform at the European Sonisphere festivals as well as Bloodstock in Derbyshire and High Voltage in London.
But what if any of the members, particularly Ronnie, are not well enough to take part?
Says Tony: ‘‘We’re keeping our fingers crossed. If it got to that stage, Ronnie’s the kind of person who would say, look, I can’t do them. But he’s a very determined chap and if he can do it, he’ll be there.
‘‘We’re mixing a live DVD of one of our shows from the last tour and Ronnie’s been going into the studio to sing along with it just to loosen his voice up. He’s not been able to do that for a while and he was worried. But he’s sounding really good now and he’s a lot happier.
‘‘In his mind he has to keep on, he wants to get out and do it. He’s a real professional.’’
Tony’s been thinking a lot about the past recently because he’s striving to complete his autobiography, Iron Man.
‘‘I’ve been working on it for a long time. We’ve been so busy for the last couple of years it’s been difficult finding the time to do it. But it’s coming on and hopefully it will be out at the end of the year.
“ I’m not going out to blast at everybody, that’s for sure. That’s for the next book!’’
Singers and drummers have come and gone in Black Sabbath but the classic line-up is Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward, alongside Tony and Geezer.
After Ozzy was thrown out of the band in 1979, there were brief reunions in 1985 for Live Aid and 1992, with a full reunion in 1997 which resulted in the live album, Reunion, recorded at Birmingham NEC.
‘‘Ozzy’s still a great friend and I don’t think we’ll ever fall out,’’ says Tony. ‘‘Whether we’ll work together again is another thing. There are no plans but it’s in the lap of the gods.’’
* Heaven and Hell headline Bloodstock at Catton Hall, Walton on Trent, Derbyshire, on Sunday August 15. They play the High Voltage Festival at Victoria Park, London, over the weekend of July 24 and 25.