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A Fallen Rock Star Seeks a Way Back : Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward, Brought Down by Drugs and Alcohol, Has a New Album

Bill Ward was one of the first rockers to put the heavy in heavy metal. At the time, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he couldn’t have conceived that his life would one day become such a heavy burden that he would try to end it.

As the drummer with Black Sabbath, one of the biggest, most controversial heavy metal bands, Ward helped establish the anvil-thud beat that defined the genre. Nearly 20 years after Black Sabbath emerged from the bomb-damaged, factory-hardened British city of Birmingham, heavy metal remains an enormously lucrative, still-controversial proposition.

Black Sabbath carved out a cavernous niche for itself with dark songs in which only the occasional hopeful glimmer would filter through a dense, doomy shroud of sound. The songs, delivered in an ominous bleat by gnomelike lead singer Ozzy Osbourne, often focused on themes of dread, death and desperation.

From its name to its mystical lyrics to its use of diabolical imagery on stage and on album covers, Black Sabbath studiously cultivated the shadowy side. Fans and detractors alike came to assume that Sabbath, true to its name, took delight in occult practices and demonic beliefs.

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Through it all, Ward entertained demons every day--not Lucifer and Beelzebub, but the twin harpies of drug abuse and alcoholism. They caught up with him in the early ‘80s, when Ward came to know firsthand about dread and desperation, and about facing death as well.

Getting in on heavy metal’s ground floor had brought heavy rewards. By 1974, with Black Sabbath on its way toward career album sales totaling more than 30 million, Ward was ensconced in a fine, 19th-Century home overlooking an English village.

“It was like the one you have in your dreams, the house on the hill,” Ward said, looking back in a recent interview.

Ward said that when the band he likes to call “the Sabs” was at its peak in the ‘70s, his share of the four-way split from arena shows might come to $10,000, $30,000, even $40,000 a night.

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But 5 years ago, he had found his personal hell: a Skid Row existence in the alleys of Huntington Beach. By then, of course, his house on the hill was gone. His life had come to resemble the bleak vision of “Paranoid,” one of Black Sabbath’s best-known songs:

“I can’t see the things that make true happiness, I must be blind. . . . I tell you to enjoy life, I wish I could but it’s too late.”

For Ward, it was not too late. Now living in Seal Beach, he sat in a corner of a favorite breakfast spot on Pacific Coast Highway, his face weathered and a little fleshy under a trim, squared-off haircut.

But at 40, his gray-blue eyes are clear. In his sweater, workout pants and high-topped basketball sneakers, he seems more like a still-robust retired ballplayer than a former inhabitant of the rock ‘n’ roll burnout ward.

As he speaks, pausing to sip tea or to draw on the latest in a continuous sequence of Marlboro Lights, Ward seems a different person from the bearded, wild man who powered Black Sabbath. His accented voice is gentle almost to the point of sweetness, but his manner of speaking is earnest rather than diffident.

When he talks of the days in which he nearly destroyed himself, Ward gives no sense of bitterness or self-pity, although he is open about his regrets. Instead, there is a streak of tolerant, ironic humor, as if he is recalling some well-intentioned but hopelessly befuddled old friend.

Ward is no musical burnout case, either. In the first independent venture of his career, he has written, sung and produced (and is now trying to find a record company to release) an autobiographical album called “Ward One: Along the Way.” It is a thoughtful, affecting portrayal of his struggles.

Four of the 11 tracks feature guest lead vocals from Ozzy Osbourne or Jack Bruce, the singer and bassist of Cream. The music is based in stormy, dramatic heavy metal, but it branches out to encompass atmospheric art rock far beyond the limits of the old Black Sabbath style.

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Ward grew up the son of a factory worker in Birmingham, on a street where rubble from the German bombing during World War II was still visible. His father envisioned that he would follow the usual path into the factory. But Ward, struck by the music--and by the obvious wealth--of such American rockers as the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, had other ideas.

At age 9 he was making money by running bets for bookies. At 14, he went to work in a rubber factory but only long enough to earn money for a first-rate drum kit. By age 20, Ward had teamed up with three other hungry Birmingham rockers--singer John (Ozzy) Osbourne, bassist Terry (Geezer) Butler and guitarist Tony Iommi--to form Black Sabbath.

By 1970, the “Paranoid” album had lifted the group into rock’s major leagues. Black Sabbath was hailed by first-generation headbangers but almost universally ridiculed by rock critics for its lumbering tempos, droning melodies and unrelievedly dark lyrics.

There is a certain ambivalence in Ward’s assessment of Black Sabbath and its music. On one hand, he defends the band’s musicianship and sees the anger and bleakness of its songs as an honest reflection of what was going on inside four musicians who had emerged from hard circumstances.

“I hate to use the cliche “angry young men,” but it was like that. Before that the syndrome (in the flower-power pop of 1967) had been “All You Need Is Love,” and I didn’t feel that way. There was a tremendous amount of frustration and determination that came out in the early days because things weren’t wonderful.

“I loved what we were doing with the music, playing loud and hard. I love the simplicity of the early stuff. It’s not contrived. It was just pure rock.”

But if the music was pure and simple in its aggression, the marketing of Black Sabbath was an example of crafty image-making that Ward said became tiresome. “In the Sabs we had to remain in this depressing, unreal world. I didn’t like all the devilish boohoo that went with it, to tell you the truth. There was manipulation from outside sources that preferred us to be a certain way. Acting up to that, I felt quite dishonest.”

But Ward didn’t push for the band to break out of its occult-fantasy image. “There was the fear of losing the image, and the financial gains and record sales that went with it,” he said. Success had turned the angry young men into showbiz conservatives.

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Ward doesn’t blame his drug and drinking problems on success, declining to recite the excuse given by many a reformed rock bad-boy: that chronic substance abuse comes with the rock ‘n’ roll life style, with its round of parties and its easy access to booze and drugs.

Blaming deeper-seated fears and insecurities and a disposition to alcoholism in his family, Ward said he probably would have suffered from the same problem even if he never had played in a band. But he said he developed another kind of dependence that kept him from dealing with his alcoholism--a dependence on his identity as a star in a major rock group.

“Once I started to get some of the things I’d always craved, I still found myself incredibly unhappy. It was never enough. A lot of that stems from being real, real insecure, wanting more and hoping that will fix the insecurity.”

Ward crashed for the first time in 1980, when heavy drinking forced him to leave Black Sabbath in the middle of a tour. He settled in Southern California and recovered enough to rejoin the band to record a 1982 album, “Born Again.”

But when it came time to tour again, Ward couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“I drank daily for 22 years. I was never sober. I had all kinds of coping skills to learn. The thought of a tour was terrifying for me. Fears of going on stage. Fears of flying. It takes time to learn how to do these things without drinking and without drugs and to go back to playing comfortably.

“I felt very confused and anxious, and I just felt horrible inside. My drums sounded horrible to me. I felt like I was all thumbs, and I’d have mini-blackouts where I’d forget what you do.

“I felt so ashamed for not being able to cope with my feelings that I had a real good excuse to go back and drink. I’d tried being sober, and it hurt too much.”

This time Ward bottomed out. By late 1983, he said, he was living on the streets. “I tried to kill myself,” he recalled in a soft, but unhesitant, voice. “I managed to manipulate a 12-gauge shotgun from a friend with the excuse that I needed it to protect myself. I had it rammed down my throat, and I was ready to pull the trigger. But I couldn’t pull the trigger. I started to cry. I realized I had nowhere else but to get sober.”

As he recovered, Ward gave Black Sabbath one more try, rejoining Iommi and Butler in 1984 to write songs and audition singers (Osbourne had left the band in 1978, to be followed by a succession of front men).

But this time, Ward no longer was counting on the band as the foundation of his identity. When he decided that the music wasn’t progressing beyond the old Sabbath style and that the image wasn’t about to change, he left the band for good and settled in Seal Beach, where he lives in a rented house with his third wife, Abby, and their two sons, ages 14 and 7. A third child is due in February.

Over the past 2 1/2 years Ward has developed the “Ward One” project, the first sustained creative effort of his rock career.

“I wanted to see what I was made of,” he said, “and if I could enjoy it. I’d written songs before, but never completed them. I’d go on out to the pub or some party, so I was never able to sit down and follow anything through from beginning to middle to end.”

Ward and his manager, Mike Slarve, think that record companies have been leery because the album doesn’t fit snugly into a standard heavy metal mold. Ward thinks that they would prefer it if he sounded more like a certain bankable metal band. “One of the biggest struggles I’ve had is being me. And the companies want me to be--guess who? I don’t live on that street anymore.”

If the labels continue to bypass his album, Ward said, he can live with it. “It was worth it just to play with the players and get the experience” as the project’s writer, arranger and producer, he said. “If a record company picks it up, it’s just icing on the cake. It’s not the be-all and end-all of my life. It used to be, but it’s not anymore.”

Sometimes, reminders of the Black Sabbath days crop up. Ward keeps track of the current heavy metal scene, where bands like Guns N’ Roses keep alive the myth that hard-boozing and drugging and self-destructive behavior are somehow glamorous.

“I watch them, and I can see me in 1970,” Ward said. “I guess they have to go through that phase, and I hope and pray that they make it to the other side of it. Being ultracool nearly killed me.”

The reminders also come in unexpected ways. When Ward attended the Halloween party at his younger son’s elementary school last month, he saw two small boys flashing a devil’s-horn hand sign. A common sight at heavy metal shows, it originated at concerts by Black Sabbath and kindred bands.

“For a second, I sank a little bit,” Ward recalled. “I knew where that came from, and I felt responsibility.”

But Ward firmly denied the most serious charge leveled at heavy metal bands in general and Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne in particular: that their gloomy and supposedly diabolical lyrics have driven young listeners to depression, suicide or murder.

“When I was with Black Sabbath, there were 16 or 17 deaths that we were quote-unquote ‘responsible’ for. But I won’t take responsibility for it. I know what it’s like to try to kill yourself, and it was nobody’s stuff except for my own failures. I’m not willing to take responsibility that lyrics will drive you to suicidal tendencies.”

In the old days, Ward would pound away while Osbourne chanted the stories of the sociopathic “Iron Man” or the hopeless protagonist of “Paranoid.” Now Ward’s cast of characters includes Red Top the Carrot, Sid the Snake and the Mouse and the Clock--innocent denizens of the children’s stories he has been writing. The tales are based on bedtime stories he makes up for his sons, when he isn’t taking lessons from a veteran big-band jazz drummer in an effort to develop his techinque.

Phone calls from his old friend Ozzy are an almost daily part of Ward’s routine.

“Bill is a good excuse for me to talk to somebody sane who’s not involved in rock ‘n’ roll,” Osbourne said over the phone this week from Pensacola, Fla., where he was about to begin a U.S. concert tour with a band that includes another former member of Black Sabbath, Geezer Butler. “We just speak like old friends. We rarely talk about music. I talk to Bill about the most intimate things.”

Osbourne, who has spoken frankly in public about his own drug and alcohol problems, said he wasn’t surprised that Ward would write an autobiographical album focusing on his worst experiences.

“Nearly all of us (in Black Sabbath) were very sick from drugs and alcohol,” Osbourne said. “I’m on the same (ongoing recovery program) as Bill is now. Bill and I both have to be very candid.”

There is one thing that Ward didn’t want to talk about publicly: his regular practice of going to hospitals and prisons to share the story of his fall and recovery with people who face similar struggles. He said that highlighting his humanitarian work would be a breach of the humility he has tried to learn.

As Slarve, Ward’s manager, describes it, the drummer who sounded a doom-laden beat for Black Sabbath is out there sounding a message of hope. “He basically tells people not to feel down and out, and not to feel the world’s at an end,” Slarve said. “It keeps him busy, and I think it’s good for him, too, to relate his past experience to people: that it’s not all terrible, and you can get your act together.”

Ward’s last major public appearance came at the biggest rock show ever: the Live Aid concert in 1985, which featured a reunion of Black Sabbath’s original lineup. Since then he has played a few dates in area clubs, most recently with veteran blues-rockers Walter Trout and Tim Bogert. Ward said his royalty earnings from continued strong sales of the Black Sabbath catalogue provide a modest but comfortable living for his family. While he hopes to re-emerge as a recording artist, Ward has no desire to tour again.

Ward said that he still has moments of regret at being out of the rock limelight but that he doesn’t feel driven to regain the stardom and the star’s fortune he squandered in his drinking days. Instead, he defines his ambition in terms of improving as a drummer, as a songwriter and as a teller of children’s tales.

“These are my real goals,” he said, “as opposed to wanting to have a house on the hill again.”


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