Advertisement

A Black Day Dawning

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.’ ”

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

“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.

Advertisement

Ward says he was devastated and deeply embittered by his heart attack--not so much because of what it meant for his health, but because it deprived him of the chance to tour with Black Sabbath.

“I had been so looking forward to the tour. I had promised myself to be totally top-of-the-line form with the playing. I’d been working out. I’d been taking 3 1/2- to 4-mile-a-day power walks around Seal Beach [Ward has been an Orange County resident since the early ‘80s.]

“I was doing everything right. I’d stopped eating pizza and ice cream the month before [rehearsals]. When I had the heart attack, it was pretty depressing. I was really angry. I just couldn’t find anything to feel good about. People said, ‘You should feel grateful to be alive.’ I said, '[Expletive] being alive.’

“I am coming back to terms now with the fact I’m extremely grateful to be alive.”

As Black Sabbath played its itinerary of European dates, Ward said he lay in his hospital bed, looking at the clock and imagining how the band would be working through its playlist. When the band played a stadium show outside London, Ward was well enough to watch from the wings and take a bow on stage--where the ever-mischievous Ozzy pulled Ward’s shorts down.

Despite such affectionate antics, Ward doesn’t feel like one of the gang anymore. It’s not just missing the tour. Being ignored for Ozzfest hurt him so deeply that he wrote a song about it, titled (ironically) “Somebody’s Heart.”

It’s a plaintive, pretty, McCartney-esqe ballad that gently expresses his hurt over being left out by the mates he first played with in 1968. “Don’t step on me, friends, ‘cause I’ve got a heart,” goes the refrain. “I keep falling and getting down, down, down, wishing you would stand by me.”

“It came from a very hurt frame of mind,” he said. “I definitely felt left out. It was a closed door for me. I was getting my information [about the three-fourths Sabbath reunion] from MTV.”

Advertisement

Ward said Iommi called him after the Ozzfest to say he had been missed. But instead of feeling a part of things during rehearsals for the Birmingham shows, Ward says he experienced another round of alienation. He said he and the other Sabbath members got along well and enjoyed playing together--even when his 4-foot diameter gong fell on him, leaving his right arm bruised and bleeding through most of the opening-night show. But through managers and agents, Ward said, he got the impression that he was considered a question mark, expendable.

In rehearsals last fall, he said, “It dawned on me: ‘I’m trying out.’ There were other drummers waiting in the wings. Those other drummers told me. They’re my friends.”

Now, Ward says, “I regard myself as a non-member, because to regard myself as a member of Black Sabbath would be too painful. I’m asked to be a part of it in a session kind of way.”

Ward said he didn’t raise his feelings with the other members because they were only together for rehearsals and performances. “I would never bring any business thing or bureaucratic thing to the gigs. There’s a time and a place for everything, and [doing] shows is art. It’s one place I would never air my feelings.”

He speculates that the problems stem from the different path he has taken. The others have remained touring rock warhorses without letup--Osbourne in a hugely successful solo career, Iommi as mainstay of various Black Sabbath lineups, Butler ping-ponging between the two or leading his own band, g//z/r.

Ward, by contrast, has had long stretches without visibility as he coped with personal problems or worked painstakingly on his two albums.

Other than brief original-Sabbath reunion sets at the Live Aid show in 1985 and at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa in 1992 (capping what was billed at the time as Osbourne’s last show), Ward had hardly stepped on a concert stage until two months before his heart attack, when he began a series of low-profile club shows fronting the Bill Ward Band. Ward did join Butler and Iommi for three shows in South America in 1994, and Iommi apparently was unhappy with his playing, which may have led to the Ozzfest snub.

Osbourne’s publicist, Ana Adame, said last week that a worldwide tour to promote “Reunion” will begin New Year’s Eve in an undetermined U.S. city, probably on the West Coast.

“It’s a bit vague,” Ward says of whether he is to be a part of it. Adame said that if Ward is recovered from his heart attack and up to playing an extended tour, the other members want him on it.

“The best case scenario would be to have the original lineup, and they’re hoping Bill can be a part of it,” she said.

Ward has accepted an invitation to go on a non-performing tour next month in which the four Black Sabbath members will visit record stores, chat and sign autographs to build a buzz for “Reunion.”

If it’s true, as the old saying goes, that the breaks even out, Ward will get his next second chance and spend a good chunk of next year traveling the world, pounding out “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Paranoid” and the rest with his old mates, making money to float his solo projects, and raising the profile of his two fine solo albums (a third, “Remembering,” is expected out next year on his own label, Mungus Shine Entertainment, along with a remastered version of “Ward One: Along the Way”).

“I’m keeping a low profile on that kind of thinking,” Ward said when it was suggested he’s due for a good-luck streak. “Every time it looks like a good thing is happening, something else comes along. I don’t have my mojo working.”

Still, Ward can picture a future in which he slams out the metal with Black Sabbath, while making more nimble and varied rock records with his own band.

For a moment, he spoke as if there were no uncertainty about his health or stamina, and no doubt about his standing in Black Sabbath.

“It’s great, it’s so refreshing, because the two bounce off each other,” Ward said. “I get to play what I’m feeling on my solo records, and I get to bang the hell out of a drum kit in Black Sabbath. [Playing Sabbath’s heavy stuff] is very healthy. It gets rid of a lot of frustrations and keeps me fit. I couldn’t have a better world.”


Advertisement