Friday, November 16, 2007

Black Sab...err...Heaven and Hell '07 (Part One)

April 18th,1982...15 years old.

It was a Sunday night and I had school the next day, so it was really cool that my parents let me go to this show. The Outlaws were onstage and I was enjoying their performance despite the fact that I'd never heard of them or their music. I was such a concert rookie that it never occurred to me that with their Southern Rock sound and good ol' boy looks what an odd choice they were to open for Black Sabbath. All I knew was that the band was about 20 feet from me, it was loud, and it was real.

I say real because just three months prior I'd seen Ozzy Osbourne live for my first ever rock concert. I sat in good seats, but far enough away so that the show seemed distant and something like a play or even a movie. Oh, it was loud to be sure. Loud enough to ring my ears for a few days, but I didn't feel connected to the band or the crowd. I'd only gone because Rod, one of my oldest childhood friends, wanted to go. I was only beginning to get into rock music and probably agreed to see Ozzy like those a half generation before me went to see Alice Cooper and those two decades behind me checked out Marilyn Manson; just to see the freak show.

I enjoyed Ozzy enough to know that I'd follow my boyhood chum to more shows and the next big one to hit Fresno was Black Sabbath featuring Ronnie James Dio on vocals. It took some research via Hit Parader and Creem magazines, but I was able to surmise that Dio took over for Ozzy in Sabbath and they were touring in support of their second album together, Mob Rules. I didn't know much more than that. I listened to Black Sabbath LPs at Rod's house and pretended to be as "into it" as everyone else, but it wasn't sinking in. I liked what I heard enough, but without a way to realize it back then, I was a music geek at heart and was uncomfortable without knowing more about the musicians, the band's history, etc. That's probably what keeps me from buying King Crimson albums today.

Back in the good old days, most all shows were sold as General Admission and for the Sabbath show, we decided to stand in front of the stage. Getting there early, we stood on the concrete floor of Fresno's Selland Arena under the house lights. It was kind of like hanging around the clock tower on the amphitheater lawn at my high school. That night, we saw everyone from school and tried to outcool each other (me pathetically so) and generally just stood around and cracked wise. I remember looking up into the stands and wondered if this is what it looked like from a Fresno State basketball player's perspective. Then Marco showed up.

Marco was the coolest guy I'd ever met. He was confident, funny, socially adept, and I suppose not bad looking to the feathered haired girls of 1982. We knew each other pretty well and I genuinely liked him, but when I saw him walk up with a soda cup in his hand, I was surprised. Even on my wobbly newborn concert legs, I knew that nobody drank soda at a concert. It was alcohol or nothing. Even though it would be a couple of years before I consumed alcohol before or at a concert, I endured dehydration symptoms if only in the effort to look cool. In retrospect and full hindsight, it is now apparent that consuming a Pepsi would not have helped nor hurt my cool factor during freshman year. The large red Ronald McDonald hairdo and thick glasses landed me firmly in such a class of uncool that it would have taken Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli to walk around with a bullhorn during intermission declaring that I wasn't actually as dorky as I looked. Don't ask me why drinking fluids wasn't cool back then, I'm just here reporting the hazy memories.

Marco entered the conversation circle and I stared at his soda cup. The blue and red Pepsi logo was sweating and I envied Marco and his damned individualism. Nobody said anything, even though I had the feeling that more than a few of us wanted to. If I'd walked up with a soda, some stoner would have probably taken the glasses off of my face and thrown them onstage, smacked me on the forehead with his ridiculously over sized Goody comb and then lit my huge hair on fire with his Bic. I know it sounds irrational now, but I couldn't risk it back then.

The lights went down (my all time favorite and embarrassingly overused phrase when it comes to concert story telling---much akin to "So, there I was..." by our beloved war veterans) and I felt this crushing blow in the middle of my back. Light on my feet, I absorbed the shock and was amused to find myself carried about 6 feet forward. The amusement lasted just a moment as the flood of humanity closed in around me and a howling, whistling, roar from the seats above seemed to over modulate in my head with a swirling effect. The Outlaws (whoever they were) hit the first notes (of whatever song of theirs) and again I rode the wave as the crowd pushed forward.

I stared forward, wide-eyed like a baby and grinning like an idiot. I didn't know it at the time, but I was being baptized in a sort of backwoods dunked-in-a-dirty-river-that's-still-good-for-fishin' sort of way. The Outlaws rode their guitars like polished wooden race horses. They strode the stage and struck poses that seemed somehow heroic to me in that moment. It took a few years for me to hear the song again, but Green Grass And High Tides Forever somehow stuck with me and brings back sentimental times. Then it all ended with much clamor and clanging. All of us cheered wildly in appreciation of The Outlaws' efforts. The stage lights shone brightly on those of us up front, but I was able to squint and see the band members come out with their hands clasped in front of them as in handcuffs. I thought at the time that they looked like those guys in Ricky Ricardo's band with the puffy, layered sleeves. Then, they spread their hands with a upward swing of their arms to release dozens and dozens of Outlaws bandannas. Time stood still as the knotted fabric fell towards my face and I reached out as in a dream.....


Next to me, Marco held up an Outlaws bandanna in triumph. I blinked slowly and then watched him laugh and twirl it around like a gunslinger. In his other hand, I noted, was that goddamned Pepsi. Fuckin' Marco. He seemed to walk with some sort of aura about him and it all made perfect sense that he'd score some stage swag. I hated him. I loved him. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to be him. (For longtime and unbelievably patient Tony's Hazy.... readers, this provides a little foreshadowing to the July '04 Pat Tragedy multi-parter in the archives---when Marco rears his head again at the Clovis High Air Guitar Contest of 1985).

In the house lights, we congratulated Marco on his kill and went back to fucking off. Real estate was becoming more and more precious as the older fans crept forward to see the metal legends. I patiently waited with eyes forward until the arena darkened again and the mighty Sabbath took the stage. It was a simple stage with the four of them assaulting us with songs both new and old. I wasn't familiar with many of Black Sabbath's older tunes aside from radio hits I'd learned in my crash course during the last few months of rock and roll high school. But the crowd knew a whole lot more than I did.

There was a lummox of a young man directly behind me and he was banging his head forward and back with such vigor that his sweat doused a four foot circle of lucky fans. I glanced back from time to time to see what this cretin looked like and each time he looked a little different. Most of the time, he simply looked like a toad wearing a wet rat for a hairstyle and sucking wind heavily. Other times, he stalled his headbanging to emphasize a major shift in tempo, his glazed eyes looking right over my head transfixed on the stage. But what I remember most about this guy was that he sang--yelled hoarsely, really--every word to every song. Every word. Every song. Many of the people around me did as well. Apparently, Black Sabbath had many fans more ardent than I.

Why would anyone come to a concert to see a band and then sing the songs out loud themselves? It was April 18th, 1982. A quarter century later, that question would seem absurd.


I won't go into the history of Black Sabbath and all of its incarnations here. There isn't time and it's all been written before. But I will note that I've been a fan of the band through all the lineup changes and swings in popularity. Some of my favorite Black Sabbath albums aren't even known by many of the fans attending subsequent reunions with Ozzy. For many, it's Ozzy or Dio and anything else just isn't Sabbath. There's merit to that thought, but the other work should not be dismissed wholly.

When I read online that Ronnie James Dio would be joining the early '80s lineup to knock out a couple of new tunes for a Dio-era best of album, I was happy but not expecting much more than a couple of throwaway tunes, much like the Van Halen best of featuring a couple of newly recorded songs with David Lee Roth and the new studio Black Sabbath (with Ozzy) tracks thrown together and tacked onto their live Reunion release. Before the album's release, plans had been made for a tour and I crossed my fingers for a weekend date fairly close to Fresno. Alas, the close dates were on weeknights and travel was impossible. I'd read that the NYC show would be filmed for a DVD release and felt good about at least having that to document the lineup's reunion.

The tour was a smash success and a second leg was added for North America. I cheered out loud at my computer monitor when I saw the Fresno date and immediately checked the calendar to make sure there wasn't a conflict. I noted that it was to be held at Selland Arena, Fresno's aging event center, as opposed to the newer (but not necessarily superior in terms of sound) Save Mart Center on the Fresno State campus. SMG, the huge venue management company that Fresno wisely called in to run both arenas, has done a good job booking both arenas appropriately with a few exceptions. One being the Velvet Revolver show a couple of years back at Save Mart Center; embarrassingly undersold, but still with a good number of enthusiastic attendees, the follow up tour was subsequently booked at Selland Arena. (A source of mine tells me that the Selland show was still quite empty--something that bewilders me when you consider Fresno's demographics and Velvet Revolver's pedigree). With Heaven and Hell, I estimated SMG to have made the right call here.

A call was quickly made to the stalwart Keno and, of course, he was in. I thought to call Chet, one of my oldest friends, but didn't for some reason. In the coming days, however, I did leave some voicemails for him at work, but never heard back. I was worried that I'd somehow offended him, perhaps at the Marc Ford show earlier in the year. It has not been unusual for us to go weeks and even months without contact, but I was a little concerned. I was Johnny On The Spot for tickets when they went on sale, scoring a pair 5th row center.

The unit would not call itself Black Sabbath, instead travelling under the moniker Heaven and Hell, also the name of the first album with Dio. I never heard an official statement of why the Sabbath name would not be used, but I first suspected that it was to avoid confusion in the marketplace. Ozzy had reunited with Sabbath a few times by now and the average classic rock radio listener might get to the Dio-fronted Sabbath show, see the diminutive Ronnie James howling away and say, "what the fuck?" After thinking about it more, I agreed with some online sentiments stating that guitarist Tony Iommi, who owns the rights to the name Black Sabbath, was simply protecting the integrity of the name for lucrative future reunions with Ozzy. Whatever the reason, I didn't mind the name at all. In fact, I was thrilled when I read that Heaven and Hell would not be performing any Sabbath songs from the Ozzy years, instead opting to stand on the strength of their few releases with Dio. This was something they could not do when Dio first joined. As much fun as it was to hear Dio belt out classics like War Pigs and Iron Man back then, I admired them for playing the songs from the Dio releases as if they were a completely separate entity from Black Sabbath. Do you think Yes could do this with Trevor Horn? Does anyone remember that era of Yes? Does anyone yearn for a Horn-era Yes reunion tour besides ponytailed, multi-sided dice throwing 40-somethings working in the electronics section of Target that sneer at customers that buy greatest hits collections? I didn't think so and that's why we move forward......

So, naturally, as the date of the show closed in, I immersed myself in the Dio-era Sabbath releases and burned copies for Keno so that he may do his homework. I got word via his blog that ol' Lefty Brown and Steve Portela would be in attendance and made a mental note to hook up with them for a brew and a laugh. Another friend of mine would be bringing his kids, so I'd have an eye out for him as well. I felt nostalgic for the time of my youth when we networked days before a show to see who'd be there so we could stand around and bullshit at the concert.

October 2nd, 2007...40 years old.

Luckily for us both, Keno was on vacation that week or otherwise he would have been out of town on the road driving his rig. We'd just spent the weekend on the coast with the wives in a rented house overlooking the Pacific so that Keno and his wife (my wife's sister Jean) could ride their bikes in some absurd 100 mile event. The girls remained on the coast as Keno and I returned to Fresno Monday evening. I remember not feeling all that well during the drive to the coast Saturday and was worried that I was coming down with something. I was quiet and reserved, almost polite or even civilized. Mary knew something was wrong and so did Keno and Jean as soon as we arrived. As it turned out, my blood alcohol level had dipped dangerously low. Much like those with blood sugar concerns, I have to closely monitor my situation. I don't know what I was thinking and it scared me enough to never let that happen again. After administering 720 CCs of Coors Light and roughly 180 CCs of red wine (exact measurements are thrown out of the window during times of crisis), I was on my way back to my old life-of-the-party self.

As a sales rep, I was able to schedule a light day for myself that Tuesday. That way, Keno and I could get together for dinner and a drink before heading to the downtown arena. He drove over to my place and then we headed over to an Applebee's in my neighborhood if only to get a reliable meal that would lie sturdy in our guts as we absorbed concussive body blows from the Heavy Metal lineup. A couple of happy hour priced tall drafts at the restaurant would help cushion the blow of the more expensive and tragically shorter beers at Selland Arena. I thought about stopping somewhere and getting a tallboy Coors Light to suck down before entering the venue. Keno was on board in spirit, but getting a little tired. Then he had an idea.

We left Applebee's to look for a liquor store. Keno, ever a keen proponent of the malt liquor 211, had recently tried a canned concoction of energy drink and malt liquor with an aggressive name that he couldn't remember (and I can't now upon this writing--I dunno, something like Powerbuzzz, Groinslammer, or perhaps Rage'N'Sleep) and asked me to find him a liquor store. His reasoning was that he could get both caffeine and his coveted malt liquor in one hellish swallow. I pointed out a wreck of a West Fresno liquor store close to the Highway 99 onramp that would most likely carry his infernal elixir. We pulled into the parking lot, walked in and dashed towards the wall of reach in cooler doors. I spied my beloved and always available Coors Light tallboys, ready and willing in their gravity aided rows. When one is pulled off of the shelf, another takes it place like a good silver soldier. Then he saw the silver and neon green cans. I cringed a little, having hoped that he'd have to settle for simple domestic beer.

"Yeah, that's the one", Keno laughed. But when he tried to pull a can out, it was attached to three others. "What the fuuuuu....", he growled.

We looked and could not find a solo can for sale, but compared the four-pack to the price of singles of similar product, even the over sized Silver Bullets. It was determined that the four-pack was a better price and it was decided that Powerbuzzz (name substituted for purposes of continuation) was it for tonight. We figured Keno could take the other two cans home for future use. The Asian clerk took our money and told us to have a good time.

We parked on a surface street a couple of blocks away from Selland Arena and popped open our cans of Powerbuzzz. I took a pull off of mine and swallowed what seemed like just a take from a can of Red Bull or Monster. Then, the malt liquor kicked back like a whip and I convulsed like a baby tasting lemon on America's Funniest Home Videos. "Jesus Christ, this is shit", I cried as I turned to see Keno dragging down what looked like half his can of Powerbuzzz.

"Oh, shaddup", he said. "Drink up and let's go". I looked into the mouth of my can and sucked down a good portion. We opened the truck doors and stretched out a bit. He drained the last of his can and I followed suit. I shuddered a bit, put my hand on the door to slam it shut so we could walk over to the arena when I heard Keno say, "whaddya doin'? We got two more cans right there".

How could I argue with logic set so plainly in front of me? I got the two last cans out of the cardboard wrapper and handed him one. I had no plans to drink all of this one, I told Keno. The good thing was, this drink looked very similar to a pure energy drink and we could most likely walk right up to the arena door without a sideways look from the law. But I was wary of downing this much malt liquor this fast and I was sure the energy drink portion of the concoction would burn a hole in my stomach lining. We stood a block away and with more than half of the second can to go, I'd had it and wanted to toss the drink away. Keno agreed and while I looked for a place to drop my can without looking like a damned litterbug, he said, "Look here", as he stuck his can into a thick bush. The branches supported the weight and I added my can to make the bush into a hobo Easter Egg hunt. One of Fresno's homeless was going to wonder why he couldn't sleep that night.

We ambled the last block to the Selland Arena noting that a slight crowd was filing in. I wasn't concerned too much about the turnout since I hadn't seen any print ads other than the initial announcement. I always worry when I hear radio ads for a concert that is days away. As I was slipping the tickets out of my wallet, I heard someone yell, "Tony!"

Next: Part Two. Reunions abound and we find out if Tony can take a punch!