Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath Opens Up About His Battle with Cancer and the Struggle to Make '13'
2011 was well on the way to being one of the best years of Tony Iommi’s life. The guitarist was on a successful book tour to promote Iron Man, his revealing autobiography in which he talks about his life and his career with Black Sabbath.
At the same time, he was reuniting with the original Black Sabbath members—vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward—to write and record a new full-length album, the quartet’s first since 1978’s Never Say Die!
But celebration gave way to concern when Iommi discovered a lump in his groin. Doctors initially misdiagnosed the problem as nothing more than an infection, but when Iommi’s condition worsened, his doctor biopsied the mass. At a follow-up appointment, he told Iommi the result: We found lymphoma.
“Once I heard my doctor say that, my whole world changed,” Iommi says. “I thought, Bloody cancerous lymphoma? Well that’s it. I’ve had it.”
This news came as such a shock that even today, as Guitar World sits across from a healthy-looking Iommi in a cottage in rural West Midlands, England, the guitarist’s affable disposition darkens when he recalls that grim period.
“Once they diagnosed it, I had to start the treatment right away,” he says. “And it knocked me about. I’d go through stages thinking, Can I do this? And then: Of course I can do this. I don’t want to die. I want to carry on and do what I’m supposed to do.”
Iommi’s treatment included an aggressive course of chemotherapy and radiation that attacked the cancer but seriously taxed his immune system. He began to feel sicker, lose weight and weaken, and had to focus what little energy he had into fighting his illness. Plans for the Sabbath record were put on hold. But as the guitarist’s body began responding to treatment, Iommi’s creative spark was rekindled. Much to everyone’s surprise, he turned his attention back to writing the songs that would eventually make up Black Sabbath’s new disc, 13.
“They thought I would pack up,” Iommi says. “But I asked the doctor, ‘Is it okay if I work?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you’ve just got to be careful.’ So I’d go in the studio and play for a bit. Then I’d get tired and I’d have to go and sit down. The guys would tell me not to push it.”
Iommi was determined to get the album made. And as Osbourne and Butler tell us when we catch up with them in a Los Angeles recording studio, where they’re putting the final touches on the album, he rose to the occasion.
“We all rallied around him,” Osbourne says. “But it’s not like we’d be saying, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ We just got on with it. Sure, he looked tired, but he was a soldier and marched on. He still had more riffs coming out of him than anyone. None of us would go, ‘Oh, he’s fucking ill again.’ We’re bros. We grew up together. It’s like a family member getting sick.”
“It brought up how we’re all just mortal beings, and we aren’t gonna be here forever,” Butler adds. “Tony and I were on the Heaven & Hell tour with Ronnie James Dio, and six months later Ronnie was dead [from stomach cancer, in 2010]. We didn’t have any inkling that was gonna happen. When Tony got the cancer, obviously that was in his mind. We didn’t know how he’d respond to the treatment. So it was like, Let’s get the album done at all costs, as long as Tony’s up to it. So we’d write for three weeks, and then he’d go for his treatment and we’d all have three weeks off. But it didn’t affect his playing at all. In fact I think it really encouraged him and kept his mind off the cancer, which is the best thing you can possibly do if you have that.”
As Iommi got stronger, his future, as well as Black Sabbath’s, started looking brighter. The band continued writing and rehearsing, and making progress on the new album. On November 11, 2011, Sabbath held a press conference at Los Angeles’ Whisky a Go-Go to officially announce that they had reformed and would record an album of new material. But in early 2012, Bill Ward surprised everyone when he announced that he would not move forward with recording, saying he felt “ostracized” by the band and calling the contract he was offered “unsignable.”
“I was shocked,” Iommi says. “We were hearing stuff from lawyers, like, ‘I’m not happy with this. I’m not happy with that.’ We waited a long time for Bill and we wanted to sort it out. But at the end of the day, especially after I was diagnosed, I thought, Fucking hell, that’s it. We’ve got to get a move on. I might pop off next year! So I emailed him and said, ‘Bill, we can’t wait any longer. We’ve got to get on with it.’ And that was it.”
The band switched gears and began auditioning drummers but didn’t find the right fit until producer Rick Rubin offered the seemingly left-field suggestion of Brad Wilk, from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. “We had our doubts, because they play a different, funky sort of music,” Iommi says. “But after a few days of rehearsal, we knew Rick was right. Brad was a really good player, and he was getting it. We liked his style and the way he tried different things instead of being regimented. It was sort of jazzy and loose, like Bill.”
With Wilk in place, Black Sabbath set up camp at Rubin’s Shangri-La studios in Malibu to record the album. Rubin had the band cut the basic tracks live in the studio together to help capture the vibe of the early Sabbath records. These sessions were also the first time Osbourne had tracked a studio record with Sabbath since the contentious, drug-addled experience of recording 1978’s lackluster Never Say Die! Not surprisingly, the singer felt a twinge of performance anxiety.
“The pressure on us was terrific,” Osbourne says. “I didn’t want to sound hokey, trying to cop Paranoid or Master of Reality. But at the end of the day, you just have to go with your heart and ‘let go and let god,’ as they say. I’ll know if I’m cutting corners and if I can do a better vocal take or melody.”