Black Sabbath On A Friday Night
Because my youngest daughter plays in the band, my wife and I have been going to high school football games for the past few years. The season is almost over, and as our daughter is a senior this year, the remaining few games will probably be our last. Although I’m not interested enough to go to the trouble of attending without some reason other than the game itself, I’ll miss this routine. There are few scenes more thoroughly American than the Friday night football game: the lights are bright, the grass is green, the crowd is cheerful, and if you don’t think too much about the dark side of our sports cult you can feel as if you’re participating in something innocent and earnest and harmless, something relatively untouched by the cultural decay of the past few decades.
And so it was with a little surprise that I recognized, after searching my memory for a minute, the rock-‘n’-roll riff that the band was playing at one of the first games we attended: “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath. The incongruity made me laugh out loud: here in the midst of an all-American ceremony was a bit of the cultural movement that had set out to destroy such things. I remember very well seeing the sinister covers of the first couple of Black Sabbath albums in stores when they came out in the early ‘70s, and hearing a little of the music. Both gave me the creeps, and I wanted nothing to do with them. But some of their music floated out of the then-new heavy metal ghetto into the broader stream of pop music, and now here, under the lights of a football stadium, competing with the p.a. system and the roar of the crowd, slammed out by a marching band, was one of those riffs which, I would guess, a majority of Americans under the age of 55 or so would recognize, even if they could not name it.
“Iron Man,” I soon discovered, is only one of many ‘70s riff songs that have become part of the repertoire of high-school and college bands. I suppose this is evidence that a lot of today’s high-school band directors came of age in the ‘70s. Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” is a standard, and I’ve also heard another Black Sabbath song, “Paranoid” (which is, like “Louie Louie,” one of the great riffs of all time, at once dumb and unforgettable) played there. And is my imagination getting ahead of the facts, or did one band actually feature a Black Sabbath medley in its halftime show?
It seems almost quaint now, after so many far worse things have come down the pike of popular music, to think that Black Sabbath’s music and lyrics were regarded as evil. I really never heard that much of them, but I just looked up some of their lyrics online and for the most part they aren’t that bad: there are images of menace and fear, but very little of the Satanism implied by the name of the band, and a surprising number of the songs seem to be the typical complaints about a girlfriend that comprise a lot of rock music. The lyrics of both “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” though grim and gloomy, are not satanic. I doubt anyone would find them seriously frightening or disturbing now.
Still, the band did, if I remember correctly, cultivate a dark and occult atmosphere, conveying at the very least a fascination with evil. Does it mean anything that their music is now part of the Friday night football experience? Is this a testimony to the absorptive power of American culture, or a measure of its subversion?
Both, I think. Almost everyone today would recognize the name of Black Sabbath’s original lead singer, Ozzie Osbourne, who after a long career of bizarre behavior is now almost an establishment figure, greeted familiarly and affectionately by the president of the United States at a public gathering a couple of years ago. Pundits argued about the TV show which followed the clearly rather damaged Ozzie and his family around for a year or two: did it prove how far gone we are? Or did it show that even a drug-addled shock-rocker could be a good-hearted family man?
This sort of side-show can almost always be counted on to generate a controversy, and a fairly useless one. Traditionalists deplore, liberationists applaud, ho hum. Meanwhile, I noticed on CNN’s web site the other day a story about some corporation’s attempt to revive Penthouse magazine, the former and now fallen rival to Playboy. The story analyzed the business plan—which included, of course, cheerful prospects for the role the Internet and other “new media” would play in getting the products into as many hands as possible—in the same terms in which one would discuss selling office supplies or building materials.
Why worry about whether Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath may have done a bit of subcontracting here and there for Satan, when we have allowed him to set up shop openly in the town square, and treat him as a respectable merchant?