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Iommi Bloody Iommi

Cancer and controversy can't stop Black Sabbath's true Iron Man.

When Black Sabbath—heavy metal's widely acknowledged patient zero—announced a reunion of its original lineup in 2011, promising a tour and an album of all-new material to be produced by Rick Rubin, it seemed too awesome to be true. And it was: Drummer Bill Ward declined to accept the "unsignable" contract he was handed, leading to still-ongoing interband acrimony (Ward has been erased from photos on the Sabbath website) and causing Rubin to push Portland-born Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk onto the throne. The resulting record, 13, met with strong sales and critical acclaim when issued in June, but a dark cloud hangs over the album and the tour.

Whatever the reunion could have been, this is what we have. And its shining star is, unquestionably, guitarist Tony Iommi. On 13, he performs like it's the last album he'll ever make—which is quite possible, given the grim reaper of lymphoma beckoning over his shoulder. Willamette Week spoke to the man who invented metal guitar about replacing Ward, his health and, of course, the sweet leaf.

On working with Rick Rubin:

"Rick wanted us to go back to the basic idea of recording, like we did the first album. It was hard, at first, to get into, because it's been over 40-odd years since we recorded that way of just walking in, playing and walking out. But it sort of worked. And it was what it really needed. Because it's so easy to start saying, 'Well, I'll put another guitar on here and we'll put a harmony on there and Ozzy [Osbourne] can do a vocal harmony.' See, Rick didn't want any of that. He wanted it just to be very basic. And I actually did go in and put a harmony on one part, and Rick took 'em off!"

On replacing Bill Ward:

"Rick suggested Ginger Baker, which we put a stop on. We didn't think Ginger Baker would have been…we didn't want to go in the studio and have, um, problems. And we did try some big-name drummers, some very big-name drummers. And they were great. But Rick particularly suggested Brad Wilk. And it was great because Brad had no idea what we were gonna be doing. We wouldn't let him hear the tracks with drums. We just wanted to see what he was gonna put to it. And Brad was a really nice guy. He did work hard, you know, because he was thrown in the deep end so much, and he was very nervous. And then he got used to us. He got used to our jokes, the way we prank around.” 

On health:

"Ronnie [James Dio, who fronted Black Sabbath on its 2009 tour and died in 2010] was getting stomach pains, and he was telling me before we were going onstage some nights, 'Oh, my stomach's really playing up,' and he'd ask me if I've got any Tums or anything. And I said, 'You should get it checked, you know, Ronnie.' Of course, he did, but it was too late. And that's the problem. It's easy to overlook these things. I mean, I'm probably more over the top than I ever have been now. I check everything every day. You just don't know. A lump pops up and you've gotta get it sorted."

On doing another Black Sabbath record:

"It all depends on my health, really. But I don't think it would be hard to do another album, because we work so well together once we start cracking. And I've got plenty of ideas and stuff. But we'll have to see what happens at the end of the year, after tour. I mean, for me, this is a whole new venture, because it's the first time I've been out on tour since I've been ill for the last two years. And I have to treat things very differently to how I did five years ago. I've always put the band first, but now, of course, I have to put my health first."

On the last time he smoked a joint with his bandmates:

“A long time ago. We haven’t all done that together since ’77 or something like that.” 

SEE IT: Black Sabbath plays the Gorge Amphitheatre, 754 Silica Road NW, George, Wash., with Andrew WK, on Saturday, Aug. 24. 7:30 pm. $45-$125. All ages.