A Diamond Geezer
Superstar bass player Geezer Butler, recently took time out of Black Sabbath’s tour to give me an interview …
Geezer was practically born veggie. But not for the reasons you might think. As a child of 1949, in war-battered Birmingham, his choices were limited: “My mom didn’t like meat, but I was the youngest in a seven-sibling family, so vegetables and a few spuds were left after my parents and older siblings had their grub. So I grew up only eating vegetables”.
Music was a familiar presence, both in the home, and in the blood: one of his uncles was a jazz drummer, and a cousin in Ireland a violinist. “The Beatles were a major influence on my life” he says, “and when I was offered an acoustic guitar for 50p, my brother brought it for me to learn Beatles songs”.
Originally a rhythm guitarist, Geezer switched to bass “when Polka Tulk Blues Band got together”, which ultimately morphed into the fab foursome we know as Black Sabbath today: Butler on bass, Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, Tony Iommi on guitar, and Bill Ward on drums. It was Geezer who gave the band its name (a steal from an Italian horror movie). The chemistry was instant, and, in a daring departure from the popular music of the late 60s, which was dominated by flower power, folk music, and hippie culture, the Sabbath sound was dark, loud, and heavy!
Their groundbreaking, self-titled, first album – cannily released on Friday the 13th – defined what would come to be known as heavy metal. But it was Black Sabbath’s second album ‘Paranoid’ (1970) that topped the UK charts and catapulted the band to fame. To date, they have sold a staggering 70 million records worldwide.
Had Geezer come back down to earth, I wondered? “No.” he says, “Once you have that kind of success it is impossible to have any normal relationship with the world. People cling on to anyone who has been granted luck in this life. It often amazes me how seriously seemingly normal people react to even the slightest celebrity”.
While Butler’s bass playing is legendary, far less well known is his role as the band’s lyricist, responsible for penning most of the songs in the Sabbath canon, including the classic ‘War Pigs’. An anthem about “War mongers”, as he explained recently, in the Sabbath chapter of BBC’s ‘Classic Albums’ series: “That’s who the real Satanists are: all these people who are running the banks and the world, and trying to get the working class to fight their wars for them”.
The great American rock journalist Lester Bangs went so far to hail Black Sabbath as “the John Milton of Rock’ n Roll”. But Geezer remains distinctly unimpressed, and is quick to dismiss Bangs as a Johnny-come lately, and: “the most hypocritical person ever, having slaughtered us on his review of our first album”. Oops. Next question.
Geezer’s lyrics are direct, his themes notoriously somber, dealing with evil and the occult. What drew him to the ‘dark side’? I ask. “Satan” he quips, dryly. But the young Geezer, in an interview I unearthed from 1972, is far more forthcoming: “Nobody ever sings about what’s frightening and evil. I mean the world is a right f***ing shambles. Anyway, everybody has sung about all the good things”.
Nowadays, he resides in LA – which must be tough for a diehard Villa fan. Geezer’s love of Aston Villa football club famously knows no bounds. For instance, was it true, I asked, that when Black Sabbath was formally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, he said a cheeky “Up the Villa!” into the mic? “Yes, I did say that” he says proudly, “because I was born in Aston and Villa is my life”. Okay, so aside from The Villa, is there anything else that Geezer misses about the UK? Quite a lot, it turns out: “Pubs, bread, TV, rain, football, my son James, family and friends” And last, but not least, he lists: “Nelly and Puffy, my 2 UK cats” adding, “But I visit often”.
Despite maintaining that he is “not one of those ‘preachy’ kind of people”, Geezer was nevertheless persuaded to film a special video for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in 2009. Where he talks about his vegan diet, wife Gloria, their shared love of animals, and how, together, they campaign against puppy mills (big business in the US), protest outside pet shops, and give a loving home to rescued and abused animals. 13 at present: 9 cats, and 4 dogs. “I have always taken in stray cats and dogs,” says Geezer, “ever since I was born”
They also enjoy hosting dinner parties (don’t we all) where guests are initiated into the pleasures of vegan food … and come back for seconds. Result! Geezer himself favours no-frills fare, of a quintessentially British bent. A typical meal in the Butler household is “Baked spuds, beans on toast, Heinz spaghetti on toast, roast potatoes with sprouts and vegan sausages etc etc” While on tour, he indulges more exotic tastes, with a rider of: “Everything vegan, bread, Cheezly, soya spread, baked spuds, eggless pasta gnocchi, fruit, soy milk and soy cheese, hummous etc”
“I grew up vegetarian, so being vegan is no big deal to me” says Geezer. He’s certainly come a long way in his time, and so in its own way has veganism. But lest we get too carried away, he has a few parting words for the vegan faithful: ”Remember ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ were hardly part of that language when I was born. So it’s a custom lifestyle that I lead. Whatever gets you through: your conscience will get you through”.
© Louise Wallis
An edited version of this article was published in The Vegan magazine (Autumn 2012)