Geezer Butler: “Heavy Metal Keeps You Young… I Still Feel Like I’m 25!”
Geezer Butler is a name that will be forever revered in the pages of rock history. His earth-rumbling bass lines and infinity-pondering lyrics in Black Sabbath would lay root and become ground zero for heavy metal as we know it. Virtually every band you’ll read about through Kerrang! owe them a debt.
Then there’s his work for animal charities, rescuing cats and dogs while also campaigning to change laws regarding their welfare – and actually succeeding in doing so. Even his signature bass straps, made by Heavy Leather NYC, had to be manufactured using marine-grade vinyl, in accordance with the plant-based diet he’s followed for most of his 70 years.
His Armageddon-inspired musings on classic ‘70s cuts like Wicked World and Into The Void would herald environmentalist concerns through their contemplation of a planet plundered by mankind, devastated after decades of pollution and warfare, almost as if he was staring into a crystal ball as he wrote them. Then there was the time, not even that long ago, he got arrested and woke up in jail for punching a Nazi (“I’m not really allowed to talk about that, I signed an NDA and I had to pay the git off”).
It’s no point-scoring moral crusade with Geezer, however. He’s a man who practices what he preaches, and he was actively pursuing such agendas long before they were considered remotely righteous, alternative or cool. By his own admission, when the Black Sabbath bassist took his final bow at Birmingham’s Genting Arena on February 4, 2017, he genuinely thought that was it – his musical journey had come to an end. The 5K-rated final farewell in the band’s hometown was supposed to mark the beginning of his retirement, one which thankfully proved to be short-lived (“It was great for the first year, but then I started getting really bored, to be honest”). New supergroup Deadland Ritual – including ex-Guns N’ Roses sticksman Matt Sorum and Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, alongside vocalist Franky Perez – sees Geezer’s booming low-end rhythms rattling PA systems once more.
Kerrang! joins him at home in Los Angeles to look back on a legacy like no other…
What was it like growing up in Aston?
“I had a really happy childhood because my favourite football team, Aston Villa, were just down the road from where I lived. I love the Villa. I was also brought up Catholic, the church was just down the road as well, so everything felt very local. We didn’t have any cars when I was growing up, so we were restricted to Aston, which was fine by me.”
Even though you grew up playing amongst post-World War II-bombed buildings and air-raid shelters?
“Yeah, there were also burned-out cars we’d play in, and a factory across the road. I could hear the noise every day, but when you’re growing up that’s all you know. There’s no other kind of life or place that you are aware of. I had no reason to leave Aston, though we used to go to Dublin every other year because that’s where my mum and dad were from. We’d visit aunts and uncles, as well as my grandma. That was the extent of our holidays back then.”
Speaking of which, is it true there was an IRA connection somewhere in the family?
“Where did you get that from (laughs)?! When I used to go to Ireland, we’d sing old songs, mainly about the 1960 rebellion. Then one day, I was messing about in the kitchen and was looking underneath the gas stove and I found a revolver! I think it was my dad’s from the Second World War.”
You first played with Ozzy Osbourne in the band Rare Breed. What were your first impressions of him?
“There would be these all-nighters in Birmingham. All the rock people would go to a place called The Penthouse and all the soul people would go to Midnight City. These nights would finish at six o’clock in the morning, so I was walking home one time and on the other side of the road there was this skinhead coming back from Midnight City in his mohair suit… and that was Ozzy. We didn’t talk because he was a soul man and I was a rock man.”
So when did it all change?
“I needed a new singer for Rare Breed. I remember looking around in this music shop and there was a sign that said, ‘Ozzy Zig needs a gig!’ It had an address on there, which was just around the corner from me, plus the magic words, ‘Has own PA’! So I went round, but he wasn’t in. His sister said she’d tell him I’d called and later that night there was a knock on the door. My brother went to open it and he came back saying, ‘There’s something outside that wants to see you.’ I answered, ‘What do you mean, something?!’ There was Ozzy with a chimney brush over his shoulder, his dad’s work gown on and a trainer on a dog lead. He said, ‘I’m Ozzy Zig.’ I asked if he still had that PA and as soon as he said yes, that was it, I went, ‘You’re in!’”
Not long after, you had the fateful experience which prompted the lyrics to the song Black Sabbath. What do you remember about that?
“By this point, I’d moved out of my mum’s house and got a flat with my girlfriend. I was really interested in black magic and painted my entire room black, with inverted crucifixes all over the place. It was back when we were called Polka Tulk and Ozzy had brought me this black magic book in Latin or something. We had a few joints and he left me with it. Later that night, I put the book in the airing cupboard outside on the landing, and I went to bed. I woke up scared to death, there was this big black shape looking in at me. Whether it was a dream or not, who knows, but it was very real at the time. I got really frightened by it all. I immediately got up and associated it with the book Ozzy had given me, but the book had vanished! I told Ozzy the next day and that’s how he came up with the lyrics for Black Sabbath.”
After that, Ozzy pretty much left all the lyrics to you. Did that please you?
“I was quite good at literature at school and got an A Level in English. In fact, I think I was the only one in the band who could read and write! I thought the lyrics to Black Sabbath weren’t that great to be honest, especially the ‘Satan’s coming ’round the bend’ bit. I always felt that was a bit weird. Ozzy would come up with off-the-cuff lyrics when we were writing the rest of that album. Of course, they didn’t make much sense, so it was left to me to sort the lyrics out.”
Your religious upbringing would inspire many of Sabbath’s lyrics, although you also ended up needing to wear crosses after being hexed by a cult. How did that come about?
“Because I was brought up strict Catholic, I was a bit of a religious maniac as a kid. When everyone else used to buy Lone Ranger guns, I’d be saving for medals of Jesus and rosary beads! After a couple of albums, the head warlock in England got in touch and said somebody from the black magic community had put a curse on us, and the only way to ward it off was to wear crosses. So we did. We couldn’t afford to buy them, though I probably had about three million collected over my childhood, so Ozzy’s dad made us those Sabbath crosses. I still have the original aluminium one, but later on we had some gold ones made. I actually lost mine at Villa Park, of all places.”
You’ve often pointed out that 1973’s fifth album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was when the band started to get lost in the excess. Why?
“Originally, we all liked smoking weed, but we didn’t have enough money then to be able to afford the other stuff. So the more money we got, the more drugs we could afford. It started around our first American tour on [1970 album] Paranoid, then we wrote Sweet Leaf on [1971’s] Master Of Reality, we were all heavily smoking dope on that album. [1972 album] Vol. 4 is when we got into cocaine…”
What was the craziest trip you’ve ever had?
“I think we did the Poynton Jazz Festival and this girl had given Ozzy this tablet. She said it was for the four of us and we should divide it up, but I ended up taking it all. Nothing happened for a while, then I got home and my crosses started melting. I could see snakes coming out of the walls and everything. The next day we had a gig in Leamington Spa, right in the middle of this park, and as we drove through I could see all these flowers trying to get into the car! When we got onstage, I thought we were on a boat. The spotlights were the portholes of the boat and the crowd were the waves of the sea. It was like I was watching my fingers playing, but they had a mind of their own. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I got through the gig.”
Do you still smoke weed now?
“I don’t smoke anymore, no, but weed is legal in LA so you can get edibles which vary in strength. I’ll have a bit of chocolate with cannabis inside it and I’m all good. It doesn’t really get me stoned, it just relaxes me. One of the doctors I know prescribes CBD [Cannabidiol] for everything and he’s a proper doctor. He’s seen how it’s been working well for people. At the pot shop here, there’s a whole pet section. One of our cats is really shy, she’s scared of everybody and hides under the bed. The local pot shop says, ‘Try this!’ and she’s better now, eating more and looking relaxed. I never thought I’d see the day.”
You’ve always come across as the calmest member, perhaps even the mediator, of Sabbath. Why is that?
“Well, I’m the bass player, and I think bass players tend to be the quieter ones. I was never extreme like the other three.”
You previously described Ozzy first leaving the band in 1979 as the lowest point of your career. Is that still the case?
“Me and Bill [Ward, drums] were in tears, yeah. It was like our group of best friends – these brothers we always wished we’d had – was falling apart. It didn’t feel like a musical band, more like a family that went on the road making music and enjoying things together. I never thought one of us could ever leave or be fired. By the end of the ‘70s, it just wasn’t working anymore for the four of us. I don’t know if that was down to drugs or booze or whatever. We were just falling apart. None of us were really into the  album Never Say Die!, the most ironic title ever. Something had to change.”
And it did. The Dio years couldn’t have been more different in terms of the man fronting the band. What was Ronnie James Dio like?
“Absolutely. When he came in, he was very professional and enthusiastic – things which had been missing from the band for a while. Ozzy was more like a zombie back then, he really needed help and we didn’t know what to do. He needed someone like Sharon [Osbourne] to come in and get him together. I think she saved him in some respects. Ronnie was really refreshing, up for anything and coming up with ideas that were helpful.”
You’ve described yourself in the past as a bit of a crazy cat person. Why is that?
“Yeah, I love both cats and dogs. When I was growing up in Aston, there were seven children – mum and dad had seven kids – and each one of us had our own pet, under the same roof. There were tortoises, chickens, budgies, cats, dogs… all kinds. So I’ve always been used to lots of animals around me. Later on in life, my wife Gloria really got into the rescue side of things. She’s saved a lot of kittens and got puppy mills closed down. She even got most of the pet shops in LA banned from selling puppies. We both want to make sure animals have their rights. Declawing is disgusting. It’s like having your fingers chopped off. We helped get it banned in LA and then I did something in New York to get a bill through there, too.”
What made you decide to stop eating meat?
“As soon as I realised what meat was and I understood that I had been eating dead animals. It repulsed me and I was only about eight years old. I became vegetarian and my mum understood, she didn’t try to make me eat meat. But I still didn’t really know what a vegetarian was. In my head, it was normal not to eat meat. When we played in Hamburg and we went to a restaurant, everyone else had chicken, so I said, ‘I’ll just have rice.’ The waitress asked if I was vegetarian and it was the first time I’d ever heard the word. After that I’d tell catering I was vegetarian and still end up with fish. I thought being vegetarian meant eating vegetables!”
Is that how you ended up turning vegan?
“Yeah, eventually I started putting ‘vegan only’ on my rider. I realised what cheese was made from and that was the last thing I gave up, because I learned about it.”
You once said, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for – it’s still the same billionaires that run the world”. Is that true today?
“If anything, it’s more true. Politicians are a disgrace, I think. This whole Brexit thing is ridiculous. And I don’t even have to mention the current President of America…”
Does heavy metal help keep you young?
“It does. It’s true. I mean, I’ve got the worst hair in the world, I’m trying my best to keep it, but the music does keep you young. I see people my age and they have the beige coats and white trousers on, but I still feel like I’m 25, it’s weird. It is definitely down to the music. I still follow pop stuff, too, listening out for new bands in the charts. It keeps you feeling young, even if you don’t look it.”
Seventy years in, what do you think the meaning of life is?
“That you’re here, you live your life and you die. When you’re gone, that’s it. I don’t think there is any meaning. I don’t believe in an afterlife anymore, though I used to. I’ve given up on religion, because it’s far too divisive. That’s practically what all wars have come down to. Whether aliens came to earth and made everyone think there was a God, I don’t know! I think people totally miss the point of religion, which should be about getting on well with everybody.”
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