Out of the Box (and Into The Fire).
He finally had a paid gig out of the country. Professional. He was to leave in two days on his first tour. He had one day of work left before his trip to riches and glory. He was going to take that day off. But, his mother thought to teach him something of self-reliance. No one made money in a rock ‘n roll band.
Blues, he said it was. And he worked hard to learn the guitar. He was good.
Blues, rock, opera, what have you. She wouldn’t relent. You go into work, even if its your last day, she told him, and finish the job right. The next morning Tony went to work at the steel shop. That afternoon, he was rushed to the hospital with the tips of two fingers missing.
Tony was a tough kid. He had long hair and piercing dark Italian eyes. He grew up in a hard part of a hard town, fought his way through the neighborhood, played guitar and worked hard. His life changed that day. For worse and for better. The band, naturally, had to replace him. Tony fell into depression, but instead of turning back, he turned down. Literally. Laying in bed, his manager played him Django Reinhardt, the brilliant jazz guitarist who only had two usable fingers on one hand. Tony tried playing and fought through his tears. He melted down bicycle tubing into caps to place over the raw bones of his exposed fingers. He tuned the guitar down, so that the strings were looser, and he learned to play – cry and play – through the pain, slowly , relentlessly until he could play as well as he had before.
Then he left the house and got a band together with two Birmingham toughs and a strange druggie mystic on bass. The band was called Earth and they began to get noticed, not the least from the strangely tuned and oddly phrased guitar work that added an eerie depth to their 12-bar blues. And they followed their wounded muse down under those mean Aston streets, low enough to touch a universal chord, deathly human. Wrapped in a dank rehearsal dungeon across the street from a movie theater, Tony began playing around with the flatted fifth. The tri-tone interval sometimes referred to as the devil’s chord. Only it wasn’t actually a chord, but a two tone interval and the devil had no copyright. Tony had been through hell, and returned with its prize.
Earth got enough notice that management suggested they change the name of the band to something more original. The movie playing across the street was an English adaptation of “The Three Faces of Fear” by Mario Bava, marketed in England under the title “Black Sabbath”. Within a year, Heavy Metal, the Italian opera of hard rock ‘n roll, had risen from its own grave.
My older cousin sat on the corner of the bed in my black room. She pulled the copy of Paranoid from next to my dresser. “Would you like to tell me about this?”
My pals were in search of the heaviest music then. It was what kids do. Try to follow their muse. First it was arcane box score statistics from the backs of baseball cards. Then it was everything there was to know about the “F” club, with each of us bringing a new piece of the puzzle to the clubhouse. “They don’t do it standing up. They lay side to side.” I had posited the theory that the couple lay heads apart, on their sides, legs scissored over each other. Little by little we brought back more information. Girls bled. They cried, and seemed to speak their own language. Still, there was something there we knew we had to touch. And some of us did, and brought back reports from the field.
Then it was cigarettes. “The French smoke upside down.” Then drugs. “Hey, have you heard about…” And in each case it was a race to see who could bring back the coolest bit of info, the sweetest taste, the deepest smells, the roughest chords. The muse had become a siren, calling us to the rocks threatening all we were told to know.
It was then she brought us music. Louder the better. Then eclipsing merely loud, was heavy. Heavy music was a statement of our burgeoning masculinity. It separated us from the music we listened to with girls. It was music that frightened them. This was good, since they so frightened us. It was our way back. Our parents simply had no reference for any of it. David brought “Live at Leeds” down to the dungeon. Mike brought Hendrix. Voodoo Chile ripped my face off. I was tripping and actually pulled the earphones off in panic. Wherever Hendrix was going, I was too young, too white, too naive to follow. Then Steve brought Led Zeppelin 2. Oh, my God. How could you top that bottom? Moby Dick, and the thunder of the Gods.
But then, making up for my badly estimated guess at the mechanics of the sex act, my poor showing in sports, sex and cigarettes, I finally brought the prize. I had heard about a group that I was sure was obscure and unknown. They had warrants out on them. They sacrificed animals onstage. Their whole show was one black mass. (This was actually attributed to a band called Black Widow, but all the Black something’s had conflated into one somber dirge of glory to us. We were in love). They had sold their souls to the devil, and he taught them to play.
It turned out my find was not that obscure. Within months, Black Sabbath were the biggest act in heavy music, the neighborhood guitarists were furiously learning fat magic riffs and I had painted my room black.
My cousin was born a born again Christian. She held the LP and looked at me. I gave her the standard line. The music was dark because our world had become dark. The band was urging the youth to find a way out. To make things better. They had chosen the name after a movie. There was no portent intended. Yeah, sure. And, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds had nothing to do with drugs, and Paul never had an inkling of his rumored death. Right. In my heart, I knew these guys had met the devil. And through them I knew the devil was just like the rest of us. Only, maybe louder.
They’re singing about the devil, she said.
So, I asked my cousin why we always spoke about Jesus, but never Satan. Maybe he was just a guy with a shitty job, wanting love like anybody else. She just looked at me. We sat in the black room and tried to knit divergent philosophies. She left the room in tears. It wasn’t a level playing field. To me, she was missing out on the ability to see the world with greater depth and focus, not to mention some really great music. That was sad, but I loved her anyway. But, to her, I was lost. I was going to burn in hell for all eternity. And for what? Because I had made a choice to look for the way, rather than look the other way?
What got me was the idea that ideas were bad; that questions were questionable; that thinking outside of the box was unthinkable. I never understood the thought that we can think and think and rethink the same things again and again, believing the same things over and over and never look out of the frame. If we spent our lives talking about something, it seemed we might want to explore what that something was. If we were supposed to fear something, wouldn’t we do well to know what that that was? If we suffered from depression throughout our whole life, shouldn’t we, at some point, ask what it was trying to tell us?
Maybe if we actually looked at the beast under the bed, we might find a frightened child. And that forgotten child just may hold the key to the magic missing in our life. Rather than looking at what we already know, maybe the darkest places are exactly where we need to be looking. Mightn’t we look into the face of our pain and find out what’s looking back?
On the other hand, we could just slink away from our pain and its questions. We could have a pleasant life with boxed ideas that keep us warm through dark emotional nights. Only that box is a prison, and that life is a death sentence. And, we’re our own wardens. No matter how tight and hard we make our life, we’ll stay in that box forever because the thought of thinking out of it is too threatening. People stay married to abusive mates, employed by abusive bosses, stuck in lives they hate because they can’t conceive of a way out. We dance the republidemocratican tango, buying the rhetoric and believing that we have a say in the funneling of our passions into a system built solely to support itself. We barter authority over our lives for the security of an easy world view: white is white, black is wrong, those people are the reason we suffer. In this way, we separate ourselves from the world in our own prison mind. And, we can’t conceive of a way out.
We can’t conceive of a way out because the way out can’t be conceived. Liberation lies beyond concept. It can only be done by doing. By taking the leap. And that leap is so much farther when we’re fat and happy, living a price is right life, sailing off into the haze of a pharmaceutical sunset.
In order to change, we need to reroute our neuro-landscape. We have to travel “off-road” and away from the neural pathways of programmed patterns and habitual behavior. This is a frightening prospect. Dropping habitual behavior is daunting for many reasons, but particularly because we don’t know what will happen on the other side. Habit patterns rely on neural connections from an impulse to a thought and a thought to an action. The more we chose the pattern, the more those connections become entrenched. As those neural pathways become overused, other receptors begin to atrophy. Therefore, the more entrenched the pattern, the less accessible alternative neural connections become. The more entrenched the habit, the less likely we’ll see an alternative. In order to find an alternative response the impulse has to effectively travel across empty space. The experience of a neural command not making its expected connection is like death. Taking a leap makes no sense to ego based thought structures and so we instinctively avoid open space.
And we’ll do this even if all we’ve ever wanted lies right on the other side. We’ll sit locked in the safety of our habitual mind, and look at the goddess calling from the other side. But, we’re frightened they are just sirens calling us off course. We’d rather dream of what we want than actually risk the difference in trying to get it. Our dreams are not enough to risk upsetting the status quo. We just won’t see a way to make the connection. We won’t take the leap.
Unless we have no choice. Leaping is much easier when there’s no alternative, when our back is against the wall. When the pain becomes so great we’re forced to change. In this way, the painful stuff of life sometimes becomes the stuff of liberation. But, we can’t get off the circular death spiral by becoming more comfortable. We have to be willing to look into the face of danger and ask why. Liberation comes from facing our situation and learning to feel our own pain. Light comes the moment we sink into the dark, and actually touch the sadness of our human hearts. And from the darkened depths we rise, like a phoenix afire, into a life most lived.
For me, at 13, it took the pounding sludge of Iron Man to feel the power of my own being. Nothing liberated like rock and roll, and Sabbath kicked the shit out of anything in the way. And it all came from pain. Not from the devil, as a being, but the idea of the devil as the OPPOSITE of surety and a gateway toward asking the all wrong questions. It came from saying no to the immediately convenient yes, and yes to everything else that had been bottled up inside. Yes to possibility. No to all the thoughts we’ve thought forever. And, yes to that which lies beyond thought, because it hadn’t been thought of yet. Thinking out of the (pine) box, you might say. Coming alive in the re-animation of the brain’s unused real estate.
Adversity can lead to death, or it can lead to the creative impulse. A way of saying ‘fuck it’ in the positive. Changing the habit and moving forward into the unknown. But, aye, there’s the rub: For in this life of dreams what death may come? If we leave security, where do we go? If we know, then it’s no leap at all, but a graduation into the next round of the same old shit game. But, if we leap in truth, in an authentic creative impulse, we might leap out of the box and into open space. Meditation Master Chogyam Trungpa said, life is free falling. But, the good news is, there is no ground. So, we might as well cheer up, let go and enjoy the ride. The joke’s on us anyway. I mean, we all know how the story ends, don’t we?
On the way down, we can choose to remain locked in the vice between good and evil and live a life already dead. Or, in our darkest moments, turn directly toward the sirens and leap without guarantee.
In 2012, Tony Iommi was diagnosed with Lymphoma. He began his battle for survival, touching the diaphanous shroud of death as he fell back into himself, his treatment and his bedroom. At that point, he might have given in. Instead, he reconvened his unholy choir after 35 years and composed some of the greatest music of his career. A year later, while still doing chemotherapy, Tony was on a worldwide tour promoting a reunion album that, despite all the band’s previous success, had become the first Black Sabbath record to reach number 1 in the United States.