Wednesday, December 3, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 337): "PARANOID" (1970) Black Sabbath

OK today we pay tribute to one of the great singles of heavy metal music. And it’s Ozzy Osbourne’s birthday. Oh, I know Ozzy has been a TV-star clown for most of recent memory, with his reality show The Osbournes (2002-05), but before he played himself as an addled middle-aged rock star, he was known only as the frontman, and the shrieky, whiny voice, often sounding strangled by passion, of Black Sabbath.

My older brother brought home Paranoid after its release in 1971 in the U.S. And we all got onboard. Me, by then I was already a confirmed reader of Poe and those collections of tales published under the banner of Alfred Hitchcock or with names like 11 Tales of Terror, to say nothing of sci-fi as in Ray Bradbury, and, of course Creepy and Eerie magazines, and Hammer and Universal monster movies. The sound of Black Sabbath was, indeed, a bit creepy and eerie, not least the lead-off song on the album, “War Pigs”—which was the original title of the album—with its searing opening line “Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at Black Masses.” These were songs that sounded like they were meant to be unsettling, Gothic. And “Hand of Doom,” about a heroin-addicted vet, scared the bejeesus out of me. This wasn’t the kind of flirting with heroin addiction that seemed a badge of hipness as with the Stones. This was dismal and deadening.

But what we mainly took from Black Sabbath’s second album—and to some extent from its debut, Black Sabbath (1970)—was the power of Tony Iommi’s riff-rock, and Bill Ward’s sledgehammer drumming, and the mordant lyrics and thick slabs of bass guitar from Geezer Butler, and, of course, the gasping frenzy of Ozzy’s vocals. For a brief shining moment, they were the band—because, when you’re 12, nothing gets you going like death and destruction and apocalyptic visions and, yeah, the supreme dissociation of today’s song.

Finished with my woman / ’Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind / People think I’m insane / Because I am frowning all the time. As a pre-teen, the idea that a woman could actually help you with your mind was news to me. But that part about frowning all the time was key, as I felt myself to be a rather dour dude, where others were concerned anyway. I’m not saying I was proto-Goth or anything, but, like many kids that age, felt exiled to my own personal fantasia where the only saving grace would be: if the world would change, change utterly. Down with suburbia! Down with mediocrity in taste and entertainment! Down with the war in Vietnam! Down with mandatory church services! Etc.

As an adult hearing this song—and I went back and picked up this kind of staple of my early years around 1999 in an effort to get closer to that kid I was—I’m still floored by that snap and fuzzed guitar at the end of each verse’s second line. It feels like jaws clamping. And the bridge is so incredible because it’s so fast and so unencumbered by any purpose other than giving us a breather from trying to fling words into that relentless, driving rhythm. And I swear to God I always heard the end as “And so as you hear these words / Telling you now of my state / I tell you to end your life / I wish I could but it’s too late.” Granted it doesn’t make too much sense—when is it ever too late to end your life?—but it never occurred to me that he says “I tell you to enjoy life,” simply because that would be so unlike the Oz.

Happiness I cannot feel / And love to me is so unreal. As the Geezer himself has said, what the song really describes is depression, not paranoia per se. I won’t say that I was ever actually depressed, in that sense, nor ever paranoid, but I do recognize the pithy virtues of those lines. It’s not that one doesn’t feel “loved” (whatever that means) as a kid, but one hasn’t yet understood what it means to be in an adult relationship. All of that eludes one, stuck in kidstuff and bored by what adults seem to find acceptable as pastimes.

The song plays, lyrically, as a cri de coeur of someone lost and hoping to find someone or something to give purpose to his life. But the song feels like an adrenalin rush, a fully empowered exultation in feeling cut-off from one’s fellows, of shunning the cheap emotions that pass for “happiness” among the dazed and confused. “Can you help me occupy my brain?” he asks, and that’s a key line. The idea that being “wasted” is actually the state of wasting one’s time by having nothing worthwhile to think about. That “mindless” occupations occupy one’s time but not one’s brain is the rub. That sort of thing certainly jells with middle school, and all too often the rest of life as well.

All day long I think of things / But nothing seems to satisfy could well be my motto

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