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Twilight of the Dinosaurs

Black Sabbath returns at Lollapalooza for classic rock’s final encore.

Osbourne

Imagine you’re at a humdrum Middle American rock festival in 1973. Just as virtuoso Moog-ist Ken Hensley begins an epic journey through the spacey protracted middle movement of Uriah Heep’s “Gypsy,” a shirtless gentleman sitting cross-legged next to you posits the following hypothetical: What if this moment represents the past, present, and future of rock music? Not just this bitchin’ mystical keyboard twinkling, but the whole thing — the festival, the stoned bros listlessly bobbing their heads, and (especially) the bands. What if people will be experiencing roughly the same concert, over and over again, for decades to come?

This scenario is imaginary, but it happens to essentially be true for Black Sabbath, which built an empire out of playing humdrum Middle American rock festivals before, during, and after 1973. This weekend, the pioneering metal band will reunite to spearhead yet another festival, Lollapalooza in Chicago, with its original lineup mostly intact. (Drummer Bill Ward is holding out because of a contract dispute.) That Black Sabbath, of all bands, is virtually alone among its peers in having all charter members alive and relatively well (Tony Iommi’s recent cancer diagnosis notwithstanding) seems impossible. There are a million reasons why This Should Not Have Happened. Here’s just one, related by Ozzy Osbourne in a 2004 Rolling Stone interview about how the band shaped the Tony Montana–size monolith of Bolivian marching powder that is Vol. 4, one of rock’s most notorious “coke” records: “One night me and Bill were fucking drunk and taking a piss together. I see this aerosol can and squirt his dick with it. He starts screaming and falls down. I look at the can and it says, WARNING: DO NOT SPRAY ON SKIN — HIGHLY TOXIC. I poisoned Bill through his dick!”

Nothing — not Satan, not drug abuse, not dick poisoning — has prevented the mighty Sabbath from arriving at this point, in which the band members still resemble their early-’70s selves. And when I say “resemble,” I don’t just mean “standing upright and with a pulse,” though that’s not an insignificant attribute for the men of Sabbath in 2012.

I just watched some videos taken from one of Sabbath’s warm-up gigs for the Lollapalooza concert, which took place at the U.K.’s Download Festival in June, and I’m amazed by how well these wizened monuments to rock’s most stupidly decadent period can still play. My all-time favorite Sabbath song is probably “Snowblind” — Vol. 4‘s self-explanatory mission statement about how cocaine makes you feel both alienated and impervious to alienation, just as a master of the universe should — and the live version taken from the Download performance is just about as molten and foreboding as it is on the original record. If not for the occasional “everybody go fucking nuts now!” interjection from Ozzy, I’d swear it was the record. As a live unit, Black Sabbath is still a formidably evil proposition. Selling your soul for rock and roll is a bad long-term investment, but it pays dividends far richer than droog-y twentysomething musicians from the bleakest sections of Birmingham could’ve hoped for.

The clips sound so good that I wish I hadn’t played them, since they compound my regret over not being able to see Black Sabbath in the flesh this weekend. I was already feeling remorseful about missing Sabbath for the same reason rock fans typically rue not handing over obscenely large gobs of money in order to watch men who look like Philip Baker Hall play deep cuts at the local basketball arena: This could be the last chance to see a capital-L Legendary, capital-B Band play live. I already missed the boat on experiencing the second-best version of Black Sabbath, the Heaven and Hell/Mob Rules lineup headed up by the late Ronnie James Dio, who passed on in 2010 to battle dragons in an alternate dimension. Our aging rockers once conjured immense power, but now they exude fragility, and this is what draws us in.

And yet this fragility has frequently seemed like a marketing ploy. When I saw the Rolling Stones from the last row of Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, I assumed they would either retire after this tour or die; that was 18 years ago, when Mick Jagger was a mere babe of 51, and Voodoo Lounge seemed profound in a valedictory sense, and the Stones’s rumored 50th-anniversary tour slated for 2013 was a glimmer in the Glimmer Twins’ eyes. When I saw The Who play at a truly horrible Chicago-area shed, I really thought the end was near. John Entwistle had keeled over in a Las Vegas hotel room just one month earlier, leaving behind Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the two members who seemed to have zero affection for each other. That was 10 years ago, and Townshend and Daltrey will be touring again as The Who this fall and playing Quadrophenia in its entirety. And there’s a decent chance I’ll pay to see that tour, too, because I suck at good-byes.

The nice thing about classic rock bands is that they eventually come around to behaving pretty much exactly the way you want them to. Time has a way of wearing out artistic pretensions and wearing down egos. All that’s left is the money the public is willing to plug into very expensive jukeboxes. For the right price, the Van Halen brothers will finally reunite with David Lee Roth. Roger Waters will resurrect The Wall. Paul McCartney will perform three hours of Beatles favorites and choice Wings hits. Lindsey Buckingham will give Stevie Nicks the stink-eye during “Go Your Own Way” on another Fleetwood Mac reunion tour.

These bands are like grandparents that have reached the age at which every birthday warrants a party. They raised us out of adolescence, looking down sagely from stacks of CDs and posters on the bedroom wall, taking in all the transgressions that occur on childhood beds from seventh grade through graduation. In return, we feel compelled to visit them now that they’re old, and we come bearing gifts: Waters grossed nearly $62 million on the road in the first half of 2012, making him the year’s (so far) top rock tour. Van Halen was second, with about $45 million. The next best-paid rock acts, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Elton John, are of similar vintage.

Pointing out that rock artists from the ’60s and ’70s still sell lots of concert tickets is banal, I know. But nobody seems to realize that we’re just about finished with all of this, for real this time. To put it delicately, our rock legends won’t be with us forever, and the end is set to happen in the next decade or so, as more and more of them penetrate deep into their 70s and even 80s. In the not-so-distant future, the most ubiquitous bands of the last 50 years will be history. This is indisputable: That perpetual rock festival from 1973 is about to get its final encore.

I‘m not going to make a case for or against bands like Black Sabbath continuing to exist well into their black-socks-and-sandals years. Certainly, there are those who will argue that being free of the classic-rock dinosaurs will be a good thing. And maybe they’re right. But people have been trying to kill off these groups since at least the late ’70s. The whole basis for thinking punk was a separate movement — rather than the next step in rock’s evolution — rests on how it supposedly made these legacy bands irrelevant, even if that’s obviously not the case. Like it or not, people still respond to this music.

What I am interested in is the fact that rock, for all its “youth” music baggage, somehow became the one popular music genre where not dying before you get old is rewarded handsomely. There is no equivalent for Black Sabbath in hip-hop or country music. Run-DMC and George Jones do not fit comfortably with the contemporary practitioners of their respective genres, nor are they still popular enough to headline a major music festival. In rock, the continuum of great artists remains unbroken and ubiquitous.

Radio usually gets the credit (or blame) for keeping the dinosaurs alive. At some point, somebody (mainly this guy) decided that Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone” should soundtrack rush-hour traffic every single day in every radio market in the country, and that’s inevitably impacted how certain bands endure in the popular consciousness over other bands. The Seattle Weekly recently suggested that the Portable People Meter, a new listener-monitoring device employed by Arbitron to generate more accurate ratings, might make musical comfort food like Zeppelin and The Beatles even more entrenched on the airwaves, because it rewards familiar songs at the expense of new artists.

At one point in the Seattle Weekly story, a radio program director asks, “What does ‘new’ really mean?” He’s trying to deflect the implication that radio is more stifling and boring than ever, and it’s kind of ridiculous, but he’s also right about how classic-rock bands are perceived by many listeners. And, yes, that includes “the kids.” A sizable portion of the classic-rock audience is too young to listen to these bands nostalgically. They might have heard “Stairway to Heaven” or “Hey Jude” or “Iron Man” for the first time last week. For them, these songs exist in a present-day context.

“Virtual reality perpetuity” of music culture engendered by the Internet is how Billy Corgan recently described it. Quoting Billy Corgan as an authority is the absolute worst way to establish credibility most of the time, but he’s exactly right on this one. As he recently told Consequence of Sound, “if you’re a kid and your dad loves Dark Side of the Moon, you can pretty much go on the Internet and almost pretend that Pink Floyd 1972 still exists. You can watch Live at Pompeii. You can get the DVD and the box set. Who gives a shit that that band hasn’t existed for 40 years. Who gives a shit? When I got into The Doors in 1982, full on, I didn’t care that Jim Morrison was dead; he was speaking to me through the fucking tape machine.”

If I can fact-check Billy for a second: The Doors actually continue to exist, tour, and record “hot as hell” collaborations with Skrillex. A young Doors fan can still see a de–Lizard King’ed version of the band so long as there’s an Indian gaming casino within driving distance. The “out of time” quality of the Internet still exists IRL as far as classic rock is concerned.

And that’s important, not just for classic rock bands but rock music in general. In our culture, Black Sabbath and its contemporaries still signify what this music is supposed to look and sound like. Nothing ever came along to replace them. When I think about the big rock bands of my generation, their biggest collective failing (in terms of being timeless, as opposed to being associated with a specific era) is that they gave up too soon. Practically every major rock group of the ’90s imploded; only Pearl Jam and Radiohead have carried on, though it could be argued that they survived by diluting their commercial prominence and becoming glorified cult bands. Those groups don’t represent something bigger than themselves; ’90s rock was all about dismantling “representing something bigger than yourself” as a workable idea. Meanwhile, the dinosaurs kept marching forward.

Again, I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing. What I’m saying is that Black Sabbath still being around to perform at Lollapalooza this weekend keeps a particular version of rock music alive and “current,” whatever “current” means in this day and age. And once Black Sabbath is no longer able to do this, that version of rock music will finally begin to fade. It could come back in the form of a hologram or a Cirque du Soleil show. But by then it will officially stand for something that’s dead and gone forever.