Science and spirituality have competed since, it could be said, the Garden of Eden, when humans chose knowledge of their senses (eating of the Tree of Knowledge) over the certainty of their souls.
Along these lines, violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, blues legend Robert Johnson, and many other champions of the sensuous have been suspected of diabolical collusion. We moderns hear such tales with ears attuned to cynicism. According to trendy revisionism, even Robert Johnson’s infamous crossroads guitar tuning with a nefarious pitch doctor has been classified as humbug. Its factual or apocryphal status will not be resolved here.
Rather, this essay explores the implications of a story whose basic facts, in themselves, are not in dispute. On a Friday afternoon in 1965, during his last day of work in a sheet metal factory, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi caught his fingertips in a machine press and pulled them off trying to extricate them (literally experiencing heavy metal). After surgery and fashioning makeshift fingertips, Iommi changed his manner of playing, de-tuned his guitar, formed Black Sabbath, and made history mainstreaming Satanism in popular culture by giving birth to Heavy Metal.
Members of Black Sabbath have long equivocated as to whether their concept was an opportunistic riff on a Boris Karloff movie or whether it derived from an interest in the occult, so bracket their testimony. Consider key facts: Iommi shed flesh and blood before achieving astronomical success (record sales exceeding 70 million, inspiring millions of fans, and creating an entire genre of popular culture) by peddling Satanism, mostly to teenagers. Whether this was accomplished via a blood pact with Satan is the crux of this matter. Bear in mind that, for free will, the occult must sometimes appear without disturbing people who would otherwise recoil in horror, shrieking: “Holy shit — that’s demonic!”
Imagine: Iommi was an ambitious working-class kid stuck in a factory in the British industrial north as the 1960s rolled distantly by. In desperation, he undertakes the unholy quid pro quo. In losing the tips of two fingers from his fretboard hand, Iommi gave up the capacity to physically feel the music he plays, a tremendous loss for a musician. Further, a good bit of his guitar playing since then has been accompanied by physical pain and occasional bleeding, which renews the initial offering. Along the way, he de-tunes his guitar, just like in the lore attached to Johnson, and sews diabolus in musica into the band’s theme song, whose very lyric recounts a demonic encounter. Let’s conjecture a reconciling of spiritual accounts at a later date with compounded interest. In return, Iommi would never work again in a factory in Birmingham or anywhere else, instead devoting the rest of his life to spreading the word of the Devil through song and partaking in the delights of rock superstardom.
Once eaten of the Tree, its Fruit is not easily dislodged.
“G-d of the almighty never answers their call
Satan is just waiting for the righteous to fall (to him).”
– “Damaged Soul,” Black Sabbath, 13 (2013)
[This vignette is part of our 500 words on Black Sabbath series]
Credit: Illustration by Derren Toussaint. 2018.