In spite of Black Sabbath’s vast influence on popular culture, the band remains poorly served by rock historians. In particular, founding guitarist Tony Iommi—Sabbath’s only constant member throughout its thunderous, tumultuous existence—rarely gets his due. When praised by mainstream critics, he’s too often treated with tokenism; when praised by metal fans, he’s heaped with unqualified hyperbole. No wonder Iommi decided to set the record straight with Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven And Hell With Black Sabbath. Only he doesn’t set the record straight at all. In fact, Iommi’s memoir sticks to a familiar formula: vapid, empty, vaguely congratulatory hype.
Iommi doesn’t even congratulate himself for the right reasons. Swamped with tedious minutia about labels, managers, drugs, and money, Iron Man spends more time recounting all the sports cars Iommi has bought over the years than it spends on, say, the actual creation and evolution of the guitarist’s groundbreaking sound. Iommi’s loss of the tips of two fingers in his youth—which drove him to invent the stark style that launched a million riffs—is treated perfunctorily and without an ounce of drama. Even Sabbath’s quantum leap from blues to metal in the late ’60s is dismissed by Iommi in the dullest terms: “I played ‘dom-dom-dommm.’ And it was like: That’s it!” Equally underserved are Iommi’s artistic relationships with Sabbath’s best-known singers, Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. Dio’s death of stomach cancer in 2010 ushers out Iron Man on one of its weakest notes: Iommi eulogizes Dio by discussing the eating habits that may have contributed to his illness rather than the epic voice that contributed so much to Sabbath’s music.
When Iommi sinks his teeth into the occasional meaty anecdote—for instance, his brief stint in Jethro Tull—he’s able to wring a little substance out of it. The problem is, he brings no more context or gravitas to his life story than if he were the bassist of a second-string L.A. glam band. The hype-slingers have one thing right: Sabbath’s tale is mythic. It’s also resonantly human. With Osbourne increasingly happy to don clown makeup for the masses, it’s practically Iommi’s duty to preserve his share of Sabbath’s dignity and legacy. But where Iron Man should testify, it titters. Iommi’s story screams to be told, especially as decades pass and Sabbath’s impact—and that of Iommi’s revolutionary songwriting and playing—becomes even more prevalent. It’s just a shame that Iommi took it upon himself to do the telling.