Interview: Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler Gets Deep on Depression, Whether He’d Ever Speak to Ozzy Osbourne Again + More

Left: Photo via Ross Halfin
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In the acknowledgments of Geezer Butler’s new autobiography, Black Sabbath’s founding bassist and chief lyricist explains it was a difficult choice to write a memoir. Despite the demand from fans, Butler largely values his privacy and called it a “heart-wrenching decision” whether or not to allow the public a view into his private life.

For metal fans, it’s good news Butler let the world peek behind the curtain. Ironically, Into The Void: From Birth to Black Sabbath—And Beyond, available now, is a wildly entertaining, endearingly open, and insightful view not only into the chronology of the band, but inside Butler’s heart and mind.

“I didn’t wanna do the usual—all the drugs and groupies and all that stuff you’ve heard a million times before,” 73-year-old Butler says. “I put a bit more thought into it.”

Well, the book actually does feature an excess of stories about rock and roll fueled by booze, cocaine and fist fights. But, it also provides Butler’s perspective on the birth of metal, Sabbath’s misunderstood relationship to the devil and occult and how that perception affected him on a personal level.

Butler also offers a candid and honest view into his lifelong battle with depression, through the highs and lows of success in his professional and personal life. The writing even acknowledges his suicidal thoughts, on multiple occassions, with no shame attached. While he admits that he’s historically felt incapable of sharing these emotions, he’s now proud to fight against the stigma surrounding mental health—particularly in the world of heavy metal.

Below, The Pit speaks with Butler about his journey with depression and how he expressed himself through writing songs like “Paranoid.” He also discusses his relationship with his father, his own “Sixth Sense” experience, and the lasting influence of Black Sabbath.

Perhaps most notably, Butler addresses his “soul-deep” friendship with Ozzy Osbourne—and why he hasn’t spoken to him since the conclusion of the band’s “The End” farewell tour (2017). Spoiler: He’s open to reconnecting.

This book spent a good chunk of time talking about your youth and growing up before you found worldwide fame. Even in the early days, you talked about your feelings of depression. You said that mental health wasn’t something that people talked about back then, especially through your career with Black Sabbath. But, it seems like you weren’t really afraid to talk about it in the book. What made you decide to open up about it all?
It’s still sort of taboo with people that you can’t admit that you get depressed now and again. And, I don’t know why that is. A lot of people think if you get depressed that you’re like that all the time and that you’re a nut case or something—that you should be in a mental hospital. It’s not like that. It’s just the ups and downs of life. Unfortunately, if you get clinically depressed, like I used to get, it’s like you go into a very, very deep black hole and you don’t think you can ever get out of it. 

It wasn’t until I went to a doctor in St. Louis, he was the first one that recognized what I was going through and started doing something about it. Up until then, they used to just say, “Oh, you’re moody!” or go and get drunk or something like that. And it’s the last thing that you should be doing!

You described that you had gone to one doctor who told you to go walk your dog and have a beer and you’d feel better. It’s not that simple, is it?
I went to three doctors that told me exactly the same thing, “Go down to the pub or go for a long walk or something!”  Yeah. A lot of footballers now in England are coming out with their stories of depression. So that’s a good thing for young kids to hear about as well from sports people.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who look up to Black Sabbath and are excited to read your book who are gonna be able to relate to that stuff and feel a little bit less alone from it. Do you hope that’s the case?
Yeah. Because you do feel like you’re the only person on earth that’s going through it—like nobody else can understand what you’re going through.

You mentioned in your book that you finally found some medication that helped, right?
Yeah. I was on Prozac, until that didn’t work and then went back to the doctor and he put me on something else. I’ve been on three different things and now I hardly take anything and seem to be sorted out, thank God.

But you never did therapy, huh?
No, that was going to be the next step.

Well, it’s great that it seems like you’ve been doing better with all that stuff. You said that you’ve had thoughts where you’ve wondered, “Why am I even living anymore?” I think a lot of people have thought that way. It’s amazing to see what you’re capable of. Despite having those feelings, you could still break the mold and change the world of music! Even if times are tough sometimes…
Well, I was lucky to be able to put it into the lyrics. That really helped me a lot to be able to express myself through that. Cause you couldn’t really talk to the rest of the band about things like that.

I’m sure a lot of the other guys felt the same way as you but they felt too macho to wanna talk about it. If you’re drinking and drugging that much, there must be some stuff that you’re suppressing in addition to the rockstar lifestyle—or am I overthinking that?
Well, I think that drinking and drugging was to socialize with each other. Cuz in those days, you’d go back to the hotel after a gig. There’s no TV—it used to finish at 11 o’clock every night. And when it was on, there were only three or four channels in America and like two in England. No internet. So you couldn’t catch up with anybody else. You just had each other and usually, you’d go off stage, your adrenaline would be pumping and the only way to sort of come down from the adrenaline was to go down to the bar or have a few joints together. Entertain ourselves.

Right, well, back to the writing. It’s great that you were able to take your feelings and put them into songwriting. And, it’s kind of funny that you wrote “Paranoid”—which you didn’t think was a heavy enough song to put on the album after “War Pigs”—and it became the title track and a huge song. The subject matter of that song was feeling like you didn’t have anyone you could talk to. And look at its success…
Laughs Yeah. It’s a good job that I wasn’t in charge of what to release and what not to release. I thought it was too poppy and then it became the biggest song we’ve ever written.

Right. But there’s a reason for that. Obviously, it’s a kick-ass song musically, but the lyrics are equally as important and clearly connected with people. They must have felt the same way that you did, right?
Yeah, absolutely. Cause you know, nobody else was singing about stuff like that back then. There aren’t too many people singing about it now. But, it was different. I think people related to it. Cause it wasn’t just the usual love song, either finishing [a relationship] with somebody or falling in love. It was about somebody’s personal life.

You made it a point to write about all the chaos and crazy shit that was happening in the world, rather than just writing songs that were there to kind of numb people by pretending like everything was okay, right?
Yeah. Especially from where we came from anyway, there wasn’t a lot of flower power going around…

But didn’t you have a brief flower power stage?
Yeah. It was sort of an escape from the everyday mundane stuff that we had to face. When the flower power thing happened, it was like the sun started shining on a rainy day kind of thing. There were all these songs about going to San Francisco and flowers in your hair and all that stuff. And it was great. It was just like a release to get away. We were like stuck in dull rainy Birmingham and to hear all this other stuff going on, it was great.

But, then of course the reality of Vietnam started happening to replace all the hippie stuff—so didn’t last very long.

One thing that I thought was really interesting was when you talked about the way you experience the world in regards to fate and the universe. You believe that things always happen for a reason. You were able to weave that in and out of your story. Is that a guiding principle in your life? Does it help you avoid stressing over the things that you can’t control?
Yeah. It is really strange, like when very bad things were happening, something good would happen to counteract it. It kept happening like that. I’d think, “Oh no, this isn’t ever gonna resolve itself!” Then suddenly it did and something good would happen. It kept happening all through my life. Now I just think, well, if something’s bad going on, something good is gonna happen at the end. So, you know, don’t dwell on the bad part.

Your book also talks a lot about the supernatural and your experiences with it. There are a few moments where you had experiences where you felt like you were connected with people elsewhere in a physical and/or emotional state. This happened when your mother fell ill. Have you heard of Extrasensory Perception? Do you believe in the “Sixth Sense” phenomenon?
Yeah, it’s weird that me and my mom had it. It’s almost like you hear a lot of twins saying, if something happens to one of the twins, the other one feels it. It was like that with me and me mum. And that night when she died—they took me to the hospital.

It was on the Ozzy tour where nobody was allowed to drink or have drugs. And I went to bed one night and I just couldn’t breathe. I thought I was dying. I really did. And I called the tour manager up, he rushed me to the hospital and of course the people at the hospital thought I’d done some drugs or something. They did all these tests on me and of course they did blood tests, but couldn’t find anything!

Eventually the feeling passed and I was okay. I got back to the hotel and there were all these messages from his sister. I called my sister and my mum had died. And I exactly had the same feeling as if I was dying. It’s really spooky!

Maybe it’s something with the universe—how people are all connected.
It was because she was the seventh child and I was the seventh child. That kind of thing. But I suppose that doesn’t really make sense, but, who knows?

I feel like every book about a man who’s been incredibly successful also includes some sort of struggle about their relationship with their father. I noticed that that was a little bit of a theme in your book too. It seemed like you were always, in the back of your mind, thinking, “I hope my dad isn’t pissed off or disappointed in me.” Do you find that to be a fairly universal experience
Yeah. And I think it’s a good thing really. Cause it gives you discipline. I never wanted to displease my father. I wanted for him to be proud of me. And he was strict, but he was fair at the same time. When he sort of acknowledged that I was doing the right thing—that meant the world to me. It didn’t matter if I was selling albums or not, but if my dad said, “Yeah, I see what you mean now, that you’ve done what you set out to do.” That’s all I needed in life: for me dad to be pleased by what I was doing.

It’s good to have discipline in your life. It makes you stick to what you believe in. I think that’s why, you know, [the members of Black Sabbath] all had fairly strict parents. When the critics went against us and criticized us for our music, saying that we were crap and all that, we didn’t care as long as we liked it. It didn’t matter what the critics thought.

That’s the most important thing. That’s how you guys stayed true to yourselves, ultimately, right?
Yeah. And that’s how we sort of invented a different kind of music. It’s the same when anything new comes along. People either get it or hate it. And the critics hated it cause it was too new for them, but the kids loved it.

You spoke a lot about Black Sabbath pioneering heavy metal, the band’s legacy and all the subgenres it helped spawn. Is it still wild to see the range of it all?
It’s amazing. It really is. It’s great that we influenced so many musicians. A lot of people that I’ve spoken to over the years have come up to me and said, “We first started in a band cuz we played ‘Iron Man.’ We all liked ‘Iron Man.’ So we played that.” Eventually they’ll either become successful or not. 

It’s like us with the song “Warning,” on the first album, it was an Aynsley Dunbar [Retaliation] song that we all liked. And that was the first thing that we wrote together that wasn’t the 12-bar blues. You always have to pick something that’s different and then go on from that.

You say in your book that being in Black Sabbath was like being in a soap opera. Everybody’s had their ups and downs and in and outs. But you said some really nice things about Ozzy Osbourne—about how he was there for you when your child was sick. I think that speaks to that deep brotherhood and that friendship—how it goes down to your core, right?
Yeah. And that’s when you know that you’ve got great soul friends. It goes, you know, it’s not on the skin level, it goes much deeper than that. It’s to your soul. Our friendship was soul deep.

You said at the end of your book that you haven’t spoken to Ozzy since the closing of “The End” farewell tour. Is that something that upsets you? I know you said that you two are fine, but it just got a little more complicated with some drama in the family, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s just, um, the wives fell out. So, if your wives, when the wives fall out <laugh>. That’s it. You don’t get involved!

If he gave you a call, would you pick up the phone?
Oh, of course! Yeah. And I’m sure if I gave him a call he would, you know. We’re great, we’re fine together. It’s just, you know, it’s like a family thing.

Well, I hope that you two get to spend some time together again someday.
I’m sure we will.