Geezer Butler Recounts Final Days with Ronnie James Dio
The last official video release from Heaven & Hell to feature the late legendary vocalist Ronnie James Dio — ‘Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell Live in Europe’ — debuted at number six on the Billboard Top Music Videos chart Nov. 23. Not bad for a recording that was never intended for worldwide release. “We didn’t go in there filming it as an idea to put it out as a DVD,” bassist Geezer Butler told Noisecreep. “It was just an afterthought when Ronnie got ill. It was the last thing ever filmed of us together.”
The disc, which is also available on CD, was recorded at the Wacken Open Air festival on July 30, 2009. The DVD features 13 songs from the four studio albums Dio recorded with guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Butler — Black Sabbath‘s 1980 album ‘Heaven and Hell,’ 1981’s ‘Mob Rules,’ 1992’s ‘Dehumanizer’ and 2009’s Heaven & Hell album ‘The Devil You Know.’
The DVD also includes bonus video interviews with all four members of Heaven & Hell, filmed before Dio’s condition became critical. He died of stomach cancer May 16, less than six months after announcing he had been diagnosed with the ailment.
During our interview, Butler talked about the new DVD, his final days with Dio and the tribute show Heaven & Hell performed with guest vocalists to benefit cancer research and treatment. He also discussed how surprised he was by Dio’s death, how he’s only just gotten the motivation to start making music again and the probability of another Black Sabbath tour and album with Ozzy Osbourne.
Geezer, what do you remember from the show you filmed for the ‘Neon Nights’ DVD?
The show was filmed in Germany at the Wacken Festival. It’s the biggest metal festival in Europe. I remember how cold and rainy it was and that’s why I’m wearing an overcoat. The show wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. We didn’t come out of it going, “Wow, fantastic show that was.” It was just a normal night to us. But I think we were probably more relaxed during it because we didn’t know it was ever going to come out as a film since we didn’t actually film it. Every year the promoter that runs the Wacken Festival films the whole thing anyway, and they make a compilation DVD because it’s so big in Europe. So they had the footage.
Who decided that it would be a fitting tribute to Ronnie?
Wendy Dio decided to put it out as a DVD, and that was around this time last year, right before Christmas. We were going to do a tour in Europe, so at first the plan was to get it ready for a European-only release to promote the tour we were going to do this past summer in Europe, which of course was canceled because of Ronnie. Then, of course, Ronnie passed away and it ended up being the last thing we’ll ever put out with him.
The show was filmed on July 30. How long after that did Ronnie become ill?
He started really going downhill in September, towards the end of the US part of the tour. The US tour was supposed to have two parts. We did the first four weeks, then Tony had something happen to his hand and he had to have an operation immediately. So we had to postpone the second part of the tour so Tony could have his hand looked at. And Ronnie’s stomach problems got worse and worse. He was going to do a Dio tour in Europe and he was rehearsing for that, but his stomach kept getting worse. Then he went to the doctor and the doctor didn’t say anything about it at first. He just gave him some constipation medicine and said he was severely constipated. And then he went to a specialist and they told him it was stomach cancer.
Had Ronnie been exhibiting signs of stomach cancer?
He’d been having stomach aches, but everyone gets flu or food poisoning when you’re on tour. You’re in front of 10,000 people, and 2,000 might have the flu. There are all these germs around, so you always get something when you’re on tour. And Ronnie was getting these stomach pains. One night he’d be alright and the next night he’d be doubled up in pain. The last week of the American tour he was in agony. I’ll always remember he came out for the very last gig and we said, “Look Ronnie, if you’re that ill we’ll just blow the gig.” And he said, “No, I’m not gonna blow the gig.” And he was literally doubled up in pain.
And he just made himself go on. He totally refused to cancel the show. So he went on and we thought, “Oh, God, what’s gonna happen?” None of us ever thought cancer, we just thought it was a severe stomach bug. And then at this time last year, just after Halloween he went in and got the report it was cancer. It was just one of those things you don’t expect to happen.
In August you played a final Heaven & Hell show as a benefit for Ronnie with vocalists Glenn Hughes and Jorn Lande. Was that a bittersweet experience?
It was really weird doing Heaven & Hell stuff without Ronnie being there. It was really strange. It was sort of great in one way and then really sad in another way. So yeah, it really was bittersweet. It was supposed to be an original Heaven & Hell gig. And the promoter said, “If you do it as a tribute to Ronnie, I’ll pay the same amount of money into the Dio charity.” That made sense to us. And if it makes [people] more aware of cancer and encourages them to get checked out and stuff, it was for a good cause. It’s one of those things you feel strange talking about.
After Ronnie died, did it take away some of your zeal for music. Did everything remind you of him?
You just realize that if it can happen to him it can happen to you any day. It hasn’t really changed me. It can’t change you because you still have to live your own life and carry on as before as much as you can. But it did take a while to get back into the music again. I didn’t even go into [my] home studio. I started writing again about three months ago. I didn’t want to hear anything before that. I didn’t even really want to watch this DVD. It was just too close. I’m just gradually getting back into it and hope something will come out of it.
There have been reports about another Black Sabbath tour with Ozzy Osbourne. Is that going to happen in 2011?
I have no idea what’s happening with that. It’s not going to happen next year. Ozzy’s on tour with his own band for the next year or whatever. The idea of doing another Sabbath tour always comes up. It’s just something that’s always talked about and there if we want to do it. It’s sort of really early days, though. I’m sure Ozzy will say yes and no every week for the next year while he’s on tour. It’s one thing to want to do something like that just before you go out to tour a record. You say, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna tour for the next five years.” And then six weeks into it, you can’t wait to get home. So we’ll just see how he feels when he finishes his Ozzy Osbourne tour.
You said you’ve started writing. Is that for a solo album?
I’ve been slowly writing stuff that could be the next GZR album. I’ll just see how it turns out. I have about 20 ideas down at the moment. So I’m looking at probably starting recording it seriously in January or February.
How do you think the album will differ from ‘Ohmwork,’ which you put out in 2005?
It’s hard to say. It started off really bluesy and now it’s lost the bluesiness and gone ultra heavy and very dark again.
Who will you be playing with?
It’ll probably be guitarist Pedro House and drummer Chad Smith from St. Louis and probably Clark Brown singing again. But I’ll probably have some guest vocals on there as well. I don’t know who they’re gonna be yet, though.
Will there be any posthumous Heaven & Hell releases featuring Ronnie?
No. There is no more stuff. That’s it. We’ve never had leftover material ever. That’s how we got back together when they wanted to put out [a greatest hits record of Black Sabbath’s] Dio years. They wanted some extra tracks to put on it, and we didn’t have any because whatever we do we put out. That’s why we got together to do the three extra tracks on the compilation. And it went so well, we went from there and toured and did another album. We were having a great time. We never imagined that we wouldn’t have the chance to do more.