Happy Chinese New Year everyone!
“You and I were created by God to be so much more than normal…Following the crowd is not a winning approach to life. In the end it’s a loser’s game, because we never become who God created us to be by trying to be like everybody else.”
Through My Eyes
In an industrial town in Birmingham, England, lived a 17 year old aspiring musician named Tony Iommi. It was his last day working a welding job at a nearby metalworks factory, before committing to his dream of playing guitar in a rock and roll band full-time.
“I’d given my notice in to leave because I was going to turn professional with a band, go to Europe,” he said. “I’d auditioned with this band, they liked me and I was about to get ready to go away, which would have been the first time for me. I was really excited about it.”
As he arrived for his final shift, he was told that the employee who was normally in charge of handling the large, guillotine-like sheet metal shearing machine at the assembly line was a no show. There was nobody else to fill in the employee’s shoes, and Iommi was asked to take on the role for the day.
Iommi, inexperienced and hesitant, accidentally pushed his hand into the machine as he inserted the sheet metal — in a blink of an eye, the machine cut the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand. He hung himself back, and his fingertips were pulled off — leaving his bones visible and sticking out of his fingers.
Iommi was rushed to the hospital. The doctor severed the bony tips of his fingers, and bluntly told him, “You might as well forget playing.”
You could only imagine how despondent and depressed Iommi became. There he was, just about to chase his dreams, only to have them shattered in a second due to an unfortunate accident.
As Iommi recuperated at home, the factory manager visited him, and brought him a record as a gift.
“Will you play it?,” the manager asked.
“I don’t want to listen to music now,” Iommi replied.
“No,” the manager said. “Put it on.”
The record was in fact by the renowned jazz musician, Django Reinhardt, who is famously known as one of the world’s first lead guitarists. Reinhardt popularized a sub-genre called gypsy jazz with his distinct playing style. He played the guitar with only his two fingers, as he lost his other two in a fire accident.
“When I heard his gypsy jazz, it was brilliant,” said Iommi. “Especially having lost the use of two fingers…I could relate to that after doing the same sort of thing. It really inspired me to learn more by doing something with my fingers.”
Iommi refused to back down, and was determined to continue playing despite his disabilities.
He started crafting prosthetic fingertips to help himself play again. He experimented with different material such as plastic and rubber, which didn’t work very well. Through much trial and error, he finally settled with leather, after cutting up a piece of his leather jacket.
“It worked, but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them…And it was painful,” he said.
But it still wasn’t quite right.
He couldn’t feel his guitar strings — it made it difficult for him to bend them, and he would have the tendency to press down on the strings too hard.
To solve that, he fixed banjo strings on his guitar, since light-gauge strings weren’t yet available in that time. He also formed a habit of playing in lower tunings, as it helped to loosen the strings, making it easy for him to bend them.
Add all of that to not being able to play a full chord, and that’s how Iommi created his trademark dark, aggressive and heavy guitar sound — power chords, sparse yet menacing licks, tons of gain. He made the most out of his disabilities and in turn, created a sound that the world had never heard before.
“Of course losing my fingertips was devastating. But in hindsight, it created something. It made me invent a new sound and a different style of playing. So really, it turned out to be a good thing of the fancy,” he reflected.
Later on, he would cross paths with fellow musicians Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osbourne. Pooling together their collective weirdness, they would form a band called Black Sabbath.
They would revolutionize modern music by deriving a heavy sound from their jazz and blues influences — as well as writing horror and occult-infused lyrics — which was new for a world that was used to hearing songs about love and feeling good.
They wrote dark songs in the same way filmmakers make horror films — which is, for anyone to not take them seriously. (Fun fact : they have worn crosses on their necks since their early days — the reason being to protect themselves from a curse that was possibly placed by a satanic cult, for refusing to join them and telling them that “our dark image is a joke.”)
They would be known as the pioneers of heavy metal, even though there isn’t such a thing in their minds. To them, they simply play “really, really, heavy rock music.”
So, as takeaway from this article, take some time to reflect — what makes you weird? What do you think makes you different from other people? What is it in yourself that you shy away from in order to fit in with the crowd?
The thing is, we’re often told that we’re all special. Yet, we yearn to be special in the same way as the other person.
If everyone is special or unique in the same way, then no one is.
If there aren’t “weird” people who trust their own voice and make the most out of their own strengths and weaknesses, their own advantages and limitations, then we wouldn’t see any innovations in the world.
Tony Iommi embraced his weirdness. And so did Black Sabbath as a group. And the fruits of that are always there for you to see and learn from.