When Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma last year, the news hit close to home for the 65-year-old riff master, who only two years earlier lost his longtime collaborator and vocalist, Ronnie James Dio, to stomach cancer.
"The first thing you think is, 'Well, I'm going to die -- that's it,'" he told the Daily Herald in a recent interview. "Certainly with Ronnie's passing, I was totally devastated. And, of course, when this happened to me, it sort of brought back Ronnie."
More than a year later, though, Iommi isn't about to unplug. His pioneering English heavy metal band soldiered on to record "13" -- its first full album of new material with founding singer Ozzy Osbourne in 34 years -- and launch an international tour, which stops Friday, Aug. 16, at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park.
"I had to really think about whether to do it," said Iommi, now several weeks into the tour's first leg. "It has been a bit of a test for me. When I spoke to my doctors, they said, 'You've got to be careful. If you feel tired, rest.' And it's difficult to do that when you're on the road. It's difficult to say, 'Well, I'm going to rest now,' because it doesn't work as easy as it does at home."
The tour schedule, planned through the year's end, carves out time off for Iommi and the band every other day, and sets aside weeks for his ongoing treatment every two months.
So far, Iommi said, he's been feeling well and having "great fun."
"The whole thing, it's nice to be back together with the original lineup where we started. It's like a family," he said. "I've known Ozzy for bloody 50 years, so it's like a major part of our lives. It's just nice to be back onstage, playing and finishing this way."
Ranked No. 25 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," Iommi has overcome career-testing circumstances before. As a teen, he saw the tips of two fingers on his right hand lopped off while working at a sheet-metal factory -- an accident that he says helped him develop the sludgy, doom-laden guitar style that came to define Sabbath's sound.
Today, Iommi said, he still gets just as much of a charge out of writing riffs as he did starting out a half-century ago. He said the record, produced by Rick Rubin, came together after he presented the band with "tons and tons" of guitar parts for consideration.
"Everybody was sort of blown away," he said. "Some of the songs were almost completed; some of them weren't. So it at least gave us a start. We had something to work on and then pull it apart or come up with new stuff. As it happens, we came up with a lot of new stuff when we were jamming around."
The only piece missing from the Sabbath reunion, which also features founding bassist and primary lyricist Geezer Butler, is founding drummer Bill Ward, who said he refused to participate because he was not offered a "sign-able contract."
Iommi said the band was "very sad" Ward didn't join them.
"But your life has to go on," he said. "We haven't got the time to wait around anymore. We're too old for it, you know. Who knows what the future brings? I mean, Bill may turn up and play somewhere. It'd be nice. We haven't fallen out with him by any means. He wasn't happy with the situation, so we carried on."
For Iommi, making it through the tour is his first priority. Beyond that, he said it's difficult to predict what may come.
"I'll see how I feel and what's happening. If it's possible we can do anything else, all right, but I can't plan any further than that," he said. "I can only work things now as we go, really."