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Al Morris didn’t have much planned for the night of March 26, 1984. At least nothing he couldn’t cancel when a bandmate called him with a chance to get backstage at the Capital Centre. This time the act was Van Halen, which was in town as part of its 1984 tour. Thanks to the same security-guard friend, he’d been there before—for a 1982 Judas Priest concert. At that show, he’d managed to get close enough to KK Downing that he was able to give the legendary guitarist a demo tape featuring the music of his own metal band, Force.

Hoping to make a similar handoff to Van Halen, Morris grabbed another copy of the Force tape. He says that the only marking anywhere on the cassette was the phone number for the line he used in his parents’ house in Prince George’s County.

By his own account, Morris had “mastered” the art of guitar, having played for nearly a decade by the time he sneaked backstage for Van Halen’s appearance. But he and his bandmates hadn’t made it very far beyond the Bethesda basement where they were still perfecting their sound.

The tape, if placed in the hands of a receptive rock star, could change all that. It was raw, to be sure, but Morris, whose pure riffage was the clear center of the band’s work, played his part effectively—well enough, certainly, to get over the just-another-rocker bar.

Morris ate backstage. He heard Van Halen run through its sound check. He waited to greet the famous rockers as they left the stage after their dry run, clutching the tape in the pocket of his jacket and trying to choose which Van Halen member to trust with his future. He’d just missed flamboyant singer David Lee Roth, who had come off first. Alex Van Halen walked by next. Morris says Van Halen gave him a double take.

Morris has a theory as to what the drummer was thinking: “Wow, what’s this black man with his hand in his pocket?”

Realizing that time might be short before a team of Capital Centre security guards descended on him, Morris pulled out the tape to show Van Halen, who kept walking. Bassist Michael Anthony was next. Anthony’s reaction was more positive. He shook Morris’ hand as he took the tape. “It was like he was your best friend,” Morris says.

For Morris, it was mission accomplished. But there was still a problem. His phone number shared a set of digits with local radio station Q107. Morris says he’d get calls all the time from listeners who wanted to hear some piece of Top 40 crap. When he was in a good mood, he’d play along and promise to spin the track. When he was cranky, he’d just hang up.

Almost a year passed. Morris moved but kept the number he’d put on his demo. He went about his life and put the close encounter with Anthony behind him. Around 2 a.m. one morning in mid-1985, Morris’ phone rang. He claims it was guitarist Eddie Van Halen but has virtually no way of knowing because, thinking it was a radio request, he hung up. As he did, he claims he heard someone say, “I’m not looking for Q107.” The voice, says Morris, had the same raspy smoker’s quality as Van Halen’s.

Morris has some perhaps-too-circumstantial evidence to back up his story. After the band fired Roth, and before the outfit landed crooner Sammy Hagar, Morris heard that it was in the market for a female vocalist. Morris was sure he knew where the band was getting its inspiration: The Force tape featured a frontwoman, a rarity in the macho world of heavy metal. Van Halen, the band known for such testosterone-fueled numbers as “Hot for Teacher” and “Drop Dead Legs,” was surely taken by Force’s pioneering. Besides which, Morris adds, “there’s a riff on one of my songs that [Van Halen] uses on ‘Summer Nights,’ but it’s—you know, he did a variation on it, so he didn’t copy it exactly.”

Speaking through a publicist 21 years later, neither Anthony nor Eddie Van Halen could confirm or deny ever receiving the tape. Morris says that he tried contacting the band through its Web site a few years ago and that he mentioned specifics about the incident, including the look he’d gotten from Alex Van Halen. He never received a response.

After nearly three decades of almost boiling on heavy metal’s back burner, Morris, now 48, can tell you all kinds of sob stories about missed connections, unreliable bandmates, and would-have-been-thrilling near comebacks. But none seem to stick with him like the VH one.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t answer the phone that night,” he says.

In 1974, Morris was walking the halls of Central High School in Capitol Heights, Md., with a wah pedal in a carrying bag when a classmate approached and asked what he was carrying. The student, Larry Brown, had never seen the object dangling from Morris’ arm in action. The two got to talking, and Morris invited Brown back to a jam session at Morris’ parents house, where he often took advantage of the breezeway to play.

The invite came just as Brown was emerging from his shell. He’d grown up at different addresses in the D.C. area. But when he witnessed a savage beating on a school bus, he asked his parents to ship him to his grandmother’s home in the Suffolk region of Southern Virginia. There, he quickly became bored, so he returned to settle with his family in District Heights just in time for high school.

Morris had grown up an Air Force brat and had moved around a lot, depending on his father’s assignment. His family finally settled in Morningside, in a suburban middle-class neighborhood just outside the gates of Andrews Air Force Base. When busing began in Prince George’s County in 1973, Morris was shipped out of Crossland High School along with many of his mostly white neighbors. From the moment he was first dropped off at Central, Morris knew that he was in for a change. Unlike Crossland, the school was in an obvious state of disrepair; the windows were cracked if not completely boarded up. Inside, he caught hell from his peers. “My mannerisms, my speech and everything was different,” he says. In the halls, he’d get comments. “You might hear something like ‘You sound like a white boy,’” he says. “It was a real downer.”

But he had his music. Thanks to an uncanny ability to play “anything” he heard, Morris could call on a wide variety of tunes to ward off would-be tormentors. That meant everything from Steppenwolf to the Ohio Players to the two current albums by former Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station project, the band that he credits with saving his hide. Duly impressed with his abilities in jam sessions in Central’s band room, gym, and cafeteria, Morris’ schoolmates left him to finish high school in relative peace.

In that peace, he worked on perfecting his guitar sound. He never had the best equipment—his Montgomery Ward Airline ax would eventually give way to a Univox model—but he knew what timbre he wanted. He played soul music because one of his father’s friends asked him to. He played metal because he loved it.

Meeting Brown gave him a peer who was interested in the same harder-edged music. Brown says he grew up listening to such bands as Jethro Tull and Grand Funk Railroad on Georgetown University radio station WGTB. He introduced Morris to the musician crowd at Central. Morris returned the favor by introducing him to Black Sabbath. From the first time he heard the heavy sounds of Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Brown says, “It was like I wanted to play that.”

By 1975, Morris was out of his parents’ breezeway. While attending Montgomery College, he’d met Kim Martin, who lived with his mom on Bethesda’s Beech Avenue. In addition to being a quick study on the drums, Martin had something all young rockers need: a basement.

For roughly 10 years, Morris, Brown, and Martin jammed in that space—Morris on the guitar, Brown on bass, and Martin on drums. The trio was virtually inseparable, forging a musical tightness that only spending too much time together can generate. On Force recordings, some of which were laid down in the basement, interested listeners can hear Morris and Brown developing their ultra-heavy, Black Sabbath–dependent brand of metal.

To get there, Morris needed a ride. Often, it was Martin, who had to leave his home in Bethesda, drive out to Andrews to collect Morris, and then return to the western suburbs. Martin claims that the drive was never an issue. Nor was the fact that despite having access to reliable transportation, Morris hadn’t yet gotten around to getting his driver’s license. Without Morris and his signature sound, there’d be no band, and for Martin, that wasn’t an option. So he’d drive the 60-mile round trip.

The basement sessions were loud—Morris wouldn’t have it any other way. The sound of Force’s rehearsals pierced the walls and filtered out into the suburban neighborhood, causing complaints from as far as two blocks away. Martin’s mother didn’t mind; she continued to let the band and its sometimes 20-person entourage invade her home.

At times the crowd included some of Brown’s musician friends from Central. Future Bad Brains Dr. Know, Darryl Jenifer, and HR stopped by the house on Beech Avenue on more than one occasion. But the Bad Brains connection with Morris and Brown goes back further than that. Morris believes that his jamming in high school with Dr. Know, who was then playing bass, inspired the soon-to-be-worshipped slinger. Jenifer still calls Brown his “guitar hero.” Though he wasn’t as familiar with Morris’ work, Jenifer says, “I always knew his guitar playing was advanced for neighborhood type action.”

The band occasionally emerged from its subterranean world to play a battle of the bands at Louie’s Rock City in Baileys Crossroads or at the Officer’s Club at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. The band got downtown once, too, playing two Christmas shows at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill. Although the crowds never got very big, the band members thought they had something. In 1979, Brown was asked to join Bad Brains. He declined, thinking that Force was a better prospect. But as Bad Brains turned into harDCore legends, Force toiled away in relative obscurity.

Not that it wasn’t fun. Morris, Brown, and Martin had become good friends. And though Morris would take his lumps as the straight man to Martin and Brown’s antics, he talks about the jokes with some amount of fondness. As does Brown, who still guffaws as he remembers how he once caught a drunken showgoer about to puke all over his car. Desperate to avoid a messy cleanup, he sent the hapless rocker to retch on (and in) Morris’ car. “Al called me a bastard,” he says.

Settling on a lead vocalist would become a running joke. Morris says they’d try anyone—and they did. They once called a woman back because she was so “smoking” that the Force crew wanted to get one last look at her even though, Morris says, she was terrible. In total, they went through five vocalists who made the cut—who lasted between one show and six years—two men and three women. “It was like an assembly line…like a cattle call,” says Morris.

Though there was an occasional management offer, nothing ever really panned out. For the members of Force, there were no tours. There was no fame. And there was absolutely no fortune.

After nearly a decade, the situation was beginning to grate on Martin, who like his bandmates had to supplement his income. “It’s kind of frustrating when I think about when we had special gigs planned and something went [wrong],” he says, citing the band’s inability to organize, a problem he lays at Morris’ feet. When he was offered a six-night-a-week gig playing standards at Rene’s Supper Club in Virginia, he said yes. Now Martin was tied up most of the week. It was Force’s undoing.

Faced with the loss of his first long-term project, Morris simply moved on. After all, he was still the same guitarist whose abilities had solidified Force’s sound. If anything, now he was better.

There is no mistaking a Sabbath anthem. It’s cohesive and driving, and it manages to stay focused on a uniform melody—only rarely is it distracted by period-appropriate guitar soloing. The musicians who made the sound weren’t particularly skilled; bassist Geezer Butler was the best, but he fell far short of rock-god status. As for lead-guitar virtuosity, Tony Iommi had lost two fingertips off his right hand, the one he uses to select the notes on the fretboard of his guitar. The accident left him unable to finger certain chords. But with “heavy as fuck” the band’s seeming philosophy, there was no need for intricate playing.

It was a moment in one of that band’s signature songs that Morris finally found the inspiration that would drive him for decades. He was at a friend’s house at Andrews in junior high school, when the record his friend had put on got quiet. “We hear the ‘duh, duh, duh,’ and it was ‘Iron Man’,” he says.

“There was this big, big sound, and that’s what got me.”

Morris has dedicated his guitar life to getting that sound. It was rough going at first. Obsessed with the low end that so dominated the Sabbath guitar attack, he cranked the bass on his amplifier up to unhealthy levels and added a sustain effect to make the low end louder. The problem was that his treble, the higher end of the sonic spectrum that plays an obligatory role in almost every killer solo, was getting cut off by his bass overkill. Then there was the fact that he turned his volume knob up so much that audience members would sometimes cringe or cover their ears. Morris’ solution was simple: He reinvented guitar playing.

Morris digs through the coin pocket of his pants. “I’ve got to show you something,” he says. “You know how guitar picks look? Normally?” He fishes out a white plastic, triangular thing that at some point started out as an average, everyday guitar-playing tool. But since the day he bought it, Morris, by virtue of striking at the higher strings like a hammer-dulcimer player, has been busy carving out precise-looking ridges just at the edges of each of its three corners.

“I had to develop a different kind of picking technique,” he says, glowing with pride. “Basically, I’ll be playing rhythms like normal”—he uses his pant leg to demonstrate the typical strumming of your average guitar hero—“…and then when I’m doing a lead it turns this way, and I chop at the strings, and it’s that fine edge that for some reason…makes the tone of the strings jump out.”

It took much experimenting for Morris to finally find that sound. And now it’s unmistakable. Drummer Gary Isom, who’s spent time in a Morris band, puts it best. “Damned if it doesn’t sound just like Black Sabbath,” he says.

But Morris needed an outlet for his picking method. He found the answer to his problem in the comfort of his living room. As part of the 1985 Live Aid mega-fundraiser, the original Sabbath lineup was reuniting. Sabbath’s Live Aid appearance was brief, but it was a big deal: For the first time since his 1979 departure from the band, its future-reality-TV-star singer was back fronting the popularly demonized act.

When the show was over, Morris remembers thinking that the reunion might last a while. When it collapsed a few months later, Morris—egged on by Brown—decided to put together a tribute for the Ozzy Osbourne–fronted installment of the band, which he now figured he’d never see again.

By 1987, Morris had begun in earnest to put together the act he named for the Sabbath standard that had so struck him the first time he’d heard it. The full name would have a formal feel—Iron Man: A Tribute to Black Sabbath, the Ozzy Years. He offered the part of Ozzy to University of Maryland DJ Rob Levy. Martin was originally to play the part of Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, but when the Rene’s gig came along, he backed out. Morris asked him to fill in when troubles with his replacement surface; Martin declined.

Even without a first-rate drummer, the band started to build momentum. It made a deal with a management company in Binghamton, N.Y., that led to headlining dates up and down the East Coast. The band played the Sandbar in Baltimore, Swizzles in York, Pa., and the LIE in Binghamton. The high point was playing for 5,000 people at a drive-in movie theater in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The hills of Pennsylvania, I-81, and doom metal (as the descendants of Black Sabbath are known)—it was a perfect combination.

“We had gravy when we did the Sabbath tribute, because we could headline,” Morris says, “and we were getting top dollar.” The act was pulling in up to $1,000 a night.

Morris suffered a slight hiccup in 1989 when he had to let the band’s original bassist go after a conflict that stemmed from an incident in which he found the bassist passed out before practice. Brown was doing maintenance work for a local apartment complex. On the side, he was running a strip club out of his home. When Morris called to offer him the part of Butler, he said he was eager to return to playing.

Morris had also been contemplating other changes. “We were thinking about original stuff,” he says. “Every once in a while, we’d put a couple into the set.” Of course, for Morris and his bandmates, the originals weren’t all that different from the covers. The new material was still anchored by Morris’ patented guitar work and by no measure of coincidence sounded much like that of the band they’d spent so much time mimicking. Levy rounded the whole thing out with his approximation of Osbourne’s wail. It wasn’t perfect, but removed from the standard of having to live up to the Sabbath crooner, Levy’s voice added grit and energy in its imperfection.

In what amounts to the only real instance of unmitigated good luck in Morris’ career, Iron Man’s work fell into the hands of someone who could help. In the late ’80s, German label Hellhound began noticing the burgeoning doom-metal scene anchored in the Maryland suburbs. There, such bands as Asylum and the Obsessed had been riffing away to little avail. Until, that is, the imprint signed almost everybody it could find. Iron Man got lumped in with the then-virile D.C.-area doom scene and was picked up in the dragnet.

Iron Man released three albums, its first two on Hellhound. Its debut, 1993’s Black Night, was lauded by such industry heavies as vocalist Lee Dorrian. Dorrian, who left the proto-grindcore band Napalm Death in search of something more doom, had helped found Cathedral in 1990. For 15 years, that band has been Great Britain’s bearer of the Sabbath torch. Dorrian’s an Iron Man fan. “The riffs were so brutal,” he says of Black Night. “That one really stands the test of time.”

Albert Mudrian, editor in chief of Decibel magazine, isn’t sure how earth-shattering Iron Man was. But that doesn’t mean the band didn’t blaze a trail. “They kind of showed people it’s OK to rip off Black Sabbath,” he says.

After that record, Iron Man started to compromise. The label had Morris fire Levy, whose voice, they decided, didn’t live up to the rest of the band. New vocalist Dan Michalak—whose favorite singer is Iron Maiden’s very un-Ozzy Bruce Dickinson—brought a more polished, professional style to Iron Man, and in so doing took the early Sabbath emulators out of their element. The band’s then-drummer found the result so sonically unbecoming that he left.

In a departure characteristic of flailing bands, Iron Man also took a few swings at the mainstream. Morris consciously turned down the volume in an attempt to reach a larger audience. It didn’t work.

And then there was the trouble with Brown, who was compiling a streak of tardiness and no-shows. Morris tried to patch over his friend’s lapses, hiring a substitute here and picking him up to make sure he made the shows there. Then Brown became too intoxicated to effectively take part in the band’s one and only video shoot. Morris says Brown also cursed at him in front of his daughter. That’s when Iron Man’s leader decided that he’d had enough. With pressure mounting from the other members of the band, who wanted to bring in a friend to play bass, Morris finally gave in. Brown, who’d been with Morris for the better part of 20 years, who’d gotten him backstage at the Capital Centre, and who’d help convince him to start the band in the first place, was dismissed in 1996.

After that, the band went into a state of rock remission. Morris settled in Montgomery County—eventually in Montgomery Village—with his wife and daughter.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Morris managed to get his longtime rock project back on the road. The band’s new label, Brainticket, had arranged an entire U.S. tour—Iron Man’s first—but the band had to abort after only 10 days. Michalak and then-drummer Vic Tomaso had bailed in disappointment at the size and scope of the shows the band was playing. Though Morris was able to pick up the pieces and play a few final dates, the most recent Iron Man show took place on April Fools’ Day of 2000 at the Emerson Theater in Indianapolis. One person in attendance called the lineup, a hodgepodge of Internet recruits, “crappy.”

Morris went home and got a job. In the years immediately following Iron Man’s disastrous 2000 tour, stoner rock, a punkier version of doom metal, gained momentum. Its standard-bearers, such as Queens of the Stone Age, hooked up with major labels and even got some MTV airplay.

Meanwhile, doom metal remained underground. But a rock resurgence brought hope. As fans put off by the lightweight turn in other forms of independent music found refuge in the blazing sounds of such bands as High on Fire and Electric Wizard, they began to explore the music that was its precursor.

As interest in the two genres grew, so did Iron Man’s fetishizing audience, even though the band wasn’t around to represent itself. As the post-doom scene took off and the Internet became an everyday tool, new fans, who’d never seen Morris’ blistering guitar skills live, electronically mingled with those lucky enough to have taken in an Iron Man performance. By the time Morris would try again in earnest to pull his band out of the garage, the community was abuzz with hopes for a comeback.

Michael Lindenauer saw Iron Man take its swan dive. He was there in 2000 at the Emerson. And despite the limp performance that he saw that night, the effusive doom-scene vet kept in touch with Morris. Periodically, he says, Morris would ask him for money as an investment in his floundering band. Though the act was obviously not active, Lindenauer complied, asking only that Morris put serious effort into getting the band back together.

Lindenauer is a born salesman, his energy palpable even in basic conversation. Zig Ziglar–trained, Lindenauer, who currently works for ADT Security in Dayton, Ohio, claims that he can sell anything—and that he has. Despite his salesmanship, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything doom, and his fondness for letting sweaty men sleep on his couch, he’d never been a band’s manager—until recently.

In December 2004, Lindenauer was consulting with Templars of Doom promoter Jason McCash on the lineup for the festival’s “Second Crusade,” set for July 2005 in Indianapolis. When his first suggested band turned the festival down, Lindenauer saw an opening. He offered the show to Morris, who accepted. He called McCash back to offer Iron Man’s services. It turned out that the guitar player in McCash’s band had booked Iron Man at the Emerson in 2000. Both were huge fans. “They [were] freaking out,” says Lindenauer. Morris got Brown to come back, and the band was set to play its first show in over five years in the same city in which it had played its last.

If only it could find a vocalist. Originally, Morris had decided that his next Ozzy would be a rocker named Jon Owen. The plus side was that Owen had a real British accent. The minus? That he lived in Britain. Morris and Owen never got to meet in person. After months of promises, visa coordinating, and some unlikely stories, Owen backed out the week before the show. In the meantime, Iron Man sat idle, waiting for a frontman so the band could practice for the first time since 2000.

Morris had six days to fill Owen’s shoes. Names were bandied about, but eventually he settled on Michalak, the man who’d walked out on him not five years earlier. Michalak agreed, then failed to show for the band’s only scheduled rehearsal. Brown and Lindenauer were furious; Morris seemed depressed. Over the objections of Lindenauer—who still insisted they could pull the show off—Morris canceled his band’s triumphant return.

On the morning of Saturday, July 9, the day his band was supposed to, finally, have had some sort of breakout, Brown was frustrated. “I’ve been practicing for this all week,” he said. He called himself “the ex–bass player of Iron Man.” He said that he was done playing with Morris, that Morris had “bad karma or something.”

But by the next morning, Brown had changed his mind. Saturday afternoon, Morris had dropped an envelope with some cash and a note in his mailbox. The cash was for a recent practice attempt when no drummer showed. The note had Lindenauer’s phone number on it.

“I might give this a shot, because of the manager,” Brown now says.

Lindenauer, having thrown his lot in with Morris and the specter of failure that seems to haunt him, is doing his best to move things forward. “The good side of the name Iron Man is the music; the bad side is the reputation [for] this shit,” he says. Confident in Morris’ abilities as a guitar player, he suggests that the beleaguered ax man should consider starting fresh with a new band.

Morris says he’s trying not to dwell on the Indy flop too long. He talks about clearing up some “problems” and then vows to keep Iron Man going—just as he has for almost 20 years. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.