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© Neal Preston
December 27th, 1981 was the first day of rehearsals, and it didn’t go well. Randy was very ill and could do little more than huddle inside a blanket, shivering and smoking cigarettes. The power was out and the PA didn’t work. None of the moving pieces functioned properly, and the entire time Sharon Arden stalked about the stage like the proverbial queen of the castle.
Randy regained some of his strength and toward day’s end, he, Rudy and Tommy jammed a bit. Airey was doubled-over with awe and thought they sounded like Cream. By the next day, the kinks had been worked out and the band started running through the set. Any trepidation Don Airey originally felt was gone the minute the band broke into the first song. Hearing Randy play truly inspired him, and that wasn’t an easy thing to do because he’d just come off the road playing with Ritchie Blackmore.
Entertainment Tonight came by to film three songs from one of the rehearsals, though Ozzy had tried to veto the idea. He felt it was too early in the process and cameras shouldn’t be allowed in. Still, they were present and provided another rare piece of professionally-shot footage.
The Cow Palace in San Francisco, California provided the venue for the first stop on the Diary Of A Madman tour. Everything that could go wrong on that December 30, 1981 gig, did. A kabuki curtain, timed to drop during “Over The Mountain,” went untriggered. The AC power malfunctioned, and without power, the relays would not release it. The drum set was placed under a pyramid stairway, and when Ozzy rose from his throne at the outset of the show, the drums were supposed to be hydraulically elevated. They started rising, but Ozzy’s chair was still attached.
Adding final insult to injury, some genius in the production crew had the brilliant idea of throwing liver into the crowd from a giant sling-propelled hand. The theory was that liver would magically transform into liquid blood if hurled at a high enough velocity. During the Cow Palace show, the liver was still frozen and some fan was bombarded with five pounds of rock hard meat. After that night, the giant hand was never again used to toss raw flesh, but became a platform for Ozzy to sit on.
Nothing worked at the Cow Palace but it wasn’t a total loss. Randy Rhoads was awarded the Best New Talent Award from Guitar Player magazine that night. At the time, Guitar Player was the Holy Grail of all things guitar. Upon learning that he’d won the award, he was ecstatic, nervous, and speechless all at the same moment. The band had been selling records and concert tickets and that was important. Winning the Best New Guitarist Award was, well, everything. Recognition from a magazine like Guitar Player was about the highest honor any musician could receive. The magazine had sent photographers to shoot the ceremony that found Randy typically low-key and humble.
“Since I’ve started this tour, great things haven’t stopped happening,” Rhoads admitted. “It gets to the point where you don’t know how to handle any good news anymore. You dream of things, of being in a band and getting the chance to do it. Getting the award was really great; it was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. When they told me, I thought they were joking because Sharon always jokes with me anyway. She called me one day and told me and I just didn’t believe it. I’m real proud and honored, and I don’t want to stop here, you know?”
Why would he? The train was rolling at a bullet’s speed and there wasn’t an obstacle in sight. There was one, though, in looking back, but it still seemed impossible. A day after the Cow Palace debacle, Randy, Don and Jodi were in a car, heading for the airport. Airey was reading a newspaper that contained a negative review that singled out Randy by calling him an “overrated guitar player.” Only the night before he’d won this prestigious award, and yet when he heard those words, his head dropped to his chest in absolute melancholy. From that point forward, a pall fell over the car.
As if on cue, the sun scurried behind a cloud, the sky darkened, and for one electric moment the world balanced on a pin. For some reason, Don turned quickly around in his seat and watched as a huge airplane tire dropped from the sky. Looking like some monster donut, it bounced dangerously along the freeway, and only missed the car by inches. It did smash into the car behind them and then disappeared. Everybody was frightened into silence and could only stare straight ahead, seeing nothing. Cars kept zipping by, and the world kept turning, but everyone in the car felt it, if just for a second...an icy shiver running up and down the spine.