Saturday, October 4, 2008

Ozzy Osbourne : You Can Only Live As An Alcoholic, Drug Addict For So Long, Then You Don't Live Anymore

By Darryl Mason

This is the original long version of a story that was published in On The Street Magazine (in Sydney), and other music press, in September, 1991. The published version was much shorter, and tighter, but I always preferred this one. Most of this story was written the night of the interview and listening party, in the always productive hours between 11pm and 4am

September, 1991

The glorious life of an aging Rock God…As soon as the new album is completed, it’s time to do a one week world tour, for promotional purposes. Hundreds of interviews in eight or so days, across seven countries. No time for sight-seeing, or kicking back. This is pure work, and at a pace that would shatter most.

In Australia, Ozzy visits three states in only two days. That’s hard on anybody. But it’s particularly hard on Ozzy Osbourne. He can’t even have a beer to make the whole experience of hearing the same five or six questions asked hundreds of times, day after day, seem a little less like self-replicating dejavu.

Ozzy can’t drink beer now because Ozzy drank all the beer when he was making his new record. Most days he got through a couple of dozen cans. Now he’s on medication to handle life without beer, heavy medication. And the man is so fucking tired.

When Ozzy and his wife, and manager, Sharon Osbourne arrive at the Park Hyatt at Circular Quay, Sharon is immediately entranced by the magnificent view of Sydney Harbour. From the balcony of the Osbournes hotel room, the vivid blue harbour, the glorious white sails of the Opera House, is laid out, the views uninterrupted.

“Oh this is so beautiful,” she said, “Come and look at this, darling.”

But Ozzy has already found the bed. Sleep is all he wants, maybe a solid week or so of it. However, he only manages to squeeze in ten minutes.

Straight off the plane, up for almost 48 hours (without cocaine), the extreme insomnia Ozzy Osbourne now lives with has clearly taken its toll.

When Ozzy walks through the foyer of the Park Hyatt at 2pm, he looks like an elderly man from a distance. Bent over, shuffling. A really old bloke, who’d maybe been run over a couple of times. Ozzy’s head is down, his arms hang limp, dripping like raw sausages from his slumped shoulders. He shambles along and drops with a groan and a grunt into a lounge chair next to his wife.

“Oh…fuck…” Ozzy begins to say, but his words mumble away into nothing.

For the moment, the original mad man of heavy metal is simply a bone-tired middle aged man, who would trade all his latest wave of fame and success for some privacy, some goddamned sleep and some time alone with Sharon.

Once, actually not that long ago, Ozzy would have just drank himself into a coma and slept wherever he happened to be. Hotel foyer, highway, elevator. But beer, all booze, is out now, so he can’t beer himself to sleep, even if he had time to sleep.

Despite being barely able to speak, as he waits with Sharon for the interviews to begin, this is about the straightest that Ozzy has been since he was a teenager.

“You can only live like that for so long,” he says later, “and then you don’t live anymore.”

Ozzy has done his obligatory stays in rehab clinics over the years, but he came to realise he was an alcoholic and a drug addict anyway, and that he would always be both. He wasn’t a slave to booze and pot and cocaine. That is, he didn’t hate drinking and snorting half gram lines of cocaine. He didn’t go for the idea he was punishing himself with this abuse. He did vast piles of drugs and booze because he loved getting high, then getting fucked up.

When he started work on the new album, No More Tears, his best in years, Ozzy was drinking a case of beer a day, starting at breakfast. He ballooned, his health deteriorated and he was so out of shape that he grew deeply worried about how he was going to play the hundreds of big arena and stadium shows across the world that loomed on the horizon.

“But I read an article on Mick Jagger, and he said that before he does a tour he goes into training, and I thought that made a lot of sense because world tours are a very athletic thing.”

He could get fit, he figured. Fit enough to make the tour easier. Being fucked out of your mind and doing two and a half hour shows three or four nights a week was hard work. Jagger made Ozzy realise that there was an easier way, but he had to get clean. Or cleaner. Long enough to do the tour.

Ozzy had been moving in slow motion in the hotel foyer, seemingly unaware of where he was, calling for his wife in an extended, moaning cry, “Shaaaaa-woonnnn!”

But a few minutes into the interview, Ozzy suddenly perks up when I tell him something that appeared to, briefly, blow his mind.

I was telling him how he once said that the metal of Black Sabbath was the sound of Britain’s industrial cities and towns. Literally heavy metal. Black Sabbath had turned into music the crashes, booms, sirens, metallic shrieks and wails of steel-making and heavy industry that filled the air, and the nights, of the Northern England neighbourhoods where Ozzy and his Black Sabbath band mates grew up.

But Ozzy missed the part where I told him that it was actually Ozzy Osbourne who said all that, many years ago. He thought this definition of early Black Sabbath was a brilliant insight. A revelation.

“I wish I’d fukkin’ thought of that,” Ozzy said.

Errr, you did, actually.

But his conservation was flowing now, as he talked about his tour plans.

“Before (to prepare for a world tour), I’d have been sitting in bars, swilling beers, drinking vodka and doing all the bad things, and then I’d go out on the road and wonder why I was feeling fucked after a week, you know…

“So I’ve been dieting, I’ve dropped 40 pounds and every morning now I get up religiously and work out on this exercise cycle. I don’t eat meat…”

Ozzy looks suddenly concerned at hearing himself say this out loud. “I don’t eat meat.”

He moves on.

“I eat a little bit of fish and I take vitamins, and I’m just preparing myself for this tour, whereas before I wouldn’t have even bothered. I hope and pray this will be one of the best tours I’ve ever done.”

Even though Ozzy will have no trouble pulling crowds across the US, he still can’t afford to fuck it up. You could be incoherently smashed onstage in the 1970s, because most of the audience would have been blasted as well. Every gig was mostly awesome when you were cratered, or least they seemed to be awesome, and that was all that mattered.

But arena rock, where Ozzy now dwells, has turned corporately Professional. There are the sponsors to consider. You can get fined for going onstage late, or playing beyond the curfews that are becoming almost standard at major gigs now.

He might be The Godfather Of Heavy Metal, but there’s no room on those big stages for overweight, drunk, stoned, semi-delirious rock stars, who can’t remember the words. You just can’t get away with that 70s unprofessional shit anymore. The audiences, raised on MTV, expect to hear old hit after classic, and they want them done note perfect. Ozzy knows all this. He feels the pressure. It’s forced him to change his life, and lifestyle, to such a dramatic degree, he still finds it hard to believe that it is Ozzy Osbourne who is doing it. To himself.

“These shows have to great. I’m not doing all this fuckin’ exercise and fuckin’ bicycling and push-ups and sit ups and eatin’ all this fuckin’ healthy food for nothing.”

Now he’s wide awake. He gets angry at the idea that he has forced himself to exercise and eat healthy and that the pay off might be something short of a pummelling live show.

Ozzy has steered clear of filling his live shows with old Black Sabbath songs. He hasn’t needed to. His solo albums, like Bark At The Moon and Blizzard Of Ozz, sold millions through the early 1980s and gave him all the hits he needed to fill two hour plus live shows. Iron Man and Paranoid were always standards of any Ozzy live show anyway, but for this new tour he wants to sing a whole bunch of old Black Sabbath songs, one last time.

He’s not expecting reactions of outrage and fury from his fans for getting nostalgic. God, no. Is there any kid who first heard Ozzy in solo mode, and then went back to the early Black Sabbath and had any other reaction than Holy Fucking Wow?

But Ozzy doesn’t want to revisit old Sabbath to become his own cover band, he wants to sing the old songs again because he can’t remember singing many of them, on tour, or in the studio, the first time around.

He does seem to regret not having those memories. He sighs when he reveals he doesn’t really remember anything much about the 16 straight hours Black Sabbath spent in a studio, when Ozzy was only 21, laying down a whole album of songs, live in the studio, only one take for most of them. Or what is now seen by Sabbath addicts as the magical hour when the band needed an extra song to fill out the second album, and came up with Paranoid right there in the studio. Much of it was improvised, the immediately classic riffs and lyrics pulled from a river of beer and dope.

“The funny thing about Black Sabbath being a part of history,” Ozzy says, “is we never knew what the fuck we were about. I never, ever thought we were very good, to be honest. I mean Iron Man and Paranoid were good riffs, but we weren’t a great band. We were always fucked up on drugs and booze. The whole thing is actually a hit of a haze to me….Anything bad that happened we never took seriously because we just went off to the pub and got pissed again….”

Another big sigh, a shrug.

“We missed out on a lot of reality.”

But look at the music you made. That stuff rocked the lives of millions of people. It still does. You gave millions of kids a rocking soundtrack for their youth.

“Yeah, I suppose.”

But Ozzy doesn’t want you to get him wrong on his opposition to alcohol and drugs. It’s for a reason related more to his work, the upcoming world tour, than to a looming tower of regrets for having had so many good times when he was younger.

He’s not anti-drugs, and he doesn’t want to be a role model for anybody.

“Do whatever the fuck you like.”

Ozzy considers this statement for a moment.

“Do what you wanna do as long as you’re enjoying it. If it becomes a problem, then go and get some fuckin’ help. There’s a ton of help.”

Ozzy raises a hand to scratch his face. He misses. He fingers tremble.

“This is where I kinda get pissed off in the respect that just because I was an alcoholic drug addict and I cleaned up my act…” Ozzy is starting to shout now, “what gives me the right to tell you not to do it? You are you and I am me. If I worked in a steel mill, and I went up the foreman and told him he shouldn’t drink, he’d tell me to go and fuck myself.

“I’m not a politician. People have always drunk and people will always drink, and people will always die of liver disease due to alcohol, or kill themselves in a car wreck or murder somebody, you ain’t gonna stop it…”

The shouting ends. His energy dissipates.

“I’ve been in some fuckin’ terrible states, man, because of it, but I’m not gonna be the one to wave the flag and say, ‘It’s the right way to be sober’…Fuck that man.”

He clips a Malboro into his cigarette holder and looks around for a beer, remembers there aren’t any in the room. He smokes, has a quick doze, really only a few seconds, maybe twenty or so. Do I wake him? Or just let him sleep for a while? But then he’s back and railing dramatically, fantastically, against the wave of ‘hair metal’ bands filling up stadiums and arenas where he will be soon trying to compete. Most are half his age. This rise of glam metal and pretty-boy bands fills Ozzy with disgust. He hates the way the media mentions him and bands like Poison as playing the same sort of music.

“Fuck that, man.”

Ozzy explains he didn’t grow his hair long when he was young to be pretty, he did it to piss off his parents and anyone else over twenty in his home town of Birmingham, England. Either it was rebellion, or you couldn’t be bothered going to a barber.

Bands from his generation had to prove themselves, on stage, on record, over and over again, there was no debuting at number one with your first album. The marketing machine behind rock today, but particularly behind what he derides as the drift net rock brand that is now known as ‘heavy metal’, mystifies and infuriates Ozzy. But it’s part of his business now, and so he must play along, to a point.

“In America, if you’ve got long hair and a guitar, and you wear all those weird, gay spack things and you look like Nelson or Poison…that’s supposed to be heavy metal? Fuck that, man.

“Now the thing is to grow your hair, get tattoos, buy a guitar and get the fuckin’ look before you get the talent. Just play the fuckin’ music, and cut out all this garbage.”

Angry is a fairly common daily experience for Ozzy. I ask him why he never played guitar and he explains his daily battle with TV remote controls, telephones, juice makers. He’s not good with technology.

After the interview, Sharon says she loves how Ozzy can be so passionate, even if it’s only because a band “like fuckin’ Nelson” has appeared on a music channel he’s watching while working out, and he can’t change the channel or mute the volume fast enough.

“Ozzy can be more passionate about trying to change the TV channel,” Sharon says, “than most people are about their children.”

But he has far more love than anger now, Sharon says.

Ozzy, while absolutely pissed, tried to kill her once, and she has saved him more times than he can remember. It seems unlikely that Ozzy would have even made this album, let alone do such a fast media tour, without Sharon. She keeps him upright and moving forward, and he loves her like a man, but like a child, too. She loves him back with passion, and fire, and forgiveness. She is his protector now, and Sharon has told entire boards of the world’s biggest record companies that Ozzy sells too many records (millions of back catalogue solo and Sabbath albums a year) to be ignored, or treated like shit by their corporations.

It is Sharon who has made Ozzy feel like he can keep going, and that he deserves to be acknowledged not only for what he did, but what he’s still doing.

For the anger, Ozzy sees a therapist. He loves telling stories of his childhood, and a therapist is, after all, a professional listener.

“It sort of rebuilds your personality,” he says.

“We talk about what goes on in my life. There are feelings that you have and you can’t understand why you’re having those feelings. He helps me to go back and remember when I first had these feelings….when my dad comes home, his bicycle had a flat tyre and he whacked the cat over the head with the bicycle pump.”

Ozzy pauses, a tear touches one eye, the tremble returns to his hands. This is hard for him.

The long ash of the cigarette he forgot about falls onto his pants. I have to resist the urge to reach over and brush the ash off his clothes.

“It’s like going back in yourself and rebuilding your personality…”

Is it working?

“So far so good.”

An hour later, Ozzy is still doing interviews, and Sharon is waiting for her husband in the foyer. There’s a handful of reporters and die-hard Ozzy Osbourne fans standing around. The five fans were waiting outside and asked me to take in their Ozzy and Black Sabbath records to get signed. This is regarded as “very unprofessional” behaviour for a rock journalist. Hell, if it was cool to bring in a swag of records to get signed, I would have brought my own. When I tell Sharon that there are Ozzy fans waiting outside, and they’ve been out there for hours, she immediately heads outside and collects them herself.

Back in the hotel foyer, they all look stunned to be standing with Sharon, waiting to meet her husband. The Oz himself.

Sharon, a self-confessed “lover of all gossip”, talks about a recent LA metal wedding. Lots of leather, lots of big hair, booze, drugs, insanity. The bride and groom, both rock-metal stars themselves, were so pissed they could barely stand up for the ceremony. Within an hour or so of getting married, they were cheating on each other at the reception. Sharon laughs.

Some idiot from a music video channel blubbers a reference to the only thing he know about Ozzy Osbourne – that he once bit the head off a live bat onstage.

Sharon is the mythologiser of Ozzy, no matter how painful the personal story may be for the both of them. She will pointedly tell you that her husband tried to kill her, and will then explain why she forgave him. They’ve had a marriage that would have destroyed most people.

Sharon waves away the old legend that Ozzy bit off bat heads onstage (he bit the head off a dead one, once, that had been thrown onstage. He thought it was a rubber bat, from his own stage show).

She has a better story than that tired old tale.

When Ozzy was welcomed back to a major label in the mid-1980s, after Sharon had fought hard on his behalf for long-overdue respect and attention, someone thought it would be a wonderful idea to have some doves in a cage in the record company boardroom for the official signing. The Demon and the Doves, or something. Ozzy was pretty wrecked that morning. Sharon had made sure all the record company staff and board members at the signing understood that Ozzy was one of their best selling acts, and he deserved some fucking respect. Ozzy prepared himself for the photos with the record company staff. He took a dove from the cage, posed with its frightened little head inside his wide-open mouth. Everyone laughed. The tension was gone. Ozzy was a joker. Everybody relaxed, Sharon said.

Then Ozzy bit through the dove’s neck and spat the head on the table. There was screaming, maybe some vomiting. There are photos of Ozzy doing this, grinning maniacally, as record executives lurch away in revulsion.

Sharon is right. This is a better story. Far more Ozzy.

But those days are over for him, for now anyway. He has to behave himself.

Reality for an aging Rock God can sometimes feel like a damn hard slog when you don’t have cocaine to get you up and booze to bring you down, and pot to even out the kinks, just a little. That used to be Ozzy’s realty. Not anymore. He needs to be kept busy, to have his missions, in order to stay focused. But he also has to work in the music industry, surrounded by drugs and booze, or at least the temptations of them.

Sharon once took Ozzy’s clothes away so had no choice but to stay in his hotel room. Ozzy simply dressed in Sharon’s clothes and found the nearest bar, and began drinking. She admits he could try that one again. So he has to be watched. Sharon trusts Ozzy, but she also knows him, only too well.

One of her first missions when Sharon arrived at the Hyatt was to tell the staff that they were not to give Ozzy alcohol, under any circumstance, no matter how he threatened them, or begged them. She made sure they all understood, and told the manager that if Ozzy went missing during his overnight stay at the hotel, she would hold him personally responsible.

"You don't want to get on my bad side," Sharon warned the manager. "Do you understand?"

He nodded yes, very quickly, as did all the other staff standing at or near the front desk.

"I have to do this at every hotel," she explained to me later, "I trust him, but I don't trust his addictions."

That night the record company holds a listening party. Ozzy shambles in, mutters a few hellos and sits down on the lounge. And there he stays as his new album, No More Tears, fills the room. The chatter of record company staff, media and others is steady and Ozzy has to listen hard sometimes to hear his record. He raises a hand as if to shush the crowd. It’s a listening party, why aren’t they listening?

And Ozzy is the only one not drinking here tonight. People come up to say hello and Ozzy watches them closely as they laugh and take a long belt of their beers or bourbons. One journalist leaves a freshly opened beer on the side table, right next to Ozzy. His jaw drops, and stays open.

“Sharon…” The call for his wife starts low and quiet and rises through the word to a shout, then becomes a bellow.


He’s not demanding her to immediately come to his side, it’s like he just wants to know she is still close by.

Then she is with him, by his side, talking to him quietly, she says something that makes him laugh and he can finally tear his attention away from that open fucking beer. I get rid of it, and tell the journo who left it there what an absolute dickhead he is.

Ozzy grips Sharon’s hand in both of his. He whispers, “I want to fuckin’ go.”

There are tears in his eyes.

Ozzy drank a couple of beers that night, back in his hotel room. Just two or three, that’s all. Just enough. And then he melted into the bed and fell into that deep sleep he had been waiting more than 50 hours for.

Finally, finally, he and Sharon were alone again.


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