From The Archives: Ozzy Osbourne
The Prince of Darkness smiles for his TV close-up
For Ozzy Osbourne, there is reality television — and there is real life. The former is what you see each week on The Osbournes. Ozzy, the 53-year-old millionaire doofus shuffling through his Beverly Hills mansion in his tattoos and magenta-streaked, shoulder-length hair; wrestling with the simple mechanics of turning on a TV; dodging carpet bombs left by the family dogs; firing the word fuck every ten seconds with his spitfire wife and manager, Sharon, 50, and their children Kelly, 17, and Jack, 16. A ratings bonanza for MTV, The Osbournes has made Ozzy TV’s top dad and stars of everyone in his family.
But real life is what happened to Osbourne on his way to prime time. “I am the real, true working-class hero,” he says proudly, and he has the life to prove it. Since 1970, the British singer — a high school dropout and teenage jailbird who grew up in extreme poverty — has been the undisputed king of heavy metal, first with Black Sabbath, then as a multiplatinum solo artist and nonstop touring machine. Founded in 1996, Ozzfest, his annual summer extravaganza, is the highest-grossing package tour in rock. (The current U.S. run ends on September 8th in Dallas.)
Osbourne has never had trouble making headlines: for biting the head off a bat onstage in 1982, then getting arrested a few weeks later for pissing on the Alamo in a drunken stupor while wearing a woman’s gown. But now he is everywhere. This year, Osbourne has received a star on Hollywood Boulevard; been a guest of honor at the White House Correspondents Dinner; and played Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” for Queen Elizabeth II at the Queen’s Jubilee concert in London. He has two new albums (Live at Budokan and the TV-show soundtrack, The Osbournes) and a second Osbournes season on tap.
“If you have a fucking dream, don’t stop believing in it,” Osbourne declares at the start of five hours of conversation over two days in his New York hotel. “That’s what it’s about: fantasies and dreams.” Fantasies were all he had as a boy. The fourth of six children, John Michael Osbourne was born on December 3rd, 1948 in the Aston section of Birmingham, England. His father worked nights as a toolmaker. Suffering from dyslexia, Osbourne quit school at 15 and got stuck in a series of menial jobs before co-founding Sabbath in 1968 with guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward.
In his most extensive interview ever, Osbourne reveals the reality behind his success: his childhood; the mad Sabbath days; the drugs and drinking; the 1982 death of his guitarist Randy Rhoads in a tragic airplane joy ride; and his love for Sharon, the woman who saved his life and career.
What were you thinking as you sang “Paranoid” at the Queen’s Jubilee concert? You must have scared the woman half to death.
Prince William said to me later, “It would have been great if you had done ‘Black Sabbath.’ ” If I had done “Black Sabbath,” the fucking royal box would have turned to stone, and the Archbishop of Canterbury would have had to douse them in holy water.
At first, I thought the reason they picked me for the show was that I’m the in-house joke. But everyone — the royal family, all the princes — was headbanging, giving it plenty. And the atmosphere backstage was great. I was there with Sir Paul McCartney, Bryan Adams, Joe Cocker, all in the dressing tent. It was like sitting in a bar with every celebrity in the world.
You have to understand — I come from Aston in Birmingham, a very poor industrial neighborhood. I remember sitting on my doorstep when the Beatles first happened, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if Paul McCartney married my sister?” And there I am, 36 years later, singing “Hey Jude” with him at the end of that show. I absolutely worshiped the Beatles. Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols once said to me, “I hated the Beatles.” To me, that’s like saying you hate air.
Did you try hard not to say fuck when you met the queen?
That word was temporarily on hold in my head. My wife said to Camilla Parker Bowles [Prince Charles’ girlfriend], “I think you’re fucking great.” My eyeballs nearly flew out of my head. I said, “Sharon, watch your language.” And Camilla Parker Bowles says [affects posh accent], “Oh, it’s quite all right. We curse quite a lot around here.”
When I went up to the queen, I tried to keep my hand in my pocket. I was afraid she would faint when she saw the tattoo [O-Z-Z-Y on the fingers of his left hand]. She said, “I understand you’re quite the wild one.” I just went, “Heh, heh, heh” [embarrassed laugh]. One thing I noticed — she’s got the greatest skin for a woman of her age.
You also met President Bush this year at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Again, I felt like the in-house joke. I was really nervous. But it was like Beatlemania. The press were going nuts. Everything that has happened to me in the last six months has been incredible. Two years ago, I’m thinking, “I’m 52. I’ll peter off doing Ozzfest once a year and bow out gracefully.” All of a sudden, someone throws a success grenade in the room.
Five years ago, the press and the royals wouldn’t have given you the time of day. Does the hypocrisy bother you?
It’s not hypocrisy. I’m the flavor of the month. I know I’m this year’s version of Roseanne Barr. I know the bubble will burst, and I’m going to be yesterday’s news. But I’m not letting any of this get in the way of my music. I can still rock like a son of a bitch.
If television cameras had followed you around as a child in Birmingham, what would we have seen?
My home was very poor. My father worked nights as a toolmaker. He was the English Archie Bunker; he wouldn’t change with the times. He would never buy my mom a washing machine. We had a boiler house in the garden — you’d put a fire under this copper boiler, where you would boil the clothes to death. I used to sleep in a bed with one of my brothers. We had no sheets. We had to use old coats.
When I was a young kid, my father would take me on Sunday mornings with my Uncle Jim to the pub, the Golden Cross. Since I wasn’t allowed in, I’d sit on the step, and they’d bring me a shandy, which is half lemonade, half beer. I remember thinking, “Beer must be the best lemonade in the world. I can’t wait until the age when I can drink it.” When I had my first beer, I spat it out: “That can’t be the fucking stuff. It’s like dishwater.” But then I got the glow. I didn’t drink for the taste — I did it for the feeling.
What was your mother like?
She did her best. We never went without food. She stretched things to the limit. There was always a lot of bread and potatoes to fill us up. But money was very scarce. I used to have to ask the neighbors for a cup of sugar, a bottle of milk. One of my biggest fears is going broke. It’s my insecurity, from when I was a child. I never went on holiday, never saw the ocean, until I was 14.
You left school at 15 — because you wanted to or had to?
I wanted to. When I was in school, they didn’t recognize dyslexia. I looked at the blackboard and it was like trying to read a Chinese menu, in Chinese. But I couldn’t hold down a job. First, I worked at a jewelry company — they made napkin rings and cigarette boxes. Then I was a plumber, then a tea boy on a building site. Then I worked in a slaughterhouse. That was the longest job I ever had.
What did you do there?
Kill — at the end of it. It was automated, but the guys would let me shoot a cow now and then. My first job there was emptying sheep’s stomachs of the puke. There was a giant mountain of the stuff. The stink was unbelievable. But you get used to it.
Then I got a job in a mortuary. My mother went ballistic: “You are crazy.” The formaldehyde was awful. I’d have visions of the dead people’s faces when I got home. Then my mother got me my first musical job — I tuned car horns. You were supposed to do 900 a day. Can you imagine being in a room with that fucking racket?
The big thing with working-class people in England was to work until retirement, and then they gave you a gold watch. That equation never made sense to me. I’m going to give you my life for a gold watch? I’d rather break a shop window and grab one.
You did some jail time, when you were 17, for burglary.
The best thing my father ever did for me was he refused to pay the fine. If you don’t pay the fine, you go to debtor’s jail. I went for a few weeks. He could have paid the fine for me, but after that, I never wanted to go back.
Describe Black Sabbath’s earliest days. You were originally called Earth.
We played 12-bar blues, like Ten Years After and the original Fleetwood Mac. We had a van full of equipment, and we’d go to gigs hoping the other band wouldn’t make it, which happened several times. We used to play for nothing. We’d do wedding receptions.
We rehearsed at a community center near Tony Iommi’s house, across the road from a movie theater. One morning, Tony says to us, “It’s interesting. I was looking over at the theater.” It was showing something like The Vampire Returns. “Don’t you think it’s weird that people pay money to be scared? Maybe we should write scary music.” That’s when we came up with “Black Sabbath” [hums the guitar riff]. That was the fucking change of my life.
Were you guys interested in black magic — even a little?
We couldn’t conjure up a fart. We’d get invitations to play witches’ conventions and black masses in Highgate Cemetery. I honestly thought it was a joke. We were the last hippie band — we were into peace.
In a lot of live Sabbath photos, you’re flashing the peace sign.
I never did this black-magic stuff. The reason I did “Mr. Crowley” on my first solo album [Blizzard of Ozz, 1980] was that everybody was talking about Aleister Crowley. Jimmy Page bought his house, and one of my roadies worked with one of his roadies. I thought, “Mr. Crowley, who are you? Where are you from?” But people would hear the song and go, “He’s definitely into witchcraft.”
You were fired from Black Sabbath in 1978. Did you deserve it?
We deserved to fire each other. There was no one worse than anybody else. If the others had been churchgoing Bible punchers and I was fucking their wives, I could have expected it. But they were doing booze and quaaludes too.
In those days, we were well into cocaine. That turns you into a powder-seeking freak. The thing was, get the gig over with so we could get our bump of coke. We had a guy on tour with suitcases full of different strengths of coke.
We went head over heels. It made me incredibly afraid. I remember lying in bed at night, feeling my heartbeat, thinking “Please, God, let me sleep for an hour, so I’ll be OK.” Then I’d wake up and [makes sniffing noise] be straight into it again. We did it for years. Eventually it turned everything sour. One minute, we were a rock band doing coke. The next, we were a coke band doing rock.
Do you worry that the success of The Osbournes has made you too acceptable — the cuddly heavy-metal clown?
My son, Jack, gets pissed off sometimes. He said to me one day, “Dad, the difference is whether people are laughing with you or at you.” I said, “As long as they’re laughing, it doesn’t matter.”
When I first started singing, I was in this blues band, the Rare Breed, with Geezer Butler. I’m leaping around, playing harmonica and singing. The lead guitar player comes up to me and goes [in serious voice], “We don’t do that in blues bands.” I go, “Fuck you, fuck your blues band. If I want to jump around, I’ll damn well do it.” I like to have fun.
I’ve seen all the serious bands, all the serious guitar players. Frankly, the only difference between vaudeville and modern music is electric guitars and microphones. It’s basically, “Is everybody happy?” “Yeah!” “What about you over here, my friend?” It’s the same trick. And when everything is in its right place — I’m singing good and have the energy — I love that moment a thousand times more than the success of The Osbournes.
How has Kelly and Jack’s new celebrity changed your relationship with them as a parent?
Kelly bought me this watch because my eyesight is so bad [pulls up his sleeve to show a wristwatch with huge numbers on the dial]. That’s a trip. I’m not used to my kids buying me things.
I’m really proud of them. Did you see Kelly on the MTV Movie Awards? It was her first stage performance ever. She runs down a fucking flight of stairs like she’s running a marathon, and I’m thinking, “Slow down, baby, you’re going to lose your balance.” If I had to do that, I would be petrified, with butterflies, on the can the whole day.
But it’s not like I was a guy who delivered parcels of food, and I suddenly became this big star. It’s not a new thing to them. I’m in the car one day with the kids, and one of them goes, “Dad, wasn’t it Andy Warhol who said everyone gets 15 minutes of fame?” And Jack says, “Yeah, that’s why I’m getting mine over with now.”
Do they still get scolded?
Absolutely. Sharon will say to them, “You go up to that man and apologize right now.” Every family has its rules. People go, “My son watches The Osbournes, and he can’t stop saying the word fuck.” You know what? There’s this incredible invention on these machines now — the ON/OFF button. You are not compelled to watch. If some hardcore porn came on television, or something else I didn’t want my children to watch, I’d turn it off: “Get the fuck out of here. You’re not watching that.” We’ve always been liberal parents — with rules.
Are you disappointed that your oldest daughter, Aimee, declined to be in the show?
No. She is very shy, very private. She is a different spark to the rest of us. People ask me if I want my kids to follow in my footsteps. It would be great, but I’m not going to hold a gun to their heads: “You’ve got to take karaoke classes, you have to be the next Posh Spice.” There’s nothing worse than being put in a situation you don’t want to be in, where you think you’re letting your folks down. When I was a kid, my father put me in the Boy Scouts. I fucking hated it. He bought me all the gear — the cap, the green shirt — and I’d pretend I was going to the meetings. Instead, I was playing on a building site.
One of the funniest parts of The Osbournes is the bleeps over the cursing. But don’t you think Kelly and Jack swear too much?
You know, when they show it in England, there are no bleeps. It isn’t as much fun. But it’s entertainment. Some days, it’s just “Hello, how are you?” “All right.” But you get four months of someone being in your life, from early in the morning to the end of the day, and then condense it into 13 20-minute episodes — it sounds like we get up and go, “Good fucking morning.” “How’s the fucking dog today?” If you get up in the morning and stub your foot, you don’t go [in prissy voice], “Oh, damn.” You go, “Oh, fuck! What is that bedpost doing there?” In our show, there’s a bedpost every ten seconds.
But like I said, we’ve always been a very liberal family. One thing I’m really vigilant about: I put condoms in all the kids’ dressers. The girls go, “Oh, Dad!” But my folks never told me nothing. Anything I learned was from the boys in the alleyway, and it was a bad way to learn. It’s my job to say, “If you have sex, make sure your partner wears one of these.” Or, “Jack, wear this. You’re not invincible. HIV — it’s still out there.”
Given your own history of substance abuse, what have you said to your children about drugs and alcohol?
I don’t have to have discussions. They’ve seen me come home in police vans, and not come home at all. Which I’m not proud of. I’m the most dysfunctional kid in the family.
But if I feel this show is fucking my family up — if I find my son freebasing — I will say, “You can kiss my ass. I don’t want to have a TV show and bury two kids at the end of it.” The most important thing for me is the love I have for my family. I love them more than life itself. I do checks on them: “Are you handling it OK?” But more than that, my kids will say to me, “You’re not drinking today, are you?”
You’ve been married to Sharon for 20 years. What was it that first attracted you to her?
Her laugh. She has the best laugh. She was so infectious, the way she laughed and cursed. I fancied her from a distance for quite a while. We’d pass in hotels, airports. Her father, Don Arden, managed Black Sabbath, and she worked in the office.
Then I got fired from Black Sabbath. I went to a hotel in L.A., locked myself in this room, ordered cases of beer and had a dealer bring me coke every day. I thought, “I’m on my last fling. I’m going to get well fucked up for a few months, then go home and call it a day.” My idea was to open a bar — which is a brilliant idea for an alcoholic.
One day, there is a knock at the door. Someone in the band’s organization had given me an envelope of cash I was supposed to give to Sharon. I blew it on coke. So she came ’round to tear me off a stripe. She comes in — I think she felt sorry for me. She goes, “If you straighten your act up, I want to manage you.”
Everybody up to that point was going, “You dummy, you idiot, you can’t do fuck-all.” All my life, I used to be called a dummy. She was the one who didn’t. She encouraged me. She got my ass in gear. We’re the greatest team on earth.
You were arrested in 1989 for trying to kill her in a drunken rage.
It has not always been bliss. But when I was doing the Queen’s Jubilee, there wasn’t one rock star there, not one, with a wife who was the same age. They were all 12 or 32 or whatever. I know to get a young piece of skirt is one thing. But what the fuck do you talk about? “Oh, that was bad news about India and Pakistan.” And it’s so common. I wouldn’t trade my Sharon for anything.
Randy Rhoads, your first guitarist after leaving Sabbath, died in a plane crash in 1982. He was just 25, and you got to make only two albums with him, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. What did you get from him in that short time?
He gave me such a lift. He was not only a fantastic guitar player. Randy worked with me: “Sing that, but try it in this key.” In Sabbath, whatever they laid down, I had to put a vocal on it.
He was very quiet, and dedicated to his instrument. Every day, on tour, he would get up, look in the Yellow Pages for a classical-guitar teacher and have a lesson. On that last fateful tour, he said to me on the bus, “I want to quit the band.” I’m like, “What’s up with you? We’ve got another album in the charts.” He said, “I’ve tasted what it’s like to be a rock star. I want to get a degree in classical guitar.” I said, “Make some fucking dough first.” He was always up for a higher challenge.
Was it hard to keep going after Randy’s death?
As we speak here, my head instantly goes back to that field where the airplane crashed into the fucking house. It never leaves me. I remember getting off the tour bus. The bus was bent from where the plane had hit it. The keyboard player was out there, holding his face. There were diamonds of glass, where the windows were broken. There was this incredible smell of fuel. I had my Jockey shorts on. And I’m standing in this field, going, “Where the fuck is Randy? Where’s Rachel?” [Rachel Youngblood, a wardrobe assistant and close friend of the Osbournes, also died in the crash.] The tour manager points to this house. “How can he be in that house? It’s on fire.”
I said to Sharon, “It’s over. I don’t want this kind of life anymore.” Sharon got really pissed. She says, “You’re not quitting, because Randy and Rachel would not want us to quit.” I vowed to Randy’s mom — by playing the songs we wrote together, it’s going to keep his memory alive. Randy was too young and too nice a guy to die. It’s always the assholes in the world who live to 199.
Are you amazed that, after everything you’ve been through and done to yourself with drugs and alcohol, you’re still here?
Absolutely. I’ve danced with death so many times, knowingly and unknowingly. You know what I do? Every year, since I was 45, I have a full physical: colonoscopy, prostate test; they shove things up my dick. And at the end, they go, “You’re fine.”
Nothing — touch wood [he knocks on a table three times] — has gone wrong with me. But if it does, it does. I’ve had a great run. The thing about life that gets me crazy is that by the time you learn it all, it’s too late to deal with it. It should be the other way around. We should be born with all this sense and knowledge, and then get stupider as we get older.
If you could write your own epitaph, what would it be?
Just “Ozzy Osbourne, born 1948, died so-and-so.” I’ve done a lot for a simple working-class guy. I made a lot of people smile. I’ve also made a lot of people go, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?” I guarantee that if I was to die tonight, tomorrow it would be, “Ozzy Osbourne, the man who bit the head off a bat, died in his hotel room….” I know that’s coming.
But I’ve got no complaints. At least I’ll be remembered.