Master of reality
Ozzy Osbourne gets a grip.
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 29 November 1997
One does not mention the Bat Incident to Mr O these days. It's become his albatross. As he told the Daily Mail last year, "Whatever else I do, my epitaph will be `Ozzy Osbourne, born December 3, 1948. Died, whenever. And he bit the head off a bat'." The incident was in 1982, on stage after some generous fan tossed the aerial vampire at the singer on stage. Osbourne thought it was made of rubber but changed his mind when a) his face was lashed with fluttering leathery wings, and b) it bit him back - he was rushed off for anti-rabies injections. Luckily, there are a thousand other stories to ask about, for his is a life full of incident, much of it surreal, most of it unsuitable for family reading, and hardly any of it conducted in an atmosphere of sobriety.
In the early 1970s, he was the voice of Black Sabbath, the English band who introduced the world to "heavy metal", to million-decibel riffs instead of tunes, to Gothic rock and a whole paraphernalia of skulls, studded- leather bracelets, ghost-train psychodrama, witchcraft, earth spirits - and the dark, rowdy anthem, "Paranoid", the band's only hit single. If you liked the Sabs, you were announcing your rejection of hippiedom, of pretentiousness, of art-school wankers like Yes, of whiney singer-songwriters like Neil Young. You preferred the wall of noise. You probably wore an army greatcoat. You definitely wore a cross around your neck.
"I hate that phrase," said Ozzy crossly. "It's a stigmatism [sic] to be called `heavy metal'. We didn't always sing about the Devil. We did some ballads. We had a beautiful song called `Changing', Tony sat at the piano and I sang."
Having woken up the pop world, the Sabbath embraced the most dangerous excesses it had to offer, with a ferocity that left jaded music journalists gaping. What Topographic Oceans of booze, what Alaskan whiteouts of cocaine, what Ingres fantasies of groupie flesh - and what an unlikely quartet of voluptuaries they were, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and Ozzy, with their Zapata moustaches, their manes of raven-black hair, their dead expressions. After 1974, their management went bust and the band stumbled about in a narcotic cloud, their sporadic recordings getting worse and worse. Osbourne was fired in 1979, and embarked on a phenomenally upbeat solo career, from which a selection of Great Moments has just been packaged as The Ozzman Cometh.
More to the point, though, is that here, in this 400-year-old stone redoubt where Oasis recorded their first album, the original members of the Sabbath are living together for the first time in 17 years. They eat together, chill out with television or hi-fi in the horrible Seventies lounge (swirly- floral carpet, enraging slatted-back sofa with cushions that gradually tilt towards you) and rehearse at teeth-loosening levels in the en-suite recording studio. They're reforming to play two concerts at Birmingham's NEC next Thursday and Friday. From where I was standing, 10 feet from the massed banks of Laney speakers, as they blasted out "War Pigs" and "Into the Void", they've never sounded more dramatic or in better nick. Iommi and Butler, trading licks and duetting on power chords, are black- clad, leathery and hairy, like two of Robin Hood's more disreputable Merry Men. Bill Ward looking like an ageing Chicago boxing promoter, is back on drums, a one-man sonic Nagasaki.
"It's tough rehearsing the old songs after being away from each other so long, but we're getting on fine," says Osbourne, a vision in black T-shirt with stained -glass-window motif, rich chestnut tresses, screaming- face tattooes and blue-tinted shades. "We're all grown-up, you see, we've all been through the shit, we're all egoed out, we've all had Rolls-Royces, we've all spent thousands of dollars, and at the end of the day, we talk to each other." Indeed they do. Oz and Tony and Geezer and Bill have spent this month gradually relaxing into a cocoon of old stories and reminiscences about their days as progressive-rock warlords, and the toll of the intervening years. As Ozzy points out several times, "One amazing thing about us is that we're still alive. When you think what happened to Keith Moon, and John Bonham [Led Zeppelin's drummer] and Lennon and Brian Jones and Phil Lynott [of Thin Lizzy] and..."
As he embarks on a list of rock 'n' roll casualties, let us remind ourselves how close he himself has come to death, jail, physical violence and public obloquy. Osbourne famously once bit the head off a white dove in front of a group of Stateside businessmen. He was charged with attempted manslaughter after allegedly trying to strangle his second wife, Sharon, in 1989 (she later dropped the charges). He was thrown into jail in Texas after visiting the Alamo where he thoughtlessly urinated on the outside wall of the Texan battle shrine. His public profile in America has never been very hygienic. He was taken to court in the mid-Eighties by West Coast parents who were convinced that one of his songs, when played backwards, yielded subliminal messages urging teenage listeners to kill themselves. "In the end," he remembers, "I got so fed up, I did put a stupid fucking message on a track backwards. It said, `Your mother sells whelks in Hull.' I had someone come up to me once and say, `Hey, man, what's a fuckin' whelk, man?'"
Much of the Ozzy story, however, is a less amusing tale of demons and addictions. He has, he admits, an addictive personality. "My father used to take me to the pub when I was 12. He'd get me a half of shandy and I'd sit there and watch him and think, `Fucking hell, he's just had a big row with my mum at home, he's pissed off, but 10 minutes later he's singing "The Old Mill By the Stream". I'd try and imagine what the booze must be like. I thought it must be like the best lemonade in the world. When I had my first taste of beer I spat it out and said, You've given me the wrong stuff." Nonetheless, he enjoyed the feeling of intoxication, "so I'd just tip it down until I got the feeling. I never in my life went for a drink and came out thinking, I really enjoyed that. I'd crawl out covered in cigarette ash and piss and spilt beer." Had he a favourite brew? "Nah, I'd go from red wine to white wine, to whiskey to Cognac, anything - it could be horse piss as long as it got me out of my mind."
Or drugs, of course. Osbourne's intake of jazz talc, hallucinogens and a synthetic heroin called Demerol should have killed him long ago. Instead, it's allowed him a new career as an enthusiastically vocal Awful Warning to Others. Despite numerous admissions to addiction clinics (including the Betty Ford, where he spotted Elizabeth Taylor), he invariably emerged to fly straight back into the arms of morphine. "It's like going to learn to be a carpenter. They give you the tools, show you how to maintain sobriety, then it's up to you whether you want to use what they've taught you."
Which he did only after a nasty episode, when he was left all by himself for a week. "Sharon had gone with my son, left on the Monday, was coming back on Sunday. I was living beside this old guy who used to make his own wine, and I just got pissed out of my fucking face every day, drugs and everything, day and night for a week. On the Friday, I felt so fucking awful that I thought, that's it, I can't do it any more, and I just went cold turkey. I woke up on the Sunday with Sharon and Stewart holding me down. I'd no idea what had happened."
Osbourne had, in fact, been re-born as Mr Clean, the Excess Survivor. He was told by doctors that he had a chemical imbalance in his brain caused by too many drinks and drugs, "and I have to take medication for the rest of my life. I ended up having seizures." He is also chronically insomniac, harried by nightmares of flight. It's one of the typical ironies of rock 'n' roll that the man who started his career scaring his audience by singing about "Paranoia" should end up suffering from it; that this connoisseur of the paraphernalia of madness, who used to sing "I'm going off the rails on a crazy train", should wind up apparently some way round the twist himself.
"The odd thing is," he mused, "in these dreams, whatever I'm being chased by - wild animals, Red Indians, world war III, whatever - I'll open a door and be back in the house I was born in. I open the door and I'm in No 14, Lodge Road, Aston, Birmingham." It was not, by all accounts, a very secure environment. "There were a lot of arguments. Father worked in a factory and would come home hacking up his lungs, my mother worked in a factory. Money was short. We never had a lot. We had no expectations."
He was an unhappy child - "I was running on fear all the time", though he didn't know what to be afraid of. A dyslexia sufferer, he played truant constantly. "I hated school. It was so fucking frustrating, not being able to understand what they were trying to teach me", and tried his hand at shoplifting and burglary. The only light on his horizon was music. "I lived in a fantasy world, always thinking, I'll make a lot of money and get out of this shit. When the Beatles came along, it turned my head. My wall was full of Beatles pictures. I used to fantasise about a Beatle marrying one of my sisters."
When he and the others formed a band in 1968, its unique selling proposition arrived by accident. They used to rehearse across the road from a cinema called The Orient. One day, there was a horror film showing, "and Tony [Iommi] said, `Isn't it strange that people pay money to see scary films? Perhaps we should start writing scary music'." It was a brilliant corrective to the Woodstock generation. "It was just a different angle," says Osbourne modestly. "At the time, it was all bells and flowers, hippies and incense and smoking hash. Of course, behind the scenes, someone was making the kaftans and bells, and getting the drugs and pushing them on the kids, someone was raking in the dough."
This is an unusually moral note to be struck by such a headlong roustabout, but it isn't the only one. The re-born Ozzy professes to be shocked at the sexual excess of the Sixties, despite being one of its major beneficiaries ("The perverts had a great time," he says darkly), and is full of cautions about loose behaviour in the days of Aids ("I wouldn't like to be fuckin' 21 these days"). When dilating on the randomness of luck, the former Aleister Crowley fan refers respectfully to "the man upstairs", ie God. He is nice about the beleaguered Spice Girls ("I think for what they are, they're OK") and the obnoxious Liam Gallagher ("I do like Oasis, though I've seen and heard it all before".) He feels, he says, "English and proud to be - I'm not fucking European at all", and was traumatised by Princess Diana's death. He is equally sentimental about his favourite bulldog, Baldrick, who developed a brain tumour recently and had to be put down. "He was the best friend I ever had. He was so fucking cool, such a character, he knew what I was thinking." Was it true he paid for a facelift for Baldrick? "Yeah," says Ozzy defensively, "he had these wrinkles on his face, they used to give him sores, so I had some of the skin taken off." One waits for the bad-taste loon of legend to appear with some apt remark. One waits in vain. All in all, the Oz is metamorphosing into an elder statesman of the British entertainment world.
As befits his status, he is a keen collector of art. "Yeah, big time. But I don't buy modern stuff, I don't like modern art. I prefer Victorian." Which Victorians? He waved his hand. "Oh... Toulouse-Lautrec. The, er, Three Graces... I've got this dealer in London. The most expensive painting I ever bought was for pounds 40,000." Who was the artist? "I don't know". Did he like French or English 19th century - "Look," he said testily. "I like pictures of naked women. Done in chalks. Victorian women had beautiful shapes and curves, unlike these anorexic wrecks you get today."
Thirty years after the four non-hippy teenagers met on the backstreets of Aston, Osbourne is clearly a changed man. "I used to be an alcoholic drug addict, now I'm a workaholic. I've gotta keep moving all the time." And when he can, he tries to turn into a properly domesticated figure, fleeing home from the emotional strain of touring and promotional requirements, spending more time with Sharon and his children, doing a little cooking - and only occasionally yielding to the urge to go out into the garden of his expensive Buckinghamshire retreat, carrying a crossbow or one of his guns, and slaughter some more wildlife. A guy's got to relax somehow
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