Ozzy Osbourne: 'I was a clown, but never a bad guy'
At 60, the former Black Sabbath frontman is finally sober enough to take his driving test – and write his memoirs.
Thursday 08 October 2009
Get your motor runnin' and head out on the highway... The Prince of Darkness has passed his driving test. At the age of 60, Ozzy Osbourne is finally entitled to get behind the wheel.
Through the haze of a memory damaged by a lifetime of debauchery he estimates that he first placed himself at the mercy of a DVLA examiner in the early Seventies. "The first test was about 1974, then 75, 76, 77, 78. I've lost count how many times. I remember one time I was doing the three-point turn and I passed out because I'd been to the doctor's earlier and got some Valium for my nerves. At the end they'd say 'You've failed,' and I'd be staggering around the car park. Some [examiners] would say, 'I'm not even fooking getting in the car with you.' Would you?"
That was then and this is now. John Michael Osbourne sits in a grand suite in the Dorchester hotel in London. He is looking sleek, as a result of a cross-trainer and 500 stomach curls each morning. "I love the feeling of working out," he says.
"I don't drink anymore; I don't smoke; I don't do drugs. I quite enjoy this sobriety because at least I can kind of remember what I did yesterday," he says, which is always helpful when you've been compiling an autobiography.
Considering the life he's led ("I've died twice on the way to hospital and they've had to jump-start me again. I used to overdose every day"), there doesn't seem a lot wrong with Black Sabbath's former frontman. Except his hearing. A conversation with Osbourne is punctuated by loud barks of "Whaaat?... Whoo?... Sorry?"
Except, also, his powers of recollection. "Since I had a bike accident a few years ago my short-term memory doesn't exist. I'm forever going up and down the stairs."
That's not much of a price to pay to get to where he is now, the son of a Birmingham tool factory worker who has become one of the most recognisable music stars in the world. As well as his home in Hidden Hills, California, he has a "lovely" place in Buckinghamshire, and switches between the two. "When the weather is good here it's the fooking best place in the world," he says of his homeland. He has sold 50 million records as a solo artist and 50 million more with Black Sabbath. He has performed to live audiences of 250,000. He is the star of MTV's best-performing show ever, a father of five and a grandfather.
After a difficult time in school ("I suffered from dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Nobody knew what it was – they used to sit you in the corner with a dunce's hat"), he drifted between the deadest of dead-end jobs in building sites, factories and a slaughterhouse. He did a brief stretch in prison for failing to pay a small fine imposed for a cack-handed break-in.
Then came Sabbath, a band he formed with guitarist Tommy Iommi, bass player Geezer Butler and drummer Mick Ward, three mates from his Aston neighbourhood. Very quickly, everything changed. Black Sabbath's eponymous debut album went to number eight in the British charts in 1970 and reached number 23 in America. "From record one we were a success. We never looked back," says the man with the distinctive and haunting vocals that soared over Iommi's left-handed riffs. Seven more hit albums followed as the band conquered the world.
Osbourne was fired from Black Sabbath in 1979, when his drug abuse and alcoholism became too much even for the other band members. But such was the strength of his persona that he stormed back as a solo artist, with the album Blizzard of Ozz going four times platinum.
That he was able to do this was largely down to the force of his personality, augmented by the management skills of his new girlfriend Sharon. Osbourne's notoriety grew after, at Sharon's insistence, he went to a record company meeting with some white doves in his pocket, so that he could release them as a stunt. Bored, he instead bit the head off one of the birds.
"The dove's head landed on the PR chick's lap in a splatter of blood," he recalls in his new memoir, I Am Ozzy. "To be honest with you, I was so pissed, it just tasted of Cointreau. Well, Cointreau and feathers. And a bit of beak."
Then there was the live bat, thrown on stage at a gig in Des Moines, Iowa; Osbourne, believing it to be a toy, decapitated it and then had to be taken to hospital to be injected against rabies.
And though he has just passed his test, he has driven illegally for years. "I bought a brand new Mercedes AMG and took Sharon to Tramps," he remembers. "I drank a shitload of booze and then went down South Molton Street the wrong way. A 12-year-old cop said to me 'Have you been drinking?' I said, 'Is the Pope a Catholic?' We went to the nick in a black Mariah and I said to Sharon, 'It's not everyday you go out in a brand new Mercedes and come home in a police van,' which didn't go down too well."
But, he says, he is not the monster of rock that some believe. "I was the kind of nutter people liked to be around – I'd do anything. Basically I was the clown, I always have been. I was never a bad guy. When I got successful it gave me a ticket to be a lunatic, but I didn't do it with any malice, apart from whacking the wife round the ear now and again."
Just the domestic violence then – though he didn't get away with that with Sharon, his second wife. "Sharon would bollock me, yell at me and make me apologise."
If it came to a fight with another man, he'd have half an eye on the door, he admits. "It depends on how big the guy was. I didn't mind giving a few smacks, but I didn't like receiving a few."
He might be doing himself a bit of a disservice, in view of his valiant response to a burglary at the Osbournes' Buckinghamshire home in 2004. "That burglar guy – I had him in a headlock hanging out the window. I could have killed him, but for a millisecond I thought, 'If I kill this guy, how the hell am I going to live the rest of my life?'" he says.
The potential for danger is even greater in America. "In California you can't smoke a cigarette in your own house but you can buy a gun – that's one thing I don't understand," he complains.
Sabbath had an anti-Vietnam song "War Pigs" on their debut album and Ozzy still has concerns for the plight of troops in conflict zones. He recalls meeting Tony Blair at an event in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. "Tony Blair was looking at me. I was quite astounded when he said to me 'Do you know, I was in a rock'n'roll band myself once?'" says Ozzy. "Then he goes, 'We could never quite get the thing to [Sabbath's second single] "Iron Man".' I'm looking at this guy and thinking 'He's the fooking Prime Minister of Britain, and there's kids out there getting blown up and fooking landmines and the rest of it, and he's talking to me about "Iron Man". There's something wrong with this.'"
Not that he hankers to be an activist. "I don't understand too much about politics and I don't want to. I could always phone Bono and see what he's got to say – he's a fooking political groupie now isn't he? That's one thing that pisses me off: when people in the entertainment game think it's cool to be a politician. "
Could an Ozzy Osbourne have emerged in the 21st century? "I don't know. It's a completely different business now. They say, 'You look good, you look good; we'll call the band whatever.' There are new kids on TV for a month and then they disappear; it's manufactured now," he says.
"If I was about to bite the head off a bat now, would people give a fuck?" he asks. "Remember [Sixties American singer] P J Proby when his nuts fell out on stage? They could walk on stage now with no gear on. When something's been done, it's been done."
So there will only ever be one Prince of Darkness. Birmingham is so proud of him these days that he is to be sculpted as a bronze statue. And he is set to realise an ambition with a bit-part in next year's follow up to the Billy Bob Thornton movie Bad Santa. Yes, really. "Who am I playing? I haven't a clue. Probably a beer mat or something."
And then there is the potential for further autobiographical work, as further recollections emerge from the fug of his memory. "Ozzy Osbourne in 350 pages?" he asks, almost insulted by the slimness of his new volume. "That's just the first chapter; my life has been anything but dull."
'I Am Ozzy' by Ozzy Osbourne is published by Little, Brown, £20
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