Sunday, September 11, 2022

How Ozzy Came Back From Hell

AS SOON AS a pair of silver vans arrive at the VIP entrance of Birmingham, England’s Alexander Stadium, the whispers start. “Is that Sharon Osbourne?” a squinting security guard asks her friend.

“I think so,” the other guard says. “Does that mean … ?”

The drivers keep security in the dark — literally — by turning off their dome lights as they wait for Prince Edward to finish a speech for the closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games, a multisport event similar to the Olympics that took place in early August. The vans creep toward the stage. That’s when the crowd of 30,000 hears a bass drum: thump, thump, thump, thump.

“I am Iron Man!” a familiar voice bellows from the ether, as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi struts onstage. Fifty-four years earlier, Sabbath, whose members all grew up in Birmingham, defied their foregone destinies as steelworkers to forge their own brand of metal.

A trapdoor opens and a lithe silhouette with arms outstretched levitates to Iommi’s height. “Come on, Birmingham, let’s hear you,” the figure commands as a spotlight reveals Sabbath’s founding frontman, Ozzy Osbourne, sporting a Cheshire-cat smile.

This is when the audience recognizes Birmingham’s hometown hero, and their disbelief turns deafening as the Sabbath guys shift from “Iron Man” to their biggest hit, “Paranoid.” It turns out the performance was such a secret that Ozzy’s son Louis, who happened to be in the audience, is in disbelief as he spots his dad onstage.

I join Sharon and Kelly Osbourne in the front row, among the athletes. They appear overjoyed, and for good reason. This is Ozzy’s first onstage appearance in nearly three years, after a series of injuries and surgeries that left him thinking he might never perform again.

Ozzy’s health looked dire there for a while. But here he is uttering catchphrases like “Let’s go crazy!” and “God bless you all!” without missing a beat. As the song ends and pyro streams around him, he howls, “Birmingham forever!”

As soon as the lights dim, he and his family escape to their vans to beat the street closures Brits are accustomed to whenever a royal makes a public appearance. Forget Prince Edward — make way for the Prince of Darkness.

When I meet Osbourne the next afternoon in a posh London hotel suite, he’s just woken up. “I must have been fucking exhausted because I never sleep this late,” he says, tumbling onto a couch. He situates himself for maximum comfort and asks for a Diet Coke.

He’s dressed casually in a black T-shirt and black track pants. Ozzy, 73, stopped coloring his hair during the pandemic and has pulled his salt-and-pepper locks back into a small ponytail. He’s sporting purple-lensed Lennon shades, but when he pulls them down, his blue eyes still pierce with intensity. Occasionally, he fiddles with his hearing aids. Even though he uses a silver-filigreed cane to get around and fidgets like he’s in pain while seated for our two-and-a-half–hour first interview, the Birmingham performance has visibly brightened his spirits. He’s constantly animated, throwing pillows around and making eye contact to underscore a point. “Fuck” is still his favorite word — he uses it exactly 540 times in the few hours that we spend together, approximately two-and-a-half times per minute — and he uses it impressively in a variety of ways and inflections.

“Up until last night, I was semi-retired,” he says, lifting his head for emphasis. “For three years, I’m thinking, ‘I’m never going onstage.’ I kind of half-bought myself into the fact that [my performing career] was over.”

Osbourne’s agony began in 2018, during what was supposed to be his final world tour. He contracted a potentially deadly staph infection, likely from shaking fans’ hands at a meet and greet, which swelled his thumb up to the size of a lightbulb. He eventually felt healthy enough to headline a New Year’s Eve Ozzfest, but soon after, he fell at home in the middle of the night and aggravated a spinal injury he’d initially suffered during a nearly fatal quad-bike accident in 2003. After the 2019 tumble, the Iron Man found himself with two metal plates in his neck.

Osbourne postponed months of tour dates as he underwent extensive physical therapy and treatment for what he calls “scrambled nerves” in his arm and leg. During his recovery, he recorded an album, 2020’s Ordinary Man, which featured Elton John, Slash, and Post Malone. As he was promoting it, he revealed doctors had diagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease. Then Covid happened. Osbourne avoided the plague until this past April. His symptoms were mild, but since then, he says, his hair has been falling out and his fingernails are breaking off. “I can’t begin to tell you how fucked up I felt,” he says.

In June, he underwent corrective surgery that Sharon told the media would “determine the rest of his life.” Afterward, the screws in the metal plates in his neck were digging into his spine and leaving debris. “It was a fucking nightmare,” Sharon says. Thankfully, the surgeon removed the plates, and Ozzy has felt better since.

That paved the way for the Birmingham appearance. “I can’t really believe it happened,” Sharon tells me later. “They asked us six months ago, and we had to say no. And then they called us literally days before to say, ‘We’d seen Ozzy [make an appearance] at Comic-Con, and he seems to be doing well. Do you think he could do it?’ And I asked Ozzy, and he was like, ‘Yeah. Why not?’”

After the performance, Osbourne shared his excitement with Billy Morrison, a close friend who plays guitar in Billy Idol’s band. “He texted me, ‘We came, we saw, we conquered,’” Morrison says. “I just said, ‘I knew you would.’”

Ozzy may look like the picture of confidence when he’s onstage, but offstage he’s his own worst critic. “I never think I’m going to win,” he says. Before the Birmingham concert, he was worrying: “These kids don’t know who the fuck I am.”

In fact, Osbourne has been making comebacks his whole life. After grade school teachers slipped a dunce cap on him, he went on to co-found Sabbath and help invent heavy metal. When Sabbath kicked him out, he became a solo superstar. He thumbed his nose at Lollapalooza’s organizers when they called him a dinosaur and formed his own Ozzfest. He even survived fickle TV fame with The Osbournes, laying the groundwork for reality-TV families like the Kardashians.

He’s sold more than 100 million albums. He’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with Black Sabbath. He even set a Guinness World Record for leading the “longest scream by a crowd” at Dodger Stadium. “You got to put him right there with Sinatra and Elvis, as far as frontmen go,” says Zakk Wylde, Osbourne’s off-and-on guitarist for the past 35 years. “None of his peers does the business he does. It’s like saying, ‘Where does Babe Ruth fit in the history of baseball?’ It’s that huge.”

Now, he has a ripping new album, Patient Number 9, featuring guest appearances by Iommi, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, as well as members of Metallica, Pearl Jam, Guns N’ Roses, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The crazy train finally seems to be back on track.

“You know Winston Churchill used to stay here?” Osbourne asks, admiring the gold-leafed ornamentation on the walls of his suite. Claridge’s opened in 1898, and the hotel is still the sort of place where top-hatted men in heavy coats open your car door for you. “Sharon loves it here,” Ozzy notes.

Following his most recent surgery, when Osbourne’s stamina was at his lowest, he told his wife, “I’m sorry if I’m a burden.” She told him not to be silly. “My family have been fucking terrific — my kids, my wife — they’ve been so fucking supportive and so patient,” he says. So have his friends.

“We’re in touch quite a lot,” Iommi, who lives in England, thousands of miles from the Osbournes’ L.A. home, told me last year. “We don’t really speak because the pair of us are useless on the phone. He used to phone me at two o’clock in the morning, and I’d go, ‘Ozz, it’s two o’clock in the morning.’ ‘Oh, oh, sorry. All right. Bye.’ He forgets what time it is in England, and of course when the phone goes at that time of the morning you think, ‘Oh, Christ. Somebody’s died or something has happened.’ So we tend to sort of just text now.”

In addition to rebuilding his body, Osbourne has been reconstituting his confidence. Sometimes he’ll tell Sharon, “Performing is the only thing I’ve done in my life that’s right or that I’m good at.”

“I tell him, ‘It’s not true,’” she says. “He’s had his struggles, and they’ve all been very public. But it’s not true; he’s hard on himself.”

Ozzy first met Sharon in the mid-Seventies when her dad, Don Arden, started managing Sabbath. “I grinned at [Sharon], but she gave me a wary look,” Ozzy recalled in his 2009 memoir, I Am Ozzy. “She probably thought I was a lunatic, standing there in my pyjama shirt with no shoes on…”

“I always thought that Ozzy had a beautiful face and was really different, personality-wise, but I was a little apprehensive,” she says now. “I’d been used to going out with lawyers and people that worked at record companies, and he was very different, and all of those people I found incredibly boring.”

Ozzy was far from boring, though, when Sharon visited him shortly after he was fired from Sabbath in 1979 for intoxicating himself to the point of uselessness. “I just wanted to get fucked up,” he says. “It was over.” Still, she saw a spark inside of him and encouraged him to try a solo career; she even became his manager. Although Ozzy was still married to his first wife, Thelma, with whom he had three children, Ozzy and Sharon fell in love.

Ozzy hired a backing band, which prominently featured Randy Rhoads. The Quiet Riot guitarist had an unusual approach to heavy metal, inspired more by Beethoven than Sabbath, and a glammy look. On songs like “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley,” they laid the groundwork for Osbourne’s next four decades — swift-moving, quasi-gothic salvos with strong melodies that you can sing along to and showstopping guitar solos. “Ozzy’s voice has always been a godsend to me,” says Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who performed and co-wrote songs on Patient Number 9. “It’s just beautiful — the soul, the grease, the grit, and even the notes that he may struggle with are part of what makes him so special.” Sharon cleverly encouraged Ozzy to headline smaller venues, rather than open for more-established acts, setting him up for a shorter leap back to the top.

After Thelma divorced Ozzy, he and Sharon figured out how their business life would function alongside their romance. “Ozzy would say to me, ‘Are you making me do these things, especially things like TV interviews, because you love me or because you are my manager?’” she recalls. “I’d say, ‘You need to promote yourself.’ And he’d be like, ‘Are you my wife or my manager telling me this?’ And I’m like, ‘Both.’”

Thanks to Sharon’s sharp management, hits like “Crazy Train,” and a series of notorious press, uh, opportunities — like Ozzy drunkenly biting the heads off a dove and a bat — he was soon doing better business than Black Sabbath, which had continued with new singer Ronnie James Dio.

The party ended quickly, though, in March 1982, when the tour’s bus driver used a day off to entice Rhoads and hairdresser Rachel Youngblood onto a private plane. When he tried to buzz the tour bus, the plane flew into a mansion, killing everyone on board. “I had two fucking funerals in one week — it was awful,” Osbourne says. “Since then, I can’t go to funerals anymore. It just puts me in a freakout. I just couldn’t go to my family members’ funerals.”

On July 4, 1982, Ozzy and Sharon married in Maui, Hawaii. This year, they celebrated their 40th anniversary by going to a hotel and locking the door. “We had the best time, never left the room, got room service, talked about our lives together,” Sharon says. “It was perfect for us.”

“I bought Sharon a ruby, ’cause it’s our ruby anniversary,” Ozzy says. “I paid a lot of money for it — $150,000 — for this tiny ruby. I said to Sharon, ‘I think these fucking guys ripped me off. I wouldn’t pay 70 grand for it.’ Rubies are really rare.”

After Rhoads’ death, Osbourne soldiered through the Eighties with guitarists Jake E. Lee and Wylde by his side, scoring MTV hits with “Bark at the Moon” and “Shot in the Dark.” “I felt like the luckiest contest winner of all time,” says Wylde, who joined Osbourne at 19. “I’d be pinching myself.”

Meanwhile, Osbourne’s drinking and drugging escalated. While admiring Claridge’s fireplace, Osbourne twice mentions that he tried to strangle Sharon during a blackout episode in 1989. “It wasn’t my idea to go out, have a few drinks, and wake up in jail charged with attempted murder,” he says, still kicking himself.

Sharon eventually dropped the charges. “He was sent to a lockdown, and we were apart for a long time while he was in treatment,” Sharon says. “At first, I had relief in my life. But then after a couple of months, I missed him so much. The children were missing their dad every day. ‘When’s Daddy coming home?’ And I missed him. I missed his craziness.” She took him back.

Osbourne has tested the limits of his marriage since. In 2013, as Sabbath were launching their first album with Ozzy since they fired him, he became addicted to pain pills before sobering up. Then in 2016, Sharon learned Ozzy had been carrying on an affair with his hairstylist. Ozzy then sought what he described as “intense therapy” for sex addiction. The couple stuck together.

When I ask Osbourne why his marriage has survived, he shrugs. “I don’t know, but I’ve got a good wife, I think,” he says. “She’s been in rock & roll all her life. But she loves me, I love her. I haven’t been the exact perfect husband, but she’s fucking right about a lot of things.”

“I knew that I was marrying an alcoholic,” Sharon says. “So what did I expect other than a bumpy ride? We’ve had more good times than bad. So I regret nothing. I saved Ozzy, and he saved me.”

“Is it hot in here or am I  . . . fucking hell,” Osbourne says. “We haven’t quite reached America yet with the air conditioning [in England].”

After a couple of hours speaking in the suite downstairs at Claridge’s, we’ve moved into his family’s room upstairs, where he’s about to take a nap. You wouldn’t know the room was his, though, since he travels minimally. His travel philosophy is simple: “You just grab a bag and get on a plane.” But he’s also lucky to have Sharon and Kelly with him, as well as various people who work for the Osbournes. Several tell me they’ve worked for the family for more than a decade and that they wouldn’t want any other job.

Ozzy, barefoot, lies supine on a couch in front of a bay window overlooking London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood (Buckingham Palace is walkable from here) as he gripes about the country’s well-publicized summer heat wave. “People don’t believe that climate change is real,” he says frustratingly. “Look out the fucking window. Everything’s all frizzled.”

Osbourne’s politics lean liberal. Four years of Donald Trump, a man he likens to “A.H. — Adolph Hitler,” had him worried the president would blow up the planet. Yesterday, as Osbourne and Iommi were reuniting in Birmingham, the FBI raided Trump’s Florida home, Mar-a-Lago — and Osbourne gleefully watched the news reports. He has also been enjoying seeing Jan. 6 insurrectionists get indicted. “They’re dishing out some sentences,” he says. “They should do [Trump].”

Ozzy and Sharon are planning to return to their 350-acre estate outside of London next year. Although Ozzy has quipped that he’s leaving America because he’s afraid of mass shootings, he offers a more-reasonable explanation to me: He wants to be closer to his family in England and avoid high taxes that, he thinks, are coming to America to help rebuild after the pandemic.

As we’re chatting, Kelly enters to say hi. She, too, has had it with England’s heat wave, especially since she’s visibly pregnant with her first child with boyfriend and Slipknot keyboardist Sid Wilson. (They met at Ozzfest.) When she leaves the room, Ozzy beams with pride and tells me the gender of Kelly’s unborn baby. And in a delightfully Osbournes moment, Kelly yells from another room, “Dad!” His pride turns sheepish, and he says, “Sorry.” When she’s out of earshot, he tells me, “I’m kind of over the moon. She looks really well.”

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