Ozzy Does It
The improbable persistence of Ozzy Osbourne.
I Am Ozzy is the title of his book. Perfect. Not They Call Me Ozzy or The Ozz I Waz or even Why Ozz? Because. Just this bald declarative, this absolute. And here it all is, in vivid as-told-to prose, an identity and its roots: the childhood playing in a dark city (Birmingham) still half-flattened by Hitler's bombs; the industrialized young manhood in a factory testing car horns and then in a slaughterhouse; the tattooed grandmother, the early imprisonment, the graffiti-ing of the words "IRON VOID" on a roadside wall; the lost fights, the "mouthful of pub carpet"; the bestial recoil from "the hippy-dippy shit that was all over the radio"; and the epochal day when his bandmate Tony Iommi ("an incredible fighter") says, "Maybe we should stop doing blues and write scary music instead."
Lester Bangs wrote in 1972 that Black Sabbath was "probably the first truly Catholic rock group, or the first group to completely immerse themselves in the Fall and Redemption." Was he thinking of lines like "Day of Judgment, God is calling/ On their knees, the war pigs crawling"? Or of Iommi's de profundis guitar tone, the huge doleful burden of it, as much a sign as a sound, traveling out into space and separation? St. Paul would have had no trouble recognizing it: "For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain until now."
Elementally, Sabbath was a power trio plus one: a post-Cream unit playing with thick-toned fluidity (they could shuffle, stroll, vamp, swing, crunch) to which had been added this voice, this presence that lived at the edge of the music, alienated and premonitory. "When sadness fills my days/ It's time to turn away/ And then tomorrow's dreams/ Become reality to me." It was literally prophetic: If anyone in the early '70s had "the voice of one crying in the wilderness," it was Ozzy. His wail, his call, raised itself starkly and with a curious chastity over the general boogie-band din of the hour. And what was he prophesying? "Long ago I wandered through my mind/ In the land of fairy tales and stories/ Lost in happiness I knew no fears/ Innocence and love was all I knew ... It was an illusion!" Or more succinctly: "You're havin' a good time, baby/ But it won't last."
Fervently as he sang them, the words weren't his: They were the words of Sabbath's druidic bass-hog and chief lyricist Geezer Butler, with whom Ozzy shared an uncanny symbiosis—a symbiozzis, you might say. Geezer—"not your average bloke," as I Am Ozzy puts it—was a fearsome poet, as well as a natural depressive, who in his childhood had wanted to be a Catholic priest. His deep-sea broodings and stoned Ultimata in a sense created Ozzy, fulfilled the Ozz-ness, just as Chuck Dukowski's Geezer-inflected lyrics for Black Flag would one day fulfill the Rollins-ness of Henry Rollins. "I have a prediction/ It lives in my brain/ It's with me every day/ It drives me insane." Dukowski or Butler?
Geezer had his flowery, World of Warcraft side, too. I Am Ozzy records a scene from the making of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath: Ozzy, in need of lyrics for "Spiral Architect," gets Geezer on the phone. Geezer grumbles a bit, says he'll call back in an hour. "When I spoke to him again, he said 'Have you got a pen? Good. Write this down: "Sorcerers of madness/ Selling me their time/ Child of God sitting in the sun ..." ' "
And always, beneath it all, Iommi. There's no ripping off Tony Iommi: His sound is a rite, and to attempt to play like him is a religious act. A thousand bands have done it, from Pentagram to St. Vitus to Alice in Chains: His influence runs like a seam through 30 years of hard rock. (Currently the most reverent copyists seem to be Swedish: Graveyard and Witchcraft, both of which try like hell, and with occasional success, for that blues-y, tambourine-y, early Sabbath feel.)
Black Sabbath, shamans of the mental trough-state, was also a working-class English band that sold a pile of records and did a pile of cocaine. For a few years there, the world was at their feet, and the Sabbath songbook is not without its Oasis-like moments of hooligan exultation. "Supernaut," for instance: "I wanna reach out/ And touch the sky/ I wanna touch the sun/ But I don't need to fly." Inevitably, the crash came: By 1979, Ozzy, who had been deteriorating in grand style at the country seat he nicknamed Atrocity Cottage—"I put down the shotgun, picked up the jerry can, and started emptying it over what was left of the chickens"—was finally unworkable-with, and Sabbath fired him.
Act 2. Shattered, addicted, rejected, a psychological disaster area, Ozzy nonetheless gets his musical shit together. Aided by the formidable Sharon, to whom he is not yet married, he scores himself a killer guitarist (the late Randy Rhoads), and together they write Blizzard of Ozz. Rhoads is pure flash-metal, an anti-Iommi, spewing technique all over the album's lightweight riffola. But it works! The Ozz has gone pop, after his fashion, thereby liberating enormous energies of adoration in his fanbase—energies that the old trouper knows exactly what to do with. "Awright! Okay! You can't kill rock'n'roll! Keep on smoking them JOINTS!!!! I wanna see your hands!" Etc. (Quotations culled from the live album Randy Rhoads Tribute, or from any Ozzy show since 1980.) Lyrically he emerges from the Geezerian under-realm and into his own strobe-lit zone of party-time insanity and going "cray-zay." "What's the future of mankind?/ How do I know?" The people eat it up. This proceeds, expandingly, for two decades.
Act 3. Married to Sharon, and with foulmouthed nearly-grown-up children wandering about the place, Ozzy in the year 2001 invites the virus of reality into his L.A. home. ("I've always believed that you've got to move with the times.") Cameras everywhere, and The Osbournes occurs on MTV—Ozzy as profane and befuddled paterfamilias, scratching pitifully at a sealed DVD case while comedy tubas fart away on the soundtrack. Dog shit is a theme: "I don't mind a little fucking Pomeranian turd," mumbles Ozzy as he staggers through the kitchen in his sweatpants, "but when that fucking bulldog unloads ..." A smash hit: His celebrity is sealed. Greta Van Susteren invites him to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where George W Bush makes a joke about him.
That's what you might call a portfolio career, and a whole lot of Ozzy. Too much, perhaps, at this point? Are we Ozz'd-out? Impossible. His reputation is indestructibly preserved in layers of heavy metal irony. His rapport with his audience remains ferocious. He still sings with that distinctively smeared sense of melody. His last album, 2007's Black Rain, was actually sort of a knockout: heavy, impassioned, and produced (by Kevin Churko) to flatten tall buildings. "Knowing me," he muses fatalistically at the end of I Am Ozzy, "I'll go out in some stupid way. I'll trip on the doorstep and break my neck. Or I'll choke on a throat lozenge. Or a bird will shit on me and give me some weird virus from another planet." My money, if I had to bet, would be on the interstellar bird-poop.
James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.