The Wizardry of Ozz
That Ozzy Osbourne is even alive to write I Am Ozzy can only be the result of some chimerical life-force—an indestructible core, the center transcending all nature’s explanations for survival. Just look at what he’s been through, and at all of what’s been through him: booze, coke, acid; lawsuits, privacy-invasion, creative stagnation; poverty, violence, madness. Any one of the above can both ruin and finish a life, in no time flat if you work it right, but whatever demons have been driving Ozzy all these years have also, apparently, been keeping him alive. There were times when Ozzy reckoned he’d be better off dead, but it was the guardian demons who dared to differ.
That he’s survived is one miracle, but that he’s then gone ahead and managed to thrive, while also making music that one has no need to be ashamed of, is its own separate miracle, running parallel-track to the staying alive. No one in either their right or wrong mind would ever claim that Ozzy’s vocals are not entirely distinctive, and perfectly equipped for the creation of heavy-metal atmospherics—capable, somehow, of communicating an anguished longing without ever shifting out of their natural register. But how is it that the backing music itself gets made—that an identifiable musical mode is achieved and advanced even in the midst of ever-rotating rosters of those musicians who make what Ozzy sings over? How is it that Ozzy’s thumbprints are all over a product that he seldom lays hardly a glove on, while those who grope and paw at it with bare hands and flee the scene can sometimes never find their own fingerprints there or elsewhere?
It’s one of the great inexplicables of American music: how this extra-musical wizardry of Ozzy’s is employed in the service of music, every time, and with consistently excellent results. And to think that it’s likely he would never have made it out of the slums of Birmingham, in England, if it hadn’t been for Tony Iommi, whose guitar first patented the Black Sabbath sound–which is to say that it first patented the sound of heavy metal generally. And the weird thing is that it all happened because of some real heavy metal—as in, literally. While working as a welder, Iommi one day had to press and cut some metal that ended up slicing off his fretboard fingers. “It would have been like me getting shot in the throat,” Ozzy helpfully explains. By listening to the jazz-guitar stylings of Django Reinhardt—who used only the two fingers on his fret hand that hadn’t burned off in a fire—and then by attaching thimbles made of metal, Iommi was able to fashion that metallic sound. He became the thing that had destroyed him—assumed its properties, in vengeance, like some villain out of Batman. (Ozzy himself, meanwhile, performed satisfactorily as a student in only one class: heavy metalwork. “Funnily enough,…” he writes.)
Just outside the studio where they rehearsed in the early days, back when the band still called itself Earth, Ozzy noticed that the line to the cinema grew especially long whenever there was a scary movie playing. Iommi said, “Isn’t it strange how people will pay money to frighten themselves? Maybe we should stop doing blues and write scary music instead.” “Me and Bill [Ward] thought it was a great idea,” Ozzy writes, “so off we went and wrote some lyrics that ended up becoming the song ‘Black Sabbath.’ It’s basically about a bloke who sees a figure in black coming to take him off to the lake of fire.”
“[T]he first time I heard the words ‘heavy’ and ‘metal’ used together,” Ozzy writes (presumably meaning outside of heavy-metalwork class), “was in the lyrics of ‘Born to be Wild.’” Shortly after that, Ozzy heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, and suddenly knew what it was to put the words into practice. He said to Iommi, “Did you hear how heavy that Led Zeppelin album sounded?,” and Iommi instantly replied, “We’ll be heavier.” That’s when they really got down to work.
The division of labor in early Black Sabbath was about as clean as such things get, especially in rock bands. With few exceptions or variations, Ozzy did the singing, Iommi played the lead guitar and came up with the music, Bill Ward played the drums, and Geezer Butler wrote lyrics and played electric bass. Ozzy tells of how he called Butler up one day when he’d been trying to relax in his country home, telling him he needed some lyrics for “Spiral Architect”:
[Butler] grumbled a bit, told me to call him back in an hour, and put the phone down. 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…”
I said, “Geezer, are you reading this out of a book or something?”
When Ozzy was kicked out of Sabbath, for irresponsible behavior beyond the pale, and then moved on to making music under his own name, the sound of his music maintained its core properties, even though it had never really been his to begin with. If it was anybody’s music now, it was Randy Rhodes’, the virtuoso guitarist who died in a strange bus-on-plane accident during the Diary of a Madman tour. After Rhodes’ death, the music that Osbourne had been making all along was still too stubborn to die, remained suspended in flight somehow in spite of all that had conspired to send it crashing. Ozzy confesses to his own circumscribed involvement with the making of actual music when he writes, of Blizzard of Ozz, that first album he made with Rhodes, after leaving Black Sabbath: “You see, I have this problem where I just tend to roll over and go along with things. Sometimes I think it’s because I don’t play an instrument, which makes me feel like I don’t deserve to be in the room, you know?”
I Am Ozzy, besides being a ceaseless feast of heavy-metal anecdotage, also functions in part as a love song, however unorthodox, to his wife Sharon, whom he married after finally divorcing his first wife, Thelma (they’d married too young and divorced too late). He first met Sharon in England, long before he ended up dating her, when he was still dealing with her father, the manager Don Arden, one of the shadiest figures in a shady business, and someone whom both Ozzy and Sharon would come to loathe over the years. “Almost immediately I began falling in love with her from a distance,” he writes. “It was that wicked laugh that got me. And the fact that she was so beautiful and glamorous—she wore fur coats, and had diamonds dripping from everywhere. I’d never seen anything like it. And she was as loud and crazy as I was.”
Sharon was a savvy businesswoman from the beginning, having learned so many lessons, some of them object lessons, from her father. She made sure that Ozzy became solvent, and then she made sure that he stayed that way. And after Rhodes died and Ozzy wanted to quit the business for good, she made sure that the music was never allowed to stop, that it kept on getting made, and according to the standards Ozzy had allowed his fans to become accustomed to. While Sharon was doing everything she could to make sure Ozzy survived, Ozzy, seemingly, was doing everything he could to make sure that he didn’t. In his life as a heavy-metal singer, this is some of what he’s endured: a broken-off epiglottis (or “clack,” as Ozzy calls it, “that little titty thing that hangs down at the back of your throat”) from hacking up too much phlegm while high on coke; a near-case of rabies, from famously (and accidentally) biting the head off a real bat during a concert; a deficient immune system that so closely resembled HIV, Ozzy and his doctors went an entire day believing he had contracted the disease that causes AIDS, back in the days when that was seen as nothing short of a death-sentence; and, most recently, a biking accident that was absolutely hideous in what it did to him: a broken neck, eight fractured ribs, a punctured lung, and a broken collar bone that cut through a main artery in his arm. It was so bad that when the doctors operated on him, they didn’t just anesthetize him; they put him into an actual chemical coma: “If I’d copped it then, it would have been a fitting end for me: I’d spent my whole adult life trying to get into a chemical coma.”
Cocaine was far from his only problem, chemically; even more pernicious was the booze. Ozzy tells the story here of waking up in a jail cell not knowing at all how he’d landed there, unable to remember anything from the night before. Ozzy and his ghostwriter masterfully draw out the suspense of how he came to understand what had happened. He had been jailed for attempted murder, for trying to strangle Sharon. She told the police that if she’d had a weapon, she would have killed him. But she didn’t kill him, and Ozzy survived. He survived drug-and-alcohol rehab (several times), and he survived the legal troubles over a teenager who killed himself with Ozzy’s song “Suicide Solution” still on the turntable. He survived Sharon’s cancer-scare and chemotherapy (over which, Ozzy says, “I had a full-on nervous breakdown”), and by then he had to also survive a new and dangerous kind of famous, from the success of The Osbournes. There isn’t a single page of this fascinating book that seems superfluous, the whole thing boiled down, like Ozzy himself, to that most elemental core—nothing but the existential self, from which all that cryptic sorcery has been allowed to emerge.
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