The Big Read – Ozzy Osbourne: “This album saved my life”

Icons don’t come much bigger, bolder and defiantly rock’n’roll than Ozzy Osbourne. Despite his recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, the dove-munching hell-raiser and Black Sabbath frontman has just released his 12th solo album. Kevin EG Perry meets him at his lavish Los Angeles estate to talk about the influence of Lemmy, Post Malone’s role in the new record and lots and lots of drugs

“I’m sitting in the fucking house and I’ve got a big fucking bowl of cocaine on the fucking table,” says the figure in black who sits before me. “It was when Black Sabbath were doing ‘Vol. 4’ and we’d rented a house in Bel Air. I was sitting there thinking: ‘It’s fucking boiling in here.’ So I press a button on the wall, thinking it’s the air conditioning. 10 minutes later six cop cars come screaming down the driveway. It’s the Bel Air patrol. I’d pressed the alarm button. So I shout: ‘IT’S A RAID!’, grab the fucking dope and me and this roadie run into a back room. I’ve got the bowl of cocaine and I’m going…”. The figure in black mimes furiously shovelling mounds of the stuff into his nostrils. 

“I can’t fucking feel anything,” he continues. “My nose was caked in it. I was like this when I came out…” He makes his eyes huge, like a cartoon deer about to be hit by a 50 tonne truck. “They said: ‘It’s alright, it was a false alarm.’ I was fucking gakked to the gills. I had to have a fucking valium after to mellow me out.”

Ozzy Osbourne finishes his story and rocks back in his big brown leather armchair, grinning like a pirate on shore leave. “So that,” he says finally, “is where the song ‘It’s A Raid’ came from.” 

We’re sat in the front room of Ozzy’s Los Angeles mansion, which is as close as you’ll find in America to a stately home. There’s a fire crackling in the hearth and a glass chandelier above our heads. The walls are covered in Renaissance paintings and the side tables in Osbourne family photos alongside pictures of their various pets. Sharon, his wife since 1982, is next door doting on a pomeranian named Bella who enjoys a quality of life you and I can only dream of. Outside, the house is ringed with a vertiginous hedge interrupted only by a little black gate. On the gate there is a small bronze sign which reads: ‘Never mind the dog – beware of the owner.’

The reason for this audience with the first family of heavy metal (and Bella): Ozzy Osbourne will soon release his 12th solo album, ‘Ordinary Man’. Given that just two weeks prior the 71-year-old announced that he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I expected the mood to be sombre. A glance at the album’s tracklist seemed to confirm this suspicion, because as well as ‘It’s A Raid’ there are a string of happy-go-lucky song titles such as ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Today Is The End’. I’d arrived expecting to meet a man confronting his own mortality, but what I got was an hour of wisecracks and outlandish stories about bowls of cocaine and alien foreskins. The Prince of Darkness has life in him yet.

It also helps that ‘Ordinary Man’ is seriously fucking good. It’s a righteous blast of good old-fashioned Ozzy backed by Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses on bass and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith on drums, plus guest appearances from Slash, Tom Morello and even Elton John. It’s a much better record than we’ve any right to expect from a man who hasn’t made a solo album in a decade.

In this strangest of all possible worlds, we have facial-tattoo-enthusiast and rap superstar Post Malone to thank for the whole thing.

Postie was out drinking one night at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the notorious Sunset Strip dive that was the second home of late, great Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister. There he spotted a picture of Ozzy on the wall, and loved it so much he bought it on the spot. Post Malone’s collaborator Andrew Watt, a hard rocker-turned-super-producer for the likes of Justin Bieber and Camila Cabello, heard about it and hatched a plan to get Ozzy on a Post Malone track. He asked Kelly Osbourne, who relayed the message to her dad. He replied exactly as you’d guess he would: “Who the fuck’s Post Malone?”

Still, Ozzy went along with the plan. He’d been in a slump since a serious fall in February 2019, when he’d hit his head on a metal bed frame and seriously fucked himself up. He needed something to get him back to work, and recording his hook for the Post Malone track ‘Take What You Want’ went so well that Watt worked up the courage to ask Ozzy if he’d be up for making a whole album.

“I was feeling sorry for myself, miserable and in fucking agony,” remembers Ozzy. “I’ve never been laid up for a year in my life and still been in so much pain at the end of it, but Andrew Watt and fucking Post Malone and my daughter Kelly got me going in the right direction. If it’s not a big hit that’s fine, but this album is quite possibly one of the most important albums I’ve ever made because it saved my life.”

It would be a mistake to assume that the album’s doomy song titles mean Ozzy took a maudlin approach to songwriting. The real reason is more straightforward: “I always write my best songs about death,” he says with a smile and a shrug.

‘Today Is The End’, he explains, is about school shootings. “I mean, when you think about kids have to go to fucking active shooter drills at school…” he says, his voice laced with anger. “I’ve got the solution: stop selling guns! I mean, it’s not like we have to circle the fucking wagons at night anymore.”

Another song, ‘Eat Me’, was inspired by a combination of two things: the grisly case of Armin Meiwes – the German cannibal who successfully went online to find a volunteer to be eaten – and Ozzy’s low opinion of vegan meat alternatives. “Have you tried that vegan stuff?” he asks. “It’s like eating shit. It’s got no fucking taste. My daughter took me to a vegan Sunday breakfast. I looked at the menu and it’s got bacon and scrambled eggs. I thought, you can’t go wrong with that. The bacon comes and it’s fucking square with pink bits in it. It looked like alien foreskins. They were going: ‘No, it’s good – it’s got no gluten.’ It’s got no fucking food!”

On the album’s title track, which features Elton John, Ozzy sings about not wanting to “die an ordinary man”. Ozzy and Elton are not two people you’d necessarily put together unless you were making a league table of people who’d taken the most cocaine in the 1980s. Yet Ozzy says they never partied together in their heyday. “I don’t think we would have both fucking made the ’90s if we had,” he points out.

Even noted wild man Ozzy was impressed by Elton’s excess. “I remember Sharon taking me to a gig of his years ago, and his fucking dressing room was like a fucking bar with every known fucking spirit. Then he’d do seven gigs on the bounce. I’ve said to him: ‘How the fuck did you keep singing?’ If I even thought about cocaine my singing would go out the fucking window.”

Sharon encouraged Ozzy to approach Elton about ‘Ordinary Man’. “When we wrote that, for some reason parts of it just reminded me of an Elton John song,” says Ozzy. “So Sharon said to me: ‘Give him a call, see what he says. If he says “Fuck off!” you know he ain’t gonna do it.’ So I sent him the tape and then Andrew went to Atlanta and recorded it. It was a gift.”

Although Ozzy insists that it “wasn’t a conscious decision to write so much about death,” it’s hard not to see parallels with his own life. While we’re talking about the song ‘Holy For Tonight’ (which he says is “about a guy on death row, because I think we’d all get a bit holy if you knew you were going to be executed tomorrow”), Ozzy brings up the recent announcement that he has Parkinson’s

“I didn’t say it before, but I knew I had Parkinson’s fucking 18 years ago,” he reveals. “I was diagnosed in 2003 and I’ve been doing gigs since then. The problem I’m having right now is this fucking neck problem I’ve had since I fell over and had to have surgery…” At this point he starts to get up, and he tosses his head and hair forward so that he can show me the gnarly scar on the back of his neck, but the commotion brings Sharon in from the next room. “Ozzy,” she pleads. “Don’t – it’s horrible!”

Sharon isn’t sure Ozzy’s quite right about his illness. “You had Parkinson’s, but it wasn’t active,” she explains to him, then turns to me to elaborate: “He was born with a gene called the PARK2 gene, but it wasn’t active. It’s like being born with certain cancer genes. They’re not active, and it’s usually stress or shock to the body that makes them active.”

Ozzy looks up at her from the armchair, confusion written across his face, and asks: “Is it active now, then?”

And Sharon looks down at him with a look that’s so full of love it would break your fucking heart to stare at it for too long. It’s a look that conveys words that are impossible to say, but eventually she tilts her head and tells him: “Semi.”

But Ozzy is defiant: “I don’t feel that much different, apart from my neck.”

Sharon: “I know, because the type that you have is not like Michael J Fox has. It’s a different type.”

Ozzy: “What have I got?”

Sharon: “PARK2 Parkinson’s.”

Ozzy, inevitably: “What the fuck’s PARK2?”

Sharon, playfully exasperated: “Ozzy, when I find out what PARK1 is I’ll fucking let you know.”

When she returns from the other room, Ozzy turns to me and says: “There you go! Ozzy Osbourne has PARK2!”

Neither of us really know what that means, but it’s clear enough that touring is a daunting prospect. “I don’t like to think about it,” he says, “because of the pressure.” It’s heart-breaking to hear that, a few weeks later, Ozzy cancels his American tour to seek further treatment. And yet it’s not surprising. As he put it: “I can’t even fucking walk properly yet.” 

John Michael Osbourne was born in Aston, Birmingham on December 3 1948. 15 years later he heard the Beatles sing ‘She Loves You’ and in two minutes and 18 seconds everything changed. Ozzy immediately wanted to become a singer, so convinced his dad Jack to buy him a PA and a microphone. “My dad knew I was an avid, fucking freaked-out Beatles fan,” he remembers. “I loved them. They were the reason why.”

After placing an advert in a local music shop, Ozzy was recruited as a singer by guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler. “We all used to rehearse across the road from the movie theatre,” he remembers. “Either Tony or Geezer said, ‘Isn’t it weird that people go to see horror films? Why don’t we start writing scary music about witches and all that?’ Hence the song ‘Black Sabbath’. We were still called Earth then, but it wasn’t a strong enough name so when we were on the ferry coming back from Germany we changed the name to Black Sabbath.” 

The band – completed by drummer Bill Ward – single-handedly invented metal with their self-titled debut album, which released on Friday the 13th of February 1970. They’d knocked out the entire recording session in a single 12-hour session. “[Virtuoso guitarist] Steve Vai once said to me: ‘You know Black Sabbath’s first album is out of tune?’” says Ozzy. “I said: ‘You know what, Steve? It still sells! So what the fuck do you want?’ Rock music is not supposed to sound perfect. If you want to hear perfect, go and watch a fucking symphony orchestra.”

Ozzy helped Sabbath grow into one of the defining bands of the late 1970s, but they were really always Iommi’s group. Ozzy was fired in April 1979, with the band citing his overzealous use of drugs and alcohol, and embarked on a solo career that is as well-remembered for his hell-raising antics as it is for the records he released. 

He snorted a line of ants to outdo Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx, bit the head off a live dove he’d brought as a ‘peace offering’ to a record label meeting and took a piss on hallowed Texan landmark The Alamo. Ozzy says the flipside to all those stories were the mornings-after we never heard about.

“Well, I can’t deny those stories because I probably did ‘em,” he admits. “I was fucking crazy when I was doing all that shit – out of my mind – but what people didn’t see was the following morning when I’d wake up and go: ‘Oh My God!’ I’m lucky to have a friend in the world, never mind a wife. I certainly lived the rock’n’roll lifestyle, but the music scene since those days has changed dramatically. For a start, none of us sell fucking records anymore.”

Regardless of the collapsing music industry, he doesn’t think ‘Ordinary Man’ will be his final record. “I’m starting another one next month,” he reveals, adding that he’ll once more be working with Andrew Watt as co-writer and producer.

Remarkably, the invention of metal isn’t the only seismic cultural moment Ozzy played a part in. On March 5, 2002, a new generation was introduced to the Prince of Darkness with the premiere of The Osbournes, a show that for better or worse would have a defining influence on reality television in the decades to come. It ran for four seasons before the effects of being constantly filmed became too much for Ozzy and family.

“The level of success that TV show got us was too much,” says Ozzy. “I had to bow out. I said to Sharon: ‘I don’t like the way it makes me feel, and I can’t stand fucking cameramen in my house.’ I’m not upset that I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again. People were going: ‘Aren’t you worried about losing your fans?’ I said: ‘I’m not worried about losing my fans – I’m worried about losing my fucking mind.’”

The level of intrusion became so extreme that the barrier between Ozzy and the outside world disappeared. “God’s honest truth: one day I’m lying on the couch and about six or seven Japanese people come in,” he remembers. “I thought they were friends of Kelly’s. I said: ‘Upstairs, second door on the right.’ I didn’t even want to fucking get off the couch. Turned out they’d just walked in. Got off a tour bus and walked in the fucking house. It was nuts!”

For all his outsized living, the monstrous shows and the musical triumphs, Ozzy now rates his greatest achievement as simply “staying alive”. He only really turns melancholy when talking about Lemmy’s death; the frontman passed away in December 2015 from a combination of prostate cancer, cardiac arrhythmia and congestive heart failure.

“When Lemmy died it fucked me up bad,” says Ozzy. “He was a good man. To look at Lemmy you’d think he had about two brain cells, but he was very knowledgeable. I wish you could have seen his apartment – fucking hell! It was like the Imperial War Museum. I used to buy Nazi daggers for him when I was on the road and bring them back for him. He must have had 10,000 fucking German daggers.”

Lemmy’s death was particularly hard for Ozzy to bear because they had been brothers in arms for so long. “I’ll never forget that when I did my first solo tour in America, Motörhead opened up for me,” says Ozzy. “We had a few days off so I went round to Sharon’s father’s house and Lemmy came with us. Eventually it was time to go back on tour, but I’d been doing coke all fucking week. I come out into the yard and Lemmy comes out and his face is fucking whiter than a ghost. He looks at me and he goes: ‘Fuck me man, I hope I don’t look as bad as you.’ If Lemmy Kilmister says that to you, you must be fucking bad. I just went: ‘Cancel the gigs.’”

In early 2015, less than a year before Lemmy died, Motörhead joined Ozzy for shows in Brazil and Argentina. “I couldn’t believe how thin he was,” remembers Ozzy. “He was a fucking bag of bones. I could see he was very ill, but he kept it to himself. I phoned him on the day he died. Sharon and I were gonna go down to his apartment and see him. I phoned up his apartment and I don’t know who the fuck it was answered it, but I wanted them to say it was okay to come down. On the third or fourth phone call, they said: ‘He’s gone.’”

There’s a moment of quiet reflection, before Ozzy’s essential absurd humour breaks through again: “Then I went to his fucking memorial – fucking hell! It looked like something out of Spinal Tap. They had trays of fucking Jack Daniel’s on the way into the church. Mind you, there were a few great speakers. Dave Grohl was fucking great. They asked me to speak, but I ain’t no good at making speeches. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. He had a good send off.”

Ozzy Osbourne isn’t quite ready for his own send off just yet. His body is hurting and betraying him, but there’s a fire in him that won’t go out. “I never said I was a great singer,” he says (although he was, and ‘Ordinary Man’ proves he still is). “I just had fun. Everybody would love to be the character I used to be for a weekend. Don’t give a fuck and just do what you like, you know?”

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