27 November 2023
Ozzy’s Odyssey – A tapestry of tales from different fandoms
Road Hounds staff have been around this rock thing for a while and met some a lot of names. We thought we would cajole some stories out of some of them and post them as blogs – if you like it let us know and we will prod them for more!
When I First Met….Ozzy
The thing about interviewing big names is that, inevitably, you will form an opinion about what they’re going to be like before you meet them. And it’s never the case of playing it by ear, as supposedly professional journalists would have you believe. For starters, you’re keenly aware that you’re only going to get a finite time slot, and will often be part of a conveyor belt of journos, all rolled in one after the other.
So being prepared necessitates some mental effort around what you’re expecting to hear back from your subject and, whether anyone admits it or not, what you’d like them to say. Some subjects play that role very well: they know what you want and will deliver that soundbite to secure the headlines and coverage that they want. Hey presto, everyone wins.
Then there are others who refuse to play any sort of media game; those who shut down, act sullen, resentful and generally hate you for sucking their time. (The Cult’s Ian Astbury has always had an issue with the so-called ‘rock’ press and as for Jon Bon Jovi… he can just fuck right off).
Then there are those who don’t seem to care that there’s even a game being played. They’re often the best to deal with. No plan, no agenda and no fucks given about what may or may not be said. A blessed relief in fact. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ozzy Osbourne.
The first time I met Ozzy was when Black Sabbath first reformed in 1997 for Ozzfest. Faith No More’s Mike Bordin sat in for original drummer Bill Ward, while Ozzy, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler were out front for the first time since that one-off appearance at Live Aid in 1985. Received wisdom held that this was a reformation that was never going to happen. Ozzy didn’t need to do it and surely Tony was never going to agree to the terms put forward by Mrs Osbourne. Yeah, right…
The game changer was Ozzfest itself. Ozzfest was a direct competitor to the Lollapalooza festival. In fact, it was conceived to spite and destroy Lollapalooza who’d rejected repeated overtures from the Osbourne camp to have Ozzy take part. Lollapalooza’s viewpoint was that Ozzy was a household name – in the US, at least – and their festival was a celebration of the alternative. But the supposed cultural high ground being taken was a pile of steaming bull poo. Ever since Green Day smashed into the mainstream with the Dookie album and Basket Case video in 1994, Lollapalooza had become the mainstream and was no longer the ‘alternative’ to anything.
Then, in 1996 Lollapalooza invited Metallica – yes that Metallica – to headline the festival as they were – wait for it – now an alternative band post the dreary Load album with Lars ‘n’ Kirk donning make-up and feather boas in their videos. So, you can appreciate Sharon O’s position, which was a simple, “Fuck you, Lollapalooza”. And so Ozzfest was born.
Initially just three outdoor shows in 1996, by the following summer Ozzfest became a sprawling 20- date national stadium tour. And we’re talking 30,000 to 50,000-seat outdoor sheds and stadiums. So when you want to sell that many tickets you need something people haven’t seen for a while. A real bums-on-seat moment. And so…enter the reunited Black Sabbath.
As an aside, it’s important to remember these were the early days of the Internet. Yes, it was a known entity and creeping into everyday lives, but it wasn’t everywhere yet and it certainly wasn’t on broadband, which meant it wasn’t easy for many people to use. But it was present and influential enough so that the UK press could see what the happening thing in the USA was going to be and to know that if you worked at a magazine called Metal Hammer you damn well should be part of it.
Calls were made, agreements were reached, feet were stamped in the office, and the biggest Black Sabbath fan won the day. I was on the plane and off to Great Woods Amphitheater outside Boston, MA, to see Black Sabbath and then onward, travelling overnight with fellow Ozzfest act Machine Head on their bus to the massive Giants Stadium show in New York.
Now, I’ve done my homework on Ozzy. I’d asked a few of the older heads around the building what he was like (well, I asked lifelong rock journo Jerry Ewing, who was full of helpful suggestions like, “Get him to do his Japanese impressions, that’ll break the ice…”. Gee thanks, Jez.
I’d prepared a list of snappy questions from the perspective of a lifelong Sabbath junkie: the relationship with Tony, doing it again with the other two side by side, the difference in it being Ozzy’s show and him pulling the strings, Ozzy actually playing a solo set with his band before the 10-song Sabbath finale etc. So much for real preparation, eh?
Being part of the Osbourne camp at an Ozzfest was a privileged position to find oneself in. Basically, you’re at the top of the pecking order in a travelling city of professional hellraisers and chaos merchants. Remember, Marilyn Manson and Pantera were also part of this travelling cacophony in ’97. Being part of the Osbourne camp meant you had a special festival laminate with a big ‘Ozzy’ on it. Only the family and immediate Ozzy tour crew had one of those and it meant you could wander anywhere, anytime and no one would, or could, give you any shit.
Everywhere was fair game to an Ozzy pass holder: side stage, dressing rooms, other band’s tour buses if you wanted. If you harbored any fascist tendencies you might be tempted to get one of Marilyn Manson’s cast-off uniforms and goose-step around backstage demanding to see “Papers!” The point is, when you had one of these passes and you’re asked to be at Ozzy’s room “in the garden” at 5pm, you know you can be there with zero hassle. In theory, that is. And as long as your overgrown Labrador-like photographer – the late Michael Hutson – doesn’t get overheated at the amount of groupie flesh on show, and engage in “meaningful conversation” every 10 paces. So come 5.30 we’re now at Ozzy’s door.
“You’re late!” says the tour manager.
Deep breath, go for a disarming and ultimately winning smile, “Yes, we are. Big place this, isn’t it?”
“You’re still fuckin’ late and he has two shows to do. It won’t happen now.”
Alas. Shutdown City.
And, oh dear: bye bye once promising career. The dole line awaits.
Until – and God bless him for this – up walks Tony Iommi.
“How you doing, lads?” he says in his softly-spoken Brummie lilt. “It’s a bit mad out there, innit? I got lost. Are you here to do the picture with me an’ Oz?… Sorry I’m late.”
And with that Big Tone knocks on the door.
“Oz, it’s Tony – the lads are here to do that picture. Shall we do it out in the garden, with that sunset behind us?”
Tony Iommi you life saver.
Ozzy was up – and at it. You could see he was genuinely happy to be around Tony for such a moment. He pulled on the Prada jacket, draped a few more gold chains around his neck, including a matching gold crucifix the same as Tony’s, and they both strode through the sliding doors of the dressing room into the garden to position themselves with the setting sun behind.
The Great Hutsoni, it has to be said, nailed it. This was the very first picture of the two of them together since Live Aid, and the first proper Black Sabbath photo since Ozzy’s departure in 1979. Wonderful to witness. Humbling to be part of. Afterwards, Ozzy gave Tony a brief but meaningful hug, and off Tony went to get himself together for the show.
Another observation about photoshoots and interviews is the sheer movement of people around you, as it flows from the wildly chaotic down to the individual. It’ similar to the centre of the ring prior to the start of a big time boxing match with rival entourage squaring up with a melee of people desperate to be seen, to get in on the action and self-validate; whether it be the ring MC, managers, cornermen or random friends… But in the midst of the melee you’re also keenly aware of the moment when that bell rings there will be just the two fighters looking to get it on.
As a photo session finishes and the entourage disperse to their previously hidden corners, you’re similarly aware of the impending moment which will leave just two people together: you and the artist. And talk about ice breakers… Ozzy strode over the freshly-cut lawn with his hand extended in warm greeting, “Hi, you’re Chris, right? I’m Ozzy. Let’s have a natter.”
I cannot overstate how warm, welcoming and downright funny it was to be around Ozzy Osbourne at that time. He was on fire. Recently Ozzy has become more intemperate with the media, but after all that’s been written about him in the tabloids over the past decade it’s bloody understandable. Back then, though, Ozzy was on top of the world: headlining his own festival, leading a reformed Black Sabbath on a long overdue victory lap and bringing unexpected joy to two generations of rockers who never thought they’d ever see the real thing.
“I never thought I’d ever see this day arrive, either,” said Ozzy. “I also never thought it’d be such hard bloody work too. I can’t fookin’ believe Sharon convinced me to play two shows a day. It’s fookin’ nonsense! I said to her, ‘No way am I ever doing this again. You’re trying to fookin’ kill me, woman.”
We covered all the bases, but they were never on my terms. Ozzy talks about what he wants. He’s not being directly rude about whatever your line of enquiry is its just that he’s focussed on making sure that you ‘get’ the full Ozzy, ie the character, the charm and the humour. Ozzy may be many things, but when sober and in fit fighting shape the man is no fool, no matter how much he may play the jester.
Ozzy is also very aware that his greatest asset is his disarming honesty. That, and a dash of comic timing. “I saw David Coverdale the other day in a hotel lobby and he comes over, ‘Ozzy dear boy, how the devil are you?’ and he’s got this upper-class English accent and I’m thinking, ‘What the fook, you come from bloody Redcar.’ Have you ever been to Redcar? It’s where they shot fookin’ Aliens, man! Full of chemical works and scrapyards. You don’t get any airs or graces coming from bleedin’ Redcar.”
And on it went, the full Ozzy show. The serious bits? Yes, he was overwhelmed by what Sabbath meant to people now. No, he wasn’t about to call it a day on the solo Ozzy years. No, there wouldn’t be a new Sabbath album (that took another decade or so!). Yes, he would like Bill Ward to be in the band again. No, this term ‘heavy metal’ didn’t mean a bloody thing to him. No, there wouldn’t be any Sabotage material played because it was just too hard for him to sing right now. His greatest challenge would be coming up with a new solo record, because how do you actually follow Black Sabbath? Yes, it was one of the most fulfilling things he had ever done to stand back on-stage next to Tony and Geezer and give people what they really wanted, and no, he wouldn’t ever take that for granted again.
Mid-way through the chat, Ozzy scooped up my dictaphone and shuffled off to the bathroom still answering what I am sure, nay – convinced, I tell you – was a particularly searching point of self-examination set by yours truly. I’d forgotten all about it until it came to transcribing the tape a week or so later. I could hear the Ozzman unzip and start to tinkle, but I couldn’t hear any splashing water sounds, more like splashing upon porcelain and tiles and – Jesus Christ – that’s why the dictaphone was all sticky… bastard!
That night Ozzy and co ripped through a set of solo classics and the crowd duly roared its appreciation, but as the night air chilled and the stage was re-set a different vibe came over the concrete lined venue. The PA crackled with the sound of rain and ominous bells tolled and the electric doom of Black Sabbath crashed forth for the first time in decades.
On a separate Ozzy trip, I would spend an entire afternoon with him sat on his couch listening to a partly-finished version of his latest album, talking about The Beatles, his family, a new record, near-death experiences with Motley Crüe and all manner of ne’er-do- well survivor stories in yet another act of selfless time shared above and beyond the norm. But we’ll save that one for another time, maybe. Adios…