Ozzy speaks: Inside my year from hell

We visited Ozzy Osbourne at home in LA to hear about his rocky road here, and how music saved rock’s greatest star…

Ozzy speaks: Inside my year from hell
Nick Ruskell
Header Photo:
Jonathan Weiner

“This has been,” says Ozzy Osbourne, “the worst fucking year of my life.”

When the Double O says these words in response to being asked how he is, they come out not as self-pity, but disappointment, anger and frustration. At the start of last year, the after-effects of a fall – which opened up old problems from a 2003 quad bike accident – precipitated the cancellation or postponement of his touring plans. Then he got pneumonia, resulting in more cancelled dates. Last month, he revealed that he’s also been diagnosed with a form of Parkinson’s disease.

Progress has been “painfully fucking slow”. It’s all meant that, more than anything else, Ozzy, a man usually with the energy of a border collie puppy, found himself with nothing to actually do. This, he says, was excruciating. Boring, boring, boring, tick follows tock, tedium, stopped clocks. “I know the fucking adverts on TV back to front now!” he sighs today with a rueful chuckle.

“When all I’ve got is this to live with, my head, it’s not fun, man,” he continues. “It never tells me, ‘It’s a sunny day, let’s go sunbathing.’ It goes, ‘There’s a black cloud.’ [My wife] Sharon always says to me, ‘I don’t get you. You can have a blue sky, and you won’t be happy until you find that black cloud.’ That’s me! So you can imagine what I’m like when I’m lying on the fucking bed feeling sorry for myself going, [crying voice] ‘I’m dead, I’m finished, it’s all over.’”

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And then, on one of the countless, endless days of being bored, frustrated, unhappy, with nothing to look forward to, his daughter Kelly asked a question that would begin an upswing, and the start of proper healing. While he was laid up on the couch one afternoon, she asked her dad why he didn’t start thinking about doing an album. “How the fuck can I do an album?” came his response. But Kelly persisted, reasoning that doing something constructive would probably make things feel less shit. If not an album, she said, she had a friend who wanted to know if he’d sing on a track on Post Malone’s new album. The answer was obvious.

“I said, ‘Who the fuck’s that?’” he recalls with a grin. “But I ended up doing the song [Take What You Want, from Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding album] with him, and it was great. He was cool, and it felt good to be doing something again. One thing led to another, and Andrew [Watt, producer] said, ‘Do you wanna do some more? Carry on?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, let’s see what happens…’ So we just wrote an album, not really thinking about it too much, and it came out in no time.”

And this is how Ozzy ended up making one of the most important records of his life. He says it’s not “technically the best thing I’ve ever done”, and that it really doesn’t matter if it does well or not. Because making this record got him up off the canvas, into a room with a load of mates – a band primarily made up of Andrew Watt on guitar, bassist Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, plus a phenomenal array of guests – and bashing out music. With no plan, no label pressures, or even really all that much intention for it to become ‘A Thing’, it lifted the big man from feeling like he was stuck at a red light on a dead end with no fuel, into being able to do what he loves. In short, it got him feeling like Ozzy Osbourne again.

Today, we join Ozzy at his house in Los Angeles. Built around the turn of the 20th century, Chez Osbourne is a beautiful, enormous mansion that simply teems with life. It’s not just a lovely and luxurious pile of bricks, but very much a home. In his study, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves give their precious real estate to countless award statues – Grammys, Emmys, MTV gongs and, most important of all, his Kerrang! Award – while a fire crackles invitingly underneath a massive mantle. Upon your arrival through the enormous, ornate wooden front door, his wife and manager Sharon immediately sweeps in, the most welcoming and charming host you could ask for, while her dog Elvis – a half-husky with a bow tie, one of countless adorable beasts who call this home – leaps up enthusiastically at anyone within leaping range. Everywhere you look, furniture and ornaments reveal themselves on second glance to have demons and devils intricately carved into them. A metal light fitting is, on closer inspection, shaped like bats. And there are crucifixes everywhere. More crucifixes than The Vatican. Crucifixes on doorknobs. Crucifixes on sideboards. On the coffee table, there’s a crucifix fashioned out of metal from the World Trade Center (“A New York fireman gave me that,” says Ozzy, picking it up and examining it).

As we know, he shouldn’t have spent so much of last year here. After his incredible Sunday night headlining slot at Download in 2018, Ozzy was primed and ready to continue on this roll. What should have been a glorious farewell to life on the road, the No More Tours 2 jaunt, was due to hit the UK in February with fellow Brummies and friends Judas Priest in tow.

And then it all went wrong when he got up one night to take a piss.

“I fell over, and bashed my head as I went down,” he recalls. “And I lay there thinking quite calmly to myself, ‘Well, you’ve really fucking done it now.’ I went to the hospital and they found this thing in my spine. In your spinal cord, each bit has fluid round it, but it was all pinched and the fluid wasn’t getting to it. I was in fucking agony.”

He lifts up his hair to show us a scar on the back of his neck from surgery to correct this. But this procedure meant that “my arm went fucking dead, and I’m only just getting the feeling back”. And this wasn’t the end of it. Or, indeed, quite the beginning. He’d already had to cancel dates after getting a staph infection before his fall (“That was disappointing, because those shows were fucking great, man,” he sighs today). And after the accident, there was more shit in the post.

“I got a staph infection in my thumb. Fixed that. Then I had the accident. Then I came out of that and I got pneumonia. That didn’t go away. I thought, ‘Why don’t you just fucking kill me?’”

As this hangs in the air, he suddenly lets out a big, Ozzy laugh at his predicament.

“Fucking hell,” he explodes. “I’ve fallen down the stairs drunk, I’ve fucking crashed cars, I’ve fucking nearly died in aeroplanes, and this stupid fucking thing, falling over going for a fucking piss – it’s not exactly Ozzy going out in a blaze of fucking glory, is it? Go for a piss: bang! Sod’s law, isn’t it? But it’s like I’ve always said: [when it’s my time] some rare bird will crap on my shoulder, and I’ll just fucking disappear.”

It’s a wonderful thing whenever he laughs and jokes like the Ozzy you know and love, because it’s been a worrying time, as an observer, seeing The Prince Of Fucking Darkness having such rotten luck. Especially as the details of what he’s been through perfectly fit his description as being “miserable and shit”.

“When I was laid up, my day to day was: I’d get up, take my blood pressure, take my temperature – I had a nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for over a year,” he says. “I couldn’t walk. It’s only in the past five months I’ve been walking again. I can’t describe how it was. You never know what you’ve got until you’ve nearly lost it. You can imagine what it’s like for someone like me who’s always got to be doing something. A day for me doing fuck all is a life prison sentence. I mean, you’re just lying there feeling fucking dreadful.”

The shift between how bad this sounds and what you hear on Ordinary Man is a night and day difference. Ozzy doesn’t sound like a man on his uppers – the songs are shot through with a sense of genuine joy and gratitude, of joie de vivre. At 71, he is obviously a different person from the 31-year-old wildman who made his 1980 post-Black Sabbath solo debut, Blizzard Of Ozz, or the young whippersnapper of Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut. But that spirit, that feeling of rock’n’roll-as-purpose, shines through just as brightly. You can practically see him grinning like a madman and pulling faces as you listen to it.

Partly, this is down to the way it was made, in that at first he wasn’t really making a record at all. A decade since his last solo album, Scream, it’s actually refreshing that Ordinary Man has come about almost as an afterthought, without a giant battle plan or campaign in place. Because, truthfully, the idea was simply to “have fun”, as Ozzy puts it, without any obligation to have a hit, or even necessarily release the results. Quite simply, he, Andrew, Duff and Chad would get together to jam, with Ozzy taking the day’s results home to spend his evenings thinking about lyrics. It wasn’t until their days jamming “to see what we came up with” had borne enough fruit to make a record that it clicked that they’d made one. So fast did things happen, in fact, that the idea of Zakk Wylde joining on guitar – a man for whom Ozzy declares a huge amount of love when his name is mentioned – didn’t come up, because, “we didn’t know we were making an album”.

READ THIS: How Black Sabbath redefined heavy music

Even the guests on the album feel like things that simply happened because the wind was blowing in a certain direction, all done quickly while the idea was hot, and then straight onto the next thing. It was, Ozzy says, exactly what was needed. When he talks about the record, he instantly becomes visibly happier and more excited, and the mischievous twinkle reappears in his eyes.

“We’d bounce the fucking melodies around until something came up, and we’d just go with it,” he enthuses. “It was fun. And it was so fucking good to be doing something. Because I’d be lying in bed going, ‘That’s it, I’m never gonna walk again,’ and this got me doing something and feeling good. And it was simple, it felt more like recording a fucking jam session. It’s not like a Pink Floyd thing where you’ve got to take a tab of acid to enjoy it – just crank the fucking thing. Go for it!”

Ozzy Osbourne Cancels Tour Dates to Recover From Pneumonia

This is how, Ozzy reckons, rock’n’roll should be done. Fast, furious, no pressure, just fucking getting it done. “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am,” is how he puts it, as opposed to, “Fucking sitting in a studio for three fucking years with a producer making you do everything 15 fucking times. You can fucking die and get resurrected five times doing that – you’d forget where you fucking started from!”

He likens the process of making Ordinary Man, in fact, to recording Black Sabbath’s debut, which was done in a frenzied 12-hour session onto eight-track equipment, as a stop off en route to catch a ferry to a show in Europe. Why fuck about when you’ve got gold already? Especially when what you’re recording is the event as much as the songs.

“There’s so much joy in it,” he says with a smile. “And it picked me up out of my blues, definitely. We’ve captured the essence of fun. And it felt good to achieve something. It’s like swimming from one side of the world to the other and you go: ‘There’s land!’ It made me think, ‘I’m not fucking done yet!’”

Indeed, what could have been a heavy lyrical affair actually turns out to be a varied mix of topics. The title-track does find Ozzy in a reflective mood, looking back on the trials of life, but then there’s Scary Little Green Men (self-explanatory), and Eat Me (about “That German bloke who put out an advert for someone to come and eat him,” he grins mischievously). Meanwhile, It’s A Raid is a Motörhead-ish charge featuring Ozzy screaming a customary ‘Go fucking crazy!’ with barely contained excitement, while Post Malone yells along, sounding genuinely as if he’s just run into the studio, put his arm around his hero and picked up a mic like it’s a party. Which it kind of is. Even the inclusion of Take What You Want has a freshness to it that makes a curveball of a song actually an interesting surprise.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before,” he says. “I hope people like it, but that’s the icing on the cake. How the fuck do you even get in the charts these days?! I was just so glad to be doing something. I wouldn’t be sitting here now talking to you if I hadn’t made it – it lifted me out of my misery.”

There’s something else, too. This episode of Ozzy’s life reminded him of what good mates he’s got. When asked to be involved, nobody – Duff McKagan, Chad Smith, Slash, Post Malone – needed asking twice. Of course you want to jam with Ozzy, not for the glory, but because he’s Ozzy: The Man; Ozzy: The Lovely, Warm-Hearted, Kind Bloke. Showing us his hand, he reveals the bat tattoo that he got after recording. Andrew, Chad and Kelly all have them as well, a mark of the importance of friendship during the most trying of times (“It’s very Ozzy, innit?” he beams). Performing with Post Malone at the American Music Awards in November was another boost. And away from music, friends checking in and caring about how he’s doing were a blessing.

“I’ll tell you the people who have been great,” he says. “Jonathan [Davis] from Korn, he calls me regularly. Tony Iommi’s kept in touch, Bill Ward’s kept in touch. Slash. It’s been amazing. You find out who cares.”

As the embers in the fireplace glow and the winter twilight begins to darken the windows, it’s oddly quite easy to forget what a legend you’re in the company of. Ozzy is a very easy man to talk to, and he’s incredibly honest with it. As ever, he laughs often, but there’s also no bullshitting in him, and no filter. He hasn’t heard any jokes recently because “nobody tells them over here”, but music wise, he’s keen on Marilyn Manson’s Heaven Upside Down, even giving an evil-faced stanza of The God Of Fuck’s ‘You say God and I say Say-10’ chorus. When we mention his home city of Birmingham dedicating a bench to mark Black Sabbath’s achievements, he hoots in mock disbelief. “A fucking bench?! People will start wearing little gold benches around their necks, now!” And when discussing the past year and the possibility that this could have been, as they say, it, he’s as blunt as ever.

“Do I ever think about when my time’s gonna come?” he ponders. “I think about it; I don’t worry about it. I won’t be here in another 15 years or whatever, not that much longer, but I don’t dwell on it. It’s gonna happen to us all.

“Am I happy now? No. I haven’t got my health,” he continues. “That thing knocked the shit out of me, man, but I’m still here. In fact, I worried about [death] more when I was younger than I do now. I just try to enjoy things as much as possible, even though that’s so fucking hard sometimes.”

And this is what comes through in Ozzy 2020. Playing music with his friends largely for the hell of it has helped immeasurably; a beautiful reminder that even though you may be down you’re by no means out. The album is a gleeful flamethrower to negativity, to lying down and taking it, from a man who has made his name by cheekily not doing what he’s told, and encouraging you to do the same. Yes, parts of his chat today are heavy, but Ozzy is still rock’s greatest bantersaurus, and he unleashes his enormous laugh often. At one point he tells Elvis to “fuck off” when he takes a seat in the exact armchair Kerrang! is in the process of lowering ourselves into, and says that now he feels better than he did.

“If you saw me at the beginning of last year you’d think I was fucked,” he admits. “But I honestly think making this album is the best medicine I could have had. I was doing something, something I like to do. I wish I could do more, but it just felt great.”

READ THIS: An oral history of Black Sabbath: The album that started heavy metal

As our time comes to an end and we head to the front door to leave, Ozzy muses one more poignant thing, something that chimes with the title-track’s assertion over Elton John’s piano that, ‘I don’t wanna die an ordinary man.’ He won’t – hopefully not for a long time to come – because he hasn’t lived like one. Still doesn’t.

“I always thought I’d be dead by the time I was 40. That was alright until I got to fucking 39 and three-quarters!” he says. “I never analyse, I just get on with it. When you get past 70 you don’t think, ‘Oh God, I’m doomed.’ It makes you want to live life to the full.”

And for all the obstacles he’s faced, Ozzy Osbourne continues to do just that. Now, come on, let’s all go fucking crazy…

Ordinary Man is out on February 21 via Columbia.

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