The Cover Story

Ozzy Osbourne: “If I drop dead now, at least I can’t say that I’ve had a dull career”

Having made an unexpected return to the stage and with a new album around the corner, all eyes are on the godfather of heavy metal. Casting his eyes over life, death and music, we sit down with a contemplative Ozzy Osbourne, who simply cannot be stopped…

Ozzy Osbourne: “If I drop dead now, at least I can’t say that I’ve had a dull career”
Sam Law
Ross Halfin

Even after all these years, Ozzy Osbourne still knows how to spring a wicked surprise. On August 1, the metal godfather’s official Instagram posted a sweaty montage from that day’s Commonwealth Games in his old hometown, featuring Black Sabbath’s immortal banger Paranoid blaring over the top. “Just amazing for Birmingham,” read the bittersweet caption. “I really wish I could have been there with you all.” After four years of non-stop headlines about the Double-O’s ill-health, no further explanation was required. And yet, seven days later at the sold-out closing ceremony, there he was, emerging from the depths of Alexander Stadium amidst the squeak of bats and the sparkle of fireworks, to blast the track properly alongside old mucker Tony Iommi, very much in the flesh.

“I said, ‘You must be fuckin’ joking!’” he recalls, having received the invitation via wife and long-time manager Sharon immediately after the post. “‘I’ll go onstage and fall into the fuckin’ audience or something!’ But then I thought about it and decided, ‘Well, it’s only one song, and I know the words pretty well. I’ve sung it enough times!’ I kept going back and forth: ‘I’m not gonna do it!’ then, ‘Yes, I am.’ Eventually, Sharon went, ‘Look, make your fuckin’ mind up whether you’re gonna do it or you’re not gonna do it. I’ve gotta let people know!’ So I went and did it.”

Characteristically curmudgeonly, Ozzy finds fault in what looked, to the rest of us, like a miraculous comeback. The poorly-optimised football stadium speakers, he winces, led to agonisingly echoey sound. “You’d go, ‘Hello!’ and hear, ‘Hello... hello...’ with a delay of about half a minute!” Making a long-overdue onstage return so close to ground zero, however, evidently stirred something inside the Prince Of Darkness.

“Where I was playing must’ve been about a quarter of a mile from where the [Birchfield Road] school once stood. That’s where Tony and I went as boys. If someone had said to me back then that I’d be over there playing at the Commonwealth Games when I was 73, I’d have gone, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?!’ But it crossed my mind while I was playing that if I’d stood on the school steps and pointed in the right direction, I could’ve probably seen where I’d be standing. It was amazing. That meant far more to me than Sabbath getting the bench in Birmingham, because when me and Tony went to that school, we were looked upon as the fuckin’ outcasts!”

Six decades later, living down to people’s perceptions still isn’t on the menu.

With imminent 13th solo album Patient Number 9, he’s continued an unlikely late-late-career renaissance, delivering one of his boldest-ever bodies of work. Joining us off the back of a hard-earned holiday in Hawaii this morning, he seems physically and mentally transformed: leaner, happier and more focused than he has in years. And, just as his detractors have painted him as a relic ready to lie down and die, Ozzy is gearing up for a period defined by activity and change.

Most publicly, at the beginning of next year, he and Sharon will be returning home. Their Hancock Park mansion in LA is currently on the market for a cool $18 million. Their Buckinghamshire residence – the Grade II Welders House, with its 350-acre estate – is being prepped for their arrival. BBC bosses have already confirmed a ‘funny, moving’ sort-of revival of The Osbournes TV show. So what exactly has precipitated the move? Elsewhere, recently, Ozzy has semi-solemnly explained that he’s been sickened by the endless mass shootings in America, and that he wants to see out his remaining days in his homeland, afraid of ending up interred in Los Angeles’ celebrity-strewn Forest Lawn cemetery. Today, the answer is more playfully upbeat.

“I mean, if I stay here, they’ll kill me,” he jests, with a flicker of devilry. “But I am going. I am British. And I’ve got a beautiful house over there. Plus, the weather’s turned great, y’know? I have not been in England in the summer in fuckin’ years, but I went over for the Games and saw what it was like. The only thing is that England’s not equipped for hot weather. You’d stifle to death in your home with no air conditioning. So I’ve had my whole house fuckin' air-conditioned while I’m away. When I go back at the end of the year, it’ll have the whole nine yards.”

Count on there being a well-equipped gym, too. When we last spoke to Ozzy, it seemed like he was barely hanging together. A fall at the beginning of 2019 had exacerbated old injuries from the quad bike accident that could have killed him in 2003. It had also aggravated the Parkinson’s disease (a mild form, known as Parkin II) that he’d been living with for years. Pneumonia. Staph infections. Depression. It felt like the conveyor belt of shit just wouldn’t stop. Although he’s clear that he’s far from fine and dandy, today – telling us that the “worst year of his life” is “still going on”, with nerve pain, blood clots and the associated medication having been added to his burden – there’s a refreshed stimulus to face his woes head-on and do everything possible to work through.

Two rounds of surgery, the second of which Sharon revealed on Talk TV back in June would likely “determine the rest of his life” was step one. “It improved things,” Ozzy explains, “but I didn’t quite wake up after surgery saying, ‘I wanna run the marathon!’” Subsequent weakness in his right arm and left leg left him topsy-turvy. He can still barely walk without the aid of a stick.

Determination, more so, is driving him. The word tumbles from his lips repeatedly over the course of our conversation. He’s already done an hour-long workout before we sit down. He’ll do the same again tomorrow. Sessions with physical therapists. Yoga. Whatever it takes. After this run of album press, he’s instructed Sharon to clear his schedule so he can work “hell for leather” to get back onstage.

“I’ve just got to get back into a rhythm again,” he shrugs, with authentic optimism. “My balance is all fucked up, but I’ve got to keep going. I mean, I’ll probably always have a limp. But I don’t mind, as long as I can fuckin’ walk around without falling on my head. I have a goal: that next summer I will be onstage. If I put every effort into it and I still can’t, at least I can’t say that I haven’t tried.”

Thank fuck for music. Where real life has been defined by limitation and debilitation, Patient Number 9 is a showcase for the great man’s creativity and collaboration unbound. Eschewing much of the polished, radio-ready approach of its 2020 predecessor Ordinary Man, we get darker, more epic sounds, but also a sense of celebration, unfettered freedom and almost youthful glee. Indeed, about four minutes into outrageous highlight No Escape From Now – a track already propelled by the juggernaut guitar of Tony Iommi – Ozzy unleashes his most demonic bat-eating voice to spit a line that could damn well sum up the whole enterprise: ‘Somebody stop me!’

“I think I heard that in a fucking Jim Carrey movie,” Ozzy erupts into an even deeper-throated, more enthusiastic delivery of the line, tickled by our enjoyment. “It’s just funny!”

Fun, once again, was at the top of the agenda. For perspective, Ozzy gestures that the whole process began back in the 2019 slump when, having watched her father spiral into depression and despondency, his daughter Kelly suggested that he might want to make what became Ordinary Man, and introduced him to her friend: producer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Watt. Having seen their first record deliver the desired lift, and crash the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, why not try again?

“I’ve always got to be doing something,” Ozzy stresses. “I can’t sit still, me. I’ve got attention deficit disorder, so I can’t stay in one place too long. I’ve got to keep moving. Ordinary Man had come together quite quickly. So I said to Andrew, ‘Are we gonna do another album?’ He just said, ‘Yeah!’”

Thematically, it is tempting to read Patient Number 9 as a reflection on Ozzy’s own recent medical woes. He scoffs, however, at the idea that he’s made anything like a concept album. Of course, the pains of injury and old age can be read in songs like Follow You (‘Holding onto to memories and photographs / Spending all my future living in the past’), God Only Knows (‘Face down on the pavement like a wounded animal / Don’t know if I’ll make it’) and A Thousand Shades (‘Sitting in yesterday, watching it slip away today / Isolation / Fading like photographs, reminding us nothing ever lasts / Desolation’).

The title-track, meanwhile – which adopts the trapped perspective of an inmate in an asylum – has been previously confirmed to draw from Sharon’s experiences in a mental health facility following her struggles in 2020. One Of Those days is an ageless ode to feeling pissed-off, with the killer hook, ‘One of those days that I don’t believe in Jesus.’ Evil Shuffle is a classic slice of psychopathy. And second single Degradation Blues? We’ll come to that…

“I never say, ‘Oh I’m going to do an album [about this or that],’” Ozzy explains of his process. “I just co-write with people. It’s like a relationship when you’re making a record. Andrew and I always start off friendly. We fall out. We get back together again. At the end of the day you get married to it. Then again, if making records was that easy, everyone would be doing it!”

“If Ozzy and Tony Iommi do an album, it’s going to sound like a Sabbath album”

Hear Ozzy discuss working with Tony Iommi again

They weren’t short of extra hands to help out. From Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and Guns N’ Roses’ legendary bassist Duff McKagan to Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and Pearl Jam six-stringer Mike McCready, the staff ooze class. The lack of old favourites on Ordinary Man is rectified, too, with the return of Ozzy veteran (and current Metallica man) Robert Trujillo on bass with Ozzy acolyte / incoming Pantera guitarist Zakk Wylde shredding on a majority of tracks. “Wherever Ozzy Osbourne is,” the mainman grins, “Zakk Wylde ain’t going to be far away.”

The real “cream” on the record, though, Ozzy insists, chuckling at his accidental pun, are iconic guitarists Eric Clapton (One Of Those Days) and Jeff Beck (A Thousand Shades). Aged 77 and 78 respectively, their headline-grabbing presence here, as opposed to, say, Post Malone and Travis Scott last time out, feels indicative of PN9’s more old-school, stately feel. Although he can’t hide his disappointment at not being able to complete The Yardbirds’ Holy Trinity by getting Jimmy Page involved, Ozzy presses that there’s no hard feelings, explaining that, “I texted Jimmy, but I presume that he may have changed his phone,” with the frank tone of someone who suspects that may genuinely have been the case.

Then there’s Tony Iommi, appearing on an Ozzy solo record for the very first time. After all these decades, what had been stopping him getting together with one of his oldest friends?

“It was just that I never asked him,” comes the straight-shot reply. “There was a time when we were at war and I sang on one of his albums [Who’s Fooling Who from 2000’s Iommi LP] but I’d never given it a thought [that he might] play on one of mine, to be honest. It was actually Andrew who said, ‘Why don’t you ask Tony Iommi if he wants to do something?’ I was like, ‘I know he’s going to tell me to go fuck myself.’ But you don’t know until you ask. When he sent [his parts] over, I heard them and was just like, ‘Fuck me!’”

Tantalisingly, there’s even the suggestion that the duo could work together on a full album again. There’s a wariness, however, about the baggage that would come with such a grand collaboration.

“If Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi do an album together, it’s going to sound like a Sabbath album. Tony was the sound of Sabbath. There’s no getting away from the fact that, when he plays with me, it’ll be some kind of a reflection of that. Maybe the tracks he did on my album was like what Sabbath should have been had we stayed together, but I want to take it away from Sabbath. We put that band to bed. And if he wants to [make it another] Sabbath album, I’m not doing it!”

Bluntness. Exasperation. Amusement. Anyone who’s spent 10 minutes in his company – even those who’ve seen him on TV – will know the cycle of emotions through which Ozzy seems to endlessly rotate. It’s credit to his current mindset that he can’t stay serious for long this morning, though. And, occasionally, the most poignant insights come when he steers the conversation off track.

“You know what Degradation Rules is about?” he blind-sides at one point. “Masturbation. Sticky little magazines. A toss-pot. There’s a line in there, ‘Red Tube rules!’ which is an [ode to] the free porn website. And, do you know who suggested that? The drummer, Taylor Hawkins, who died recently. To be perfectly honest with you, I’d never heard of him before he played on my album. But he must be good to play with Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters. When I met him, and from what I saw of him, he was a really nice man, one whose soul will surely last. I should imagine that everyone in that band was fucking devastated when the poor guy passed away.”

It’s the kind of jackknife transition from bawdiness to sorrow that only a veteran of Ozzy’s tenure can pull off. Having lost so many collaborators and friends to rock’n’roll excess and the wear of life on the road – from iconic guitarist Randy Rhoads, in a plane crash in 1982, to legendary UFO (and Ozzy touring) bassist Pete Way, in 2020 – does it ever get any easier?

He turns the question over in his head before answering.

“Well, at the age of 73 I look back down the road and there are so many of them. It used to be one every year. Now, it’s more like one every month. And I just go, ‘I hope my number doesn’t come up!’” A hearty laugh stops the tone getting too dark. “For whatever it’s worth, though, if I drop down dead now – if it is the end – at least I can’t say that I’ve had a dull career!”

“I am going to put as much effort into getting back on my feet as I physically can”

Hear Ozzy on how he’s getting ready to get back onstage

From biting bats, snorting ants and pissing on The Alamo, to helping invent heavy metal and modern reality TV, his catalogue of (mis)adventures and breadth of legacy are already utterly peerless. But are there any ambitions left to hit by this 13th solo cycle?

“Number One!” he replies with disconcerting snappiness. “I’d like to have an Ozzy Osbourne album at Number One around the world.” A reflective pause. “But the very fact that I’m making records at the age of 73 [is something]. There ain’t that many of us that can still do that. And, in the beginning, I always make the album for me. A record could sell as many as [Michael Jackson’s 34x platinum classic] Thriller and I still wouldn’t like it if I hadn’t [enjoyed the process and the people I had made it with]! I’m not saying it just because Patient Number 9 is about to come out, but I’ve grown really fond of this one. That’s new to me. Normally, long after the album is out, I’m still finding things that I should have done or shouldn’t have done: too much of this, too little of that. Then I let go of it about a month after release. But this is as good [a pre-release vibe as I’ve had].”

Beyond that? A laser-focus on completing the outstanding No More Tours II dates – already billed as Ozzy’s final run – which have been postponed since early 2019. The announcement that he’ll be playing the halftime show at the Los Angeles Rams’ NFL season opener against the Buffalo Bills on September 8 is an obvious next step. Having not completed anything like a full headline set since his New Year’s Eve stop at Los Angeles’ Forum on December 31, 2018, though, how realistically does he rate the chances of getting his farewell shows back on the road?

“I am going to put 110 per cent into getting myself out there,” he promises, reiterating that without trying, he’ll never find out. “Time is my most valuable asset now. I’m 73. I don’t think that I’ll be here in another 25 years. I’ve got a goal: the goal is to get back onstage. I had my last surgery in June, I can’t have any more. So whatever I make of it is entirely up to me now. Even if I manage one show, then fall over, [I’ll have done it]. But I know that I’m going to carry on. I know I can beat it. I know that I can get back onstage. It’s just that I’ve got to get off my butt and go for it.”

And, looking even further down the line, is there a life after music? Having just celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary, and a growing brood of grandchildren, could the day come where Ozzy fucking Osbourne is happy to sit back with his bag of Werther’s Originals and fill the role of granddad?

“The day that that Ozzy Osbourne sits back, you’ll be able to hear the coffin lid being nailed down!” he cackles, defiantly. “My granddaughter Pearl actually said to her dad, Jack, recently, ‘Daddy, how does granddad write these songs?!’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but he keeps doing it!’ And I ain’t stopping. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. This is what I do, man. It’s the only thing I’ve ever had success at. It’s the only thing I want to do. It’s the only thing I’m here for. People might be dropping like flies, but I ain’t dead yet – and I don’t want to die. There’s a fire in my heart that keeps me going on!”

Patient Number 9 is due out on September 9 via Epic Records

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