A side effect of hearing the name Ozzy Osbourne is that you might find yourself muttering malarkey about a bat, his hit reality TV show, or a past punctured by drug and alcohol abuse. You’ll start to wonder how this man is even still alive and going at the speed of a runaway crazy train doused in gasoline, on fire, and headed straight to hell. To be completely honest, I had my doubts that a traditional interview with Osbourne would even happen. Ozzy has never been known as a tremendously forthcoming interviewee. But the difference between the stories spewed across the net and the hard truth is that no one knows if this is a character fueling a story or the essence of who the musician actually is.
What might boggle the brain even more is how copacetic and friendly Ozzy turns out to be. While it may be impossible to fathom the Black Sabbath overlord being anything other than a madman teetering on the edge of a tirade, instead here’s a 65-year-old fella you could easily imagine sharing a meal with — totally cheeky, a little batty, mildly anxious, but really down-to-earth. In essence, he is a loving father and a hardworking musician. He arrives on the other end of the line from his home in LA ahead of his sixth greatest hits release, Memoirs of a Madman, delivering the kind of “hello” that could reach a long-lost friend stuck on the other side of a highway. He speaks openly about his past, and it’s hysterical — “In 1969, the most I travelled was to the bottom of the road” — and he happily entertains my questions about his timeless love for music: “A good rock and roll show to me is better than sex.” He even talks about other artists: “To be perfectly honest, that Bono pisses me off.”
After 45 years in the industry, he’s still an addict, but now music and his family are his only drugs. “I used to say I’ll be dead by 40, and then when I got to 49 and three-quarters, I thought, maybe not, maybe I’ll be dead by 50,” he says. “They’re gonna have to shoot me to put me out.” Even if the word “memoirs” alludes to something nearing its end, this batshit-crazy man is very much alive. The only bucket he’s kicking is the one flying toward your head.
What do you think has made it possible for you to return with another greatest hits album?
I’m going to be doing another Black Sabbath album and another tour, and I thought, “Well, people are going to think I’m not doing my solo stuff anymore.” So, Memoirs of a Madman is to let people know I’m not retired from my solo career. I am going to continue after Black Sabbath, because this next Black Sabbath thing is the final thing. We’re not doing it anymore. After that, I’m gonna continue my solo career, so all of this is really a collection of songs that I recorded over the years and videos of things I’ve done to let everybody know that I’ve not retired from my solo stuff, and I’ll be continuing after the Sabbath thing is finished.
Have a lot of people asked if you’re retiring?
Oh God, all the time. When I did my last tour, I did a thing called “meet and greet” where I meet people and say hi to them. You’d be surprised how many people ask if I’m ever doing another solo record! Why would you even ask that? I’ve never said I wasn’t. Black Sabbath is a different thing. When I do my stuff, I’m jumping around like a jackrabbit. Sabbath is not my band. I’m a member of a band called Black Sabbath.
This compilation shares a similar name to your second solo album, Diary of a Madman, and it does feel particularly autobiographical. Why did you choose these particular songs?
You know, you have to put so much information because of the internet. Somebody said to my wife, “Is Ozzy okay?” And she said, “Well, why wouldn’t he be?” They asked because they heard on the net that I had a near-death experience and could be dead. There’s so much BS on there now, so you have to put everything [out there]. It’s really interesting because I don’t work with computers. They frighten the crap out of me. I’m always thinking I’m gonna press the wrong button and something bad is gonna happen. I’m just cool without it. I know other people who work with me use it, but it’s amazing, the information highway and how much misinformation gets on there, you know?
I suppose it would be more concerning if someone heard you were dead and didn’t ask any questions! Out of all your greatest hits collections, this one feels really heartfelt.
I gotta tell you the truth. My wife was the person who got it all together. And my son. To be honest with you, it’s not an album that if it didn’t get to number one, I would be unhappy. It’s just to let people know that I’m still active. Nowadays, you take so long to make an album and tour and promote it. The whole music industry has completely changed over the last 10 years. People make records straight on computer. U2 did an album free, and it’s like, why would anybody do that? I don’t know.
Did you listen to U2’s latest album?
No, no. I liked some of their earlier stuff, but to be perfectly honest, that Bono pisses me off. He’s made his name out of working with and talking about starving people in Africa. I don’t particularly like what he does. It’s phony. Besides, personally I think we get bad news all the time. When people want to listen to music, they want to get away from bad news. They want to go to concerts and have fun. Whenever I see somebody going on about, “I’d like to bring your attention to the plight of the blue whale,” yeah, we know all that. We want to be entertained. If you feel that bad, you do something!
So it’s simply not your style to “entertain” to that extent.
In Beverly Hills, every week there’s some charity for some bullshit thing. I went to one two weeks ago, me and my wife, and it was to bring attention to this guy’s son who died from a drug and alcohol overdose. Everyone was drunk! Bloody nuts! I’m telling you the truth. I go, “Hold on, I know why they’re giving alcohol, because they will get someone to buy the raffles.”
Ridiculous! But then what do you think is worth talking about for musicians? The internet is in shambles, and the music industry is chaotic and constantly changing.
You can’t be just a live band. A friend of mine said to me recently, “Nobody knows their craft anymore; nobody is an artist. They just do it on machines now.” On the last Black Sabbath tour, one of the support bands was going on, and I remember thinking to myself, “They sound really good.” And they were lip-syncing to machines. That ain’t cool, you know. That’s phony.
What attracted you to make rock and heavy metal music all those years ago?
It beat working in a factory. It was fun to be in a band and travel the world because, back then, in 1969, the most I traveled was to the bottom of the road. When I joined the band, we went to Europe. We lived life from hand to mouth, but it was fun. Having a laugh, doing what young guys do. Now, it’s completely and utterly changed. No one knows their craft. I mean, I had nobody to say, “Well, you gotta do this or that.” Apart from my wife, of course. But nowadays you go to a dance class before you learn how to sing.
You know, I actually just watched a live video of you in 1983, and you’re dancing around the stage like a hooligan. With each movement, your body responds in sync with the instruments. It’s incredible.
My job is to get the audience having fun, but now you don’t have to do that. I saw that Michael Jackson hologram on TV today. That was scary, that was. I said to my wife, “Darling, I could just send my hologram on tour.” There is nothing like a live, good rock and roll concert. It’s the best when everything is in its right place and the mood is right. A good rock and roll show to me is better than sex.
Really! Is Sharon there? Can she hear you?
[Long pause, chair shuffles around]
She’s not here. [Laughs]
Well, your secret is safe with me. When it comes to rock and roll, though, is the human voice the greatest instrument for you?
Oh, absolutely. When you hear one of The Beatles sing, you know it’s one of The Beatles. Not many people sound like me, and I’m not saying they want to. I love doing things at my own pace. Some guys are going on the stage and got two left feet, but that’s life. I don’t hide behind a Pro Tool machine to make everything sound wonderful. I sometimes have to say to the audience, “Hey! I’m trying. I’m a bit of an oldie, but I’m trying!”
I remember a few years ago I did a gig in New York, and on the way to the show, I don’t know what happened, but my voice just disappeared. But I got on the stage, and I croaked out this noise, and I didn’t want to carry on. They tore the roof off and were just so happy to see me. There’s something human about that, you know? I watched a Justin Timberlake show. He’s pretty cool, but there ain’t many of that caliber now. Oh, and Bruno Mars. Sharon loves him. I went to watch him with Sharon in Vegas. It was great.
Does Sharon love Bruno Mars?
My wife thinks he is the best thing since sliced bread, and he is a really down-to-earth, unaffected guy. I was so happy to see that.
Do you find unaffected musicians are few and far between?
Oh, absolutely. People bust their egos before they show their talent.
So, are you writing new songs for your next solo album?
I’ve written three songs. One is called “Crack Cocaine”, one is called “Mr. Armageddon”, and I can’t remember the other title. See, as I’m doing this Black Sabbath thing, I’m not just sitting on my butt watching the days go by. I’m 66 in a couple of weeks, so I ain’t got that many living years, that’s for sure. [Laughs] The essence of what I’m saying is, I don’t want to finish the Black Sabbath tour and go, “Ah, what do I do now?” So as I’m getting downtime, I am doing some writing when I can.
How exciting that your birthday is coming up!
66! Can you believe I’ve lasted this long? Can you believe I’m still here? [Laughs]
I can. You are here and better than ever. Did you think a few years ago that you would make it?
I used to say I’ll be dead by 40, and then when I got to 49 and three-quarters I thought maybe not, maybe I’ll be dead by 50. They’re going to have to shoot me to put me out.
Other than your beautiful family, what has kept you going all these years?
What keeps me going is the gift that God gave me to give people a good night out. It’s well worth everything. I love it! It’s not a job where I have to get up in the morning and go to my place of work, which I hate, working for someone I hate, coming home with a minimum wage, having a couple of beers, and going to bed. Just the fact that I can wake up with my eyes open every morning is good enough for me.
Absolutely. So then, what is your definition of a “madman?”
A madman is being able to sit through an Osbourne day without going insane and drinking a bottle of scotch and jumping off a bridge. My house sometimes gets a bit heavy. But I’m a likable lunatic, and I don’t mean anybody any harm. I just do crazy stuff for humor. People come up to me and say, “Who writes your script?” And I go, “A guy called God!”
Looking back on your long career, do you have any deep regrets?
Darling, we all have regrets. We all have skeletons in a cupboard, but if you didn’t have them, you wouldn’t know what’s right and wrong. It’s a part of living.
I loved what you said during your interview with your son for Noisey about “being okay with being okay.” I just thought that was so simply beautiful and true. What a great message.
Sometimes you think, “How the hell am I going to survive this?” But you don’t jump off the bridge on the first bad day, you know? Sometimes in my house, one of my daughters will come screaming, the other one will come laughing because she’s screaming, and it’s a chain reaction of the family going ballistic. In the middle, you’ve got my wife throwing pots and pans at someone. Then the next day everyone’s friendly.
Do you ever think about the things you still want to accomplish?
I’ve always said that if my audience dwindles and I can’t do it anymore and I’m too old or whatever, I won’t dwindle down into the realms of rock and roll history and play bars. When it’s time, I’ll hang my mic up. But saying that, I’m addicted to it; I’m absolutely addicted to what I do. It’s not a job. It’s a gift from God.
But that’s a good addiction to have, Ozzy. Out of all the potential other ones, I’d say keep at it.
Yeah, plenty of other bad ones.
When you’re listening to old records and remembering the times you created them, does it evoke specific memories?
If I listen to a record, I remember where my head was at when I was making the record, but if I was loaded, it’s very difficult for me to say. I ask this question, “What’s my best record, and what’s my worst record?” I always say I haven’t made my Sgt. Pepper, meaning the pinnacle of the greatest band ever. For The Beatles, it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and if I say any one of the past albums is my Sgt. Pepper, that means that every other one is on a downer. I’m a perfectionist, and I strive for that one album. I haven’t heard anything like that since the last Adele album, 21. It’s an amazing body of work.
You have 11 solo albums. I’m sure there’s somebody’s Sgt. Pepper in there. But it’s what you feel about it that matters.
I remember when we were doing the first Blizzard of Oz and Diary of a Madman. It was great times, but then Randy got killed in a plane crash.
I’m so sorry about that. I was hesitant to bring it up.
Thank you. I think that’s why they call it rock and roll, you know?
You’ve been making music for 45 years. Do you feel like what you want out of it has changed as you’ve gotten older?
No. Sometimes I can be in a studio, and I don’t know what I’m gonna be doing next, and I can’t think of anything, then all of a sudden a song will come from I don’t know where, to the point where I go, “This is unbelievable!” Sometimes I think we’re not so much songwriters; we’re song receivers. I always remember the Black Sabbath song “Paranoid”. We’re in the studio, and the producer says, “We need three, four minutes, so just jam something.” Then, out of nowhere … if you look at that album, it’s got guys with shields. There were album sleeves that had been printed up. We were gonna call it “War Pigs”, but then “Paranoid” came from nowhere. I don’t think I’ve done a concert anywhere without singing that song. That’s what happens, and when it does, it’s a great feeling.