How did Ozzy go from being the Prince of Darkness to the Prince of Commercials with Justin Bieber?
Ozzy Osbourne used to be the baddest motherfucker on the planet. For decades, his claim to fame was fronting Black Sabbath, biting the head off a live dove, and pissing on the Alamo (which resulted in a ten year ban from San Antonio). In fact, if you search "drug" on Ozzy's Wikipedia page you'll get 17 matches which makes sense when you consider that he abused substances for longer than today's wannabe bad boys have even been alive. Yet these days, Osbourne is portrayed as the butt of a joke, like your eccentric uncle who everyone laughs at yet secretly feels bad for. How did this happen?
Drugs and senility aside, a big part of the blame can be laid solely on The Osbournes, the reality show about his family which ran from 2002 to 2005. While the show humanized Ozzy and showed the world a different side of him, it was one that probably should have stayed between his family members. While it's sort of funny to watch a burned out dude spend a half hour trying to turn on his TV, it was ultimately depressing to see someone who is a metal god struggling with mundane tasks just so his family could cash a paycheck. It reminds me of an interview that I did with Skid Row's Sebastian Bach a while back who told me far more people recognize him on the street from his role on Gilmore Girls than his ability as a frontman. In other words, not all publicity is good publicity.
In the same way that Motley Crüe seem to constantly trot guitarist Mick Mars onstage despite the fact the vertebrae in his back are literally fusing together due to a spinal disease, Ozzy's wife Sharon Osbourne seems to be the ringleader for Ozzy's media assault. Keep in mind that she is the one who negotiated with MTV to bring the show into existence and has used it as a springboard for her own career as seen by her subsequent gig on The Sharon Osbourne Show, her role as a judge on the UK's X Factor and current role on The View rip-off, The Talk, alongside other prestigious and relevant media personalities such as Darlene from Roseanne. (Full disclosure: I have had a personal beef with Sharon Osbourne ever since she cut Iron Maiden's power during an Ozzfest performance in 2005. That is just indefensible.*)
Remember this BAMF?
Why am I so annoyed about this? Because in his prime, Ozzy was such a talented performer whose impact on metal is immeasurable. Black Sabbath essentially invented heavy metal as we know it—and while much of their sound was due to Tony Iommi's haunted riffs—just as much credit can be given to Osbourne's distinctive pipes which make songs like "Iron Man" and "War Pigs" timeless classics that still sound as vital today as they did back in 1970 Sabbath they released their seminal album Paranoid. However, where most musicians’ careers would begin a steady decline, this was really only the beginning for Osbourne.
To an almost eerie degree, Osbourne has always had the ability to find the best guitarists in metal and bring them into the folds via axemen like Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, and Jake E. Lee. Sadly the Rhoads era was cut short after the guitarist was killed in a plane crash in 1982 at the age of 25. But although his time with Osbourne was brief, Rhoads' playing on songs like "Crazy Train" and "Mr. Crowley" are still metal (and strip club) staples—and it's likely that these songs nor Rhoads' legacy would have been so impressive if he hadn't come aboard the crazy train after leaving Quiet Riot. There was a reason why so many immense talents wanted to share their own artistry with Ozzy.
Maybe more impressive is the fact that Ozzy continued to stay relevant throughout the 90s and his 1991 album No More Tears saw him crossover into the mainstream in a way that didn't also sacrifice his dignity via radio-friendly tracks like "Mama, I'm Coming Home," and epic masterpieces such as "No More Tears." "The wreckage of my past keeps haunting me, it just won't leave me alone," Osbourne wails during the power ballad "Road To Nowhere" as Wylde assaults the listener with pinch harmonics. "I still find it all a mystery. Could it be a dream? The road to nowhere leads to me." Osbourne was clearly still self-aware as he looked back on the trail of self-destruction he left in his wake but he was also coherent enough during this era to also be conscious of it.
Maybe it was age or these substances catching up to him but it doesn't seem like Ozzy could write a song like "Road To Nowhere" now. I tried to listen to Ozzy's last album, 2010's Scream and I think it's very fitting that the "Tour" edition of the album contains live versions of "Bark At The Moon,' "No More Tears," and "Fairies Wear Boots." Let's face it, not even Ozzy wants to put his new stuff on his current albums. But the thing that's haunting is that during the intro to Osbourne's "No More Tears," he says, "I love you all" to the audience and you can tell he means it, he's not just placating his fans. That same Ozzy: delicate yet destructive, evil yet emotional still exists inside the core of what he's become.
Ultimately, this is the Ozzy that I'd like to see celebrated. But unfortunately, he isn't the kind of person who gets TV ratings or sponsorships so this Ozzy is relegated to the background and what we get is the cartoonish Prince Of Darkness who we laugh at in order to feel better about ourselves. It's a sad trajectory of great artist and an even sadder representation of where we are as a society. But luckily we'll always have that image of Osbourne from the legendary live album Tribute, hoisting Rhoads above his head with both of them grinning like madmen. The chances of Ozzy flying high again seem scarce but hopefully those albums, anecdotes, and mythology will eventually be able to overshadow the Ozzy that teenagers see today while rifling through the channels.
*In a post-Suey Park world, I think it's important to acknowledge that I'm not a white guy who is blaming a woman for a rock icon's downfall. OK, maybe I am, but only because that's true in this situation and although we have seemingly entered the most politically correct era of all-time, that doesn't just change the facts of this situation. Sharon Osbourne may be a great businesswoman but in this context I think she's been extremely exploitative. If you have a counter argument, I’d love to hear it.
Jonah Bayer is on Twitter, retweeting the head off a bat - @mynameisjonah