By Rex Weiner
I’m not supposed to tell you where the lead singer of Black Sabbath lives, the guy reputed to have bitten the head of a bat tossed onstage during a concert. I will tell you only this: even with the address in hand, his residence in a well-hidden corner of Los Angeles is nearly impossible to find. It takes me an hour, even with GPS. Circling and re-circling the surrounding countryside, though it is only a short distance from one of L.A.’s busiest freeways.
When I finally discover the entrance to the gated community, a security guard checks my name against a list before lifting the barrier. The guard doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re looking for the home of the guy who bites the heads off bats.” The guard doesn’t say anything. This is L.A., after all.
Carved from dusty arroyos, chaparral flats and Miocene outcroppings by developers in the 1950s and manicured into serene estate parcels, the community is a maze of streets with Old West names. They wind past verdant landscapes surrounding mansions erected in various decades and a grab-bag of styles. I arrive at last at the address marking a steep, curving driveway leading skyward. At the very end, secure as any Tuscan castle commanding its hilltop, stands a large two-story manor house with a grand portico and a Ferrari parked out front. It is the kind of mid-1980’s Greek Revival-meets-California-Ranch-style home favored by coke-dealers, refugee ministers escaping the Shah’s Iran with bags of gold, and heavy metal musicians.
Immediately inside the foyer I know I’m in the right place because alongside car keys casually tossed on the marble side table beneath an gilt-framed oval mirror sit a pair of spectacles, the round-lensed blue-tinted wire frames that can only belong to Ozzy Osbourne.
I am warned by the publicist, as I’m led down a couple of steps off the foyer into a sunken bookshelf-lined den, not to take any pictures or request any autographs. For my part, I’ve quietly resolved not to confess: Heavy metal is my least favorite music, after polka. I fully appreciate that, once an electrified audio pickup was grafted onto a blues guitar and made commercially available by the Rickenbacker Electro Stringed Instrument Company in 1934, heavy metal was the logical and inevitable musical conclusion, just as re-processed plutonium leads to a nuclear bomb.
And it’s not academic that, drawing upon the brilliant innovations of sound bombasts like Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and even Beethoven and Wagner, the quartet of Ozzy Osbourne, Terry “Geezer” Butler, Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi was the first to establish heavy metal as a hugely successful musical genre. Black Sabbath’s musical accomplishment is a phenomenon that has sold 70 million records worldwide and spawned legions of imitators.
In any case, there’s a new album—“13,” produced by super-producer Rick Rubin, and a global tour—and here comes Ozzy.
Descending with a feline sideways motion, one arm held delicately waist-high, John Michael Osbourne at 65 years old is slim and trim. The vocalist, survivor of decades of alcohol and drug abuse, and eponymous headliner for the long-running Ozzfest heavy metal concert series, is entirely dressed in black, except for bright pink socks tucked into delicate slippers. A necklace of crosses dangles across his chest. His right hand is bandaged. No, he says, he was not injured in the house fire reported the previous week on newscasts, gossip columns and websites.
“Not the first time we’ve had fires,” he says, speaking in the crumbly Birmingham accent recognizable from the Emmy Award-winning MTV reality show The Osbournes, and numerous TV commercials. He describes several fire emergencies that have occurred in their home. The most recent conflagration resulted from a candle that was a gift from friend and TV talk show host Howard Stern.
“Sharon’s always lighting damn candles around the house,” Ozzy says, blaming his TV star wife in the style of the ongoing sitcom reality show that is their life. ”I tell her ‘That’s why they invented fucking electricity.’” Recent tabloid reports say the couple, after thirty years of marriage, are separating but nothing has been confirmed.
In fact, his right hand is bandaged following arthritis surgery the day before. None of us is getting any younger. That includes Geezer, the band’s bassist. The longhaired, ruddy-cheeked stocky man with a reddish graying moustache and goatee comes in and sits down. Rumpled and comfortably paunchy in an un-tucked shirt and jeans, he admits to looking forward to the band’s upcoming world tour.
“Very much, yes” he says, soft-voiced and British polite. He is 63, lives in Beverly Hills and has two sons, 28 and 30. One is receiving his master’s degree at Oxford, the other works as a film editor. “Sent them to school in England,” says Geezer, with a dig at America’s spate of gun violence, “so they wouldn’t get shot.”
When not playing bass with Black Sabbath, he says his favorite activity is watching the “soccer channel,” using the American term instead of “football.” He follows his hometown club Aston Villa, but also likes the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
“Terry’s into sports,” says Ozzy, “I’m not into sports at all.”
Ozzy calls him Terry. “Tony always calls me Geezer,” the bass player explains. So do millions of Black Sabbath fans.
We are looking ahead, and looking back, too, and I want to know which of all their seventeen albums, since their 1970 hit Paranoid, they might want to re-record with the benefit of today's digital technology?
“Nah,” says Ozzy without hesitation. “Wouldn’t re-record any of them.” It’s not so much an issue of modern technological wizardry as matching the band’s performance to the original, he says. “It’s like capturing a dream.”
Aside from recording technology, what’s the biggest difference in the music industry now, from when they began making music and appearing on concert stages in 1969?
“It’s completely different,” says Geezer. “You can get books in bookshops now that tell you all you need to know about how to be in a rock band. We didn’t know any of that. We were just four kids. It’s much more of a business now. When we started, you expected to do it for about three or four years and then get a proper job.”
Ozzy laughs. “My mother used to say, when are you going stop this and get a real job?”
Geezer recalls when Ringo Starr used to say that when the Beatles were finished he was going to be a hairdresser. “We all thought that when the Rolling Stones were about twenty-eight they would be too old and they’d get proper jobs.”
“I used to say I’d never live past forty,” says Ozzy, “but when I got to be thirty-nine, well…” His years of drinking and drugging are a recurring motif of his bestselling 2009 autobiography “I Am Ozzy.”
“People want to establish careers,” says Geezer, “rather for the fun of just playing music.”
“We used to jam all the time,” says Ozzy. “People don’t know how to jam anymore. You just play, you know.”
They still jam, Geezer says. “That’s how this whole album came about. That’s how you get your ideas. Do an hour of jamming every day, loosen up, see what sparks come out. Then we record one of the written songs.”
I am promised a preview of their new album. Then Ozzy’s talking about how the newest digital technology affects sound. “Our new album,” he says, “we recorded it the way we would have done on analog. On analog you couldn’t bend notes and match things up perfectly, the way they do now. That’s not the way music is. It’s supposed to sound like people are playing it. Not so clean, you know?”
But Ozzy and Geezer are not so eager to put down the music being played today.
“I think pop music is really good at the moment,” Geezer says. “Lots of good stuff. Back in the Sixties and Seventies among all the good stuff you used to get all the horrible crap stuff, too, especially in England, all those novelty records. There’s better standards now.”
Ozzy nearly spits with disgust at the memory of English Sixties Top of the Pops. “One-Horse-Jimmy, or something.” He starts singing “My Boy Lollipop” in a voice you could wrap fish in. “Drove me fuckin’ nuts!”
Well, then, I ask, who do you listen to?
“Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk,” says Geezer, a solid jazz fanatic. “Loved Amy Winehouse. I like Adele. I like people who actually have good talent.”
Ozzy shakes his head. “To be honest with you,” he says, “I don’t listen to music much anymore.”
Geezer smiles, knowing what Ozzy means. They’ve been to the mountaintop—they don’t need to hear anything else. “I’d really rather listen to audio books,” says Geezer. Currently, it seems he’s listening to Ian Fleming’s whole James Bond series, “From Casino Royale, right along, in proper order. Not the way the films came out.” He listens in his car, driving around L.A.
Ozzy goes into a tirade against driving, various technologies, and the combination of the two, including the phenomenon of text messaging while driving. He marvels at his young assistant who does that, but acknowledges it’s a $150 ticket if you are caught in the act.
But getting back onto the subject of reading, Ozzy says he recently read a biography of John Lennon but couldn’t finish it. “When it got to the part where he got killed I couldn’t read anymore!”
Well, what about the Beatles—did Black Sabbath and the Beatles ever get together? “Never met Lennon,” says Ozzy. Neither did Geezer. But they both met George Harrison and Ringo, and both like Paul McCartney. “Paul is a nice guy,” says Ozzy.
But don’t they go to see other musicians play, or check out new bands at Hollywood clubs?
“My wife always saying to me ‘Why don’t you want to go out?’” Ozzy frowns, “But I tell Sharon, ‘My job is going out.’”
Ozzy has five children from two marriages, ranging in age from 27 to 41, three of them with Sharon. He is a grandfather six times over.
I ask them what’s the biggest misconception about Black Sabbath that they would like to correct, aside from the business of Ozzy biting off the head of a bat tossed onstage during a concert (a much disputed occurrence that has passed the fact-checking desk into legend)?
“The biggest misconception when we first started,” says Geezer, “was that we were all Satanists. People were totally misinterpreting the lyrics. They saw the name of the band and immediately put us on the dark side.”
“It’s just a role we play,” says Ozzy.
"And the lyrics are all against Satanism,” Geezer insists, “if they care to listen to them properly.” Both Black Sabbath members are eager to dispel the notion that the band promotes Satanism or has anything do with the dark arts or occult beliefs.
“We were in Philadelphia,” says Geezer, “Someone said, well, you’re the Satan band, you’ve got to see this new film called ‘The Exorcist.’ Well, we were that fucking scared after seeing ‘The Exorcist,’ we all spent the night in the same bedroom. We had to go see “The Sting” afterwards to calm down, we were so out of our fuckin’ minds, that’s what fuckin’ Satanists we were.”
“That’s always gotten me,” Ozzy says. “It’s just a fucking stage role. It amazes me what people believe.” In the beginning it was just a sort of literary experiment, according to Ozzy.
“We said, wouldn’t it be good to write scary music, haunted music, like Halloween. But we don’t burn virgins.”
“Too old for that now,” Geezer grins.
It seems that band reunions, such as the Rolling Stones currently embarking on their 50th anniversary tour, is one of the few challenges that remain for Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers who can still mount a stage. This is especially true of a band like Black Sabbath, torn asunder over previous decades by conflicts, substitute lineups, deaths and hobbled by addictions. It’s certainly not about the money.
“It’s not a job, this album,” says Ozzy, who with his wife ranks as one the wealthiest rock stars, worth more than $145M according to the London Sunday Times 2011 “Rich List.”
“We’ve all grown up, there’s nobody better than anybody. We don’t drink much. We don’t smoke cigarettes. I’ve never been so fucking healthy in my life.”
In one of those ironies that are almost cliché among rockers (Alice Cooper’s devotion to golf, for example), Ozzy says he prefers a bit of quiet these days, and enjoys a solitary hobby.
“I just sit in my own room,” he says. “I like to paint.” Paint what? “”Things,” he says. “Just things.”
But being in the band still gets them up in the morning. “I love playing music,” says Geezer, “more than ever. At my age now, to still be able to play bass and write lyrics, it’s like a blessing, and I’m really grateful for it. I don’t take it for granted.”
Ozzy says similar feelings among their contemporaries is not uncommon. “I was in a restaurant one time,” he says, “with one of the guys from the band Chicago, and he has a small apartment overlooking the 405 Freeway. That’s it, right, because he tells me ‘That’s all I need. I’m always on the road,’ and he went back home last week, and looking the window saw all that traffic bumper to bumper, and he says ‘It got me thinking I’m so fucking lucky just for the fact that I don’t have to do that every fucking day.’ That alone is so fucking worth it. And I don’t want the green M&Ms either.”
Guitar slasher Tony Iommi isn’t present because he’s undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma in the UK. “It’s been a long road in terms of Tony battling cancer,” says Ozzy, whose wife has had her own battles with cancer. “I spoke to him this morning. He sounded tired. I’m sixty-five, and I’m thinking—fuck, I look in the mirror and thinking my dada died at sixty-five. And I remember thinking, well, he was an old guy. Time, as you get older—time goes by so quickly. Sharon said to me, we only have ten years. I said, what are you talking about? She says, it’s not that long before we go under.”
Ozzy is clearly worried about the aging process. “My short term memory is gone. I go up and down the fucking stairs and go what did I come up here for? Drives me nuts. I can remember what I was wearing on the stage twenty years ago but I can’t remember five minutes ago.”
He continues to complain. “I’m deaf as a fucking plank. Hearing aids!” He takes one out. I ask if it’s just one ear that’s a problem and Ozzy says, “No! One in each ear. In me arse, as well!”
Ozzy gets up from the sofa to point his posterior at me. “Eh? What’d you say?”
I stand up, point my own arse towards Ozzy’s, asking if I might listen to the new Black Sabbath album now?
They play it for me, the rough mix.
Even I can testify: Black Sabbath fans will not be disappointed.