Zakk Wylde: Psycho Circus
Originally published in Guitar World, October 2010
Step inside the big top for this fall's Berzerkus tour starring Black
Label Society, Children of Bodom and a cast of heavy metal monsters! In
this Guitar World exclusive, stringmaster Zakk Wylde takes you behind the freakiest show on Earth.
It's a bit unusual—unsettling, even—to see Zakk Wylde without a beer in his hands. But what's even stranger is how Zakk doesn't seem any different, even though he's been bone-dry sober since August.
"Drinking was a huge part of my life," Wylde admits. "I could drink beer throughout the whole day and just chill. I'd have a few beers while I was sitting around practicing, or nurse a beer while watching a Yankees game. I even used to drink beer when I was lifting weights. I was never into contests where you pound down beers—I'd lose anyway. For me it was more of a social thing."
Zakk has a very good reason for staying sober. When he entered the hospital last summer to find out why his left calf was bothering him, the doctor discovered that he had blood clots in his left thigh and both lungs. Blood tests also revealed that Zakk's liver enzymes were dangerously high and that he was at high risk for developing chronic pancreatitis.
“My doctor told me that pancreatitis was the last thing I wanted,” he says. “Half of the guys who have it die on the operating table or within three days of the operation because their bodies reject the medication. It’s not like you get an operation and live until you’re 80. You’re lucky if you live two years after the operation. He told me he could think of a million better ways to die. You don’t need to go to rehab when the doctor tells you that. For me that was the end of my drinking.”
The recent deaths of Slipknot bassist Paul Gray, Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele, and Ronnie James Dio serve as further reminders to Wylde that rock stars are not immune from the Grim Reaper’s scythe. And he wasn’t going to wait around until scientists completed their studies on Ozzy Osbourne’s DNA to figure out the secret to surviving a lifetime of substance abuse either.
“A lot of guys passed away this year, especially guys from my generation,” Wylde says. “Bret Michaels was really messed up for a while, and we all thought he was going to die. It just was time for me to chill out on the sauce. I’m sure if Dimebag was still around, he’d be chilling out as well by now. The majority of my buddies are the same way. Slash and Jerry Cantrell don’t drink anymore. We had a good run. You think I’d like to have a beer right now? Of course I would, but I can’t. Game over.”
While it may be game over for Wylde’s drinking, his other source of dementia—Black Label Society—is going as strong as ever. Over the past 12 years, Black Label Society have released eight studio albums, including their latest effort Order of the Black, a live album and two live DVDs. Order of the Black was recorded at a new studio called the Bunker that Wylde built in the second house on his sprawling 10-acre compound north of Los Angeles. The album delivers the bone-crunching Sabbath-inspired riffs and classic Ozzy-influenced melodies we’ve all come to know and love from Wylde, along with the squealing, breakneck solos that are his calling card. Wylde indulges his Elton John piano fetish on “Darkest Days” and “Time Waits for No One,” but metalheads should resist the urge to skip over these mellower moments lest they overlook his stunning solos. “Chupacabra” offers a brief interlude of Paco de Lucia flamenco madness, and the album concludes with the Neil Young–flavored acoustic guitar and strings of “January.”
This fall, after a summer headlining Ozzfest’s second stage, Black Label Society will lead their own Berzerkus tour with Children of Bodom, Clutch and 2Cents in support. After that, Wylde will bring the Black Label show to the farthest corners of the planet, including Russia and China. “It’s an actual world tour now,” he says. “I just did a promotional tour in China, and it’s crazy over there. They didn’t even have electric guitars until recently. They were making them, but they weren’t playing them. They think hair metal is like the coolest thing that ever happened in earth’s history.”
Wylde remains an outspoken and jocular personality, even without alcohol flowing through his veins. Clutching a cup of New York City’s finest sewer-water deli coffee, the highly caffeinated guitarist actually seems more outrageous and intense than ever, both in his antics and his playing. If Wylde’s solos on Order of the Black are any indication, the Berzerkus tour should provide guitar fans plenty of thrills and chills along with Zakk’s usual clowning around.