The Godfather of Heavy Metal meets the new kid on the block! Ozzy Osbourne talks about getting clean and sober, firing Zakk Wylde, and hiring a young unknown named Gus G., his new guitarist on his latest album, Scream.
"I didn’t believe in blackouts. I thought they were a myth, until one day I woke up in a police cell and the police officer read the rap sheet, which said: ‘Mr. John Michael Osbourne, you have been charged with the attempted murder of Sharon Osbourne.’ I had no fucking idea, and that is a scary place to be.”
Ozzy Osbourne is recounting one of his darker adventures. Though his booze-soaked, cocaine-fueled escapades—from allegedly snorting ants with Mötley Crüe to defiling the Alamo to biting the head off a bat—have become the stuff of legend, nothing scarred Ozzy’s chemically addled psyche as deeply as the night he almost strangled his wife. It still pains him to recall the event, in part because, he admits, “Even that didn’t stop me drinking!”
In a frank interview with Guitar World, Osbourne reveals why he cleaned up, the reasons for Zakk’s departure, how he chose Gus G., Black Sabbath’s future and why you should always take care of the bell-ringer.
GUITAR WORLD Why did you decide to get sober?
OZZY OSBOURNE The drugs and drink didn’t work. Everything turned to shit. I used to think that the whole world drank. In my world they did. I don’t know another job where you can turn up out of your brains and people around you say, “It’s going to be a good one tonight!”
GW How did you go about stopping?
OSBOURNE The first thing I quit was tobacco. I couldn’t do anything without a cigarette, but I’m a singer so that had to go. Then the illegal drugs went, but I was also addicted to prescription drugs for 25 years.
GW Do you notice a difference making music sober?
OSBOURNE Absolutely! I used to be under the illusion that alcohol and drugs help you create melodies. I used to think, How the fuck can I write music without smoking a joint or taking a line of coke? I made the decision that if I can’t do it sober, then I’m finished.
When I was working on Scream, I spoke to [Black Sabbath drummer] Bill Ward, who’s been sober 25 years, and I said, “Fucking hell, Bill, I’m struggling here.” He said an interesting thing: “Allow somebody to help you.” I want it to be all me. It’s hard for me to ask for help. And not only that: if I ask for help I have trouble accepting it.
GW You have a history of relapsing after short periods of abstinence. Has it been easier staying sober this time around?
OSBOURNE It’s never easy. Halfway through making this album I turned to my producer and said, “Kevin, I’m tempted to get stoned,” because you can get a license to smoke in California. They give you a card. I was toying with that one for a while. The one thing I’ve got to be careful of is that some days my head will go and I’ll think, Hmmm… I’ve never tried Ecstasy. But I know it’ll take me to the same place as all the other shit that I’ve tried. I know that if I took some cocaine now I’d be drinking in half an hour and then I’d have some more cocaine to keep me awake. It’s like a nuthouse in my head. I like being sober today.
GW Tell me about your first experience singing sober.
OSBOURNE Well, I never used to go onstage drunk, I always used to wait until after the show. Having said that, I probably had enough left in me from the night before anyway.
GWScream is your second album with producer Kevin Churko. How did you two get together?
OSBOURNE I think the guy who was building the studio at my old house, where we filmed the reality show, was also helping Kevin build a studio and one thing led to another. Kevin comes from the Mutt Lange camp, so he’s used to spending months in the studio. Before I just used to get together, jam with the band, and then we’d come up with ideas. Kevin would come to me with a riff and then we’d work it up from there.
GW Are any of your lyrics autobiographical?
OSBOURNE Sometimes, but I never like discussing my lyrics—they are whatever you think they are. I’ve written stuff in the past that has meant something completely different to what the fans thought. Quite often they’ve got a different take on it, like with “Suicide Solution” [from 1980’s Blizzard of Ozz]. I remember hearing “Purple Haze” and thinking it was about Jimi Hendrix kissing a guy.
GW The new album was originally called Soul Sucka. Why did that change?
OSBOURNE I remember when I first heard the song I loved the chorus—“soul, soul, soul sucka”—and I thought, What a great title for the album. Then my office put it out on the web page, and the fucking thing lit up with complaints because it’s a hip-hop saying. I don’t listen to hip-hop, so it was a simple mistake.
GW On the new album, there are a few tracks where you sing in a lower register.
OSBOURNE Yeah! Do you know why? Because I said to Kevin, “Listen I’m going to be doing some of these songs live, so make sure I can pull it off onstage.” Normally he doesn’t give me any air breaks. I’m used to singing off the Richter scale, which is easy to record, because you can stop and drop in the next line and then stick it all together.
GW Was there any material leftover from Black Rain that Zakk had worked on?
OSBOURNE No. Zakk came in at the beginning of the new one, but he was still drinking. When you’re drunk and somebody else is drinking, it’s okay, but when you’re sober and somebody’s blabbering away in your ear, it ain’t. I mean, Zakk’s a great player and I love him. I love his playing. But in the end, it came to the point that I had to get another guitarist. Not because I fell out with Zakk, but it was hard for me to be around someone who is actively drinking. I heard he’s not drinking anymore. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
GW How are things between you and Zakk?
OSBOURNE I would never slag the guy off. We’re good friends, and we’re like family. I feel that the whole thing was partly my fault, because Zakk was doing his own band, his own tours and helping me out when he got back. On the last tour he was with his band opening the show and my band closing the show, and that’s really hard. So I’d been thinking of getting a replacement for a while, but I was procrastinating.
GW In one interview you said that your band was beginning to sound like Black Label Society.
OSBOURNE Very much so! But that’s not a surprise, because Zakk is Black Label. I love his playing; he’s one of the greats. But it was the drink getting the better of him. I couldn’t watch him die. In one sick respect, it was good for me to see, because that’s what I was like, and worse. Believe me, if I started drinking now you’d think, Fuck, this is bollocks! I’ve got to get out of here. That’s how I felt around Zakk toward the end.
GW So now we come to the new kid on the block. How did you find Gus G.?
OSBOURNE I started the auditions, and then I got the guys at my office to do some background checks, and through a process of elimination it got down to about five people. I always feel bad when I audition, because I think, What fucking right do I have to say, “He’s no good” and “He’s got the gig”? Because, put it this way: anybody playing an instrument is better than me.
GW What made you pick Gus?
OSBOURNE There was something about him that shone for me. He’s a great player, and I’m looking forward to recording something from scratch with him, because most of the groundwork was done on the album by the time he arrived. There’s a part of Gus that I don’t know. I’ve never worked with him full time on the road. I’ve done a couple of gigs with him in Los Angeles for a charity thing. When you work and live with someone on the road you always find out some weird shit about them.
GW How are Gus and Zakk different?
OSBOURNE They’re worlds apart! Zakk is established and successful in his own right. I said to Gus, “You’ve got big shoes to fill.” I really hope the fans give him a chance and remember that Zakk was like Gus at one point—he was a new boy.
GW There always seems to be an interesting dynamic between the guitarist and the singer.
OSBOURNE I like to give everybody a fair cop. I look at the band like an orchestra: one guy’s the conductor, one guy’s the piano player, one’s the violinist, et cetera. There’s always one guy at the back and all he does is clang a bell once in a while. But that one bell is important. So I always try to make the bell ringer as important as the guitar player. It’s the end result that I’m looking for. And when you get a band that locks in from constant work, you know it. In Black Sabbath’s early days, we would lock in like a machine, and nobody could touch us. I remember doing a gig at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Rod Stewart was closing the show, and he wouldn’t let us do a soundcheck. So we went, “Right, we’ll show him.” And we played our arses off and blew the fucker offstage.
GW What drives you to record, tour and promote a new album?
OSBOURNE It’s what I do. When I’m at home I don’t go out of the house. On my recent book-signing tour it was great to meet people, because your fans can become faceless.
GW You could have easily had a very comfortable career doing greatest-hits tours like a lot of artists from your era. Isn’t it quite a risk producing new material in such an unpredictable climate?
OSBOURNE Everything you do in this game is a risk. You don’t wake up every morning and write a hit. Most of my big hits have come at the 99th hour. I don’t think anybody goes into the studio and says, “You know what? I’ve been very successful for 46 years—I think I’m going to go and make a bad record.” And as Zakk used to say, “You can’t always hit a home run.”
GW You have a unique, instantly recognizable vocal style. Where did that come from?
OSBOURNE I don’t know. I just sang. I don’t think there’s anybody else that sounds like me. I’m glad that people like it.
GW In your formative years, who were your influences?
OSBOURNE Mick Jagger. In his day he was brilliant. Robert Plant’s a great singer. The Beatles were an inspiration. They always had great harmonies, great melodies. Speaking of which, my son has been doing a documentary on me over the last three years, and the other day he said, “Dad, if you could have me interview anybody, who would it be?” And I said, “What about Paul McCartney?” And he said, “I’ve done him!” I thought, Fucking hell! I wonder what he said about me.
GW Is there anything new that excites you?
OSBOURNE I’m 61, and I can’t really get my head around the new stuff. It’s all been done before.
GW You appear on Slash’s new album, on the song “Crucify the Dead.”
OSBOURNE Working with Slash was easy; he’s such a nice bloke, and he’s helped me out on a few TV appearances where he’s been an understudy for Zakk. Slash is one of those people who seems to be everywhere at once. But he’s got himself together, and I like that. He’s a great guy and a family man. My wife and his wife get on fine, which I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing—as long as they don’t go shopping together.
When I work with someone like Slash who’s got his shit together, it’s fantastic, because there’s a lot of ego involved in this business. If Slash calls me up to do something, I say, “Sure.” I don’t have to have a fucking itinerary.
GW Would you like to do a solo album with guest artists?
OSBOURNE No, it would never work. [Black Sabbath guitarist] Tony Iommi did it. A lot of people do it, but I don’t know many that have been successful.
GW How do you feel when you hear other people covering your material?
OSBOURNE I’m really honored. I’ve got a good body of work.
GW What is the current state of affairs with you and Black Sabbath?
OSBOURNE I speak to Bill Ward almost every day. I haven’t spoken to Geezer [Butler, Sabbath bassist] for some time now, not for any reason. I’m doing my own thing now. I wish them all the best. I don’t think Bill wants to do it. I think he’s happy in his own little world, and I’m happy in mine. If it did happen, it would have to be the four of us, or I wouldn’t do it.
GW Do you feel that the Osbournes television show damaged your musical career?
OSBOURNE Yeah, that was kind of an experiment that went crazy. I never really watched it. I look at myself and think, What a fucking moron! What happened with that is a lot of people only know me from the show; they didn’t connect that I’ve been around for a long time before that. In fact, I was in Boston touring and this woman came up to me and said, “What are you doing in Boston?” I said, “I’m doing a show.” She said, “What kind of a show?” I said a rock show, and she looked surprised and exclaimed, “Oh, you do that as well?” I thought, Fucking hell, I don’t know where you live.
GW How do feel when that happens?
OSBOURNE Highly resentful, because my primary thing is my music. I don’t like doing TV, but once the ball starts rolling you’ve got to hold on to it to get through it. Now everybody is doing reality shows, and Hollywood reality isn’t reality—it’s bullshit.
GW If you met the young Ozzy today, what advice would you give him?
OSBOURNE I don’t know what I’d say. My life has been up and it’s been down; everybody’s life’s like that. I was watching an interview with Eric Clapton and he said, “You know what? When you come to the crossroads, whichever direction you decide to take, you got to live with the pros and the cons.” That’s true. I say to my kids, “Every action has a reaction; every positive has a negative.” People say to me, If you could change anything, what it would be? If I changed anything, I wouldn’t be where I am now.