Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games closing ceremony on 8 August was a starry night showcasing the city’s rich musical legacy. The Peaky Blinders-themed song and dance number and the dandified return of Dexy’s Midnight Runners singing Geno; the athletes’ flag-waving entrance to the Spencer Davis Group’s Keep on Running and, of course, a Duran Duran medley – everything was Brum and proud.
There was only one hometown hero missing: Birmingham’s very own Prince of Darkness.
But even a week before, there seemed no way that Ozzy Osbourne would be capable of making it back to the place of his birth from Los Angeles, his adoptive home of more than two decades.
The hard-rock hero has always seemed indestructible, surviving years of drug and alcohol abuse (he’s now nine years’ sober) and only growing more famous along the way – not least as a result of The Osbournes, the MTV show that was the first reality TV sensation 20 years ago. Now he’s sold over 100m albums and has 8.3m monthly listeners, still, on Spotify.
But the 73-year-old’s current state of health seemed a challenge too far. The Parkinson’s disease that makes him unsteady on his feet. Surgery to fix his neck, after a bathroom fall in January 2019, already fragile after he broke it in a quad-bike accident on his Buckinghamshire estate in 2003. Two staph infections in his right hand (“After fucking shaking God knows how many hands, you’re gonna get something!”) Depression. Blood clots. Crippling nerve pain. Then, this June, yet more surgery.
For the reformed wildman, these health conditions combined to make a trip to the toilet a challenge, let alone a transatlantic jaunt for a gig. Yet somehow, against the odds, as Alexander Stadium reverberated to the synthesised squeak of bats, Ozzy Osbourne entered the building. He rose up through the stage on a hydraulic platform as his old Black Sabbath bandmate Tony Iommi cranked out the sludgy riff of the group’s anthem Iron Man. Then came 1970’s Paranoid, their biggest hit.
“I LOVE YOU ALL, BIRMINGHAM!” roared a cloaked and reliably long-haired Ozzy, jiggling on the spot, teeth as diamond-white as his mascara was coal-black. “IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK!” The sold-out crowd of 30,000 cheered at the appearance of the surprise headliner, reciprocating the love.
As comebacks go, it was as short – one-and-a-half songs, give or take – as it was remarkable.
“Since I had my [first neck] surgery and everything got fucked up, it’s been three or four years since I’ve performed,” Ozzy tells me when I see him, two days later, in a suite at Claridge’s in central London. It’s his first trip to the UK in, he says, eight years. “And I was thinking it’ll never happen again. But that show’s given me a bit of hope.”
Until very recently, hope was in thin supply. According to wife Sharon, with him at Claridge’s, the Games organisers first approached the couple about a performance six months ago. “And, of course, we had to say no.” She knew better than anyone her husband’s perilous physical condition. It made this summer’s 40th wedding anniversary (the couple met when she was working with her dad, Don Arden the fearsome manager of Black Sabbath), all the sweeter. She bought Ozzy a ruby-encrusted skull ring, he bought her a ruby necklace, although “the fucking thing was tiny! For $150,000. That was a lot of dough!”
Then, in July, Ozzy showed up at Comic-Con in San Diego. He appeared in photographs and videos with legendary comic-book artist Todd McFarlane, who’s directed a video and created a comic to accompany Ozzy’s new solo album, Patient Number 9. “And he looked fine,” says Sharon, 69, smiling with visible relief. News of that event caught the attention of the team in Birmingham.
“They called six days before the gig and said: ‘Do you think Ozzy could do it now?’ And I said to him: ‘Can you do it?’ He said yeah, and that was it. Six days, turned it around, booked the flight, got everybody together.”
Or as Ozzy likes to tell it. “I said to Sharon: ‘I can’t fucking perform.’ She said: ‘Are you sure?’ And I thought about it, and I thought: ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna go for it.’ It’s one song – and I’ve sung it every fucking night for the last 55 years, so it’s not like I’m going to forget the fucking words!”
On the night, Sharon admits she was “very nervous. God, if he falls or trips on a wire…” So she took no chances.
“Sharon had them put in a bracket at the back, to hold me up,” says Ozzy, his speech halting, one of the effects of Parkinson’s. As he sits on the sofa, in a black T-shirt, black joggers and black trainers, greying hair tied back, he periodically slumps forward on his black cane, speckled with silver stars, that had aided his crooked gait as he entered the suite. “So I was leaning against that,” he continues. “And I was holding the microphone. I was kind of wedged in. Every time I see my Parkinson’s doctor, the first thing he says to me is: ‘Have you had any falls?’ Not only that, I’m on blood thinners. I’m pretty fucked up, actually.”
For his wife and youngest daughter, though, Birmingham was a marvel. “After the gig, Ozzy walked to the car – with no cane,” says Sharon, eyes shining. “Just walked, normally. Kelly and I were behind him and we’re going, ‘Jesus Christ…”
Ozzy’s back, and this time it’s miraculous. Not to mention star-studded. Patient Number 9, his 11th solo album, features a roll-call of heavyweight guest musicians, including Iommi (his first time on an Ozzy solo album), Jeff Beck, late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and Eric Clapton.
“My daughter’s the same, Aimee, my oldest,” Ozzy fires back. He may have trouble expressing himself, but he’s as sharp, pithy and unguarded as ever.
Why is Aimee anti-vaxx?
“Live in LA for a few years,” shrugs Ozzy, by way of answer.
In February 2020, I met him at his LA mansion as he was about to release his last solo album, Ordinary Man. He was shuffling, overweight, wheezing – the result, he said, of the 2019 neck surgery causing his spine to press on his lungs – and struggling to speak. Although he said that his rescheduled second “farewell” tour, No More Tours II, was finally due to kick off that May, it seemed unlikely.
Then, Covid. All bets were off. Yet, he reflects, lockdown was a blessed relief. “When that happened I was like: ‘This is all right – I can’t fucking work anyway and now neither can anybody else. So I’ll just go along with it. And when it comes back to working again, I’ll be OK.’ Little did I fucking know.”
Two-and-a-half years later he’s considerably leaner, and in great spirits today, still high after the Birmingham show. But the after-effects of the 2019 surgery have been long and brutal. In the June procedure, two metal plates that had been screwed into his spine in the earlier surgery were removed.
“The screws had come loose, and were chipping away at the bone. And the debris had lodged under his spine. So his spine, instead of being like this, was like this,” says Sharon, straightening up then hunching over.
“With the pressing on the spinal column, I got nerve pain. I’d never fucking heard of nerve pain!” he exclaims, mouth gaping and gulping. “You know when you’re a kid, and you’re playing with snow and your hands get really cold? Then you go in and you pour on hot water, and they start getting warm? And you get those chills? And it fucking hurts? It’s like that.”
At its worst, Ozzy contemplated the worst.
“It got so bad that at one point I thought: ‘Oh God, please don’t let me wake up tomorrow morning.’ Because it was fucking agony.”
Many of these ailments chimed, horribly, with what Parkinson’s can do to sufferers. Ozzy was diagnosed with the degenerative disease in 2003 – ironically enough, when he was in rehab – although he kept the news private until early 2020. “Somebody said to me one day: ‘What’s up with your gait?’ What the fuck does that mean? I don’t have a fucking gait,” says Ozzy, waiting a beat with a wolfish grin on his face. “I’ve got a front door.”
There are many variants of the disease and Ozzy has been told his is on the milder end, although he struggles with walking. “You think you’re lifting your feet, but your foot doesn’t move. I feel like I’m walking around in lead boots.”
It can also lead to depression. It was to stave off this that daughter Kelly – six months pregnant and also at Claridge’s with her parents – encouraged him to stay active and make Ordinary Man. “I reached a plateau that was lower than I wanted it to be,” he reflects of his mental state. “Nothing really felt great. Nothing. So I went on these antidepressants, and they work OK.”
There are other medications, too, three pills taken daily for the Parkinson’s. But even they come with a sting in the tail, including short-term memory loss. He also endures constipation, so he takes laxatives – “and then you go and it’s dynamite time!” he cackles. For Ozzy, though, the most frustrating aspect of Parkinson’s is not knowing where it will end.
“You learn to live in the moment, because you don’t know [what’s going to happen]. You don’t know when you’re gonna wake up and you ain’t gonna be able to get out of bed. But you just don’t think about it.”
Ozzy, like fellow sufferer Billy Connolly, refuses to be defined by his Parkinson’s. Sharon, certainly, wouldn’t let him. Her next task, with the aid of a personal trainer, is to tackle the muscle “atrophy” that’s weakened her husband’s body. “He’ll never be what he was, but he will be good,” she promises.
It all speaks of a love between this formidable pair that’s a wonder to behold. As Ozzy knows: “Without my Sharon, I’d be fucking gone. We have a little row now and then, but otherwise we just get on with it.” They’re devoted to their children and their “grandbabies”, as Sharon puts it. Son Jack has just had a girl, his fourth, and the couple will be seeing them as soon as they fly back to LA, the day after our interview – “worse luck!” snorts Sharon.
Because, as much as they love their family, the Osbournes have fallen out of love with America. In February the couple are relocating back to the UK, selling up in LA (their Hancock Park mansion is on the market for $18m) and resuming residence in their 120-year-old Buckinghamshire pile, the Grade II listed Welders House and 350-acre estate. In anticipation, they’ve got the builders in, to dig a swimming pool, install air-conditioning and fashion Ozzy a studio for more music-making – he mentions a possible album with Iommi.
When I ask why they’re coming home after so long in California, Sharon insists it’s nothing to do with Ozzy’s health. “I knew people would think that. It’s not. It’s just time. America has changed so drastically. It isn’t the United States of America at all. Nothing’s united about it. It’s a very weird place to live right now.”
The Ozzy version: “Everything’s fucking ridiculous there. I’m fed up with people getting killed every day. God knows how many people have been shot in school shootings. And there was that mass shooting in Vegas at that concert… It’s fucking crazy.
“And I don’t want to die in America. I don’t want to be buried in fucking Forest Lawn,” he says of the LA cemetery favoured by expired celebrities. “I’m English. I want to be back. But saying that, if my wife said we’ve got to go and live in Timbuktu, I’ll go.” Ozzy inhales deeply, gathers his vocal capabilities and concludes quietly. “But, no, it’s just time for me to come home.”
But don’t go thinking this means the lifelong musician is finally hanging up his rock’n’roll cloak. Both he and Sharon are convinced he has another tour in him. As much is telegraphed in Patient Number 9’s penultimate song, God Only Knows, where he sings that it’s “better to burn in hell than fade away”.
“That’s me in a nutshell”, he says, nodding, animated and cheerful in his defiance. “I’m saying to you I’ll give it the best shot I can for another tour. You have not seen the end of Ozzy Osbourne, I promise you. If I have to go up there and die on the first song, I’ll still be back the next day.” Spoken like a true Prince of Darkness.
Patient Number 9 by Ozzy Osbourne is released on Columbia Records on 9 September