How did Ozzy Osbourne stick it out this long? And would you really bet on his retirement from live performance being permanent, given the vicissitudes he has already weathered? The irrepressible 74-year-old former Black Sabbath frontman has dealt with decades of drug and alcohol addiction; coped with Parkin syndrome, a form of Parkinson’s; and the quad bike accident in 2003 that nearly killed him. Certainly, though, in both the 2011 documentary God Bless Ozzy Osbourne and The Osbournes, the TV series that turned him from moral threat to cuddly hero, you could always see the frailty only just below the surface.
Osbourne’s triumph as a rock star – as a founding father of metal, then as an MTV-friendly caricature of a wild man (though the wildness was very real), then finally as an elder statesman of heavy music – was startlingly unlikely. His voice had none of the rich, bluesy tone that dominated in British rock singing when Black Sabbath emerged at the end of the 1960s. Osbourne sang in a blank, desolate wail, with no vibrato. Where Rod Stewart sounded like he was singing from the bedroom doorway, Osbourne’s voice seemed to come from inside a padded cell.
Nor did he write many of the words that so suited that bleak voice: bassist Geezer Butler wrote most of Sabbath’s lyrics; Osbourne’s early post-Sabbath songs with Blizzard of Ozz were largely written by Bob Daisley. It didn’t matter: they were words for Osbourne to inhabit, whether he was recounting nightmares, pursuing oblivion, feeling paranoid, or just eulogising Aleister Crowley.
The reason Osbourne was so adored, surely, was that he was so human. That’s not to excuse so much of his monstrous behaviour – including the attempted murder of his wife, Sharon, in 1989, which has somehow been swept under a rug with a sigh of: “Well, that’s just Ozzy.” By human, I mean that he made his pain – from childhood sexual abuse and from imprisonment as a very young man – evident in his music and his performance. His career was a triumph of defiance and resilience, overcoming huge vulnerability – even though others suffered along the way.
You could see that in his performance. For all the flamboyant costumes – those tassled shirts with Sabbath or the ill-advised hair metal days – there was something supremely unstarlike about Osbourne onstage. As Barney Hoskyns put it in Creem in 1982: “Though Ozzy never professed to being a ‘messiah of slum people’, neither was he a megalomaniac frontman. There was always a comic element to his performance that he recognised. He was just too dumbly honest, too honestly dumb. ‘All I am is a ham,’ he confessed.”
Ham is unfair. He seemed displaced. He often sang while clinging to the mic stand, like a sailor lashed to a mast in a storm, as if the force of the band behind him might wash him away. Long before symptoms of Parkin were apparent, he seemed to lumber around the stage: not for him the sprinting of Bruce Dickinson with Iron Maiden, or the priapic thrusting of Robert Plant. It could seem like watching a body-swap comedy, in which a builder from Birmingham had been transplanted into the body of a rock star right as a show began and was trying to put on a rock star pose. Vulnerability made Ozzy seem human, which is a hugely unusual thing for any heavy rock star to project.
But he was a rabble-rouser, too – famed for knowing, in the days before rigid stage times, exactly when the audience was febrile enough for Sabbath to take to the stage. He was a cheerleader and audience director. But he didn’t do it as though it was his right to have you respond – it was more like someone trying to lead a pub singalong. He just happened to be doing it to tens of thousands of people at 110 decibels. Peter Silverton described it well in Sounds in 1978: “The crowd follow his every move. Ozzy gives two peace signs. They give two peace signs. Ozzy claps to the beat. They clap to the beat. It’s like he’s some kind of father-figure or maybe respected older brother to them.”
Ageing gracefully was never likely to be the fate of Ozzy Osbourne. That’s what happens when you live your life as publicly as he has. When your past includes biting the heads off live doves and urinating on the Alamo, you are unlikely ever to live it down, or to settle into a quiet life tending to your begonias. And if he never plays live again – his official retirement statement expressed the hope he could still do shows, even if touring is now impossible – let him find the peace he deserves, at last.