Ozzy Osbourne is out of his mind. Not in the ‘bite a head off a bat and piss on the Alamo’ way, but in a more present sense. He’s climbing the walls after being cooped up for close to three years due to a series of serious health issues and operations.
“It’s been fucking miserable, man,” he says, speaking over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “I’m not good at this. I’ve never been this laid up in my life – I could barely walk at one point.”
Ozzy’s problem dates back to his quad biking accident in December 2003, in which he sustained six broken ribs, a broken neck vertebra and a broken collarbone, necessitating the insertion of metal rods in his body. Though he seemed to make a full recovery at the time, even playing with a reunited Black Sabbath the following summer, he was left more vulnerable to injury. A fall in 2019 while he was recovering from a bout of pneumonia dislodged one of the steel rods, requiring him to undergo surgery to insert 15 screws into his spine. That’s when things went really wrong.
“The first guy who did my surgery cocked it up really fucking bad,” says Ozzy angrily. “I ended up in hospital for three months.”
The singer underwent further surgery earlier this year to correct the original operation. Ominously, his wife and manager Sharon Osbourne said the results of this last op would “determine the rest of his life”.
“The two operations they just did, which were supposed to be more intense than the first, were to repair his damage,” says Ozzy, who has also battled a life-threatening staph infection, severe flu and Covid in recent years. “One night I was in hospital – that’s it!”
It’s been a tough few years for Ozzy, something compounded by the pandemic, but thankfully his problems seem to be behind him for now. The last few times Hammer talked to him, he spoke with an air of resigned frustration, sounding every one of his 73 years. But today he sounds reinvigorated. Frustrated, yes, but there’s a steely determination to his voice as he reveals the work he’s been putting in to get fit again, ahead of his new album Patient Number 9 and next year’s much-postponed world tour.
“It’s a slow recovery, but I’ve been burning the candle at both ends for 50 years,” he says. “I do an hour [of physio] a day where I used to do 10. My trainer says, ‘Walk up the hill once.’ Fucking once?! I’ll be running up there by the end of the week. I want to get back.”
In truth, Ozzy has never really gone away. Granted, when we speak he hasn’t played a show in more than three and a half years, but he’s not exactly been idle. In 2020 he released Ordinary Man, his 12th solo studio album. That had barely hit shelves before it was announced he was working on a follow-up. Hardly the work of a man at death’s door.
“I thought I was finished,” says Ozzy, referring to the cancellation of the European leg of his No More Tours II tour following his fall in 2019. “We’d had to put the tour off and I was at home thinking that was it. Then Kelly says, ‘Dad, do you want to make an album? I know this guy…’”
‘This guy’ was Andrew Watt, the wunderkind guitarist and producer who has worked with everyone from Justin Bieber to Miley Cyrus. The combination wasn’t as unlikely as it sounds. Andrew grew up listening to rock and metal, and he understood Ozzy. The pair gelled immediately, the producer’s youthful enthusiasm giving Ozzy the kick in the arse he needed to get back to work.
“It was too fucking quick!” says the singer of making Ordinary Man, only half-joking. “It didn’t even feel like I’d made an album. Normally, I come out of a studio and I need to spend three months in a mental institution because I’m driving everybody fucking mad. But Andrew’s very fucking speedy – he’ll jump from one to 10, and leave two to nine out.”
Ordinary Man was an unexpectedly poignant album from a man now in his eighth decade, addressing themes of ageing and mortality in ways that Ozzy albums never normally do. By contrast, Patient Number 9 is a resurrection of the Ozzy Osbourne that filled arenas around the world, heavy metal’s original madman at his maniacal best.
“When I’m making music, I ain’t thinking about me,” Ozzy says. “It gives my head a break. My head is fucking septic, man – it tells me bad shit all the time. If I hadn’t done those albums, I’d be fucking insane.”
Sanity – or lack of it – is a key theme on Patient Number 9’s opening title track. Rather than a reflection of Ozzy’s time in and out of hospitals, the song is actually about being trapped in a mental health institution. It features an appearance from guitar legend Jeff Beck. Ozzy gives Andrew Watt full credit for cajoling the former Yardbirds guitarist to appear on the album. “We’d written the track and Andrew says to me, ‘Jeff Beck would be good on that,’” Ozzy says. “I said, ‘He probably thinks I’m a fucking dickhead!’ But Andrew insisted and we got him.”
Jeff isn’t the only guest to appear on Patient Number 9. The all-star cast list includes Eric Clapton, Metallica’s Rob Trujillo, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan and late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. Ozzy asked Jimmy Page to participate as well, only for the Led Zeppelin icon to blank him.
“I don’t even know if he plays anymore, but I thought getting Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page meant having the greatest guitarists on the planet,” Ozzy says. “But I never heard from him. Maybe he’d lost his phone or something!”
The new album also sees the return of one of Ozzy’s key collaborators: Zakk Wylde, his on-off guitarist and right-hand man for the past 35 years. Patient Number 9 marks Zakk’s first appearance on an Ozzy album since 2007’s Black Rain.
“I was on the road when Ozzy called,” Zakk tells Hammer. “Whenever Ozzy calls, I’m there. I don’t care if it’s playing guitar, dropping off milk and eggs or looking after the dogs while he and Sharon are out – I’ll do it.”
Working remotely from his home studio The Black Vatican, Zakk contributed to four tracks on Patient Number 9, bringing some of the wild energy of Ozzy’s earlier releases back into the mix. “Credit where it’s due, it’s all Ozzy and Andrew when it comes down to it,” says the guitarist. “Most of those songs were already written, so they brought me in to colour in basically, add a bit of flavour.”
Though Zakk downplays it, Ozzy puts more significance on Zakk’s contribution. “I was driving Andrew mad,” Ozzy says. “There was a lot of back and forth about getting the album right – I told him it’s OK if he produces a bad album because he’ll move on to the next guy. If I make a bad album people will say, ‘Ozzy Osbourne is finished.’ In the end, Zakk saved the day; he put a few things on there that made it feel like a proper Ozzy Osbourne album.”
However, the guest to cause the biggest stir is Tony Iommi. His presence reunites the former bandmates five years after they laid Sabbath to rest in their native Birmingham.
“Tony and I have been through a lot together,” Ozzy says. “We’ve had great times, terrible times and everything in between, but even when we’ve hated each other, we’ve always stayed in touch. And I don’t give a fuck what anyone says, there’s no other person on this planet who can come up with riffs like him. He’s unbelievable! I always go, ‘He ain’t gonna beat that!’ And he does, every time.”
Tony plays on two tracks – No Escape From Now and Degradation Rules – bringing a heft and darkness that will be comfortingly familiar to Black Sabbath fans. “Those Tony Iommi tracks, especially No Escape From Now, if Geezer and Bill had played on them would have made a fucking great Sabbath tracks,” Ozzy says.
Today, the singer speaks fondly of his former bandmates, describing Tony as “incredibly supportive” while admitting that he hasn’t spoken to bassist Geezer Butler in a while (“Last I heard, he was living in Vegas”). Even drummer Bill Ward, absent from the Sabbath reunion in 2012 following a dispute over contracts, is in regular contact.
“It’s my only regret [with Sabbath] that Bill couldn’t work the deal out,” Ozzy says. “But I love him – I love all of them, in one way or another. We were four kids from Aston who conquered the world. I’ve got a bench in Birmingham – some people get statues, I got a park bench!”
There’s a gag that only two things would survive a nuclear holocaust: cockroaches and seemingly indestructible Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. It’s not a stretch to add Ozzy to that list.
Even beyond his once-epic appetite for booze and drugs in the 70s and 80s, there have been several health issues that could have forced him into early retirement over the past 30 years. In 1992, he was diagnosed with MS. “I had two spinal taps, MRIs up the yin-yang; I was like a fucking laboratory experiment,” he recounts. The diagnosis turned out to be incorrect, though it didn’t stop him from announcing his retirement after that year’s original No More Tours dates. The retirement didn’t last; he later said that he got bored very, very quickly just hanging around at home.
In 2003, Ozzy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, though he didn’t reveal the diagnosis until 2020. “It’s no big deal, I take a pill and it’s fine,” he says dismissively now. “I’m lucky. The doctor who deals with my Parkinson’s said, ‘You know what? I’ve seen all kinds of Parkinson’s, but yours is the mildest case I’ve ever seen in my life.’ I’m a fucking fighter – I’ll fight through. I’m still fucked up, but I’m getting better.”
Factor in the quad bike accident that very nearly killed him and his subsequent physical traumas, and it’s easy to see why concerns for his wellbeing have grown over the last few years. But while others wonder that he might be at death’s door, Zakk Wylde insists he never worried. Although the guitarist wasn’t able to see Ozzy during the pandemic, the pair shared texts every day to stop the other from bouncing off the walls.
“I knew whenever he’d got something going on, so we’d text and I’d ask for texts as soon as he got out of surgery,” Zakk says. “Back when he had his first surgery, we went to the hospital and actually saw him for a bit. It blew the whole thing back into proportion, because he’s there and he’s fine. Even when he got Covid, it was just like, ‘Oh man, what have you gotten yourself into now?’ He’d make some goofy-ass comment afterwards, just being himself.”
Even after everything he’s been through, Ozzy remains adamant he isn’t planning on retiring just yet. “You know the most valuable thing I’ve got now? Time,” he says. “I’m 73, so I can’t do all this once I’m dead. I’m doing as much as I can to leave behind before I go.”
“With Ozzy, I always think of when they asked Keith Richards years ago, ‘Do you plan on retiring?’” Zakk muses. “He goes, ‘Retire? From what?’ If you like going to the coffee shop and reading a good book, why would you retire from that? As a musician, if there’s nothing stopping you from physically going out and doing what you love, why should you give that up?”
True enough, Ozzy’s main focus right now is on getting back out on the road. His No More Tours II run, twice postponed, is now set to take place in summer 2023. After multiple cancellations, Ozzy is absolutely determined not to put the dates off again.
“It’s fucking killing me, man,” he says. “Sitting on my arse makes the ‘poor-me’s come on, but that’s not what I’m about. I’m about doing gigs – it’s in my bones and if I have another year like this, I’ll go out in a fucking wheelchair.”
Ozzy’s return to the stage comes sooner than anyone expected. Three weeks after we speak, he makes a surprise appearance at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. He’s joined by Tony Iommi, plus auxiliary Black Sabbath members Adam Wakeman and Tommy Clufetos for a truncated blast through Sabbath’s Iron Man and a full, glorious Paranoid.
It’s spectacular tribute to one of Birmingham’s favourite sons, and Ozzy is relishing it. As several tons of pyrotechnics illuminate the stadium, a massive smile spreads across the singer’s face. He’s home: not just in the city of his birth, but up onstage, where he belongs. “I love you all, Birmingham!” he yells. “It’s good to be back!”
His reaction wasn’t a surprise. Talking to Hammer a few weeks earlier, he’d once again reiterated his desire to get back out there. “My wife and family mean the world to me,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve been home for the longest time I’ve ever been home and they’ve been fucking great. But do I want to stay here doing this? You’ve got to be fucking joking. I will be up there if I have to fucking crawl up there.”
Publish in Metal Hammer #366. Patient Number 9 is out now