For nearly five decades now, Ozzy Osbourne has cultivated one of the most singular careers in music. He helped lay the foundation for heavy metal with Black Sabbath; he ushered in a new, more energetic sound for the genre on his early solo albums with the late Randy Rhoads; he helped make reality television what it is today by putting his family on the small screen with The Osbournes; and he provided a platform for up-and-coming heavy bands with his many installments of Ozzfest. Through it all, he's kept a wry sense of humor and a rare humility about him.
"Somebody once said to me, 'What's the best gift you ever got?' and it hit me that had my father not bought me a microphone, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now," says the vocalist, who was the MVP of Rolling Stone's recent 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time list, appearing on more LPs that made the cut than any other artist. Then he pauses to reflect on just what that means, considering he's now coming up on five years clean and sober after leading one of the wildest lives in rock. "By all accounts, I should have been dead fucking 40 years ago."
Instead, he's playing solo concerts throughout the fall with another famous guitar foil, Zakk Wylde, including the headlining slot of Ozzfest Meets Knotfest in October. While he was in a reflective mood during his interview with Rolling Stone, the singer shared the wisdom he's learned from half a century of living on the edge.
What's the best part of success?
Not doing a job that you don't really want to do. You can't say what I do is a job – it's a fucking gift from God.
You and Sharon are still together after 35 years, despite some bumps in the road, including a well-publicized affair. What's your secret?
Don't get caught with your mistress [laughs].
It's a rock & roll thing – you rock and you roll. You take the good with the bad. When I was a crazy fucker, I'm lucky she didn't walk out. Now I'm coming on five years clean and sober, and I've realized what a fucking idiot I was. I mean, I'm still nuts, but in control of it a bit more. ... When I said, "Don't get caught by your missus," I'm not proud of all that shit. I upset my wife and I upset my family and I made a lot of shock and shame. I love my wife, and it made me realize what a fucking idiot I've been.
What is it that has kept you two together then?
I suppose it's fair to say we love each other. I love her, and she loves me. She was brought up in a music industry, so she's not like a schoolteacher who married a rock star. But that's a very good question. There's no other woman I really want to spend the rest of my life with. You make a mistake and you learn by it. She's made a few mistakes, and so have I. You know when you hear these people go, "Oh, we've been married 35 years and we've never had a row." I go, "You must have been living in a different fucking country." Sometimes, I've looked at my wife and I've just been angry as fuck, and vice versa. Other times, I go, "Fuck, I love you."
Is forgiveness the key then?
That's a good chunk of it. But then again, when you cross the fucking hurdles I have a few times, it's like, "What the fuck's all this mean?" I don't know the answer. In California, it's like a fashion style: you get married one weekend and get divorced the next. I've been married twice in my life. But I don't understand people that have been married fucking eight times or whatever. If this marriage ended, I'd go, "There's something telling me I shouldn't be married."
What have you learned about being a dad?
Well, I wasn't so much of a dad as I was an extra delinquent child for my wife. I had a row with my son [Jack] one day and I asked him, "What the fuck have you ever wanted in your life?" He says, "A father." That hit me between the eyes like a fucking rock. I turned to him on the spot: "Jack, I'm so fucking sorry." My ego was running the show. I thought I had the right to be whatever I wanted to be. That's not the case, because when you bring someone into the world you've got a responsibility. Sharon is one of these mothers who'd fly around the world, come back to England and take the kids to a zoo or a movie or whatever. I was in a fucking bar on the floor all the time, which I'm not proud of. But being sober gives them hope I'm here to stay. My relationship with my kids now is great.
"I wasn't so much of a dad as I was an extra delinquent child for my wife."
If someone told you they wanted to do a TV show about their family, what would you say?
Be careful, because with fame and success comes ego. Every single person has one, but it depends on how you use it. You don't accidentally get to be an asshole. To be a bad person and treat people badly, you have to be that all the time, and it's hard work.
How do you keep your ego in check?
I married a good woman. I was at a movie theater with my wife one night, and I wasn't in a particularly good mood. This kid comes up to me [to talk] and I said, "Listen, I'm not in a good place." And they kept going. And I went, "Look, fuck off." And my wife went, "Don't you ever say that. They're the reason we're here." So I said, "I'm sorry." But it's not every fucking minute I'm feeling like Santa Claus.
What do you understand now about drugs and alcohol that you didn't when you started?
When you don't like yourself for getting stoned, that's when you've got a real problem. I'm not one of those guys who gets sober and says, "No, you shouldn't drink." If I could have a drink of booze right now and have a great time, I wouldn't be on the phone with you – I'd be in the fucking bar. But it bit me in the ass big-time.
Is it willpower then?
No, it's acceptance. I was saying to Sharon the other day, "Every one of my bad drinking partners are all dead. No one's come back and said, 'Hi, Oz, it's cooler on this side. Come and join us.'" I want to be around for everyone. But more than that, I didn't love the way I felt after I got stoned or drunk or both.
What made you realize that?
When I started waking up covered in my own urine in a fucking gutter.
How do you relax now?
Masturbate [laughs]. No, I have a room in my house where I paint. I'm just mixing colors. I'm not an artist by any sort, but I do designs and patterns and listen to Eighties music or watch a bit of TV. I'm obsessed with Game of Thrones, like 90 percent of the world is.
What music still moves you the most?
I like old music. I have things that turn me on from the Seventies, a bunch from the Eighties. You know, I can't remember the fucking Nineties. I remember Waco and the Oklahoma bombing – but I can't remember the Nineties. I thought the Eighties were pretty cool, and it was a lot more personal in the Seventies; there wasn't that many bands about, compared to what it was the Eighties.
Who are your heroes?
I'd have to say the Beatles. They turned me on to wanting to be a rock & roll performer. And I like Mick Jagger as a frontman. We all owe him a certain amount of respect. He can still do it in his seventies.
You recently finished Black Sabbath's "The End" Tour. What are your thoughts on retirement?
People around my age go, "I'm 65 now. I'm retired." Then they fucking die. My father got a bit of cash from the job he had, did the garden and died. And I'm going, "That's a bit of an anticlimax after working so many years in a factory." I ain't retiring. People still want to see me, so what's there to retire from?
What did you learn from saying goodbye to Sabbath?
They've retired but I haven't. It's like I'm jumping off one boat onto another. People forget, I was with Sabbath from '68 to '79, but I've been on my own from '79 'til now. I've been on my own thing for a lot longer than when I was with Sabbath. I love what Sabbath did for me and I love what I did for Sabbath, but it's not the be-all, end-all of my own whole career.
Since you've been solo since '79, what have you learned about leadership?
I'm not so much into it; it's my wife. Sharon would back me up or advise me on what to do or what not to do and I listened. Although Sharon came to me recently and said it wasn't all her either. It must have been unnerving when I started biting the fucking head off this and that.
What did you learn from biting the heads of the bat and the dove?
That Ozzy's a bit more than [those stories]. People remember Robin Hood and Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone – they don't remember people that did some good. It's just folklore.
"It must have been unnerving to Sharon when I started biting the fucking head off this and that."
Your guitarist, Randy Rhoads, died in a plane crash while you were on tour in 1982. What did you learn about moving forward?
I felt somewhat responsible. If he wasn't in my band, he would probably be alive. Also, at the same time, I thought if I had been awake, I know I would have been on the plane with him. So it's a weird feeling for me. It really fucked me up for a long while. Sharon took it harder than anybody. She was the organizer of the band at that point. It was just one of them fucking things. It was a freak accident and all that. But Sharon said, "You've got to get back on the horse." I said, "You must be fucking joking. Who's gonna replace Randy? He's unreplacable." She says, "We've got to go." I remember doing Madison Square Garden with this [guitarist] Bernie Tormé. It was such a surreal thing. It takes a while to get over something so traumatic.
You don't play any instruments. What have you learned about making music with just your voice?
That's one of my biggest regrets. I can play a little bit of harmonica, and that's about it. But I have an ear for melody. I once talked to a writer and he said, "You can learn the piano but you most probably will lose your natural instinct for melody." And I said, "That's too much of a gamble." It's been interesting, because I can't communicate on a musical level with other musicians. I just like what's in my head. Musicians tend to go, "Oh, I can transcribe whatever you write." But they'll make it their song and then it's this fucking political side of it – "I wrote this, you wrote that." Then Sharon gets pissed off and goes, "Hey, wait a minute. It was Ozzy's idea," or whatever.
What do you think about when you're singing "Crazy Train"?
"I hope I can get through the fucking song." [Laughs] When I'm recording, I don't really sing the song from top to finish, and I find it hard when I'm standing up on the stage, running around like a fucking jackrabbit. So it's my own fault. It's tough, but I do it.
"Crazy Train" is about the Cold War and nuclear bombs. Do you think about that?
When I was singing that on the weekend at some festival thing, I'm singing, "Heirs of a cold war/That's what we've become." I went, "Fuck me. It's started." I'm like, well, we ain't in the Cold War anymore. Now we've got Donald Trump, which is something. You should be careful what you write about, when you do a song. I didn't write those lyrics; the old bass player did. For the time, it was perfect. It's interesting.
Gene Simmons has said that rock is dead. Do you agree?
Live, good rock music is not dead. But I think the record industry is really suffering now. There are only about two fucking record companies left. And when I went to the Grammys a couple of years ago, there'd be artists who'd go from a fucking laptop straight to the charts and release a record. It's really a sad thing for me. ... It's just changed so much. I said to Sharon, "It's like when vaudeville ended and fucking modern music began. We're the history now." And no matter what gimmick – what color album, vinyl, whatever, the fact of the matter is people don't want it. Why should people buy records when they can download it. You can get anything now online. And at the same time, I don't know how to turn the fucking light on the monitor.
Will you be making another record soon?
I would like to do another record. But it's wasting money. Nobody's buying. You don't have to sell that many records anymore to get a Number One. Depending how many records you've sold. You can have 30 or 40 [laughs]. Nobody buys them.
What has been the most indulgent purchase you've ever made?
I suppose a diamond ring for my wife that cost $100,000. But then there's buying a house. My wife's a terminal house buyer. We've had so many great houses and moved on.
What is it about the U.S. that made you want to move here?
I wouldn't have survived as long as I have in England. America is a music capital for me. You could do well in Germany but to last 49 years in another country, I don't know. I'm lucky.
Where does your drive come from?
It's what I live for. If it wasn't for music, I'd be probably dead. I had a very poor upbringing. We never went on holiday. We never had a car. We had a very tiny house. And the achievement of that is remarkable. I've just had a blessed life.