In the spring of 1982, Ozzy Osbourne’s life changed in an instant. In the years since Black Sabbath had fired him, in 1979, he’d picked himself up again, put out two successful albums that helped redefine heavy metal and garnered a following that rivaled that of his previous band. A big part of why things came together so easily for him was because he’d forged a creative partnership with a flashy young guitarist named Randy Rhoads who helped him work out his musical ideas in a way his previous bandmates hadn’t. But on March 19th of that year, Rhoads died in a plane accident — an event that still haunts the singer.
“To this day, as I’m talking to you now, I’m back in that field looking at this fucking plane wreck and a house on fire,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “You never get over something like that. You’re in shock.”
His manager and, at the time, future wife, Sharon, told the singer he couldn’t wallow. “I said to Sharon, ‘I can’t do this anymore,'” he said. “And she went, ‘If you fucking quit now …’ It was a bad scene, man. She said, ‘We are not stopping now.'”
So she helped find a replacement quickly and the tour picked up again about a week and a half later. That guitarist was Bernie Tormé, an Irishman who had previously played in Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan’s solo band. For the guitarist, it was never meant as a permanent job. He intended to be a pinch hitter and ended up playing only seven gigs before returning to his solo career (under the name Bernie Tormé and the Electric Gypsys) and Night Ranger guitarist Brad Gillis stepped in. But even though it was such a short amount of time, it was a pivotal moment for both Ozzy and Tormé — these were some of the hardest gigs either artist ever went through.
“I only heard the records a day or a day-and-a-half before I flew to the States,” Tormé tells Rolling Stone. “All I could do for most of the time before getting to play with the band was to listen to the songs on a shitty little unclear Walkman cassette player. I loved the songs and Randy’s playing was genius, but it was incredibly difficult for me in that short amount of time to take in anything more than the structure of the songs and where Randy was doing licks. All I could manage was big-picture learning and hoping to fill in the details later, gradually as I went along.”
He met up with Ozzy’s band in L.A. about a week after Randy’s death. Although everyone was nice to him, he remembers, “No one really wanted me there — they obviously wanted Randy to be there.”
Tormé credits Sharon with keeping everyone motivated and moving. The band had already been in a fractured state when the tour began. The rhythm section that played on Ozzy’s first two albums had parted ways with the group — they’d brought in Rhoads’ former Quiet Riot bandmate Rudy Sarzo on bass and Black Oak Arkansas drummer Tommy Aldridge — so Rhoads was the only original member other than Ozzy there.
“To Ozzy, he was the one who was key — the linchpin to Ozzy’s renewed career — and also a friend,” Tormé says. “So when Randy was killed, I suppose Ozzy really found that hard to handle; anyone would. So he wasn’t in a good way. There were a lot of tears, and he was having a difficult time health-wise with his voice. A lot of shows had to be canceled. Sometimes when you came offstage, Ozzy would be crying. It must have been very hard. But he held it together, and he was great onstage. It never showed. And for the record, Ozzy didn’t drink at all on gig days. You couldn’t even bring a can of beer anywhere near the dressing room. It wasn’t allowed.” (Tormé says that off days were another story, though, and he remembers one time where he and Ozzy had “four Brandy Alexanders at 10 in the morning.”)
But performing onstage was the hardest. “The first gig, [in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania] was the hardest gig I’ve ever done — ever,” he says. “But it must have been so much harder for them doing that first show without Randy. I don’t know how they did that — especially Ozzy and Rudy. It was very hard to do on an emotional level, too.”
One gig that stands out both to Ozzy and Tormé is the third date of the guitarist’s tenure, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. “It was such a surreal thing,” Ozzy once said of the show, a concert that Rhoads had been looking forward to.
But it was especially bizarre for Tormé. The stage set for the tour was a castle and he and Sarzo would stand in portcullis gates on either side of the drum riser, which was a stepped pyramid, and Ozzy would appear in a cloud of smoke and descend to the stage. At this gig, Sharon ran to the front of the stage to give Ozzy a kiss and wish him luck before a scrim lifted and revealed the stage to the audience. She never made it to him.
“Someone in the audience chucks a firework or something, which does the impossible and bounces under the [scrim] and hits Sharon in the neck, where it explodes — boom — right in front of me,” Tormé recalls. “She goes down like a rag doll — blood everywhere — two crew guys run out and pick her up and she’s gone. There was just a pool of blood left. I seriously thought she was dead. But the thing was, I was the only one in the band who could see any of this happening.
“Ten seconds later and the curtain drops, Tommy goes into ‘Over the Mountain’ and off we go,” he continues. “Ozzy doesn’t know. No one in the band knows about what happened, and there’s no chance to tell Ozzy. It’s not like a Rolling Stones gig where Keith can stroll up to Mick and say, ‘Hey, man, I think your old lady’s taken incoming.’ I was more than a bit distracted for the first half of the show until one of the crew signaled to me that she was OK. But it was a good gig. I played pretty OK. But it was made very bittersweet by the fact that I knew Randy had really wanted to play MSG. he really should have been there. I wasn’t entitled to be.”
Incidentally, it was at this show where Ozzy’s current guitarist, Zakk Wylde, first saw the Prince of Darkness. “I remember being 14 or 15 years old, and we had tickets to see Randy,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “They opened with ‘Over the Mountain,’ which is the ultimate guitar one and from what me and [Black Label Society bassist] J.D. remember, it was Randy’s tones. It was phenomenal.” It was the gig that set him on his path.
“[Bernie] did as good a job as anybody, but he was getting people shouting ‘Bloody Randy’ at him,” Ozzy recalled. “It was a fucking hard gig for him.”
Tormé played his last gig with Ozzy in Rochester, New York, on April 10th, after which Gillis finished up the tour and eventually Jake E. Lee joined to record the singer’s next LP Bark at the Moon. Although they said hello to each other once about a year later, Ozzy and Tormé didn’t see each other again until this year when the singer’s No More Tours 2 Tour swung through Sweden. “I haven’t seen him for a fucking thousand years,” Ozzy said. “Someone told me he was outside my dressing room. I went, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I’ll never forget the time I played with you, Ozzy. It was a lot of fun.’ I couldn’t remember what he looks like. It had been that long.”
“Ozzy talked about not selling any records these days and asked me if I did,” Tormé says. “I said, ‘Ozzy, I never sold any records.’ We had a good laugh. It was a nice closure for me on a terrible time.”
He also got to meet Wylde, who sung his praises. “I love Zakk’s playing and it was so nice for me to get my ass kissed for once by a guitarist I really rate,” Tormé says. “He told me as a 15-year-old he had bought tickets to MSG to see Randy, so I apologized to him for the fact that he only got to see me instead, but he was very complimentary about how I played at that gig. Mind you, he was only 15.”
Now Tormé is out on a solo tour of the U.K. that he’s dubbed “The Final Fling.” He recently released a hard-rocking new single, “Come the Revolution,” and has a new album, Shadowland, that’s slated for to come out later this month.
Ozzy, too, is on what he’s said would be his final major trek, the No More Tours 2 Tour, though he’ll still play gigs after it wraps in 2020. “I’m no good at anything else,” he told Rolling Stone. “I literally can’t do anything else.”