Secret Superhero Ozzy Osbourne: The Clown Prince Of Darkness

With his recent announcement that he is retiring from live performance, Ozzy Osbourne has drawn a veil over an on-stage career that has spanned more than 50 years. This would be a tremendous feat for any musician, but considering the extreme punishment that Ozzy has visited on his own body in the name of heavy metal excess, it seems almost impossible that he has survived for this long. His remarkable career may be drawing to a close, but this Secret Superhero continues to amaze and inspire through both his dogged endurance, and the work he continues to carry out as a philanthropist and activist.

One of Ozzy's last live perfromances

A JOB IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS

Ozzy was born John Osbourne in 1948, and grew up in Aston, one of the poorest districts of England’s second city, Birmingham. He was the fourth child of his mother, Lillian, and father, also called John, and they lived in a tiny two bedroom terraced house, which became even smaller as the family eventually grew to six children. Both Ozzy’s parents worked in factories, with his mother working days and his father nights, and while the family was extremely poor the Osbournes were quiet, straight-laced people who were proud to make an honest living. 

Secret Superhero Ozzy Osbourne: The Clown Prince Of Darkness

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With his recent announcement that he is retiring from live performance, Ozzy Osbourne has drawn a veil over an on-stage career that has spanned more than 50 years. This would be a tremendous feat for any musician, but considering the extreme punishment that Ozzy has visited on his own body in the name of heavy metal excess, it seems almost impossible that he has survived for this long. His remarkable career may be drawing to a close, but this Secret Superhero continues to amaze and inspire through both his dogged endurance, and the work he continues to carry out as a philanthropist and activist.

One of Ozzy's last live perfromances

A JOB IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS

Ozzy was born John Osbourne in 1948, and grew up in Aston, one of the poorest districts of England’s second city, Birmingham. He was the fourth child of his mother, Lillian, and father, also called John, and they lived in a tiny two bedroom terraced house, which became even smaller as the family eventually grew to six children. Both Ozzy’s parents worked in factories, with his mother working days and his father nights, and while the family was extremely poor the Osbournes were quiet, straight-laced people who were proud to make an honest living. 

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Ozzy found life growing up in working class Birmingham to be extremely tough, something that was exacerbated by his dyslexia and ADHD - conditions that would not be diagnosed for decades. He would later say of his childhood that “I was terrified most of the time. Even my first memory was of being scared”, and at school he was regularly beaten by his teachers and bullied by older children. His solution to the bullying was to ingratiate himself with the toughest bullies in the school through clownish antics, and it worked like a charm, but he had no defense against the school’s staff and ended up leaving school at 15. 

Ozzy drifted between jobs; he started out as a plumber’s apprentice, but couldn’t handle the cold. His parents, despairing at his capacity for troublemaking and determined to have him bring income into the household, found him a job in his mother’s factory, tuning car horns, allowing him to claim to friends that he had a job “In the music business”. After that swiftly fell through, he attempted to join the army, but was considered unfit for service and rejected with the words “we’re looking for subjects, not objects”. Ozzy then found the one job he would enjoy in his life - working in a slaughterhouse - and it was while working in this grisly environment that his burgeoning music career began to take shape. 

BAD VIBRATIONS

Like most teenagers of the time, Ozzy adored the Beatles, but he was less keen on the hippy culture that they inspired. In his 2009 autobiography, I Am Ozzy, he describes being viciously attacked in a local pub by a fellow patron over some imagined sleight while The Beach Boys' Good Vibrations played on the jukebox. Peace and love did not seem like achievable goals in Aston, but the heavier sounds of blues-inspired rockers of the era such as Led Zeppelin and Cream were much closer to Ozzy’s experiences. He formed the band that would eventually become Black Sabbath with three other local kids who were searching for a darker musical path, and by accident managed to find three of the most talented musicians in Birmingham: the mercurial guitarist Tony Iommi, (who had lost two of the fingertips on his fretting hand in a factory accident, and used thimbles to replace the missing digits), the mild mannered, jazz-inspired drummer Bill Ward, and the flamboyant lyricist and songwriter Geezer Butler. 

Black Sabbath in the 70s: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Ozzy

At first they were largely a covers band, but quickly began to forge a new identity for themselves. Butler was largely responsible for this; as well as writing the band’s lyrics he was a keen student of music history, and this led him to suggest the use of the “The Devil’s Interval”, a dissonant and unsettling combination of notes that suited the band’s contrived horror stylings perfectly. Ozzy was the ideal performer to front this new sound, and when Black Sabbath finally began releasing records they were immediately successful, despite largely indifferent reviews from the music press. Ozzy didn’t care about reviews; he had broken out of Birmingham and become an international rock star, and could now enjoy the trappings of fame. 

FROM A BAND TO A DUO

Black Sabbath quickly settled into the self-destructive patterns of 1970s rock outfits, with Ozzy leading the line. By 1979, a decade of constant cocaine and alcohol abuse had led him to become increasingly erratic and unreliable, and his bandmates finally kicked him out of the band. Fortunately for Ozzy, the daughter of the band’s manager took him under her wing and began to shape him as a solo artist. Ozzy had been romantically interested in Sharon since they first met in 1970, but their relationship had remained strictly professional. Under Sharon’s guidance, Ozzy’s career blossomed; her shrewd industry knowhow and his innate ability to create headlines helped Ozzy to eclipse the efforts of his former bandmates. 

Perhaps the best example of this powerful partnership occurred in 1981, during a meeting with CBS record label bigwigs in New York. Prior to the meeting, Sharon had given Ozzy a dove to put in his pocket, which he was supposed to release into the meeting room for dramatic effect. Things did not go as planned, and the CBS suits seemed barely aware of Ozzy’s work. Offended, angry, and far from sober, Ozzy responded by taking the dove from his pocket, but instead of releasing it into the room he bit its head off and spat it out on the boardroom table. Ozzy’s relationship with CBS would never recover, but Sharon was able to parlay the incident into weeks of tabloid headlines. The pair married the following year. 

THE CLOWN PRINCE OF DARKNESS

This set the tone for the next two decades, with Sharon attempting to corral Ozzy’s wildly unpredictable behavior. In his autobiography, Ozzy describes the routine events of their family life, which included his regularly setting fire to their houses, endless hospital visits following overdoses and accidents, and an ongoing battle between the two in which she would attempt to limit his access to drink and drugs, and he would attempt to thwart her. Throughout this tempestuous relationship, Sharon was able to both raise a family and keep her husband touring and alive, and his fame as a solo artist continued to grow throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, as did his influence on the burgeoning world of heavy metal, but it wasn’t until 2002 that Ozzy - and his family - really cemented themselves as mainstream celebrities thanks to the MTV reality show The Osbournes.

Ozzy and his fellow Osbournes, Kelly, Sharon and Jack

Ozzy claims that the first he knew about The Osbournes was when MTV’s production crew set up an operations center in his garage. This is certainly plausible, as although he was no longer drinking, he was - by his own admission - “stoned during the entire filming.” The first series was such an enormous hit that Ozzy was invited to the 2002 White House Correspondents Dinner, an environment that was so intimidating to him that he promptly fell off the wagon, and caused an awkward scene after being namechecked in President Bush’s speech. The show went on to become the most watched in MTV’s history, and subsequent series charted Sharon’s harrowing battle with cancer, and Ozzy’s recovery after a near-fatal quad bike accident. 

While Ozzy’s recent retirement from touring after more than 50 years on the road is a great shame, the fact that he has been able to continue performing for so long, despite the extreme punishment his body has suffered, is something to be celebrated. It’s also worth celebrating the work he has quietly been doing behind the scenes as a philanthropist and activist. Most notably, he and Sharon have founded a charity, the Sharon Osbourne Colon Cancer Program, which provides at-home help, childcare, transportation, access to support groups and patient care services to cancer patients. Elsewhere, he’s become a vocal advocate for the fight against climate change, supporting a wide range of initiatives, and he’s also heavily involved with numerous children’s charities, driven at least in part by the memories of this Secret Superhero’s own deprived childhood.  

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