“I left a 20 sack of coke in the forest behind my house as a peace offering with the bats and when I went back to hunt for dinner, the bag was gone but the bloody wankers left a pile of bat droppings in my dime bag. That was when I decided that those ***** were not worth my apology. So I brought the dime bag of coke and bat droppings back to the house and Sharon and I just mixed it all up in the blender and snorted it.”
For nearly 40 years, former Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne lived the ultimate sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Cycling through almost every addictive drug there’s a name for, Ozzy spent most of the period between 1967 and 2006 living in a blur of heavy use, jail time, inpatient care facilities and continued use. Later in life, he became a public figure as much for the consequences of that lifestyle as he had been for living it during heavy metal’s heyday.
Ozzy Osbourne grew up in postwar Birmingham, UK, which had developed into a grim, depressed industrial town with very few opportunities. Born a working class boy with dyslexia and a knack for getting into trouble, John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne was by his own admission a poor student. After hearing a Beatles song in 1962, at the age of 14, he decided to become a world-famous musician. At 15, he dropped out of school and went to work as a laborer on a construction site. As he later put it in his autobiography, I Am Ozzy:
“I was fifteen when I left school. And what did I get to show for my ten years in the British education system? A piece of paper which said:
‘John Osbourne attended Birchfield Road Secondary Modern.
Signed, Mr Oldham (Headmaster)’
That was ****ing it. Not a single qualification. Nothing. I had two career choices: manual labour or manual labour.”
Over the next several years, Ozzy worked as a laborer, a plumber’s apprentice, a horn tuner at a car factory and a slaughterhouse worker. He also dabbled in petty theft, at one point dropping a television he was stealing from a second-story window. When the 17-year-old Ozzy was caught stealing clothing from a shop to sell at the local pub, his father refused to pay the fine and he was sentenced to jail for six weeks. It was there he got his signature O-Z-Z-Y knuckle tattoos.
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“My father always said I would do something big one day. ‘I’ve got a feeling about you, John Osbourne,’ he’d tell me after he’d had a few beers: ‘You’re either going to do something very special, or you’re going to go to prison.’
And he was right, my old man. I was in prison before my eighteenth birthday.”
After his release, Ozzy returned to a series of manual labor jobs.
Polka Tulk Blues Band to Earth
In 1967, Ozzy joined the band Rare Breed as a vocalist. Rare Breed had recently been started by Ozzy’s friend from school, Geezer Butler. The band played two or three gigs and broke up. In 1968, both Geezer and Ozzy joined another band, Polka Tulk Blues Band, with guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward. After a few paying gigs, the band changed its name to Earth and later to Black Sabbath.
Ozzy was a working class lad from Birmingham who grew up in a culture where men drank their wages every evening at the pub. His own drinking started before he left school, and it only grew heavier when he transitioned to a full-time career in music. By 1968, he and his friends in the band were regularly smoking marijuana, and in 1971, guitarist Leslie West introduced him to cocaine at an after-show party in a hotel room.
“When you come from [Ozzy’s working class neighborhood in Birmingham] and you fall in love with cocaine, you remember when you started. It’s like having your first ****! The world went a bit fuzzy after that.”
For the rest of the 1970s, all of the band’s members used various drugs heavily, but Ozzy beat them all for sheer volume and intensity. According to bandmate Iommi, the recording sessions for Never Say Die! dragged on because of the band’s heavy drug use:
“We were getting really drugged out, doing a lot of dope. We’d go down to the sessions and have to pack up because we were too stoned; we’d have to stop. Nobody could get anything right, we were all over the place, everybody’s playing a different thing. We’d go back and sleep it off and try again the next day.”
Ozzy’s own account of his drug use runs the gamut from prescriptions he begged off of cooperative doctors to odd street drugs he picked up from random connections. Years later, he described his use in the late 70s as a litany of drugs and alcohol:
“[I was on] booze, coke, heroin, acid and Quaaludes to glue, cough syrup, Rohypnol, klonopin, Vicodin … On more than a few occasions, I was on all of those at the same time”
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By 1979, even the other members of Black Sabbath had had enough. Ozzy was unceremoniously fired from the band and paid out a few hundred thousand dollars to settle his contract. He reacted to the firing by sealing himself inside a hotel suite for three months and spending it all on drugs and parties.
Blizzard of Ozz
At the urging of his future wife, Sharon, Ozzy Osbourne launched a solo career later that year. Somehow accelerating his drug use throughout the 1980s, Ozzy managed to:
- Get arrested and banned from the city of San Antonio for urinating on a memorial to fallen veterans of the Alamo
- Get arrested in Memphis for public intoxication in 1984
- Get arrested in 1989 for a violent incident in which he drunkenly tried to choke his wife, Sharon
During this period, Ozzy’s personal behavior verged from the eccentric to the disturbing. At a meeting with Columbia executives, a heavily intoxicated Ozzy climbed onto the table and performed a striptease for the execs. In 1982, during an interview with MTV, he wandered off into a bizarre tangent about how much he admired Adolf Hitler:
“[Hitler] had a lot of charisma, in a bad way, and I kind of admired him. It was terrible what he did, but he had something about him, y’know? I admired him, not for what he was, but for people … Hey, man, if someone put this in the right way … .”
Ozzy never finished and the interview concluded soon after.
No More Tears
After several near-death experiences, Ozzy finally achieved several years of sobriety starting in 2006. After a few relatively brief relapses in later years, he found lasting sobriety with the support of his family, his fans and almost daily 12-step meetings.
“When we were in Stockholm on tour, I went to [an AA meeting]. I couldn’t understand a bloody word they were saying, but it still helped. It’s just the act of going there.”
Ozzy Osbourne spent nearly half a century deep in the throes of a very public drug addiction. His example, of descent and recovery, can help inspire people who aren’t rich and famous to start their own journey to sobriety.
Osbourne, Ozzy; Ayres, Chris. I Am Ozzy
Hoskyns, Barney (2009). “Into the Void: Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath”