Back in 2018, Louder's Paul Brannigan was flown to South America to join Ozzy Osbourne on the early stops of his mammoth final world tour, No More Tours 2. Though today's announcement that Ozzy is officially retired from touring means we'll never see that trek reach its final legs, at the time, we found the Prince Of Darkness in as entertaining and candid form as ever - and a man determined to continue hitting the road as long as his health would let him.
Santiago’s Cementerio General is an extraordinary place, as beautiful as it is haunting. A true city of the dead, it’s a sprawling 210-acre complex of ornate tombs and elegant mausoleums, the final resting place of approximately two million Chilean citizens. All but two of the deceased former Presidents of Chile are interred here. Significantly, there’s no plot for the CIA-sponsored dictator Augusto Pinochet: there is, however, a chilling monument to the thousands of Chileans who were ‘disappeared’ by the military during his brutal regime. Here and there, teddy bears, cuddly toys and cloth dolls are tied to trees and stone crucifixes, heart-wrenching reminders of young children taken from their families too soon. For all its architectural splendor and undoubted historical significance, this is not a location one would wish to explore in the hours of darkness.
“I remember seeing The Exorcist,” says Ozzy Osbourne, a figure in black shuffling carefully between the ossuaries. “Black Sabbath were in Philadelphia. The manager, Patrick Meehan, comes in and says, ‘You gotta see this film’. So the four of us, Black Sabbath, go to see this fucking film, and we were so fucking scared, that we had to spend the night together in one room. We‘re supposed to be the Satan band, and we’re all in one bed, scared shitless. We had to go to see The Sting afterwards to get our minds off it!”
The Prince Of Darkness is in an upbeat mood, largely, one suspects, because this afternoon’s photo session affords him a vista other than the interior of a hotel suite, dressing room or airport lounge. So pleased is he, indeed, that later this same evening he’ll send a late night text to photographer Ross Halfin: ‘Come take some photos of me in the bath,’ it reads. “I’ll leave the door on the latch…”
Santiago is just the fourth stop on the singer’s current No More Tours 2 trek, titled with a knowing wink to his 1992 ‘retirement’ tour, but in his 50th year of touring, Ozzy has settled back easily into familiar routines. The private jet which transports the 69-year-old singer between gigs now might represent a serious upgrade on the battered Commer van which once wheezed between Black Sabbath’s engagements in continental Europe when Osbourne was still a wet behind the ears Brummie teenager, but essentially, the job – bringing music to the masses - remains the same.
Sabbath never made it to South America while Ozzy was in the band first time around, but finally played Chile on their farewell The End tour: “It was like Beatlemania in a heavy metal way,” Ozzy recalls. The singer first visited South America in January 1985, for the inaugural staging of the mammoth Rock In Rio festival, a 10-day event which drew some 1.4 million people to a purpose-built City Of Rock, with Queen, AC/DC, Yes and Rod Stewart among the headline ‘turns’. On that occasion, Ozzy recalls, he was booked for a photo session by a river in Rio de Janeiro, along the banks of which locals had laid out candles and plates of fruit. During a lull in proceedings, the singer recalls picking up an apple and taking a bite, to the immediate and very visible consternation of his horrified hosts.
“Everyone was like, ‘No! No! No!’,” he laughs. “It was a voodoo offering, and so everyone freaked.”
By his own admission, Ozzy is a very superstitious man. He may no longer wear the silver metal cross his father Jack crafted for each member of Black Sabbath to ward off evil spirits back in the ’70s, but he remains reluctant to meddle with forces he does not understand. And with just three dates of his final world tour ticked off the docket, today he’s taking some convincing that his freshly-launched, long farewell campaign isn’t cursed.
To understand the thinking behind Ozzy’s intuition, we must rewind a few days, to the evening of Friday, May 4. The travelling party’s private jet is descending towards an airstrip outside Mexico City, with just ten minutes remaining of a four-hour flight from Los Angeles, when Sharon Osbourne leans across the seat to her husband and gently says, “Ozzy, I’ve got something to tell you.”
“I go, ‘What’s that darling?’,” says Ozzy, replaying the scene. “She goes, ‘I haven’t brought my passport’. And I go, ‘You’re fucking joking…’”
Upon touching down in Mexico, with promises being made that the absent travel document will be couriered in on the next south-bound flight from LA, it initially appears that immigration officials at the airport will take a common-sense, if law-bending, view of Mrs O’s misfortune, will come to assess that the internationally-famous wife of one of the planet’s most recognisable rock stars is perhaps unlikely to represent a serious threat to the security of the state. But in times of heightened political rhetoric, acts of mercy can be interpreted as signs of weakness, and as negotiations at the airport continue, word is passed down the chain of command to the effect that this particular visitor from North America – citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as she might be – will not be permitted to officially enter the country. Instead, the order decrees, Mrs Osbourne must spend the night aboard the jet on the airstrip, and will be cleared to return to Los Angeles at dawn.
Ozzy Osbourne is infinitely sharper than you might realise. This being the case, he’s entirely mindful that comments made in anger - let’s say, for the sake of argument, comments pertaining to the current incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the District of Columbia and his belligerent, antagonistic, attitude to the United States’ southern neighbour - could inadvertently land him in hot water if taken out of context. So while prefacing his reaction to this irritation with the disclaimer, “I’m not politically motivated: when people ask me about the governments, I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about”, he will quietly add, “It’s anti-North America here… like, ‘Don’t tell us what to do, leave us alone, you fuck your own country up.'” Given that the singer is already recuperating from a dose of bronchitis, his mood is in no way improved by the absence of his beloved spouse: were life a cartoon, the singer’s every move in Mexico City would be shadowed by an ominous black cloud.
Ozzy is here for date three of the No More Tours 2 campaign, which will find him headlining night two of the Heaven and Hell Festival – Mexico’s premier heavy metal weekender – atop a bill featuring Saxon, Megadeth, Judas Priest and more. That the show day falls on Cinco de Mayo, an annual celebration held to commemorate the Mexican Army’s unlikely triumph over the French empire at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, promises to lend an extra frisson to the occasion.
We are instructed by Ozzy’s super-efficient German tour manager Thomas Reitz to meet with the touring party at 6:40pm by the elevators on the 12th floor of our luxury hotel. It’s here that we are introduced to Ozzy’s band – long-time guitar foil Zakk Wylde, bassist Rob ‘Blasko’ Nicholson, drummer Tommy Clufetos and keyboard player Adam ‘Son of Rick’ Wakeman – his personal security guard Eddie Mendoza, and the man himself. The festival promoters have arranged that the group will be given a police escort to the event site, Autodrómo Hermanos Rodríguez, and so, within 5 minutes of our rendezvous, this writer and the ‘talent’ are smuggled out of the hotel’s back entrance and ushered into a fleet of black SUVs with tinted windows. We’re soon hurtling through the streets of Mexico City, its notoriously chaotic traffic magically melting away as speeding motorcycle outriders swerve ahead, blocking lanes and opening up hitherto clogged transport arteries. It is, to be honest, fantastically exhilarating and a rare fleeting insight into one aspect of the lifestyles of the (filthy) rich and infamous.
There are few such luxuries immediately apparent at the festival site. In common with backstage areas at similar events across the globe, a mini-village of marquees and portacabins has been erected for the artists and industry schmoozers and, upon disembarking from the caravan, the musicians disappear into their respective sanctuaries. Ozzy’s dressing room area is an alcohol-free zone, and his backstage rider requirements are unfussy and relatively basic. As the singer maintains a strict sugar-and-gluten-free diet, the emphasis is on organic fruits and nuts, along with, rather charmingly, a stated demand for a box of PG Tips teabags and a box of Yorkshire Tea.
As is the current etiquette for touring artists, there’s a meet-and-greet with (fully-paid-up) VIP guests to negotiate pre-show – a handshake, a photo, an autograph and off you pop, gracias – and Ozzy also takes the opportunity to exchange pleasantries with his old friends in Judas Priest, just along the corridor. “They’re from Birmingham, they’re just the lads,” he says. “I’ve known them for years. Rob [Halford] is a great singer.” And, as soon as Priest finish their hugely enjoyable set on the festival’s Heaven stage, the adjoining Hell stage is illuminated in light and, at 10:50pm, it’s showtime.
A few observations from gig number three of No More Tours 2. Firstly, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is still the most recognisable, and thrilling, intro music in heavy metal. Secondly, following a period in exile, during which Ozzy recorded his most recent studio album, 2010’s Scream, with Greek guitarist Gus G, it’s oddly reassuring to see Black Label Society mainman Zakk Wylde back at Ozzy’s side. And thirdly, the 80,000 plus heavy metal fans filling the Autodrómo Hermanos Rodríguez to capacity tonight really, really, really love John Michael Osbourne. Every gap in the set-list is punctuated by deafening chants of “Ozz-ee! Ozz-ee!” and with the revealing of each successive heavy metal standard in the action-packed set-list – Bark At The Moon into Mr. Crowley into I Don’t Know into Sabbath’s Fairies Wears Boots – a sense of communal hysteria escalates. From our on-stage vantage point just behind Adam Wakeman’s keyboards, with laser beams strafing the darkness, it’s quite a sight.
Given such close access to the performers, however, it soon becomes apparent that Ozzy is not entirely happy with how the gig is unfolding. More specifically, it’s clear that he’s not satisfied with his vocals, as a combination of the altitude and his bronchitis are affecting his breathing. Ahead of No More Tears, the title track of the singer’s 1991 album and the sixth song listed in black type on the set-list taped to the stage, Ozzy wanders across to shout in Blasko’s left ear. The bassist then repeats the message to Adam Wakeman as Ozzy heads towards Zakk Wylde. With zero drama, the song is dropped, and the band go seamlessly into Road To Nowhere instead.
Solo spots for Wylde and Clufetos give the vocalist time to compose himself out of sight of the audience, and a decision is taken to drop Flying High Again also. Ozzy is noticeably happier when he returns to the stage, and the home straight, starting with Shot In the Dark and climaxing with – what else? – Paranoid is joyous heavy metal theatre. There’s no time for self-congratulatory back-slapping, however: the final howls from Wylde’s amps are still resonating as the band pile back into their getaway vehicles, their daredevil police escorts already gunning their engines for a high-speed exit to the airport. Ozzy is still unhappy, but post-mortems can wait, and conversation is muted as the motorway ahead opens up.
If anyone is tempted to think that, for artists of advancing years in particular, live gigs are simply a cynical cash-grab opportunity, mere showbiz routine, they should try spending an hour with Ozzy Osbourne in the wake of a performance he deems below par. Sitting in his hotel room on the 16th floor of Santiago’s Intercontinental Hotel a full 36 hours after the Mexico City gig, the singer is still downcast, still picking apart his own contributions to the night, this despite him also insisting “You have to leave the last gig on the stage.”
“It was not my intention to sing like a fucking asshole!” he says with a sigh. “I’ve been taking this fucking stuff [to aid recovery from bronchitis] and when I went to the doctor I said, Don’t give me anything that’s going to dry me out. It’s all fucked up, very frustrating.”
“People say, ‘Oh, it didn’t sound that bad out there’, but to me, when I’m performing, it’s like putting two E-strings on a guitar: you’ve strung it wrong, and it doesn’t sound how you want it. It’s a personal thing. In my head I want to give them everything, but it don’t work sometimes. If I can’t do it onstage and I’m not having fun with it, I get fucking angry with myself. But I’m only human, you know?”
“So when I get to the gig and sing like an asshole, it’s like, this fucking thing is cursed! Sharon sent me a text saying, ‘Darling, it’s not cursed, it’s just teething problems’. It’s a new day, a new gig. But if it goes again, I’ll be pissed off again.”
Niggling problems notwithstanding, the singer is in rude health, a testament to his rigorous health and fitness regime. It was not always thus. Recalling his first ever trip to South America in 1985, he recounts boarding the Rio-bound flight directly from an enforced six week stay in the Betty Ford Clinic, then immediately getting “fucking loaded” on the plane.
“I woke up with my wife stabbing me in the chest with a fucking dinner fork,” he laughs. “I’d never gone six weeks without a drink before. It took me a long while to get that under control. Now I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do dope…”
Asked how’s he spent his first couple of days in Chile, he points to a clunky-looking exercise bike across the room. “It’s like something out of the fucking Stone Age. I exercise every day, the endorphins are great!”
“You try to find things to occupy your mind. Or it’s… " and here Ozzy attempts to convey the vision of a demon and angel perched on his shoulders, and adopts an evil whispering voice… ‘You’re going to sing like a cunt!’”
The singer is at pains today to stress that this is not his farewell tour, merely his last full-scale world tour. “Sabbath’s was a farewell tour,” he notes, “but I’m not stopping, I’m not retiring. This could go on for the rest of my life.” Pressed on whether the world might also see a new Ozzy record this decade, the singer is less confident, though reveals that he has “10 songs ready to go, really strong ideas, melodies, lyrics, everything…”
“But a new record? There’s no point,” he says bluntly. “You make a record, it costs you this much to make, and then they steal it. Why do I want to spend my money on that?”
Talk returns to his first ever South America trip. Ozzy remembers meeting Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs (“pathetic and sad”), the smell of the City Of Rock being “fucking unbelievable” as 1.4 million people used the site as an outdoor toilet for 10 days, and hours of entertainment sitting on the hotel rooftop watching fearless local kids swiping cameras from jet-lagged foreign paparazzi all day long.
“I remember getting on this big military helicopter and on one side there was cardboard over the windows. I thought, What the fuck is that all about? So I peeled off the cardboard. And the guy goes, ‘No, leave it alone! It’s a bad representation of Brazil!’ What it was, was that you could see the shanty towns, and they were embarrassed about it. It’s fucking nuts there, you’re either wealthy or you’re dirt poor.”
There’ll be no opportunity for such sight-seeing this time around. In Santiago, Ozzy will only leave his hotel suite when duty calls.
“I’d be walking around like a fucking scrapyard with all this junk on,” he says,” jangling the chunky gold jewellery on his right wrist for added effect. “I’d get killed for a watch!”
The gaggle of hardcore Ozzy fans who sit patiently outside the front doors of the Intercontinental Hotel for the duration of his stay in Santiago, have no obvious designs on the singer’s expensive timepiece, it should be stated. All they want is an autograph on the CD sleeves, albums and posters in their backpacks, or a photo, or a hug. None of this will happen. But despite being informed, regularly, that Mr Osbourne will not be coming out to play, they sit on. Among their number are Santiago residents Valentina Peñaloza and her 17-year-old sister Carolina, who has been gifted tickets for Ozzy’s May 8 show at the Movistar Arena for her 18th birthday, which falls on the same day. “Ozzy changed music forever,” says Carolina, “he invented heavy metal. His music has had such an impact upon my family and I. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I’ll be in the front row of his concert.”
Ozzy exits for the gig by the hotel back door at precisely 4:45pm. Neither Carolina nor her sister will see him leave.
At 9:15pm, resplendent in purple, Ozzy walks on to the stage of the Movistar Arena and asks the 17,000-strong crowd, “Are you ready to go fucking crazy?” The answer is unanimously affirmative. “Let the madness begin!” Ozzy shrieks.
This time, the gig goes off without a hitch. No More Tears and Flying High Again are restored to the set-list, for 90 minutes Ozzy holds the arena in the palm of his hand, treating the crowd less like customers in his shop than guests in his home. He’s in constant motion, an impish master of ceremonies, king of the night time world again. Before Shot In The Dark he even asks the crowd to cheer loudly for Sharon – “who’s back in Los Angeles”. The texts between the pair tonight, one fancies, will be rather more upbeat.
Ozzy is still grinning as he scrambles out of his SUV back at the hotel an hour later. “That was good, wasn’t it?” he says.
This is what you still live for, isn’t it?
“When I’m onstage it’s my world,” he replies, nodding in agreement. “No-one can go, ‘Wear this, do this, say that’, whatever. I can do what I want to do. They can’t be Ozzy, and Ozzy can’t be them.”
“I’m not the greatest singer,” he admits, “but I know how to get a crowd going. That’s my thing. What was it that Simon Cowell said? I’m not a singer, I’m a showman. If I just stood there going, [drones] I’m going off the rails… Somebody please throw a bottle at me!”
For a moment, the years roll back, and Ozzy is transported back to his native Birmingham, as he shares one last anecdote.
“Before I got successful with Sabbath,” he says, “I was in a band called Rare Breed, doing, like, blues or psychedelic stuff. One night [at a gig] the leader of the band came up to me and said, ‘We don’t do that.’ I said, Do what? He said, ‘Do what you do. We don’t move around, it’s not cool.’ I said, I’ll tell you what is cool then. Finding another singer, because I’m fucking off!’”
And with that, The Prince Of Darkness chortles and drags his wheelie bag into the hotel lift. Tomorrow he’ll be flying high again.