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The Prince of Darkness has arrived to another standing ovation. With a jeweled cross hanging over his chest, fingernails painted black, Ozzy Osbourne leans on a cane as he's guided into a Hollywood sound studio, just weeks after surgery on his neck. When he slowly turns to face a crowd of admirers — each masked and wearing an Ozzy or Black Sabbath T-shirt — the heavy-metal icon looks pleased, flashing a shiny movie-star grin.
"Hello, how are you doing?" Osbourne says, dressed in Gothic shades of black, his immediately recognizable, accented mumble echoing from his adolescence in Birmingham, England.
At 73, Ozzy is anxious to return to action after a long season of health ups and downs: from COVID-19 and pneumonia to Parkinson's disease and a painful fall at home, plus the lingering effects of a 2003 ATV accident that the recent surgery was meant to correct. At the same time, and despite these challenges, this wild-eyed singer is experiencing continued creative rebirth with the release of his 13th album, Patient Number 9, his second in an ongoing collaboration with producer-guitarist Andrew Watt.
Joining Osbourne on a small stage in this studio are Watt and guitarist (and Ozzy lifer) Zakk Wylde, the latter in leather vest and Viking beard, ready to talk about the new album for a SiriusXM taping. The singer sits with his usual nervous energy, shifting from one side of his chair to the other, dropping his cane to the floor, answering questions from this crowd of invited SiriusXM subscribers and interviewer Billy Morrison.
"I've had some great times over the last 55 years and I ain't done yet," says Ozzy, whose legendary career is filled with countless exalted, infamous and iconic moments, not the least of which was his 2006 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of metal originators Black Sabbath. "When you've been around as long as I have — the word 'retirement,' fuck that."
His first collaboration with Watt, now 31, was in 2019 on the unlikely Top 10 single featuring Post Malone and Travis Scott, "Take What You Want." Watt and Osbourne quickly followed that with 2020's Ordinary Man, the singer's first solo release in nearly a decade and his most acclaimed in years, reaching the Top 5 in the U.S. and across much of Europe. That album featured several high-profile guests, including Slash, Tom Morello and (on piano and backing vocals) Elton John.
Patient Number 9 continues that same collaborative spirit. But while Ordinary Man relied on traditional song structures for most tracks, this time Osbourne and Watt decided to stretch out and make room for a multi-generational all-star cast of guitar heroes, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, and Wylde (who also plays some keyboard).
The new album also marks the first appearance on an Ozzy solo release by his Black Sabbath co-founder and guitarist Tony Iommi, riffing and soloing on two extremely heavy tunes, "Degradation Rules" and "No Escape From Now."
Ozzy is determined to push this album into the spotlight, and, despite any physical discomfort following his surgery, he's working hard to promote its release. A week earlier, he was at Comic-Con in San Diego signing autographs with Todd McFarlane — the artist who directed the "Patient Number 9" video, created the limited-edition comic book that accompanies the album and designed the 25-foot-tall Ozzy inflatable that stood guard outside the venue. In another week, he'll be back onstage in Birmingham, reunited again with Iommi to perform Sabbath's classic "Paranoid" (and a bit of "Iron Man") at their hometown's Commonwealth Games.
During the SiriusXM interview, each Patient Number 9 track is played for the audience as Watt, in short bleached hair, leather jacket and vintage Ozzy shirt, leans toward the singer while playing along on air guitar. "The process of making this album was the most fun. How could you not have fun sitting with Ozzy?" Watt tells the audience. "Every other thing out of his mouth makes you shit your pants in laughter."
Ozzy Osbourne isn't a fan of communicating over the computer, but with his recent surgery and a new bump in cases of COVID-19, he's doing most interviews about Patient Number 9 via Zoom. As he signs on, he's wearing a black T-shirt with "L.A." in large letters. Leaning against the wall behind him is a black-and-white portrait of a grinning Ozzy in dark shades.
"After I finish with you, my physical trainer comes down," Ozzy says, angling toward his computer screen. "I'm going to work out and keep doing that and get back on my feet. I'm a lot better than I was, but I've still got a ways to go. Then I'm going out on the fucking road and never coming back home again. I've gotta get back on that fucking stage, man."
This Zoom call is from a Los Angeles apartment. The big family home where Ozzy became a famously high-strung reality TV dad on MTV's The Osbournes is long gone, as are other L.A. homes that followed. The kids are grown up and having babies of their own. (Daughter Kelly Osbourne, 37, is currently pregnant with her first child with Slipknot's Sid Wilson.) Ozzy and his wife (and manager) Sharon are returning to England with their 11 little dogs. They have sold their house and are keeping a humble apartment in California. They're moving for tax reasons, and plan to spend half the year in England, half in the U.S., says Ozzy. Not that he's happy about it.
"I'm more of an American now. I love this country," he says, and predicts that back in the U.K. he'll "go fucking insane, bored shitless."
The move will bring him physically closer to Iommi. Whether Ozzy and Iommi will ever work together again, the singer can't predict, but he's pleased with their reunion on his new album. The song "No Escape From Now" began as a piece of music mingling acoustic and electric guitar riffs that Iommi sent to Ozzy and Watt to be completed. The other tune, "Degradation Rules," started in L.A. and left room for a wild Iommi solo. The playing is Iommi at his most relentless and crazed, like a time warp to classic early Sabbath, accented with Ozzy on searing harmonica.
"Tony, God bless him, he comes to my rescue," says Osbourne. "And in actual fact, since we've made up, he's been really supportive. Calls me regularly to see how I'm doing.
"If it wasn't for Tony Iommi, there never would have been a Black Sabbath. We've had arguments, we've fallen out, we've made up. It's just like a marriage. You get divorced, you get back together. But Tony Iommi — and I can never deny this — there's not a man on the face of the earth who comes up with these gutty, dark, heavy riffs. He's the king of riffs."
They text regularly, Ozzy says, and he still speaks often with original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, though he seems to have lost touch with bassist Geezer Butler. ("The only person that I don't speak to — I don't know where he is — is Geezer," Ozzy noted at SiriusXM. "He just disappears.") Since Osbourne has been dealing with health issues these last few years, a handful of others have made a point of checking in, offering to help in any way, notably including Slash and Korn's Jonathan Davis.
"It's amazing when you get sick, how many people don't call anymore," Ozzy says wistfully. "Slash is a gentleman. He's such a nice man … If I was to phone Slash now and he was in town, whatever I wanted, he'd be around."
The first public glimpse that suggested the scope of the new album was its title track and first single, "Patient Number 9," as Osbourne rages about the special horror of a hospital stay: "Every hallway's painted white as the light/That will guide you to your hell."
The song is about being in a mental hospital, he explains, and he refers to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — but also draws from personal experiences. It begins with Ozzy's lunatic ramblings over an instrumental intro. "I've been in mental hospitals, I've been in rehab," he adds. "I've been in every fucking hospital. It's not a very nice place to be."
The single is one of two appearances by Jeff Beck. His complex, aggressive soloing on the title track is an earworm Ozzy can't shake, he says. "I walk around with it in my head all the time."
The presence of Beck and Clapton makes Patient Number 9 an unexpected marker in the story of the Yardbirds, the hugely influential British rock act and home to consecutive guitar virtuosos — Clapton, Beck, Jimmy Page — in the 1960s. Led Zeppelin grew directly out of the Yardbirds when Page was the only one left standing. (Ozzy had hoped Page would also contribute to the new album, but he never heard back from the guitarist.)
The band was a half-generation ahead of Osbourne and Iommi by the time Sabbath's first album landed in 1970 and created an entirely new path called heavy metal. The demonic rolling thunder of Black Sabbath owed something to what came before in British rock, from the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" to Deep Purple and the guitar eruptions of the Yardbirds and Cream.
"When you play with someone like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, these people are fucking masters of their craft," says Osbourne now. "Clapton just amazes me." The collisions of genres and generations on Patient Number 9 would have been unheard of in Ozzy's first decade as an exploding madman solo artist, enjoying platinum sales while leading an Eighties metal movement entirely separate from mainstream rock.
Ozzy was also once convinced Clapton thought he was "a fucking joke." Back in 1989, Ozzy and art-pop diva Grace Jones presented Clapton with a trophy at the International Rock Awards in New York City. Afterwards, the trio posed together for pictures backstage, and the photographer kept pushing Oz to grin and bug-out for the camera. He was already notorious. He was the singer of "Crazy Train" that somehow cheated death through extreme drink and drugs, snorted ants for a laugh and bit off the head of a bat onstage. The photographer wanted to see some of that — to watch Ozzy bark at the moon right next to an otherworldly, barely clothed Jones and a bemused Clapton.
"That's all people think I can do, so I do the pose that he wants, and I'm pissed off," Osbourne recalls of that night, imagining that he looked ridiculous to the classic-rock god. Ozzy says, "I was just coming off the dope and scared of everybody." He was also certain that Clapton made sure their photograph together was never released. "I made a fool of myself. For 10 years, I'm going, 'He thinks I'm a cunt.'"
Then, years later, Osbourne was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley and he spotted Clapton sitting in the back. "I go, 'Oh fuck, he's gonna say something to me.' It's all in my head. So at the end of the meeting, I bolted, get in the car and fucked off."
A couple of weeks later, Ozzy returned to the same A.A. meeting place, and Clapton was there again. Ozzy bolted again. But soon after, the singer happened to pick up a magazine and saw the photo he thought Clapton suppressed — and noticed the guitarist was all smiles in the shot. "It was only my own drug-fueled paranoia that got me thinking like that," Ozzy says now.
Still, when Watt suggested reaching out to Clapton to appear on his new album, Ozzy's initial reaction was: "No, fuck, you're pushing it!" Watt reached out anyway.
"[Clapton] said yeah, and I was like fuckin' hell. I thought he was going to go, 'Fuck this!' But sometimes people say yes," Ozzy says. "My reputation precedes me because they think I'm a fucking lunatic, but I was for many years."
The Clapton performance on Patient Number 9 is "One of Those Days," and it eventually shifts from liquid blues into a crying guitar voice that echoes Clapton's signature sound in his late-Sixties power trio Cream. Watt had been lobbying for that from the Slowhand in repeated emails, and eventually sent a wah-wah pedal to Clapton's studio to make sure. It was one of the last songs completed for the album.
Before that could happen, Clapton needed Ozzy to address some concerns he had with the song's repeated lyric: "Killing myself but I never die/It's one of those days that I don't believe in Jesus." Osbourne explained the song was about having an especially bad day and losing faith in everything, frustrated that "everything's fucked in my life." The singer and Watt attempted to replace the line, but found it difficult to recreate the original's snarling feeling.
"When you capture something on record, sometimes you can't reproduce it the same. You get the same notes, but not the vibe, the feeling of what you captured," says Osbourne. He told Clapton the lyric would have to remain. "I said, 'If you don't want to play, I'll get it.' And then he went, 'OK, I'll play on it,' which is great. The guitar is fucking phenomenal."
On "Immortal," McCready tracked his solo just days after the death of Eddie Van Halen on October 6th, 2020, and captured some of the late guitarist's fiery spirit, yanking his whammy bar over the song's driving Zeppelin-esque rhythm as Osbourne sings of the living and undead. "I come alive at the second of midnight," he begins his vampire tale, "so I can fly when the world is asleep."
Osbourne has his own Van Halen memories. In 1978, the young Southern California band was opening for Black Sabbath on the European leg of their Never Say Die! tour, not long before Ozzy was pushed out and forced into a successful solo career. "[Eddie] was such a great guy. They came to our local pub and it was good fun," recalls Osbourne.
"But David Lee Roth, he's lost a couple of nuts and bolts. When you meet him, it's like, 'What's wrong with him?' He's like somewhere else, you know?"
Van Halen was part of a new breed of flash guitarist that included another force of nature in the form of Randy Rhoads, who was an essential ingredient in establishing Osbourne at the beginning of the Eighties with Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. Like Van Halen, Rhoads followed the cosmic, seemingly limitless example of Jimi Hendrix on the instrument, but with new sounds and techniques.
"They were arch enemies," Ozzy remembers. "Randy didn't have a lot to say about Eddie. They were very, very similar guitar players. Eddie took that tapping thing to another level. Randy could do that, but he liked people like Leslie West.
"It amazes me that you get Eddie, you get Randy, and you go, 'No one's ever gonna top that.' But there's a new thing round every corner."
Aside from the new album's formidable guitar army, Watt gathered a group of rotating players to create rhythm tracks from which to build the songs. Chili Pepper Chad Smith returns as drummer on most tracks, while Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins kept the beat on a few songs, recorded just months before his tragic death this past March.
Even with all the guests, the sound from track to track is cohesive, not scattered. Duff McKagan from Guns N' Roses returns on bass for a few numbers, and bassist Robert Trujillo, who left Osbourne's band to join Metallica in 2003, plays on six songs. "He hadn't changed a bit," says Osbourne, who recalls Trujillo as a good collaborator. The bass player was in the band long enough to play on Ozzy's Down to Earth album in 2001 before his drama-free exit.
"Everybody that comes along, I'll go, Listen, if you get a gig that you want more than me, all I ask is you give me time to replace you. Don't just say, 'I'm leaving tomorrow.' It's not fair. And Robert did right," says Ozzy. "He's a good man, good guy, good bass player."
Many rockers who have worked with Watt agree on one thing: he's fast. Ordinary Man came together quicker than any previous Ozzy solo record, and Patient Number 9 was more of the same, though spread out over several months of the coronavirus and other interruptions. It sometimes gave Osbourne whiplash.
"Andrew's a piece of cake. It's just that sometimes you have to hold him down, because when you are still on verse one, he's onto the next song in his head," Osbourne explains with a laugh. But for Wylde, who has labored with Ozzy in studios for decades, beginning with 1988's No Rest for the Wicked and 1991's No More Tears, the new pace is a welcome development.
"We'd be sitting in a room jamming over these things over and over," recalls Wylde of early projects with endless rehearsals and second-guessing. "I remember when we were doing 'No More Tears,' it's like, 'We know the song, let's just record this thing already. We don't have to sit in rehearsals and pound this thing for hours.'"
During some Nineties sessions in Bearsville, New York, Ozzy and the band were getting acquainted with the studio, as the in-house engineer told them of some illustrious history that was made on the same console. Wylde remembers one moment in particular:
"He's going, 'Oz, you know what was recorded on this? Tommy.' Oz goes, 'Huh? Who's Tommy?' And he is like, 'Come on, Oz. You know, Tommy was recorded on this.' Oz goes, 'Who the fuck is Tommy?' He says 'The Who! Tommy the opera!'
"Oz goes, 'Ohh,' and then Oz leans over to me and goes, 'They're going to have to use coal to fire this thing up!' The guy was sitting there trying to impress Ozzy with these historical facts and Ozzy's just oblivious. He's not a gearhead. He's like, 'Just gimme the mic and let me sing.'"
Osbourne is a lifelong Beatles fanatic. So, of course, he watched the new Peter Jackson documentary The Beatles: Get Back, absorbing every one of its 468 minutes for clues and inspiration. "I play them all the time still," says Ozzy, who shared the same devotion to the Liverpool pop band as fellow metal originators of his generation: Lemmy Kilmister, his Sabbath bandmates, and Ronnie James Dio. "The Beatles invented so many new things. They were fucking really innovative."
His main complaint about the documentary, he admits, was the lack of serious conflict shown on-camera at the recording sessions. He experienced something different from his own five decades of work in the studio, starting with the single 12-hour session that created Black Sabbath's eponymous 1970 debut. "It was too tidy," he says of the Beatles doc. "They must have argued. Every fucking band argues."
He notes that Paul McCartney is still recording and touring at age 80. ("He looks fucking great!") As long as Ozzy can get healthy and stay that way, it's an example worth aspiring to — and the singer is already talking with Watt about their next project together. He's not finished yet.
"The question I'm asked a lot is, 'Which of your albums do you consider the best one?'" says Ozzy. "Well, I haven't done it yet. I could say Diary or any of the ones right after that. But then that means that every one after those ain't no good. That's why I'll keep striving. It keeps you alive."