Mark Ellis: The Last Book I Loved, I Am Ozzy


As a lifelong Ozzy fan, I scarfed down his memoir like a stoner polishing off a bag of Doritos.

I Am Ozzy turned out to be a pretty good read, at least that’s what I thought. A week after finishing the book I got curious about what other people were saying about it. The reviews came in and the literary outlook was bright for rock’s Prince of Darkness. Critics from the blogosphere to mainstream print agreed with me, and lauded the book for its authentic voice and startling revelations.

When I first saw Black Sabbath at the top of an eclectic 1970 bill at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, I didn’t even know what I was looking at. I was eighteen and had gone to see local favorite Santana, a band more in keeping with the peace/love ethic I had been weaned on as I was coming of age in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was pretty much struck dumb when the demonic, sludge-laden Brits launched into a punishing set.

The peace/love mantra–precursor to the progressive ideology that would characterize the decade–had been stood on its head. There wasn’t much of either in the band’s leaden repertoire. And yet, in the lyrics to “Children of the Grave” and other downer songs, I got a visceral dose of the kind of societal horrors my hippie friends had warned about: devastation of the environment, mutually assured destruction, and capitalist exploitation.

At the vortex was Ozzy, who, in the context of Vietnam, Kent State, and the 1968 Kennedy/King assassinations, captured my intense need for some kind of male archetype, preferably apolitical. I’m not claiming there weren’t some intoxicants involved, but it was Ozzy who made me a head-banger, and less of a hippie. I never looked back.

A common theme in the critical assessments of I Am Ozzy is that the autobiography reads as if Ozzy himself is telling his story while sitting across from you in a pub. No doubt the Godfather of heavy metal can spin a good yarn, but reviewers also praise ghostwriter Chris Ayres for his likely role in smoothing out the narrative. For me, reading it was like a vicarious fiction; as if just once in all the scores of times I’d seen Sabbath and Ozzy solo I’d gotten backstage.

If you thought Ozzy’s offstage legacy began and ended with headless bats and a piss on the Alamo, you’ve got another think coming. In this profanity-laced tell-all, no behavioral headstone is left unturned. He’s upfront about his blunt-force epiphanies, hard-won and usually inebriated truths, and failures as a father, husband, and man. The episodic prose erases any doubt as to why genetic researchers are now interested in taking a look at Ozzy’s genes.

Greg Barbich, writing for Blog Critics, calls Ozzy’s recounting of the early Sabbath days as “pretty incredible.”  It’s true. Hearing about how these progenitors of doom rock cooked up slabs like “War Pigs” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” fills blank spaces in the minds of millions whose adoration made the band one of the most successful in rock history.

The first time I saw Ozzy solo was at the Oakland, Coliseum circa 1981. My idol had been kicked out of Black Sabbath and nobody really understood why. No matter. He rocked his way to vindication like a hellion on speed, soon eclipsing the Sabs in terms of celebrity and gross receipts. Listening to new and fabulously heavy tunes like “Crazy Train” I couldn’t have known that it was unlikely Ozzy would remember playing that night.

The tragic end of guitarist Randy Rhoads is seared into pop culture’s collective consciousness, but Ozzy’s befuddled and grief-stricken reminiscence should stand as the final word on how the madness came full circle that day.

Writing about the religious avengers who hounded him from arena to arena he admits, “The funny thing is I’m actually quite interested in the Bible, and I’ve tried to read it several times.” In some Faustian bargain with my own Christian God, I found a way to love Ozzy Osbourne, and, truth to tell, sinfully coveted his life while still keeping the faith.

In the memoir we learn about his estranged first family, follow him through the multi-platinum years of drug and alcohol driven dissolution, and mark his redemption at the bosom of the fiery and devoted Sharon, his ultimate savior.

My first reaction to Sharon was negative. It was similar to when Yoko Ono appeared on the arm of John Lennon. The last thing I wanted was some myth-busting woman taking charge and diluting the power of my cherished, transgressive male archetype. This resistance to Sharon was ameliorated when I learned that she had rescued my idol off the floor of a rented Hollywood cottage.

I stuck around through the MTV series, The Osbournes, though many of my metallic brethren had jumped the shark on Ozzy. I was in my fifties, and though I still liked metal, other music, past and present, provided an alternate–some would say more sophisticated–soundtrack to my life. And on some level, after loving and affectionately envying Ozzy forever, it was edifying to see him schlepping around in a bathrobe, yelling about pet accidents, entrapped, however lavishly, in recognizable domestic mediocrity.

Simon Garfield of the London Observer notes that: “the shadow of an over-primped Sharon Osbourne is everywhere {in the book}, her ambition smoldering backstage and at Ozzfest until it burnt through on television.”

Ozzy keeps his tale from degenerating into another litany of rock excess by the same disordered perseverance and dumb luck that has seen him through more lives than the cat in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The last time I saw him was in early 2000 at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. I was too old to risk the pit, but was absolutely dumbstruck again, this time by the images appearing on the massive stage backdrop.

Lyndon Johnson warning, Richard Nixon escalating, napalm falling, and Brezhnev threatening were but a few of the nightmarish captures which towered over the devil sign affirmations we head bangers offered up to the cosmos. It was just like old times.

No spoilers here. Suffice it to say that the Christian/anti-Christian ethos which characterized both Sabbath and solo Ozzy permeates this memoir. Beloved and deplored, Ozzy Osbourne as self-described is at once a dream-come-true superstar and magnificent accident nobody can look away from.

There’s more I could tell. I’ve followed Ozzy since the very first Sabs record in 1969, and truth be told, into more than a few places I probably shouldn’t have. But I’m content to give the last word to Kirkus Reviews, which also noted the memoir’s readable and darkly illuminating prose: “An autobiography as toxic and addictive as any drug its author has ever ingested.”

Freelance journalist and writer Mark Ellis is the author of Ladder Memory, Stories from the Painting Trade, a memoir of his life as a painting contractor in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland. More from this author →