After Roland Barthes' "The Brain of Einstein"Ozzy Osbourne is a mythical subject: paradoxically, the man who withstands the most punishing substance abuse is viewed with admiration rather than pity. Rock stars always have something reified about them, be it their genitals, their hair, or their hands. Thus is the case with Black Sabbath’s front man; Ozzy is commonly signified by his substance tolerance, which among the pantheon of rock and roll, is rivalled only by Keith Richards. Perhaps because of his aesthetic connection to the occult, Ozzy Osbourne’s ability to consume huge doses of drugs and alcohol without dying is infused with a sort of magical character; not a physiological trait, but an act of will; he defies moralizing about drugs through tolerating their prodigious side effects. Mythologically, Ozzy is the party without end, the artist untethered from consequences, free to escape the confines of reality while clap-jumping up and down before thousands of enthusiastic fans.
Ozzy has to some extent perpetuated his myth by mumbling his way through thousands of interviews, recounting his most psychotic, drug-addled behavior again and again. At a meeting with record executives in 1981, the Prince of Darkness (as Ozzy is sometimes called) bit the heads off two doves that his wife/manager, Sharon, had given him to release as a publicity stunt. He was extremely drunk. In 1982, a fan threw a live bat on stage in Des Moines, Iowa and Ozzy bit its head off. In 2019, he released a toy bat with a removable head to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the incident. In 1989, while heavily under the influence, Ozzy tried to strangle Sharon to death, was arrested, and avoided prison because she refused to press charges. One can hear all these stories and more in the 2020 episode of A&E’s “Biography: The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne.” The myth of Ozzy elevates someone so unaffected by consequences that people speak of his substance abuse and violence with awe rather than fear or judgement; his actions, so far outside what almost anyone could get away with, make him the subject of a sort of ritual exoneration in the media, the inarticulate outsider celebrated for his inability to accommodate societal norms.
In 2010, Ozzy Osbourne, who was 61-years-old at the time, became the first rock star to have their genome sequenced. He provided a blood sample to Cofactor Genomics, a company that performed the sequencing; another company, Knome, Inc., analyzed the genetic data. About the project, Ozzy told the Sunday Times of London, “I was curious. Given the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years – not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol...you name it – there’s no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.” Knome Inc. co-founder Nathan Pearson reported the results at a TED event in 2010, explaining, “We found many variants – novel variants – in genes associated with addiction and metabolism that are interesting but not quite definitive.” Weeks later, ABC News ran the headline, “Ozzy Osbourne is a Genetic Mutant.”
The act of having his genome sequenced contributed to Ozzy’s myth in several ways. First, it allowed another opportunity to repeat the legendary amounts of drugs and alcohol the singer consumed. Next, searching for a genetic explanation for Ozzy’s substance tolerance fed into his characterization as superhuman. At the same time, allowing DNA to explain his behavior refused to hold him to the same moral standards as someone’s 61-year-old addict brother who has consumed a comparable quantity of liquor, paint thinner, and crystal meth, likely of far lower quality than Ozzy’s supply, all without access to rock star-quality medical care or substance abuse therapy.
Of course, someone’s addict brother didn’t belt out “Supernaut” at California Jam in one of the most immediately recognizable voices in the last 50 years of popular music. There, in 1974 at the Ontario Motor Speedway, from center stage ensconced with a broad rainbow, Ozzy invited 250,000 fans to, “Clap your hands everyone, let’s get stoned!” Before his 2002 MTV reality family drama, “The Osbournes,” depicted Ozzy as shuffling and geriatric, his anti-Christian, anti-traditional persona in Black Sabbath and his solo career allowed fans to view Ozzy’s self-destructive substance abuse and violence as evidence of authenticity. Through substance abuse, Ozzy fulfills the myth by seeming to embody the character depicted in his music. For example, in the 1970 song, “Fairies Wear Boots,” Ozzy sings, “So I went to the doctor, see what he could give me/ He said, son, son you’ve gone to far/ ‘Cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do/ yeah.” The final line delivered in response to a doctor’s warning – simply, “yeah” – demonstrates the singer’s disregard for establishment views on substance abuse with an oblivious, humorous dismissal.
Today, Ozzy Osbourne is 72-years-old. He has spent the last twenty-years in and out of relative sobriety, living a semi-retired life curated by the ever-busy and controversial Sharon. Black Sabbath finished out their farewell tour in 2017. In 2019, Ozzy fell and broke his neck. He recently underwent surgery to address his injuries. In 2020, the Prince of Darkness was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though he’d been described as having a “Parkinson’s-like” disorder for years, often attributed to his legendary substance abuse. In September 2021, Sharon told the Daily Mail, “The thing I’m most excited about is my hubby getting back on stage. It’s what I pray for.” This means Ozzy is currently incapable of performing. Though he may have held up through intense substance abuse in his younger years, it would be hard to say Ozzy has continued to live with the impunity that endowed him with mythological status. He would have to tour for 16 more years to match country legend/stoner, Willie Nelson. However, by outliving Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Syd Barrett, Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and many more substance-abusing rockstars, Ozzy has come to embody the myth that someone can endure unmitigated self-destruction if only they are oblivious enough to the consequences of their actions.
Eric Aldrich's recent work has appeared in Terrain.org, Euphony, Full Stop, and Weber: The Contemporary West. His favorite Black Sabbath tune is "A National Acrobat;" from Ozzy's solo work, Eric particularly enjoys "Over the Mountain."