Hot, sweaty, loud, Ozzy!

August 12, 2002



People dressed from head to foot entirely in black tend to be especially miserable on a 96-degree day.

This was one of the primary lessons to be learned as the seventh annual Ozzfest, Sharon Osbourne’s supremely well-marketed daylong traveling grind fest, pulled into a packed Tweeter Center on Saturday.

Here is another: While critics and music-industry insiders have been pronouncing nu-metal dead since early 2002, there are still countless variations of brutally ugly guys standing onstage cranking out tuneless, formless churn (to call it “metal” is really an insult to the genre) while pointlessly growling like Cookie Monster.

Finally, there is this: It’s enough to make a grown man cry when his $4.50 Diet Pepsi is knocked over in an eight-person melee after the drummer for Drowning Pool throws a stick into the crowd. Price of a pair of Pro-Mark 5B nylon-tip hickory drum sticks: $6, which means that souvenir was less expensive than my ridiculously overpriced Tweeter Center beverage (and probably had less emotional value, too).

Midway through his set on the main stage, cartoon goremeister Rob Zombie paused to mock Moby’s Area2 [N.B. STYLE IS “2” AS IN SQUARED], which pulled into the same venue Thursday and drew only half the crowd. But while the second year of Moby’s festival was a commercial and critical disappointment, it was still trying to pursue the ambitious goal of presenting a wide variety of different sounds to a curious, open-minded audience.

With a few exceptions late in the day, Ozzfest presented a whole lot of the same thing, repeatedly endlessly from 10:30 in the morning until nearly 11 at night, with very little variation and few artistic highlights. The only way to tell “name” main-stage nu-metal draws such as Adema and Drowning Pool apart was by their stage props and the banners that hung behind them.

Adema were the ugly, churning guys with the “Adema” banner, while Drowning Pool were the ugly, churning guys with the “Drowning Pool” banner. Both sounded pretty much like this: AAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!, amplified to about twice the volume of your average construction site, but with a much less interesting rhythm.

Things grew a little less generic as the day wore on. P.O.D. were the gruesome, thrashing fellows who slavishly imitated Rage Against the Machine while flanked by two giant, dreadlocked lions’ head statues, with red eyes that lit up and smoke that poured out of their mouths. These props were far more interesting than the music, which also held true for Rob Zombie, the gruesome, thrashing fellow who performed in front of giant posters of famous movie monsters.

Musically, Zombie has taken the formula for his old band, White Zombie (Black Sabbath-inspired horror-metal minus the hooks but with added growl and drum loops), retooled it as nu-metal, and emerged with absolutely nothing special. But he is at least an engaging presence onstage, prowling about like a psycho killer while seducing comely female fans to dance behind him and lift up their tops.

Hands-down, the most ambitious and interesting act of the day were the penultimate main-stage performers, System of a Down, the Los Angeles quartet who merge thrash-metal, punk, Eastern drones, and twisted Frank Zappa-inspired art-rock into a swirling, psychedelic sound with a sharp and provocative lyrical message.

In contrast to the group’s previous headlining performances at the Aragon and the Allstate Arena, vocalist Serj Tankian restricted the band’s radical political proselytizing to the briefest of exhortations quickly tossed in amid the noise. (“No more war!”) He seemed to think the Ozzfest crowd was there strictly to party and bang heads, and he may have been right. But it was disappointing nonetheless that he didn’t try to challenge the captive audience on a more intellectual level.

At least System didn’t compromise musically. The nimble players rapidly shifted gears between the diverse elements in their sound on brilliant signature tracks such as “Chop Suey,” offering the only arena- worthy melodies of the day, outside the performance by the festival’s namesake.

Which, of course, brings us to Ozzy.

Seeing Ozzy Osbourne today is much like seeing Elvis Presley in Las Vegas toward the end of his life in the mid-’70s. His band is professional and precise: Drummer Mike Bordin is a monstrous powerhouse, and guitarist Zakk Wylde is a potent shredder (though not interesting enough to deserve his long mid-set solo showcase).

As for Ozzy—well, he sort of has to be seen to be believed, so strange and surreal is his stage presence as he closes in on age 55. For the faithful, his concert is a near-religious experience, either because of their devotion to his long-ago role as a co-founder of heavy metal with Black Sabbath, or because of his current god-like celebrity thanks to the MTV series “The Osbournes.”

(Obligatory “Osbournes” gossip: Son Jack surfaced twice to gratuitously show his mug with System and his dad’s band, most likely with the hope of picking up chicks, while Ozzy thanked his fans several times for helping him deal with wife Sharon’s cancer, though he noted that, “My place is here with you, my people!” instead of at his wife’s bedside.)

In their rabid desire to bask in his presence, true believers are amazingly willing to forgive the very sad realities of an artist who is well past his prime. Ozzy stumbled about the stage in a Thorazine shuffle, slurred his words, delivered great material (“War Pigs,” “Mr. Crowley”) and horrible schlock (“Gets Me Through,” “Goodbye to Romance”) with little discernment between the two, and was all too willing to pose as a clown. (The show opened with a video montage of him in drag in the guise of other ubiquitous TV personalities, including Ms. Cleo and Kim Catrall from “Sex in the City.”)

Yes, Ozzy has always been a supremely goofy performer, with his urgings to “wave those hands” and his trademark jerky leap-frog move. And he arguably works harder today than he ever has, doing that frog move throughout the show, gamely reaching for those high notes that are no longer there, and gleefully using two water cannons and the overhead sprinklers so that fans can share in his water fetish. (An Ozzy show is always a very wet experience, but it’s hard to complain, since the dousing is the only thing at Ozzfest that is free.)

But while the distinction is subtle and may not be obvious to the mass audience of Ozzfest and MTV, hardcore fans (and I count myself among them) have to be saddened to witness Ozzy’s transformation from a silly but significant rock icon to a mere entertainer, cheerfully shucking and jiving en route to collect his larger-than-ever paycheck.

The Ozzy of Ozzfest is to the Ozzy of Sabbath and the early solo years what the Vegas Elvis was to the King who recorded the Sun Sessions. Ozzy himself may or may not know the difference, and he may or may not care. But that doesn’t mean that we should be happy about it.