To Ozz--or not to Ozz?

August 9, 2002


An Ozzfest without Ozzy Osbourne is sort of like an ice cream sundae without the nuts. Or the cherry, the whipped cream or the ice cream. Basically, what you'd get is the bowl. One had to respect the Clown Prince of Darkness' decision to skip some dates on this summer's tour in order to be at his wife's side as she undergoes chemotherapy for cancer. But then Ozzy reconsidered. While he initially said he'd miss Saturday's stop at the Tweeter Center and Sunday's at Alpine Valley, he has apparently changed his mind (at Sharon's urging) and put himself back on the bill.

According to his publicist, the Ozzman passed out during Sharon's first treatment, so she decided he'd be better off out on the road.

So now Ozzy is back. But will the Oz that Chicago metal fans get really be the Oz that they want?

Ozzfest 2002

With Ozzy Osbourne, System of a Down, Rob Zombie, P.O.D., Drowning Pool, Adema and Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society

9:30 a.m. Saturday, Tweeter Center, 19100 Ridgeland, Tinley Park

9:30 a.m. Sunday, Alpine Valley Music Theatre, 2699 Highway D, East Troy, Wis.

* Tickets, $38.25-$78.25

(312) 559-1212

This year's edition of the daylong metal fest is essentially a victory lap celebrating the newly ubiquitous incarnation of the singer, marking his transformation from a venerated rock elder to just another celebrity commodity. His set opens with a montage of clips from "The Osbournes," the absurdly hyped MTV show that's been the primary vehicle for turning Ozzy into a fat, male, middle-aged Britney Spears.

Call me a killjoy if you will, but I have never found "The Osbournes" amusing.

Ozzy has pretty much been a cartoon throughout his 35-year career. It was always impossible to take him too seriously when he was flashing peace signs with Black Sabbath, leaping about like an epileptic frog and crooning about Iron Man ("Heavy boots of lead/Fill his enemies full of dread!"). Less amusing but no more sinister was the famous stunt that found him biting the head off a dove to launch his solo career.

But Ozzy used to be someone we laughed with . Now, he's become someone we laugh at.

As the frontman for Sabbath, Osbourne arguably did more than any other artist to define the nascent genre of heavy metal. And while his early solo career offered a glossier, more tuneful and somewhat sillier version of the music, efforts such as 1980's "Blizzard of Ozz" and 1981's "Diary of a Madman" still stand as great rock 'n' roll.

As is typical for MTV, "The Osbournes" makes nary a mention of these very real musical accomplishments. Instead, we are invited week after week to voyeuristically enter Ozzy's home to laugh at the man--a doddering, foul-mouthed dad shuffling about his house, besieged by errant pets and offspring, unable to use the TV remote and seemingly devastated by years of drug and alcohol abuse.

This is funny? Can anyone imagine dropping by an old-age home to mock a blues great as he gums his oatmeal, or stopping by a rehab center to chuckle as a troubled jazzman attempts to clean up? Why don't we just visit Brian Wilson and build him a sandbox, or call on famous acid casualty Syd Barrett to give him some fresh vegetables?

Music industry insiders who lay claim to having spent some time with "the real Ozzy" are divided over whether MTV gives us an accurate portrait of the man. Some say he really is that much of a mess, but others contend that it's as much of an act as his old Satan's Spawn routine.

So who's to blame for this shallow, new-millennial Ozzy? Diehard metalheads tend to vilify Sharon as the architect of Ozzy's commodification--she ranks up there with Yoko Ono and Courtney Love as the most hated woman in rock--but Ozzy has to be held in some degree complicit for helping to reduce his public persona from a once-cool cartoon (think "Looney Tunes" and Chuck Jones) to a pathetic, dumb and one-dimensional one (hello, "Garfield").

The motive is clearly the money--MTV paid an estimated $5 million to renew the show for a second season, with the potential for the family to make much more if the ratings stay high. Ozzy certainly hasn't made that much from Black Sabbath of late.

When the singer toured with the reunited Sabbath in recent years, he was still a fairly ridiculous presence, and his voice certainly wasn't what it once was. But he helped the band deliver a mighty wallop nonetheless, and the impact was nearly as potent as it was in the group's heyday, when it crafted enduring masterpieces such as "Paranoid" and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath."

This is the legacy that real metalheads honor and that Ozzfest could help commemorate--if it were used as a vehicle to promote worthy bands from metal subgenres such as stoner- and biker-rock, or thrash-, black- and death-metal, instead of being treated as just one more merchandising opportunity for Ozzy, Inc.

In recent years, the festival has become the prime showcase for the wretched nu-metal genre, the tuneless, angst-ridden branch of mainstream metal that Sharon Osbourne has been instrumental in championing (and with which Sabbath and vintage Ozzy have little or nothing in common). Optimists point to a handful of promising acts on this year's bill as evidence that Sharon, well aware that nu-metal's 15 minutes are up, is moving the festival toward more challenging sounds.

Preceding Ozzy on the main stage is System of a Down, the Los Angeles art-rock quartet that's strongly influenced by the late Frank Zappa, and which stands as the most successful aggressively political rock band since Rage Against the Machine. (Unlike Zack de la Rocha--or Bono, for that matter--vocalist Serj Tankian avoids overt preaching, agitating instead for the audience to rise up and think for itself.)

Also worthy are the first band on the main stage, Black Label Society, the biker-rock combo fronted by shredding guitarist Zakk Wylde, and, on the second stage, Meshuggah, the much-lauded Swedish industrial-metal band.

But there is also still plenty of thoroughly generic nu-metal. Rounding out the main stage lineup are the relatively worthless P.O.D., Drowning Pool and Adema. Plus Rob Zombie, who, as a tired, ever-pandering cartoon caricature himself, nearly out-Ozzies the Ozzy of 2002.

Meanwhile, forget "The Osbournes." If you want to know the Ozzy Osbourne who's really worth knowing, I recommend returning to or newly discovering the following classic discs:

Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath," "Paranoid," "Master of Reality," "Volume 4," and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath." Crafted between 1970 and 1973, every one of Sabbath's first five albums is indispensable, a must-own for anyone who cares about truly heavy but consistently tuneful rock. Here are the blueprints for much of the heavy metal of the last three decades, though very little of it has ever topped Sabbath for its sheer visceral impact.

Ozzy Osbourne, "Blizzard of Ozz" and "Diary of a Madman." Not quite in the same league as Sabbath, the Ozzman's first two solo albums from 1980 and 1981 are also metal classics, with Ozzy finding a strong replacement for Tony Iommi in guitarist Randy Rhoads (soon to die in a tragic plane crash) and delivering gently goofy but ultimately irresistible metal anthems such as "Crazy Train."

A word of caution, though: For the new reissues of these discs, Sharon ordered that the parts of original bassist Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake be replaced by Robert Trujillo (ex-Suicidal Tendencies) and Mike Bordin (ex-Faith No More) from Ozzy's current touring band. Daisley and Kerslake have a $20 million lawsuit pending for back monies they claim Ozzy owes them, and Sharon didn't want to have to pay them performance royalties for the reissues.

Nice lady, eh?