Grand Central Publishing, 2010
Hardcover, 416 pages (includes photos)
(Review based on iPhone Kindle version)
Not quite Ozymandias… but a perfect iPhone read
Recently I added the Amazon Kindle app to my iPhone, just to see what it would be like to read a book on a mobile device. Then I was faced with the problem of what book to download first.
I didn’t want it to be a book that might be possessed of such literary quality that I would want it sitting on my bookshelf evoking moods and memories after I had finished reading it, and I didn’t want it to be one of those books that needs to be lying around the house for visitors to see so they can appreciate my au courant-cy (Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Hawking would fall into this category).
I didn’t want it to be anything too serious and substantial because I wasn’t sure how well heavy prose would go with such a tiny screen, or how easy it would be to flip back five or 100 pages to check on something I’d forgotten (I have a sort-of photographic memory when it comes to where on a certain page I read things, which comes in handy when I am reading books but would probably be a wasted talent with a mobile device). So War and Peace was out (although I really must read that book some day).
I needed something light and entertaining.
I was walking through Indigo one day when my first e-book suggested itself to me. It was I Am Ozzy, a memoir by Ozzy Osbourne. This selection may come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog who know that I tend to be a literary snob, but it won’t come as a surprise to those who know of my fondness for popular culture.
As it turned out, I Am Ozzy was a perfect choice: not only perfect for the medium, but perfectly diverting. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Ozzy and Me
I am an aficionado of music from almost all eras and of almost all types, but I was only peripherally aware of Ozzy Osbourne until the day I accidentally tuned in the Canadian feed of The Osbournes from the USA back in 2002 or so. I was uninterested in heavy metal, and had never listened to Black Sabbath, nor did I have much inclination to do so: I’d heard Ozzy chomped the heads off bats, which pretty much put me off him. But like millions of other North Americans, I was soon hooked on MTV’s early-days-reality series. It followed Ozzy, his wife Sharon and two of their three children as they fought, fumbled, cried and laughed their way through their bizarre daily lives.
If The Osbournes had ever been intended to show that famous people live the same kinds of lives as the rest of us do (which I don’t think it could have been), it failed miserably. I will never forget the “f***”-based streams of otherwise largely unintelligible babble that poured out of Ozzy’s mouth (every syllable of which was broadcast in Canada; by contrast, the “fucks” were bleeped out in the U.S.) as he attempted to change channels on the television, discovered an MTV camera in some space he considered private, or stepped into yet another pile of feces deposited throughout the house by one of the army of unhousebroken canines that were such dearly loved members of the Osbourne clan.
Nor will I easily erase from my mind such images as Sharon and Ozzy throwing a ham over the fence at a neighbour whose stereo was too loud, or Ozzy’s efforts (largely unsuccessful, despite the fact that several members of the Beverly Hills Fire Department were on hand to coach him) to start a bonfire on the beach.
Over the next couple of years of watching this insane show, I became a huge fan of Sharon Osbourne’s. She was admittedly rather goofy herself, but there was no doubt who ran the ship that constituted not only Ozzy’s career, but also the family as a whole. She had a mind like a steel trap—but in spite of that, she not only tolerated the insanities of her husband and children but seemed to let them roll off her back like water from a duck. She was there to support and encourage them no matter what they were doing or feeling, even when she was deathly ill herself as a result of her treatments for colon cancer. No den could have had a fiercer guard: I’m sure that even a pit bull would come off badly if it made any indication it might harm a member of Sharon’s family. Paparazzi wouldn’t stand a chance.
But Ozzy remained an enigma to me. He seemed either drunk or stoned nearly all the time, and confused about everything—from what was the matter with his children to how to operate a barbeque. Like most people, no doubt, I assumed that years of alcohol and drug abuse had simply fried his brain.
On the other hand, it occurred to me—as it turns out it did to Ozzy as well—that perhaps he was afflicted by some debilitating disease. But if he had been like this all along, what, I wondered, had ever attracted such an obviously bright, capable and funny woman as Sharon Osbourne to not only care for him and stand beside him, but to love him to bits—as she clearly did—for all these many years?
Well, now I have a better idea about that.
What I learned from reading I Am Ozzy, among other things, is that he is bright and funny, too. He is charmingly self-deprecating, and knows how to tell a story better than many writers I know. He has an instinctive knack for plot when it comes to recounting the incidents that have plagued him throughout the years, employing a structure that includes beginning, middle and end to effect whether the story is hilarious or sobering. Thanks to Ozzy I found myself laughing out loud on airplanes and subways, and even more remarkably I came to sympathize with him and understand him well enough that I can see why Sharon is so fond of him.
Ozzy makes no pretense to be a literary artist – no long descriptive, evocative or detailed passages for him. He’s a meat-and-potatoes writer. As a dyslexic, although the condition was undiagnosed until he was in his thirties, he is also not widely read. (His best subject in school–ironically, as he points out—was heavy metalwork.) But right from the beginning—which occurs in the British Midlands city of Aston—he does manage to convey very clearly to the reader the situations in which he found himself, and how he felt about them.
Born John Michael Osbourne in 1948, Ozzy had a genuine interest in and talent for music and, like so many others in that region at that time, The Beatles gave him hope that he might escape an otherwise lack-lustre future by singing in a band. He didn’t play guitar, and there were lots of front men around, but his normally undemonstrative, skeptical and impoverished parents came across with an asset that made him a hot commodity among other young musicians: they bought him a PA system.
After a few setbacks, each of which caused him to step back despondently toward the abyss of working-class life in post-war Aston—and even landed him in jail at one point— he finally attracted a lead guitarist (Tony Iommi, who almost quit music before he even got really started when a metal press ripped two fingers off his right hand), a bass guitarist (Terry “Geezer” Butler) and a drummer (Bill Ward). Together, they had enough talent, determination and luck—and rage at the soft middle-class wussiness of the Hippie movement—to basically launch the era of heavy-metal rock.
And so the road between Ozzy and most of the others who grew up in his neighbourhood diverged forever. By the time he was 25, almost everything he desired was his merely for the asking, and beautiful women, booze and drugs seemed to arrive unbidden on his doorstep wherever Black Sabbath played.
It is in relating his escapades early in Black Sabbath’s fame that Ozzy really hits his stride as a story-teller. The several scenes that made me laugh out loud (in spite of myself on the level of political correctness) included the horrifically jerky stop-start car trip he and his wife made to the hospital after her waters broke. Their automobile (of course) featured a standard or manual transmission, and Ozzy at the wheel was half drunk, rattled about the impending birth, and had never before in his life been behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. He did not perform well.
Another bizarrely funny tale involved the day on which Ozzy’s paranoia inadvertently contributed to the worst scenario he could possibly have imagined—surrounded as he was at that moment by large quantities of cocaine and top-quality marijuana: the arrival on the doorstep of the band’s rented Bel Air home of the police. (Envision a panicked Ozzy imploring his band-mates to help him snort countless grams of coke off the bathroom floor before the cops come in and find them, and you’ll begin to get the picture.)
It is still beyond me why Ozzy’s first wife put up with his shenanigans, or his friends and acquaintances for that matter, but Ozzy understands that, and his moments of regret are quite obviously sincere. His deep love and respect for Sharon and his children is clear throughout, and he is fair and even compassionate when discussing his fellow musicians and the circumstances that contributed to his firing from Black Sabbath.
Don’t get me wrong: Ozzy has been no saint in his dealings with people in general, particularly women, and it is impossible to empathize with him sometimes no matter how genuine he feels. His relish for the only “real” job he ever liked, which was in a slaughterhouse, almost put me off eating meat forever, and I still can’t forgive him for the bat. However, there is something about his humour and his insight—and his ability to recognize himself as the master of his own misfortunes and the ridiculous situations into which he gets himself—that help to redeem him in the long run.
There can be no doubt that a ghost-writer was involved in the creation of I Am Ozzy, but anyone who has spent more than ten minutes watching The Osbournes will be certain that Ozzy is the author of the memoir. Still, this story is told from his perspective, looking out, and it is a very different Ozzy than the one we see when the cameras are looking in on him.
When I told a friend of mine about my central revelation while reading the book—Ozzy’s own intelligence and level of self-awareness—she reminded me of a scene I had forgotten from The Osbournes. In it, Sharon has arranged to have bubbles fall from the sky at one of Ozzy’s concerts. When he sees them and realizes what they are, he says, “Bubbles? We can’t have bubbles, Sharon! I’m the fucking Prince of Darkness!”
That about sums it up.