By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
This is Ozzy Osbourne at 64 years old: unfailingly polite, mildly profane and not nearly as fumbling and dunderheaded and downright lost as his "Sharon!"-screaming reality show alter ego.
Over the course of a recent conference call, the metal lord is thoughtful, well-spoken, calm for long stretches. He talks about being a man of faith. God is "a good guy." And yet he also has no problem playing the part of the spiritually unhinged, the lunatic with the cross around his neck and madness in his eyes.
"I didn't wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to call myself the Prince of Darkness,' " says the Brit born John Michael Osbourne, whose seminal rock band, Black Sabbath, will play Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Monday. "I'm okay with it. Better than being called an a------!"
As for the "Bible thumpers" who continue to protest and picket his shows: "We just kind of laugh at it. It's quite amazing. They don't really know what they're complaining about."
The hourlong chat is often exactly what you think it will be; for all his articulation and barstool humor, he can also string together great mumbled soliloquies, his sentences trailing off into Seussian patter. That said, there is no talk of biting the heads off bats or pigeons; there is zero discussion of the time he snorted a line of fire ants in front of Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx.
The conference call is almost exclusively about Ozzy the artist, not Ozzy the heavy-metal clown.
The national journalists involved are reverent, respectful. There is great interest in Bill Ward, the original Sabbath drummer. Ozzy, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist-lyricist Geezer Butler are all back for what could be Sabbath's final go-round. Ward, however, is abstaining from the tour because of contractual squabbles. "We'd love to have Bill back in the fold. I wish him no harm." When pressed about the financial matters, Ozzy cuts the query short: "I don't know anything about it."
No one pries into rumors of marital disharmony. No one digs into the goings-on of his children. About his domestic life, Ozzy will say, "There's never a dull moment in the Osbourne house" and leave it at that.
Only I make mention of his spending significant swaths of his life doping the heck out of his body, all the while maintaining a sublime singing voice, one of the great soaring mysteries in rock 'n' roll. How did he preserve that vocal that can still cleanly unload War Pigs and Paranoid and Iron Man? "I stopped smoking cigarettes! I stopped smoking drugs! I got one instrument, and that's my God-given voice!"
Spending an hour with Ozzy is as enlightening as it is just plain fun; there aren't many rock stars as mythologized and rumor-whipped as the Ozzman Cometh. And yet here he is, the real man behind the curtain. Upon hearing that new Sabbath album 13 went No. 1 in several countries — including, for the first time ever, the United States — Ozzy gets solemn, humble. The guy is blown away.
"I'm still kind of pinching myself," he says about the success of his first studio LP with the band since '78. "I'm going to wake up and it's all a dream. It's kind of hard to swallow right now. I'm not saying I don't want to be No. 1; we've been doing this for a long time. It just never ceases to amaze me or surprise me, this business."
13 was produced by Rick Rubin, a stripped-down, back-to-basics savant who is revered among musicians — well, most musicians. Rubin wanted Ozzy to go back to the beginning, listen to 1970 debut Black Sabbath, return to his roots. It wasn't an immediate love affair.
"I couldn't for the life of me figure out what he was saying," Ozzy laughs. "What the (expletive) do you want?! … Between Sabbath and my own solo career, I've made some interesting music. Why the hell does he want to go back and listen to the first album?"
When someone asks about the mood of the 13 tour, Ozzy gets solemn: "We're grown men now. We have families, responsibilities. Nobody gets stoned or drunk. I don't drink or use anymore."
There is a pause, almost disappointment in the air. So Ozzy Osbourne, a man whose musical talents have often been overshadowed by his no-holds-barred lifestyle, plays the part one more time.
He ups the volume in his voice, summons a demonic bark-at-the-moon cackle and shouts: "I'm still f------ crazy!"
And once again, all is right in the heavy-metal universe.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.