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Ozzy Osbourne, the family man

Ozzy Osbourne will always be remembered for his uncontrollable appetite. Once, on stage, he bit the head off a dead bat thrown by a fan. (He says he thought it was a rubber toy.) In a meeting with record executives, he bit the head off a live dove. (He says he was drunk and feeling unappreciated.)

On this day, though, the pioneering heavy-metal singer from Great Britain isn't even picking at the scones that his wife, Sharon, has ordered up with tea to their suite at the Helmsley Palace. Besides watching his waistline, Ozzy is suffering from a lingering cold, fatigue from a year of almost non-stop touring, and myriad other minor maladies, such as fallen arches and a torn toenail.

Ozzy, whose songs long have toyed with Satanist imagery, is somewhat pained by his past. He has said he knows that the bat and dove incidents, from the early 1980s, will be prominently featured in his obituary, as will a two-month, pre-stardom stint in jail for burglary and, later, episodes of excess involving illicit drugs, public drunkenness, groupies, and an assault charge (later dropped) emanating from an attack on his wife.

Then there was the arrest for urinating on the Alamo; three lawsuits (all dismissed) accusing him of inducing, through his lyrics, teenagers to commit suicide; a spat two years ago with Cardinal John O'Connor, who singled him out in a sermon against rock music and condemned him as a Satanist.

"Unbeknownst to Cardinal O'Connor, I am not the Antichrist," he said, gazing out a 46th-floor window and almost directly down on the cross-shaped edifice of St. Patrick's Cathedral. "I am a family man."

Ozzy Osbourne a family man? Ozzy, the rock star that equally ancient Alice Cooper has called the godfather of heavy metal? Ozzy, the long-haired guy sitting here semi-comatose on the couch, looking like a hybrid of a middle-age member of the Manson family and a Wayne's World wannabe? Ozzy, the guy with the turquoise-tinted John Lennon spectacles, the Hunter Thompsonish cigarette-holder, the crude "OZZY" tattoo on his fist and other tattoos etched over his arms and chest? Ozzy, with the five crosses dangling from around his neck and another from a gold bracelet?

Ozzy, a family man?

As in Ozzie Nelson?

"All the stuff on stage, the craziness, it's all just a role that I play, my work," Ozzy said. "The closest I ever came to witchcraft is a Ouija board. And believe it or not, I can't even watch slash films. They freak me out.

"I'm like Vincent Price. He was really a regular guy in private, into cookery as a hobby and all that."

For much of his career, particularly when he was lead singer for Black Sabbath from 1968 to 1979, Ozzy was known more for his hell-raising than for his marginal musical talents. But two years ago, well into his solo career, he said, he quit drinking and taking drugs and started an exercise regimen that, along with a mostly vegetarian diet, has helped him melt the flab off his formerly cherubic face and chubby body. His 5-foot-10-inch frame now weighs a fit 156 pounds, down from 193.

Evidence of Ozzy's new life can be found throughout his $695-a-night suite. Instead of half-empty bottles of Courvoisier, there are containers of Diet Pepsi. And the contraption most resembling drug paraphernalia is a Japanese vaporizer in the kitchen that he says he uses, along with frequent squirts of Entertainer's Secret, to soothe his sore throat.

Sharon Osbourne, who has been married to Ozzy for 10 years and works as his manager, is just as trim as Oz. Unlike his casual rock star duds, though, her get-up is a conservative blue designer suit. And unlike her mumbling husband's diction, hers is quick, precise. "He's a working-class hero," she said. "That's why the kids love him."

Ozzy, whose given name is John, was born in Birmingham, the Gary, Ind., of England; his father was a factory worker. Sharon, 37, was born to an upper-class family near London; her father was Ozzy's previous manager.

"People expect my wife to be like Elvira or something," Ozzy said.

Scattered on the couch are battalions of toy soldiers that were ordered into battle by one of Ozzy's five children, 6-year-old Jack, who is launching a simultaneous raid on the pastries on the tea setting. Ozzy's other children are Kelly, 7; Aimee, 9; and, from a previous marriage, Louis, 16; and Jessica, 18.

"I consider myself a pretty good parent," he said. "I don't beat my kids around the house. My kids haven't turned out like Eddie Munster."

He says he has frequently lectured his children on the dangers of drugs, drinking and unprotected sex.

"Jacko," Ozzy said, "what do you do when someone says, "Smoke this?' "

"Walk away," Jack said.

"Or, "Swallow this'?"

"Say no," Jack said.

This exchange may seem incongruous, if not hypocritical, to anyone who heard Ozzy on stage the night before. Somewhere between belting out Paranoid and War Pigs he mischievously asked whether anyone in the crowd was high. The response was predictable.

But Ozzy says he refuses to preach sobriety. "Kids don't want to hear it," he said. "They don't want to hear Ozzy Osbourne go walk out on stage and go, "Right, kids, you know, before I start this song Suicide Solution, I want you to know it's all about the dangers of alcohol.'

"They want to see me rock."

Sharon added: "Kids pay for a ticket to escape for two hours. Ozzy's not Sting. He's not going to bore everybody with what he believes."

Ozzy's current tour, billed as his last, is the "No More Tours Tour."

"My schedule for the past 25 years has been write, record, tour for a year, take a little time off, then write, record, tour for a year," he said. "I feel like a mouse on the wheel. I am going to continue to write and record at my leisure," he added, "and do a few gigs when I want to do it, instead of these killer tours."

Ozzy, who has sold more than 10-million records in his solo career and millions more with Black Sabbath, no longer needs touring to back up his album sales. His most recent, No More Tears (Epic), has sold almost 3-million copies, his publicist says.

There are rock stars performing today who are older than Ozzy, but there are few heavy-metal musicians his age who still go through the requisite gyrations and gymnastics. Just the 30 or 40 times a show he bends over and dumps buckets of water on the front rows, and on himself, would strain most backs, as well as wash off their eyeliner (Ozzy uses Estee Lauder's pencil).

Time does take its toll. Ozzy's jumps on stage nowadays look more like little frog leaps. His struts sometimes come off as flat-footed waddles. (Blame it on the knee brace.) Between songs, Ozzy seems addicted to squirts of Entertainer's Secret and cups of Throat Coat tea. And when he leaves stage for what seems like a four-month guitar solo by band member Zakk Wylde, he is escorted to a little tent where he cuddles with his beloved vaporizer.

"It's hard," said Ozzy, who always does a few laps around the arena just before going on. "You got to be like an athlete, and you get all these injuries because you are so pumped up with adrenaline, and you don't know what you are doing. The other night, I tore my big toenail off, and I didn't even know it until I got off stage, and my shoe was filled with blood.

"My wife keeps saying, "Slow down, slow down,' but I can't."

Ozzy's mellowness, not all that evident in a performance, is obvious backstage. There the crowd looks about as deviant as a Barry Manilow audience. Instead of drug dealers and rock 'n' roll Lolitas, there are lots of normal-looking relatives and friends, many of them well into middle age, some of them small children.

Devil-worshipers may be chagrined to learn that Ozzy, a member of the Church of England, kneels and prays backstage just before going on; he makes the sign of the cross, too.

He divides his time between a 14th-century farm 40 miles north of London and a rented home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where his children go to school. Some days, just rolling off the couch in a hotel suite can be exhausting.

"I defy any guy of 43," he said hoarsely while limping toward the kitchen and the vaporizer, "to do what I do."