Ozz the great and powerless: Black Sabbath brings back despair
I may simply be reading too much into things again, but part of me thinks it wasn’t a coincidence that I noticed Jenny Lawson is hawking mental-health ribbons on the very same day I heard the Black Sabbath reunion album.
Lawson, the self-christened Bloggess and author of the screamingly funny Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, is also a crusader against the misunderstanding that surrounds disorders like anxiety and depression, from which she herself suffers. That’s why her fans can order Lawson-designed merchandise that includes not only coffee mugs decorated with the phrase “When your wrong your wrong” and spiral notebooks emblazoned “People to Kill,” but also more serious-minded jewelry that depicts a silver ribbon and the legend “Never Give Up.”
“The silver ribbon symbolizes the fact that you are a warrior against the stigma of mental illness,” Lawson writes on Zazzle, “whether you suffer from it yourself, help others battle it, or just want others to know that you recognize that it is real and that you have their back.”
I doff my hat to Lawson. It’s hard to act as the face of something as serious as mental illness when you’ve been established in the public eye as a clown. Which is more or less the situation Ozzy Osbourne faces now that he has re-upped with Sabbath for 13, their first full album together in 35 years.
These days, an entire generation knows Osbourne as little more than a punchline. If they have long memories, they might recall the sight of him struggling to fix breakfast in the movie The Decline of Western Civilization Part II – The Metal Years. Otherwise, they just think of him as that befuddled TV dad who once bit the head off some animal.
But several years earlier, he had been a sincerely revered figure among kids whose minds were good and messed up – and not just on chemicals they had to obtain. In word and deed, he was the stand-in for a legion of genetically coded defeatists who felt they had been beaten by life before the game could even get started. Essentially, he was a proto-Morrissey for non-snobs.
It all stemmed from Sabbath. Lyrically speaking, the group concentrated on two basic themes: supernatural activity and mental/emotional torment. Usually, the former existed to act as a metaphor for the latter, which was the group’s real stock in trade. Tracks like the throbbing anti-anthem “Paranoid” defined the image of Ozzy as a fatalistic sad sack who was congenitally incapable of looking on the bright side of life. “People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time,” he divulged, speaking for an entire contingent of listeners probably without even intending it.
(And yes, I know that Osbourne was rarely, if ever, the actual author of the words he was singing. But throughout his career, and no matter how many lyricists he relied upon – from Geezer Butler to Bob Daisley to Satan knows who else – that point of view epitomized by “Paranoid” remained remarkably consistent. His wordsmiths were clearly describing the man they knew, not just feeding him lines.)
While other rock stars cultivated an aura of godlike perfection, Osbourne succeeded by parading his vulnerability. His psyche, he didn’t care if the world knew, was as fragile as glass. As a result, the relationship he enjoyed with his fans was different than the norm. Mick Jagger’s audience worshipped him as some sort of jet-setting Dionysus, but people felt genuinely protective of Ozzy. On his live alum Speak of the Devil (recorded after her had gone solo, but nonetheless comprised entirely of Sabbath material), he addresses the crowd in between songs in a voice as tentative and desperate for validation as a child’s: “We’re having fun, HUH?” Nobody ever threw her panties on the stage at an Ozzy gig; instead, you wanted to knit him a sweater, or fix him a bowl of soup.
Ozzy walked it like he sang it, and he wasn’t afraid to let his neuroses hang out. Or maybe he just couldn’t help it. In Motley Crue’s group autobiography The Dirt, bassist Nikki Sixx recounts some of the wild times his band had opening for their idol on one of his solo tours. There’s a sad undercurrent to the stories that reaches its apex when Osbourne has a near-breakdown on a European stage, collapsing into sobs and pleading “I’m not a freak.” Mr. Osbourne, check your messages; Jenny Lawson has a necklace for you.
Sixx writes that, in retrospect, he feels Ozzy’s behavior indicated actual schizophrenia. Until the members of the Crue are licensed as psychologists by the State of California, we can at least assume that their mentor was majorly depressed (which wouldn’t have come as a big surprise to the guy in my neighborhood whom I once overheard blasting Black Sabbath Vol. 4 in his living room all alone — on New Year’s Eve. Misery loves company).
Critics and parents alike have customarily ridiculed bands like Sabbath and figures like Ozzy, accusing them of peddling mopey doomsaying to kids who have “no real problems” (a phrase that almost always refers to financial comfort). Such accusations are well-known to sufferers of depression, who are routinely told to “cheer up” and count their blessings. They’d find a more sympathetic ear in Osbourne, who clearly understands that their condition renders almost insurmountable the modest challenges that make up a normal life. If you have such a condition, there’s no telling you how easy it should be for you to go out and get that good job, or to strike up a conversation with that pretty girl. You just can’t do it, because … well, because you just can’t. And please stop asking.
We’re only beginning to learn how much of what we used to dismiss as sullen suburban posing has been an actual sickness. If we’re lucky, we’ll learn it just in time to say “We’re sorry.”
I never watched an episode of Ozzy’s TV show. I couldn’t bear to see somebody whose frailty had once brought me such comfort turned into a national joke. And I stopped paying attention to his music right around the time he decided “the kids” wanted him to sound like Faith No More. It took a stunt like 13 to get me to listen again, and I’m glad I did.
At this juncture, one day after its official release, the record strikes me as an earnest, paint-by-numbers approximation of classic Sabbath. And Ozzy’s vocals sound layered and tweaked unto oblivion. But every now and then, the band downshifts into something comparatively delicate, the compelling catch in Ozzy’s balladeer voice meshes perfectly with the melancholia crawling across his teleprompter, and a flood of bittersweet memories washes me right back to our years of morbid companionship.
In “Zeitgeist,” Ozzy portrays a starship captain on a doomed voyage (don’t laugh, dammit!), awaiting with mature resignation an impending cataclysm:
And very soon
The boundless moon
Will show us light
And as we crash
We’ll pray and kiss
And say goodnight
There’s also “Loner,” a character study of a hard-core social-anxiety case (read: him [read: you]). It’s like “Paranoid” in the third person, which is to say that it’s as cozy and reassuring as a warm blanket on a day when you’re too scared to get out of bed.
Communication’s an impossibility
He’s his own best friend, but he’s his own worst enemy
The secrets of his past life deep inside his head
I wonder if he’ll be happy when he’s dead
Welcome back, old friend. Now come inside and shake off the cold. I made soup.
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