Youth Gone Wylde
Zakk Wylde swears the 2002 Ozzfest isn’t cursed. But Ozzy Osbourne’s longtime guitarist and songwriting partner has seen his fair share of ups and downs in the last several months. First, there was the abrupt departure of the Chris-Cornell-led Rage Against the Machine. (“I guess Chris just said, ‘Go fuck yourselves; I’m outta here,'” Wylde explains diplomatically.) Then, there was a round of European dates that were canceled because of Wylde’s extended bout with food poisoning, exacerbated by pulling double stage duty with his own band, Black Label Society.
“It was beyond ridiculous,” he recalls. “I was getting IVs before the show ’cause I couldn’t eat. I was puking my brains out, pissing out my ass. But I still got up there and kicked some ass. I went on for about two weeks, didn’t complain about nothing. You gotta get up there and you gotta be a man, and suck it up and do what you gotta do.”
Genuine medical tragedy struck a few weeks later when Ozzfest organizer Sharon Osbourne was diagnosed with cancer. The tour pressed on, but its namesake is currently on hiatus to attend to his wife’s chemotherapy sessions.
“It’s weird not having him around, but there’s more important shit — making sure Sharon’s OK,” Wylde says, buoyed by the news that Ozzy is slated to return the following day. “That’s bigger than us doing a bunch of goddamn shows. Sharon’s like my mom. If you say anything bad about her, I’m liable to kick your ass.”
Sharon recently became surrogate mom to a large chunk of America, after her family’s reality-TV show was ranked the highest-rated program in MTV history. Wylde’s not a big Osbournes fan.
“I really don’t see much of it, ’cause I’m living it every day,” he chuckles. “I’d rather watch Song Remains the Same or something.”
Would Wylde ever agree to his own series?
“Yeah, why not?” he shrugs. “It’d be nothing but booze flyin’ around, pain pills, just getting wasted all the time.”
Wylde’s story is pure Cinderella — the fairy tale, not the band. In 1987, the nineteen-year-old was plucked from the New Jersey bar circuit and placed in one of the highest-profile metal-guitar gigs on the planet: shredding for the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness. Filling Randy Rhodes’ shoes (and those of his replacement, Jake E. Lee) wasn’t an easy task, but Wylde went on to become an integral member of the Ozzy infrastructure, cowriting some of the singer’s most popular numbers, including “Miracle Man” and “Mama, I’m Coming Home.” And while he’s comfortable with his lofty position in the Ozzy hierarchy, Wylde — a teenage Black Sabbath addict — still doesn’t seem to have digested it completely.
“It’s like a dream come true, man,” he drawls in a nonchalant New Jersey accent. “But I never look out at the audience and go, ‘Oh my god,’ ’cause otherwise you get caught up in the moment and start buying into your own bullshit. Then you’re done. When I’m an old man, I can sit back and reflect and look back on it, but while it’s goin’ on, I don’t give a shit.”
There are a few other things Wylde doesn’t give a shit about, and he’d like to get them off his chest. For starters, the sessions that produced Osbourne’s 2001 effort, Down to Earth, were an exercise in frustration for Wylde, a purist who considered it his duty to keep the boss on a head-banging musical path. The suits at Epic Records saw it differently and were fervent to mold Ozzy into a contemporary unit-shifter. A heated behind-the-scenes battle ensued.
“The record company was trying to pawn these songs off on Ozzy from Dave Grohl and the Offspring,” Wylde recalls. “And I’m goin,’ ‘Guys, are you fuckin’ jokin’? Do you understand that Ozzy fans hate these fucking bands? Hate ’em!’ It’s just like Kryptonite, dude. We don’t want that shit near us. I’m an Ozzy fan. Still. If I bought an Ozzy album and found out the Offspring’s writin’ songs, that ain’t good. I don’t give a fuck — fire me, fuck you. You can get someone else to play on that shit, ’cause I ain’t gonna fuckin’ do it. ‘Cause all the Ozzy hardcores are gonna go, ‘You got this bullshit on the record?’ And they’re like, ‘You think?’ And I was like, ‘Do you think? He was the leader of fuckin’ Black Sabbath! You motherfuckers are supposed to be A&R-ing Ozzy’s record? Why don’t we just do a Britney Spears fuckin’ song on the record, or an ‘N Sync song?'”
Though the Grohl and Offspring contributions were recorded during the Earth sessions, none made the final cut. That had something to do with heavy lobbying from Wylde, who’s still seething over the thought of commercial concessions.
“If I see Dave Grohl, I’ll punch his fuckin’ head out. I’ll fuckin’ break his fuckin’ jaw,” Wylde fumes. “The guys in Offspring, I’ll kick the shit out of the whole fuckin’ band myself. The Dave Grohl song was the lamest wonk of shit; it was degrading, dude. So, that’s why if I see Dave Grohl, I’ll take my Les Paul and fuckin’ turn it sideways and shove it up his fuckin’ ass. Listen to the Foo Fighters! The guy wouldn’t know a metal riff if it fuckin’ landed on him. The guy’s a fuckin’ dick — a fence-sittin’ piece of shit. Fuck him; he ain’t part of the club.”
Also not part of the club is Earth producer Tim Palmer, whose work with U2 and Tears for Fears didn’t make him an ideal bedfellow for a Marshall stacker like Wylde. Even worse, Palmer — a pedestrian guitarist by all accounts — continually tried to school Wylde in the art of axemanship during the recording.
“He’d be takin’ the fuckin’ guitar out of my hands every day,” Wylde grimaces. “And I’d be going, ‘Dude, I’ll fuckin’ get it. I can fuckin’ play the guitar.’ And he’d be like, ‘Do it more like this; do it more like that.’ I was like, ‘All right, whatever.’ Tim’s great at what he does, but it’s just tact and the way he went about doing it. He was like, ‘I didn’t realize you had this relationship with Ozzy and you played on the records.’ And I’m going, ‘Played on the records? I helped write the fuckin’ songs, you jackass.’ He just thought I was a studio guy. But I know my role, and I just do what I gotta do. Just play guitar, shut the fuck up and go home.”
Also on Wylde’s shit list is Limp Bizkit, not only because he thinks the rock-rap act sucks but also because Black Label Society has suffered innumerable record-label woes for not being as trendy as the Fred Durst posse.
“I was at a record company, and the guy told me, ‘We ain’t gonna sign Zakk ’cause he’s gotta get with the times, change his image,'” Wylde remembers. “So I’m like, ‘Let me get this straight: If I cut my hair off and get a backwards baseball cap, shave the beard off and wear a pair of Vans and some shorts, that’s gonna fix everything?’ He told me flat out, ‘Get more like Limp Bizkit.’ So I said, ‘Good, the war’s on. We’re praying for war, and we’re bringin’ it.'”
Wylde’s declarations of war can be found on his third studio album with Black Label Society, 1919 Eternal. Awash in his trademark wheedly-wheedly fretboard work and layered vocals reminiscent of Alice in Chains, Eternal is a blueprint of the music Wylde would like to see Ozzy making again — battering-ram metal minus all the trendy fluff. But even grizzled rockers have reflective moments, and the power ballad, “Bridge to Cross,” hints at a future on the softer side of the rock road.
“Eventually, I want to start doin’ more Neil Young-type stuff, pedal steel, acoustic stuff,” Wylde admits. “I’m 35. I can’t be doing this stuff when I’m … it’s taxing, man. My head. It kicks ass, but I love playing mellow stuff, too. As long as it’s quality stuff. I mean, if it’s pure cheese crap, obviously no one’s gonna like it. There’s only two types of music: crap and good.”
Separating the chaff from the wheat isn’t always easy on Ozzfest, where underground thrash is juxtaposed with the latest musical fads. The current lineup — running the gamut from Meshuggah to Andrew W.K. — is no different, but that dynamic, according to Wylde, is exactly what’s making his summer so much fun.
“We had to open up for Crazy Town last year,” he scoffs. “We put a beatin’ on them sons of bitches every night. They gotta follow us. They’re throwin’ bottles at them guys after we got off the stage. So, I’m not worried. Just give me a Les Paul and a Marshall amp and I’m good to go. We’ll roll right through it and beat some ass.”