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Humor, heavy metal go hand in hand for former Ozzy guitarist Zakk Wylde

With the exception of the movie 'Spinal Tap,' the last place you'd expect to find loads of comedy is in the life of a heavy metal guitarist. But for Ozzy Osbourne alum, Black Label Society founder and guitarist Zakk Wylde (who may or may not also be a Viking), every day feels an awful lot like 'Seinfeld.'

By Jeb Wright

Zakk Wylde came to fame as the fair-haired, pretty-boy guitar wizard for Ozzy Osbourne. These days, Wylde looks like a cross between a caveman and a Viking, and he fronts his own band, Black Label Society. But he still plays a damn mean guitar.

Black Label Society (BLS) is one of the few bands that has kept the old-school, take-no-prisoners attitude toward both in its members’ personal lives and its music. Like its heavy-metal ancestors, BLS is dangerous, loud and edgy; it has a bad attitude and shows up late for meetings. Sometimes, it’s even ... silly. Wait, silly? Yes, very silly. In fact, if parents knew just how silly, they might not be afraid of metal bands like Black Label Society, which is more like Monty Python than Son of Sam.

In an environment rife with drugs, booze and rampant sex with groupies, Wylde is the exception to the rule. He longer partakes of any chemicals, and he is married to — and faithful to — his high-school sweetheart. (It even has been rumored he prays.) Musically, Wylde is a monster. The songs, the riffs, the fills, the bass, the drums: It’s all powerful. Right up until he starts playing piano. Yep, the evil Viking warlord Zakk Wylde is an Elton John fan. Perhaps the new album should have been titled “Un-Metal” instead of “Unblackened!” (OK, given Wylde’s obsession with weight lifting and his ability to easily kick the average music journalist’s ass, perhaps we — and by that I definitely mean me — should fear him a little bit.)

Zakk Wylde photo courtesy Epiphone

On top of being a Viking, a madman, a pussycat and a maniac, Wylde is also something of a musical genius. For “Unblackened” (Entertainment One), BLS reworked its songs into new versions that offer a different perspective on the group’s creative talents.

GOLDMine: I have followed your career since the beginning, so we can dispense with the background information, like you being Ozzy’s dealer…
ZAKK WYLDE: [laughter] Along with doing his laundry, dishes and all that.

GM: “Unblackened” is great. You redid your own songs in a different way, but not just unplugged. How did this idea come about?
ZW: We always talked about doing this because it would be the next phase of Black Label. The Eagles, and bands like that, is the music that I was weaned on, and I still listen to that music to this day. Why wouldn’t I? My parents were weaned on Sinatra, so when Elvis came along they were like, “We don’t like this.” When The Beatles and The Stones came out, they were like, “We definitely don’t like this.” What I am saying is that there will always be an audience for Sinatra.

It’s like with hair metal. There will always be an audience for those bands. People are like, “I don’t like rap, and I don’t like Korn and Limp Bizkit. I don’t like Avenged Sevenfold, I like my Mötley Crüe and everything that I grew up with in the ’80s.” Music is timeless. Bon Jovi might not be on MTV 24/7, or 25/8, like he was back in the day with “Slippery When Wet,” but he is still doing five nights at Giants Stadium. He doesn’t do arenas. Arenas are like clubs to him. You don’t see the unstoppable mighty force that is Jon Bon Jovi on MTV anymore. It’s the same thing with Pearl Jam.

Back when Creed was huge, everyone was saying, “They are huge, but I don’t know anyone who owns one of their records.” They were doing arenas, so someone was buying those f**king albums. I remember I went over to my buddy Eric’s house to play him some new Black Label sh*t when the album got done. He had a CD player that had like five revolving trays in it. One of the CDs in there was Creed, and I was like, “So you’re one of those motherf**kers who are buying all the Creed sh*t.” He goes, “I am not listening to f**king rap, and there is no more Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, so what the f**k am I going to listen to?” He listened to Creed, and then he got into Nickelback, and it was all guitar-driven music, so it makes sense. You will always have an audience for a specific type of music; that is what I am trying to say.

GM: “Unblackened” has a very 1970s vibe to it. They are Black Label Society songs, but they sound like the classic time period. Was that on purpose?
ZW: When we did the album “The Song Remains Not the Same,” I had lyrics sitting around, and I would sit down at the piano and start playing in F-sharp minor, which is one of the loneliest keys. We would start jamming, and I would start a melody and use those lyrics and see what happens.

When the record company asked us if we wanted to do another DVD, we had to think about what to do. We did the heavy one, “Boozed, Broozed & Broken-Boned” with the Detroit Chapter, and we did “The European Invasion: Doom Troopin’ Live” with the “European Invasion.” Me and J.D. were talking and thought it would be cool to do something different. Black Label is getting older and older, and we wanted to start moving to doing something like when Neil Young did “Unplugged,” and this was a perfect opportunity to do that.

I did have strings for, like, 30 tunes that were possibilities for us to take some of the heavy stuff and mellow it down. I would do acoustic versions of them in The Vatican (Wylde’s home studio), and I would add a string section to them … a four-piece quartet. We had the app that actually prints out the sheet music, and it was great. We had the string sections, and the band jammed for about five days before the show. Everybody got to study the playbook so that we were all on the same page. It is like going to training camp, and everybody knows the plays.

GM: How did you decide on the setlist?
ZW: We get down there, and we are figuring out which songs sound the best. We have to do this before the sets ends up being an eternity. I mean, I was like, “Seriously? I dig Black Label and I dig Zakk Wylde, but I don’t like him that much, because this set is going on and on and on.” I was like, “Honestly, I don’t like me anymore.” When the set turns into that, then we start trimming the fat and getting songs taken out. Instead of making it four hours long, let’s make it like a great, two-hour movie.

Black Label Society Unblackened

GM: Did you rehearse with the string players?
ZW: We had about two days left, and the band was ready to go, so we brought in the string guys — the quartet —and they were like a wedding-band type thing. In the running pantheon of Black Label historical bullsh*t, you have three major disasters. One would be the Hindenburg, the other would be the Titanic and the third one would be the Black Label string section. When these guys came down, it was just as much of an atrocity as seeing the Hindenburg in flames. Hearing the ripping of steel when the Titanic hit the iceberg was just as horrific.

They were union guys, so you couldn’t say, “Hey, can you stay a couple hours and work on this?” I was like, “We start at 12 and then we will break for something to eat and get some pizzas and then play a while, and then go on a beer run, and then get back to the music and we will go to 10 or 11 o’clock at night, and then we will call it a day, and we can start again tomorrow.” Let me tell you that it doesn’t work that way with them. They are there for an hour and then they get a half-hour break, then they do another hour, and then they go home. It is to the dot; they go, “We are done.”

Do you remember when Michael Douglas walked into the restaurant in “Falling Down” and it was like one minute after 11, and he said, “Can I have breakfast?” They were like, “We’re sorry, but breakfast is no longer served,” and he lost his f**king mind. It is like that type of sh*t.

We could be in the middle of a song, and they were like, “Sorry, we’re done.” It just added more to the f**king comedy. It sounded so f**king abysmal it was unbelievable.

You take the sheet music away as I am doing improvisation and doing solos and they were like, ”Well, what do we play here?” I am like, “It’s the same thing. E/G/D/A … that’s the vamp at the end of ‘Sold My Soul.’ Play that.” They are like, “But it’s not here on the sheet music.” I was like, “It does not need to be. Can’t you hear the rest of the band? They are playing an E-minor, a G, a D and an A.” “Well, yes, but it’s not on the sheet music.” I was like, “Wow, this is not going to f**king work, dude.”

I do those extended solos and it is all by feel. When Zeppelin was doing “Dazed and Confused” some nights it was 24 minutes, the other night it was 36 minutes. It was whatever side of the bed they woke up on is what they were going to do.

GM: What did you do?
ZW: Nothing. I was just looking at them and we were all f**king cracking up. I looked at J.D. and he said, “Zakk, what are we going to do?” I said, “This is f**king awesome. It is so f**king ridiculous.” It just added to the Black Label comedy hour.

GM: On a good note, you have Derek Sherinian on keyboards.
ZW: Derek is so f**king amazing. Derek said, “Zakk, I can cover all of this sh*t. Let’s just go with what we know. It will be fine. We can control what the f**k’s going on.” I said, “No sh*t.”

GM: Doing the old songs as new songs, did it make it more fun?
ZW: For me, it is just all music. We had talked about doing this for a while, and that made it really cool to finally do it. It also opens the door to do a real acoustic thing, where we would have a string section, a piano and acoustic guitars. We have the door open now, which is way cool. To me, it is all music at the end of the day.

Ozzy and Friends promotional photo

Guitarist Zakk Wylde (left, often mistaken for a Viking) joined forces with his former boss, Ozzy Osbourne (aka The Prince of Darkness), for 2012’s Ozzy Osbourne and Friends tour.

GM: Yeah, but everyone thinks you were Ozzy’s guitar player and Black Label Society was easy for you. It was not like that for you.
ZW: I just laugh when people say that. It is kind of funny. People say to me — some of my friends, who are in other bands and are my age, and they play in bands and they do other things now — they say to me, “You know Zakk, I, Tom and Joey are getting something together now, and it will be kind of what you did with Black Label.” I say, “Black Label has been around for 15 years.” I remember taking mail orders for T-shirts, and writing a thank-you letter and signing it on letterhead and putting them in a box, and Barbaranne going down to the post office and mailing them out. I would do that, and Barbaranne would box it up. They act like the Brinks truck just backed up to the house and I am a f**king lottery winner. I’ve got a couple friends that are younger dudes, and they see Korn on the cover of Revolver and they say, “We should be doing that.” Their perception of f**king reality is ridiculous.

GM: Did you ever worry that BLS might just stay a sideline to your day job with Ozzy?
ZW: At the end of the day, you can’t live in your parents’ house your whole f**king life. I look at Oz and Mom (Sharon Osbourne) … I love them like my parents. I have been blessed that I was around them. I was 19 and 20 years old, and I was hanging around with 40-year-old guys. It was super cool, but it is like when our son comes over with his buddy, who plays on the UCLA football team. I remember them when they were little. The running joke is that I say, “Hey, me and my buddy Jeb are going to come down to the frat party with you guys, and it’s gonna rock.” They look at me like, “Who are you? I don’t know who you are.” He is like, “Dad, go away. Far, far away…” I am like, “I’m hip!” My son is like, “What an idiot.” No matter what, I am still Dad, and I wouldn’t f**king change it.

As far as making Black Label without Oz … At first I was just hoping he wanted to tour. I was just hoping he didn’t want to retire. We were doing “No Rest For the Wicked,” and I was like, “Man, I hope he doesn’t quit.” I remember when Oz turned 43; we got a trophy for him that said “Prince of Darkness.” We were getting f**king hammered, and I remember Oz just puking on the ground and he was sitting there with puke running down his shirt and he goes, “Well, at least I beat Elvis.” Elvis died at 42, and Oz was now 43. He was looking at the bright side.

GM: You really love Ozzy, don’t you?
ZW: Without a doubt. My relationship with Oz and Mom is pretty much that. If Mom called up and said, “Zakk, can you do me a favor? I need some milk and eggs brought over. And can you clean the dog run when you get here, as we’ve got company coming over, and Ozzy has got to do press all day.” I would be like, “Yeah, no problem. Do you need anything else?” That is really how my relationship with Oz is.

Just because we are not playing, everybody thought we had a blowout. Oz just wanted to jam with other people, because I was doing Black Label, and that is all there is to it. If Boss ever wanted me to play … I am friends with Gus G., and Gus is f**king awesome. If Gus and his wife were having a baby and Oz asked me to come out and fill in for three weeks, I would do it, but the thing is that this is Gus’ gig now. Without Ozzy, there would be no Black Label, and I am truly blessed.

GM: You have played with Black Label with Oz standing at the side of the stage.
ZW: Black Label has opened for Ozzy plenty of times, and he has been there. It’s great. I have to tell you about the last time I stood on the side of the stage with Oz and watched a band. We were out with Sepultura and Alice in Chains and the Boss. We were watching Sepultura, and he is out there — which he is never out on the side of the stage, as he would rather watch Monty Python or The History Channel. He wanted to make sure that all of the bands were having a good time out on the road and that everything was great. He is sitting there watching Sepultura, and you know how f**king heavy that band is. They are beyond f**king heavy. He is watching them, and he goes, “Zakk, these guys say they really like Black Sabbath.” I said, “Yeah Oz, they love Sabbath.” He goes, “But where? Where?” We are cracking up, and Ozzy is listening to this pure bombastic heaviness that is Sepultura and people are moshing and beating the sh*t out of each other, and the band is only getting heavier and heavier, and Oz goes, “Zakk.” I go, “What’s up, Boss?” He goes, “I’m not responsible for this, am I?” It was absolutely f**king epic.

I am always saying, “You would think someone will die of a drug overdose in this band, or maybe of a ‘bizarre gardening accident,’ but no, we are going to die of laughter, or of brain aneurisms from laughing too hard.

GM: You no longer drink. Has not drinking forced you to face your mortality?
ZW: Once again, it is always a “Seinfeld” episode on steroids with me. I was actually doing an interview when we put out “Order of the Black,” and this person goes, “This is Black Label’s best album. It is the best stuff you’ve ever done. It has your best guitar playing.” I say, “Thanks a lot, I appreciate you saying that.” He goes, “The fact that you almost died … do you feel that made you feel like maybe you should make a good record?” I was like, “Yeah, I realized after I did those eight years in prison that maybe it is not good to beat up 90-year old grandmothers and steal their purses.”

No, I didn’t need a death scare to teach me to be grateful for everything that I have. I don’t need to hear a song like “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Till It’s Gone.” I don’t need that. I really don’t.

I don’t really need to know when my 100 milligrams of Viagra runs out to realize how blessed I was to have eight tablets left. I don’t really need that. I am grateful for those eight pills I have left. Give me a f**king break.

GM: Medically, what happened to you?

Zakk Wylde publicity photo courtesy Ephiphone/Neil Zlower

Zakk Wylde’s epic alcohol consumption may have saved his life during the Pedal to the Metal tour, when doctors discovered he was suffering from blood clots. Once diagnosed, though, Wylde gave up drinking. Zakk Wylde photo courtesy Ephiphone/Neil Zlower.

ZW: I got these blood clots. I was on the Pedal to the Metal Tour, and we were having a blast. It was like me and you drinking every day, and me hitting the gym and then doing the shows: business as usual.

One day, the back of my leg was killing me. I was wondering if last night you and I were at the Irish pub, and I was doing David Lee Roth splits, or whatever. You were sitting there going, “My back is killing me” and I am like, “Dude, don’t you remember doing those 12 shots of Crown and the 14 pints we drank? You were out in the parking lot telling that guy you could pick up the back of his Yugo. Do you remember that?” You go, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” I am like, “That’s the reason your back is killing you.”

I just thought it was just one of those types of things. It went on for about a week, and I was like, “Just pour some beer on it, and it will be fine.” I just thought I needed to Black Label up and quit being a pussy and that it would be fine in a week. It kept getting worse and worse.

We had a 24-hour drive the next day, and I said that before we do that drive, let’s go to an emergency room and see what is up. I knew I didn’t break my leg, but I thought I must have pulled a muscle or done something stupid, and I needed to get it checked out. I went in and they did an ultrasound, like when your old lady is having a baby. They put the gel on my back and did the thing and the guy goes, “You’ve got three blood clots back here.” I was like, “I thought you got those when you’re 90 years old.” He was like, “Oh, no, truck drivers get them, and airplane pilots get them. You get them when you are stationary all the time.” I said, “I work out every day and I am moving all the time. I don’t sit on my ass all the time.”

I got to thinking that when I practice the guitar, I am sitting down. When I play piano, I am sitting down. When you and I are listening to playback in the studio when we are mixing the record, we are sitting down. When you and I are at the pub, we’re sitting down. When we go back to the pub, we are sitting down. I go, “Well, I guess there is a lot of sitting down going on here.”

I was with Barbaranne, and I tell the doctor, “Do I have to chill out on the drinking?” He says, “If you really drink the way you tell me that you drink … like a case to a case-and-a-half and maybe two cases a day, and on top of that going out with the fellas and drinking Crown Royal, and whatever the f**k else you’re drinking … is that every day?” I go, “Well, not the Crown, but yeah, the beer. “He goes, “If you take these blood thinners, and you drink like that at Hooters watching a “Monday Night Football” game, then I hope it is a great Hooters, as it will be the last one that you ever go into. You will start pissing blood out of your dick, and bleeding out of your ass and your eyeballs. You can’t drink like that.” I was like, “Well that sucks.” He says, “You can either go to a rehab, or you can just give me twenty grand and stop, or you could save yourself the twenty grand and just chill the f**k out. The choice is up to you.”

It was great. He goes, “Zakk, did your parents have this?” I said, “I don’t know. They are both up in God’s tavern, so I have no idea.” He goes, “Well, I don’t know how to say this, but as a doctor, if you had this genetically, from your parents, I feel wrong saying this, but it may be the truth … all of your years of drinking may have saved your life.” I go to Barbarnne and I say, “See, drinking is good for you.” Needless to say, there was no laughter in the peanut gallery. That was the end of the drinking right there.

GM: “Metal for the Children” was amazing; I laughed all the way through that book. I had a guy tell me, “That guy is sick. He’s not funny at all.” I was like, “Dude, this is Zakk Wylde. What did you expect?”
ZW: Wow, he didn’t get it. You should see the comments on the “Ain’t No Sunshine” video. Some guy actually said, “The guitar solo is so out of sync I can’t bring myself to watch this f**king video. I f**king hate this band.” [Laughter]. Unf**kingbelievable, dude. Somebody wrote, “What’s the meaning behind the horse mask?” I was like, “When you find out what the f**king meaning is, can you tell me?!” It is hilarious.

GM: I laughed the entire book. The Viking sh*t, the stories … it was hilarious.
ZW: The early days of Black Label, we were animals all the time. We had the booze hounds, and then we had the weed guys, and the pill guys. The Doom Crew had something going on every night. We were going out every night. The bars we went to were either tit bars or a shoot and stab. The comedy ensued. Nobody got killed, or maimed, and everybody got out alive. The next day, word would spread on the Black Label streets, and we would be crying-laughing and saying, “What the f**k happened to you last night?” Someone would have a black eye, and their lip would be all f**ked up, and we would be like, “Did you get into a fight last night?” He’d be like, “No, I was in a bar and I walked out of the bar and I ran into a curb, and I fell into a bush, and I fell and hit a rock. Then I ran into a parked car and I fell again.” It was ridiculous sh*t all the time, dude. If it didn’t happen to me and you, then it was someone else. It really is like “Seinfeld.” They didn’t have to make that sh*t up, as it was stuff that happened, and then you elaborate on it.

GM: A lot of people think that you should get with the guys in Pantera and you should be standing where your buddy Dime(bag Darrell) used to stand.
ZW: Vinnie and I just went to the Dallas game, and then we were rolling with Father Mustaine on the “Gigantour;” it was a great time. It was like a high-school reunion with everybody hanging out. If the guys were to do that, as far as I am concerned, I think it would be like wearing Mickey Mantle’s jersey, and I am batting in the position that Dime used to bat in. For me, it would be an honor, and it would be a beautiful thing. There is no replacing Dime, or Randy Rhoads, or John Bonham: There is no replacing them. When Jason (Bonham) got up there [with Led Zeppelin], it was amazing. He was doing his dad’s sh*t, and he did his own sh*t, and he killed it on “Celebration Day.” I think it was a beautiful thing, as he honored his father. If his dad had been on the side of the stage watching that, he would have been f**king crying, dude.

I know Dime … if Dime f**ked his hand up doing some crazy, goofy sh*t, like he always did, and they needed me to fill in for three weeks while he healed, I would have done it, no problem. To watch me playing his stuff, Dime would be crying and f**king laughing. He would dig the sh*t out of it. It’s like whenever I saw Gus playing the stuff I did with Oz and he was nailing it and killing it; I was high-fiving my buddies. I was like, “Dude, f**king Gus is killing it.” It’s cool. Knowing Dime, he would be drinking his Black Tooth Grin, laughing his balls off, watching me play his stuff. To me, it would be a beautiful thing. If the guys ever wanted to do it then, of course, I would be there to honor him. But that’s all up to the fellas.

GM: What is the plan after “Unblackened?”
ZW: We will start rolling in The Black Vatican, and we will start making more Black Label Krispy Kremes of doom. Time just flies. It is like when we all rolled out for the Gigantour. I was like, “Dude, we only have two shows left. Where the f**k did the time go?” Sure as sh*t, two shows are left and then it is over. It will be four years since the “Order of the Black” album came out. We recorded “Unblackened” seven months ago. It’s crazy. When Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and John Paul Jones look back on Zeppelin, it was only 12 years of their life, but it seems like an eternity. For Ozzy, it is the same thing with him. When he talks about 25 years ago, when we did “No Rest for the Wicked,” for him, looking at the first Sabbath record … To me, it doesn’t seem like 25 years when I wrote “Miracle Man” and played the riff for Oz and us being in the rehearsal room writing that song. When you talk about our heroes, like Oz and Led Zeppelin, they must look back and go, “Where did the time go?” It is really crazy. I am writing music every day. It is riffs, riffs, riffs and more riffs. We will write some tunes, and we will knock it out, and the next time I will be talking to you will be when the new album comes out, and you and I will be laughing.

GM: We have to end with an Ozzy story. But you always get asked about the old days. Tell me a good one that is more recent.
ZW: A while back, we were sitting there in his kitchen, as Mom and Barb went down near the beach, and they were shopping. Oz and I were just hanging at the house, talking about everything. He goes, “You know, Zakk, I don’t do drugs anymore. I don’t drink. I don’t even drink f**king coffee anymore. I don’t smoke; I never thought I would quit that. I don’t even smoke … and my f**king dick doesn’t work.” He pauses for second, and he has a sip of his f**king tea, and he goes, “Zakk, why am I alive?” [Laughter.] “I don’t drink; I don’t smoke; I don’t get high and I don’t even enjoy coffee, and they have me off everything. And, on top of it, my dick doesn’t work. Why the f**k am I still alive? What do I have to enjoy?” It’s great; the guy has everything, and he is like, “What am I still alive for?” GM