If Zakk Wylde wanted to be bitter about how the music business works, well, you certainly couldn’t blame him. Since landing the metal guitarist’s “wet dream” gig as rock god Ozzy Osbourne’s main axe man in 1987, Wylde has seen all the highs and lows rock ‘n’ roll has to offer. He hung with the Ozzman until the legend’s latest “retirement” (all the while being unfairly and wrongly referred to as a second-rate Randy Rhodes), before striking out on his own with Pride & Glory. Before he could turn around, though, he found himself slapped with a lawsuit from an old friend and saw his label support with Geffen slowly erode. He also watched one dream gig with Guns ‘n’ Roses evaporate due to forces outside his control, while Ozzy got tired of waiting for him to make a decision.
Any lesser man would be bitter, and may even call it quits, but not Zakk Wylde. With a new record label (Spitfire), a new band (Black Label Society), and a blistering new album ( Sonic Brew ), Wylde once again has the world by the balls. His guitar playing is as strong as ever, his songwriting is getting better and better with each album, and Black Label Society may be the purest “Zakk” the Wyldeman has done yet. While the business side of rock ‘n’ roll can drag you down, Wylde said it’s really not worth worrying about more than is necessary, and he’s still the same hard-drinkin’, fun-lovin’, string-bendin’ wildman Ozzy unleashed on this world over a decade ago.
“If you take all that shit personally, it will kick you in the balls,” he said. “You gotta work around it, and I got no time now, cause I bleed Black Label. If you love what you do, you don’t quit. Anybody can lay down, but if you got balls, you get back up.”
“Black Label Society [is] pure fuckin’ alcohol-fueled brew-tality. It’s everything I done before, but amped up on growth hormones and booze. If Ozzy was singing, it’d be an Ozzy record, and if Axl was singing, it’d be a G’n’R record. I just said fuck everyone; I’ll do it myself.”
It’s plain to see (and hear), Black Label Society is Zakk’s pride and joy. Distilling all the different elements of his past (his time with Ozzy, the P&G years and his own solo stuff) into a powerful, intoxicating mixture, BLS is pure heavy metal. Not the “hip-hop/metal fusion” of Korn or Limp Bizkit that seems to be all the rage, but honest-to-Satan, head-banging, balls-to-the-wall metal with just a hint of Southern twang. With powerful songs like “Bored to Tears” and “Spoke in the Wheel,” the lyrical work is the strongest of Wylde’s career, and it’s obvious he’s come a long way from the bars of the Jersey Shore.
As surprising as it seems, Wylde didn’t really get into guitar until his teens, as football was his first love. A longtime fan of Black Sabbath, Ozzy, and such heavy rock bands, it was a chance meeting with his football coach’s son that turned him on to the magic of the six string. “To actually see someone doing it really blew me away,” he said.
Honing his chops at the altar of such guitar gods as Rhodes, Tony Iommi, and Eddie Van Halen, Wylde soon became a fixture on the Jersey bar scene. He played around in various bands until 1987 when fate (and the Ozzman) intervened. While looking for a replacement for Jake E. Lee for his next record, No Rest for the Wicked , Ozzy auditioned the young Jersey guitarist. “I was playing in this little shit hole with this crap band that was going nowhere fast when a guy came up to me and asked me about auditioning for Ozzy,” Wylde said. “Actually, I thought he was just jerkin’ me around, and I just went through with it to get an autograph.
“But when I plugged in and turned around, there was Ozzy, and I shit my pants, man. Aside from being an amazing performer, he’s just good people. Ozzy’s always told me, ‘Just be Zakk, man’.”
Thus was the start of Wylde’s whirlwind career. He hung with Ozzy through three studio albums ( No Rest for the Wicked , No More Tears , and Ozzmosis ), as well as a pair of live records ( Just Say Ozzy and Live & Loud ). Wylde also can take credit for infusing new life in the aging rocker’s career, particularly on such killer tunes as “No More Tears,” “Miracle Man,” “I Don’t Want to Change the World” and “Hellraiser,” (written with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister), which rank among the best of Ozzy’s career. What’s more, his “Wyldeman” persona on stage matched – and at times, threatened to dethrone – Ozzy’s own hell-bent-for-leather performing style.
After “No More Tours,” Ozzy announced plans for retirement and Wylde was up in the air for something to do. A professed Sabbath/Ozzy freak, Wylde said hearing and playing those tunes night after night sent him looking for other aural pleasures. Exposed to such Southern Rock outfits as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band thanks to his brother and childhood friends back in Jersey, Wylde began exploring the mixture of Southern twang with metallic crunch. The result was Lynyrd Skynhead, a jam band for between Ozzy gigs that eventually morphed into Pride & Glory (with drummer Brain Tichy and bassist James LoMenzo). The trio released an excellent eponymous album on Geffen in 1994, full of metallic riffs, Southern Rock solos and clever songwriting that Wylde said can only be described as “country metal,” and flew directly in the face of the “alternative revolution” of the time.
“Basically, it’s just a clusterfuck of the two,” Wylde joked. “I just do what I want to do, and don’t worry about what’s big at the time. I am who I am, and people can’t tell when shit’s fake and when don’t mean it. P&G, man, It’s real, no bullshit. We just get up and play.”
Despite the success of P&G, the mid-nineties were something of a dark period in Wylde’s life. Lynyrd Skynhead’s original drummer, Greg D’Angelo, hit Wylde with a lawsuit concerning credits for P&G. “I was sitting in my living room watching football, and I got papers served on me that said I was being sued for a half-million dollars by the guy who stood next to me at my mother’s funeral,” an incredulous Wylde said.
Also about this time, Ozzy came out of “retirement” for his latest studio release, Ozzmosis , which featured Wylde on guitar, and the Ozzman was itching to get back on tour. What’s more, Wylde owed Geffen another album, but he found the label less-than-friendly towards his desires. And if that wasn’t enough, he got a call from Axl Rose and Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses about possibly filling in on second guitar. In the end, just about all of it fell through.
“Slash said he’d only play with Les Paul or me, and Axl said, ‘I may be wrong, but I don’t think Les is gonna want to tour anytime soon. Let’s call Zakk,’” Wylde laughed. “We did ( Ozzmosis ), and Ozzy asked me what’s up. Then, Axl called me up and said ‘Let’s do some jammin’.’ Man, when I was there, there was no synths or no bullshit, just jammin’, and it all looked good. But once you get the lawyers and that horseshit involved, they slow the process down like molasses in January. I got a fax from Slash saying they wouldn’t need my services, and Ozzy got Joe Holmes to play on the tour, so I wound up doing Book of Shadows .
“Mostly you don’t want to bum anyone out and let anybody down, but I wound up sorta stringing everyone along. But at the end of the day, that’s why there’s beer!”
In hindsight, Wylde may’ve got the best of the deal. Moving away from Ozzy’s heavy crunch or P&G’s Southern-tinged metal boogie, 1996’s Book of Shadows is almost a Neil Young record, full of acoustic guitars, vocal harmonies and the occasional blast of harmonica. There’s plenty of riff-heavy rockers, but there’s also forays in country and blues. Wylde said the album was well-received by fans, but Geffen was less than enthusiastic about the “former metalhead going soft.”
“I had all these acoustic tunes laying around, but there was some weird stuff with Geffen,” he said. “They wanted me around like the pope wanted Anton LaVey around. What piece of the puzzle didn’t fit?
“I’d go to a pub, drink, and play acoustic tunes, and people would ask me why I didn’t do an acoustic album. I still love it and lots of people to this day tell me they like what I did. I’m still a musician at the end of the day, not a rock star.”
Now that the dust from those tumultuous years has settled, Wylde is back on top of his game. He patched up his relationship with Ozzy (the godfather to Wylde’s son and still a father figure). He still keeps in contact with the Ozzman, who himself is keeping busy with his “metal Lollapalooza” Ozz-fest and a Black Sabbath reunion, and he’s still just a phone call away.
“I still love the guy, but it’s like your parents when you grow up,” Wylde explained. “Even though you’re not around, you still love your mom and dad, right? You just gotta find your own place in the world and move out of the house sometime. If Oz called me for help, I’d go to him in a minute.”
Right now, though, Black Label Society is keeping Wylde occupied, and has him giddy as a schoolgirl. Admittedly, that’d be a beer-swilling, head-banging schoolgirl, but Wylde’s happy all the same. He said he’s finally in a position to do exactly what he wants to do musically, and he’s having the time of his life. BLS is getting strong reviews in metal circles for not only the powerful, mind-crunching riffs but also for Wylde’s intelligent, forebodingly dark lyrical turn of phrase. Where P&G was a cold Budweiser and the solo record is a smooth sip of Southern Comfort, BLS is a full-on double-shot of knock-you-to-your knees Jack Daniels with a chaser of Everclear (the 150 proof liquor, not the flash-in-the-pan band, that is).
“I still look forward to playin’ guitar at the end of the day and doing my thing,” Wylde said. “The whole thing with BLS is a steam rollin’ machine, man, and suicide is not an option. The difference between BLS and say, Pearl Jam, is like when you were tryin’ to get beer in high school. You get a guy to buy you beer and he took off, Eddie Vedder would cry about it and write a song. BLS would find where he lived, kick his ass, scare his old lady, take the beer… and then write a song about it!”
“It’s all in how you look at it. Just acquire a global chapter of SDMF, which is what we call our fans – Society Dwellin’ Mother Fuckers. And if you don’t like the band, it kills two birds with one stone: ‘Suck my Dick, Mother Fucker.’” ◼