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First couple of hard rock

Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne keep the 10-year-old Ozzfest going strong, even if Ozzy longs for a reduced role.

July 06, 2006|Steve Appleford | Special to The Times

"LILLY! Lilly! Lilly! Lilly! Lilly! Lilly! Lilly! Lilly! Lilly! Lilly!" The voice is high-pitched, very English and squeals with affection. It belongs to Sharon Osbourne, calling out to one of her 16 miniature dogs, this one a fuzzy "teacup" Maltese, with elegant white fur to match Osbourne's white lace dress.

"This is a Rottweiler in disguise from the Taliban," she says in a squeaky teasing voice, lifting the animal. Sitting nearby is her husband, ultimate metal icon Ozzy Osbourne, slouching and smiling warmly from behind purple shades. A minute ago, he tried to pick up another of the dogs, but the animal backed away in near-panic.

"See," he says, "I am the prince of darkness!"

This would be a familiar scene to fans who tuned in regularly for MTV's Emmy-winning "The Osbournes," which for four years revealed the singer as not merely a master of madness and doom, but a father figure of genuine pathos and a knack for reality-TV laughs. It was enough to get him invited to the 2002 White House Correspondents' Assn. dinner, where even President Bush joked: "Ozzy, Mom loves your stuff."

That is ancient history now, and a sideshow to the annual main event known as Ozzfest. It began 10 years ago as a hard-rock alternative in the era of Lollapalooza and Horde and Lilith Fair. And it has outlasted virtually all competitors, establishing Osbourne and his wife-manager as major players in the concert business, not only as a venue for the singer's solo act and frequent reunions with Black Sabbath, but as a stage for top-selling and emerging hard-rock acts.

This year's event, which lands at San Bernardino's Hyundai Pavilion at Glen Helen on Saturday and at the Coors Amphitheater in San Diego on Sunday, will also include sets by System of a Down, Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold and Lacuna Coil.

TV stardom will come and go, but Ozzfest is eternal. So much so, that Osbourne has often talked of stepping back from the festival, allowing it to roll on without him: "I keep saying to Sharon, from Day 1, how long will this go on for?"

Soon after the close of last year's tour, there began talk that Osbourne would make 2006 his final tour headlining the festival. But it would come with an unexpected twist: Instead of playing the main stage, the Ozzfest namesake would perform up-close with fans on the more intimate second stage.

At first, he was set to play only on six dates of the tour. Then it was 10, then 14. And now he dismisses any suggestion that he would leave the festival. He seems resigned to remain at the heart of the event indefinitely.

"I wanted to take a year off," says Osbourne, 57. "But it's called the Ozzfest, and it's pretty stupid if the person whose name is on it ain't there."

Osbourne is relaxed in a black T-shirt and baggy jeans, a jeweled cross-shaped ring on his left hand, a Union Jack ring on the other. His comments are sometimes mumbled but somehow lucid, and he often breaks into a smile, sitting with his wife in the parlor of their Beverly Hills home, decorated with flowers and images of ascending angels. A copy of the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" sits on the table between them.

In a few hours, Osbourne will be back at a studio rehearsing for the tour. The San Bernardino date is very much the tour's hometown gig, but his wife still resents how some in the music industry react with alarm to her invitations to the concert.

"The people higher up in the music industry are music snobs," she says sharply. " 'Oh, are you coming down to the show?' 'With that audience? No.' "

OZZFEST remains the ultimate hard-rock tour, over the years hosting such iconic metal acts as Slayer and a reunited Judas Priest, plus early shows by the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Slipknot and a then-unknown System of a Down in 1998. And the core audience, Sharon adds, is also reason enough to attend: "You see those young boys getting out that aggression. It's a fantastic experience.

"Love Pearl Jam. But Pearl Jam now is like the Gap crowd," she says. "The baggy trousers. It's a date. It's nice, lovely music. You know, there is a whole other world out there. But people are snobbish and don't want to mix with it. We love those people. We embrace them. They are as loyal as they can be."

The Ozzy Osbourne set list on Saturday will likely remain much as always: signature solo songs like "Crazy Train" and "Mr. Crowley," with a few Sabbath favorites.

And it will include nothing from last year's "Under Cover" -- his album of cover songs by the Beatles, King Crimson and others. That record was a lark, a bonus for the fans, the Osbournes explain, all about contractual obligations and moving on.

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