Bassist Rudy Sarzo remembers Ozzy Osbourne's bat-biting, 40 years later: 'Sharon knew immediately that she had an opportunity here'

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·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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Ozzy Osbourne in 1982. (Photo: Eddie Sanderson/Getty Images)
Ozzy Osbourne in 1982. (Photo: Eddie Sanderson/Getty Images)

Forty years ago, on Jan. 20, 1982, 17-year-old metalhead Mark Neal threw a dead bat onstage at an Ozzy Osbourne concert at Des Moines’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium. It was a common occurrence for fans to throw animals and meat onstage during the former Black Sabbath frontman’s Diary of a Madman tour, but that night, when Osbourne lifted the winged mammal corpse to his lips, he took a big bite of rock ‘n’ roll history.

“Immediately, though, something felt wrong. Very wrong. For a start, my mouth was instantly full of this warm, gloopy liquid, with the worst aftertaste you could ever imagine,” the rock legend recalled in his memoir, I Am Ozzy. “I could feel it staining my teeth and running down my chin. Then the head in my mouth twitched … I didn’t just go and eat a … bat, did I?”

Yes, he sure did. The bizarre moment was never forgotten, and Rolling Stone later ranked it at No. 2 on its list of “Rock's Wildest Myths,” right behind the Beatles’ “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy theory. “Oh yes, it became part of the Ozzy myth — but it's not a myth,” bassist Rudy Sarzo, who was onstage that night, clarifies to Yahoo Entertainment. “It actually did happen. It's not like dragons. Dragons are mythology. This was real.”

Ozzy, with the help of his manager/wife Sharon Osbourne, quickly embraced the bat mythology, as it were, as part of his “Prince of Darkness” persona, and never really tried to live it down. (Sarzo notes there was less outrage from animal rights activists than there would be today, given that there was no social media back in 1982.) As recently as 2019, the rocker’s official merchandise store was selling plush bat dolls with detachable Velcro heads (which are now back in stock), and this month, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bat-chomping, Ozzy released 9,666 digital bats, called Cryptobatzv, as NFTs.

But Sarzo, who played in Osbourne’s band from March 1981 to September 1982 after he was recruited by his former Quiet Riot bandmate Randy Rhoads, had a real bat’s-eye view, if you will, of the entire ‘82 incident. The errant bat, a former household pet of Mark Neal’s younger brother, landed right at Sarzo’s feet on the Veterans Memorial Auditorium stage that night, and Sarzo was in fact the Ozzy band member who pointed it out to Osbourne — assuming, just like “Little Dolls” singer Osbourne did, that the bat was just a rubber doll.

Below, Sarzo speaks with Yahoo Entertainment about the bat-bite heard ‘round the world, and also dishes about Ozzy’s other infamous carnivorous moment involving a dove — including what happened to a second dove that was hidden in Ozzy’s jacket pocket.

Yahoo Entertainment: OK, let's go back to the night at what was then called Veterans Memorial Auditorium, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 20, 1982…

Rudy Sarzo: Forty years ago, huh? Oh, wow. I remember it like it was yesterday.

When this bat was thrown onstage, it pretty much landed at your feet, right?

Yeah, it did. With Ozzy there would be all of these fans that would bring all these strange things into the show; it was 40 years ago, and there was a different type of security then. And there was a whole different image about Ozzy at that time. Sharon was really trying to build Ozzy as this “Prince of Darkness.” So, it was the Prince of Darkness in the making. How he was gonna get there? It was pretty much unknown. But a lot of it had to do with the fans. Sharon always kept a very clean backstage, to basically to keep Ozzy out of trouble, so the very few that would actually wind up backstage would approach Randy or myself, and they would say, “So, is Ozzy gonna blow up a goat tonight?” Like, the myth had already started carrying on. Even before that night, there was a myth being built around Ozzy, that Prince of Darkness persona.

Yes, I’ve read that fans used to throw raw chicken, snakes, rats, even sheep testicles onstage.

Fans would show up to the gigs with all sorts of things. I mean, I saw Polaroids — again, this was 40 years ago, so Polaroid was the thing — that the crew would take. Things that they could not get past security to get into the show, like the freshly slaughtered head of a cow! I've had many things thrown onstage. One time in Texas, they threw a gigantic frog. I thought somebody threw a baby onstage, it was so big. I was like, “What the hell is going on?” I looked out and it's a frog, maybe about a foot and a half. So, it was not rare that something would land onstage during an Ozzy show.

Didn’t Ozzy used to throw like raw meat at the audience too?

Yeah, the original concept was he would get on a gauntlet that was actually built. This thing was the size of a Cadillac, huge. As part of the encore, he would go up in the air on above the first 10 rows of the audience and step on some kind of switch underneath his foot, and out of the fingers meat would shoot out. Well, you know, it was mechanical, so it did not work all the time! And Sharon didn't want to take any chances about it. And so she had Little John, a dwarf who was dressed like a medieval monk, and as we were playing the last song of the set, “Paranoid,” he would drag across the stage a bucket full of raw meat and start throwing it at the audience. And what happens is, when anything goes towards the audience, it’s gonna be returned to the stage! So, we’d spend half the song watching what was going on, and then during the second half of the song, frozen pieces of raw meat were being thrown back at is. All of this stuff was going on every single night.

And Mark Neal was the Iowa fan who decided to bring a bat to a show…

Yes, the bat incident was just something else that happened one night, you know? So, I'm standing onstage on my usual spot where I stood, and I'm headbanging, going back and forth, swinging the bass. And I happen to look down and I see the thing maybe about three feet away, in front of me. And I signaled to Ozzy and he happened to catch what I was pointing it out. And then I just continued to headbang. And while I was doing that, he grabbed it. He thought it was a toy bat. Puts it in his mouth, bites into it. You know, he likes to get into a lot of drama onstage, like an actor. He realizes that it's a real bat and spits it out, and it falls through the pit. There's this separation between the stage and the audience where security would usually hang out, and it fell in there and the fans were able to grab it. They were never able to find that bat!

And then Ozzy had to go to the hospital for rabies shots…

Yes. We finish the show and I'm looking through the side of the stage and I see an ambulance. And I go to Randy and say, “What's going on?” And he says, “Oh, they're dragging Ozzy to emergency because he bit a bat.” Everything starts connecting in my head: “Ohhhh, that was the bat I saw!” So, they dragged him off. We changed our clothes and parked the tour bus right outside of emergency. And my tour manager comes out after seeing Ozzy and says, “Listen, let me, let me have your camera. ‘Cause I wanna take photos of this.” So, they actually took photos of Ozzy getting rabies shots from the nurse, and of course he's making it like look bigger [worse] than it actually was — you know, with the grimace of pain and all that. There's photos of that somewhere. And then they give Ozzy to carry him on the bus, in the kitchen refrigerator, monkey serum, so he could take shots wherever we would go for the next couple of weeks.

So, Ozzy didn't think the bat was real. But when it fell in front of you and you pointed it out to him, did you realize it was real?

Oh, no, no. We thought it was just a gag. If I’d realized it was a real bat, I would've just run away from it!

Ozzy Osbourne biting the head of a rubber chicken in April 1982. (Photo: Eddie Sanderson/Getty Images)
Ozzy Osbourne biting the head of a rubber chicken in April 1982. (Photo: Eddie Sanderson/Getty Images)

It's my impression that this trend of fans throwing animals or meat onstage started with the infamous dove-decapitating incident at CBS Records in March 1981.

Yeah, that was the very beginning, but that happened by accident. I had just joined the band that day. Things happened really quickly back then; by the time that I got the audition and joined the band, we had 10 days to hit the road. So, the story is that Ozzy and Sharon, they go to the CBS/Columbia Records office in Los Angeles to do promotion. But Adam Ant was like the big thing then, and he was in the building at the same time, so nobody was paying attention to Ozzy at all. So, Ozzy had brought a couple of those doves for the photo session, just as a gesture of goodwill. This is what goes on in Ozzy’s mind! He's got the doves in his jacket — he had two, and he forgot about the second one, but that's another story. He's sitting there and nobody is coming in to do a photo opp with Ozzy in this office, so Sharon goes out there. Again, this is 40-years-ago Sharon, not the Sharon that we know today. This Sharon-in-the-making. So, she goes out there, grabs one of the assistants, and brings her in for the photo opp with Ozzy. Ozzy is sitting right next to her on the edge of the sofa, and you see — there's a series of about four photos of this — the reaction of this lady to Ozzy holding the dove. She's like, “Oh, that's sweet, he's got a dove.” And then he puts it in his mouth and she's going, “Oh, no, he's not going to do that…” And then it’s Ozzy ripping the head off of this poor bird, and she's like, “I can't believe this!” It's like a sequence of emotions that she goes through. It was not really planned to happen that way, but it did. And it just started the whole ball rolling for Ozzy.

I have to know, what happened to that second dove?

OK. When I joined the band, I went from sleeping on a floor to staying with them. And “them” is the Arden family, Sharon's family, who owned the manage management company and all that. They had a beautiful estate that was built by Howard Hughes for Jane Russell up in the Beverly Hills area. It was a compound. They gave me a bungalow to stay there. So, I was hanging out and waiting to do the rehearsals, and I bump into Ozzy and he tell me the whole dove story that had just happened. And as we were talking, I see that his jacket is flapping. I go, “What's that?” And he puts his hand in his pocket, pulls out another bird, looks at it, and he just goes and bites the head off again — right in front of me! I gross out, and he just laughs and keeps walking.

Oh, man. I thought you were gonna tell me a story about how one of the other doves survived this rock ‘n’ roll tale and went on to live a long and happy life.

Nope. Not in Ozzy-land.

You say you were grossed out. How did you feel about all these animal antics?

Well there were two, two different Ozzys. That was the Ozzy that we knew, and then the Ozzy that got up onstage. And that was a whole different Ozzy. Now, remember, my only reference, right before I joined Ozzy, was I used to play with Randy Rhoads in [the then-unsigned] Quiet Riot on the Sunset Strip. If you compare that to the level of things being done completely differently, all of a sudden ,with Ozzy. … Randy had been there for about a year and a half, so he mentored me and said, “Listen, don't take it personal. This is the way they do things.” And so rolled with it, because I had never experienced anything like it before. I thought, “OK, all the bands at this level must have this, um, unusual behavior.” No, no — it just happens to be Ozzy. And throw Sharon into the equation, and it's complete. I can't even imagine Ozzy without Sharon, and vice versa. It's like the perfect yin-and-yang circle. So, it was like, “OK, I'm rolling with this,” but boy, the only thing that was predictable was the unpredictability — that anything could happen.

And then this bat night became rock ‘n’ roll mythology.

Yes, but this was real. … … What you see onstage, that's really him. There's no plan. It's just pure, pure Ozzy. He doesn't even know what's gonna happen. And I saw this every night. It was like, here's Ozzy backstage, and then Sharon would grab him and throw him onstage, and it was like, “Who's this guy?” He just turns into that.

And it seems Sharon knew how to capitalize on the bat scandal.

Yes. You know, Ozzy has really lived a charmed journey. Ozzy would do something, and Sharon would be right behind him to spin it and save the day. Sharon knew immediately that she had an opportunity here. She contacted Michael Jensen Communications, our publicist, and she spun it. She spun the “myth” that it is today. I saw it happen, right in front of my eyes: Her getting on the phone, calling Michael Jensen and saying, “Hey, listen, this happened. Let's make a story out of this.”

So, when this bat incident happened, did you think, in that moment, that this was just another day at the Ozzy office? Or did you realize that this was a story that would go down in rock history?

I don't think anybody could really predict the journey that Ozzy has taken — and Sharon, along with him — for this last 40 years. It's unprecedented. I mean, nobody has ever done this. No member of a group has ever gone on to be bigger than the group that they came from — with maybe the exceptional Michael Jackson, but I'm talking about in metal or rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger has never been bigger than the Stones as a solo artist. Robert Plant has never been bigger than Led Zeppelin as a solo artist. But Ozzy got to a point that he is bigger than Black Sabbath. Nobody could have ever predicted that.

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