Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Off the Rails

Rudy Sarzo is certainly one of heavy metal's most prolific bassists, and he's got an interesting story. Born in Cuba, he and his family fled when he was a child after Castro took power, starting life anew in Miami, including Americanizing his name in school. After seeing the Beatles on television, he was bitten by the Rock N Roll bug, and after playing in a lounge act in New Jersey with his brother and clubs in Florida, he left for L.A. a, sleeping on borrowed floor space and eventually finding a spot with the early Quiet Riot. Eventually, he played with such acts as Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Blue Oyster Cult, Whitesnake, and Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force. This is a musician who has paid his dues.

Off the Rails: Aboard the Crazy Train in the Blizzard of Ozz (2008) is Sarzo's account of his time touring with Ozzy's band from March 1981 to September 1982 in support of Ozzy's first solo records: Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. The book covers everything from Sarzo's first phone call from Ozzy's manager Sharon Arden (later Sharon Osbourne), his friendship with guitarist Randy Rhoads (who recommended Sarzo), the hectic touring schedule, anecdotes with other rockers such as Motörhead, Ozzy's rampant drug and alcohol abuse, the tragic death of Rhoads and others in a plane crash to Sarzo calling Sharon to inform her of his decision to quit to rejoin Quiet Riot. In between, Sarzo recounts some personal history, including how he met his wife Rebecca and his spiritual convictions.

Given Sarzo's own personal story, he makes the curious decision to be a supporting character in his own narration. Sarzo gives his account of the out-of-control circus act that was the tour and insight into both Ozzy and Rhoads. Ozzy seemingly has the reputation as a demonic, blood-drinking corrupter of the innocent, the godfather of heavy metal, and the goofy,confused burnout of reality television; what Sarzo does is give us the man behind all that. We get stories about Ozzy's pranks and antics in hotels (never leave your shoes out if he's in town), his battles with depression and addiction, the genuine anguish he felt over Rhoads' death, the fact he's a hypochondriac, his sometimes violent relationship with Sharon, and more. Sarzo has respect and admiration for Sharon, but he knows she's not someone to cross.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Sarzo's memoirs is the humanization of Rhoads, whose senseless death enhanced his reputation to degree. Very little footage of him, in concert or in interviews, exists, and though he was only around in the music industry for a few years, his influence and music remain strong to do this day. Sarzo shows the quiet, kind music teacher Rhoads was, his commitment to his craft by seeking out classical guitar lessons, his girlfriend and mother, and the crazy adventures he gets into. Rhoads is the quintessential guitar god, and here, we go beyond that image. We also learn of some tension that occurred between Ozzy and Rhoads over the recording Black Sabbath songs for a live album. Rhoads thought the band had enough material without having to use songs from Ozzy's former band, and after he finally agreed to it, he announced he would leave the band after one more studio album and tour. The recording never happened, however.

Of course, one can't discuss Randy Rhoads without his discussing his death. Sarzo opens the book with a scene in which Rhoads encourages him to join what would be the doomed flight. He returns to that scene toward the end of the book, giving a chilling description of the incident itself and the aftermath. In a sad passage, Sarzo, looking for a quiet place, goes into a church that is empty except for one other person near the front. Only when that person begins crying out and weeping does Sarzo realize it's Ozzy. Sarzo asserts the pilot, the tour's bus driver, deliberately tried to crash the plane into the bus to kill his wife, who was with them on tour, but Sarzo believes Rhoads diverted the plane enough to save everyone else. Also claimed in the crash was Rachel Youngblood, the band's hairdresser, and we learn more about her in the book than anywhere else.

There's more to the book than the inside scoop on Ozzy and Rhoads. For music fans, Sarzo describes the demanding logistics that go into a heavy metal tour: costumes, sets, rehearsals, travel, acoustics, and set up. It never gets too technical; it's always interesting. Sarzo also got into his fair amount of hijinks. Once, after passing out naked on the floor of the tour bus, he finds out the next morning what he thought he had dreamed - sitting naked among a group of women and the band - actually happened. In Germany, the band goes to a club where the beautiful, topless women are revealed at the show's climax to be men. Sarzo also refers to critics' reviews of the different shows, many of which refer to him as Bob Daisley, the bass player he replaced.

Off the Rails is probably the best first-person account from a rock star I've ever read. It's insightful, poignant, funny, descriptive, and focused. It's a valuable account about one of music's biggest stars, one of its saddest losses, and everything in between.

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