What led to Ozzy Osbourne infamously biting the head off a bat in Des Moines?
Editor's note: This article by former Register reporter Matt Leimkuehler was originally published in November 2018.
Few things capture music history like a good concert handbill.
Outdated band images. Obnoxiously cheap ticket prices. Endorsements from long-canceled radio shows.
Collecting a slip from each night of ear-rumbling riffs is a rite of passage for rock ‘n’ roll faithful — a memory to be tucked away in a shoebox next to the gigs that came before it.
And no handbill may burn as ominously in heavy metal history as the one for a Des Moines show on Jan. 20, 1982, the night rock 'n’ roll menace Ozzy Osbourne brought his “Diary of a Madman” tour to Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
Donning a cape and devilish horns, Osbourne’s bulging glare stares from beneath the words “Just when you thought it was safe to go back to a concert." The poster urges “parental guidance” and warns that “eating before concert not recommended.”
Just a bit of over-the-top propaganda to help sell tickets, right? Hard rock in the 1970s and '80s cashed in on sensationalism. Vaudevillian costumes, ear-splitting pyrotechnics, a few staged beheadings — the less parents approved of the act, the better.
But what transpired inside Vets actually delivered on the handbill’s promise of stomach-turning depravity. That’s the night Osbourne, in front of roughly 5,000 onlookers, sunk his teeth into a bat, biting off the head.
What led a 17-year-old Iowan to smuggle a bat into the audience? And why did Osbourne feel he should eat it for a mid-show snack? That’s thanks to a cocktail of too-crazy-to-be-true stories, zealous showmanship and a penchant for drug abuse.
“The '60s and '70s and early '80s were like the Wild West in the concert business,” said Steve White, tenured Iowa concert promoter. “Everything was just kind of by the seat of your pants. There were no set of rules.”
As the song goes, all aboard …
Wait! Don't know anything about Ozzy and the bat? Read this first.
Crazy, bat that’s how it goes
The flyer promised grotesque behavior and each ticket buyer, paying a mere $8.50 to get in the door, got a blood bath. Contemporary Productions, out of St. Louis, booked the gig.
The Prince of Darkness thing? That sold tickets, said Steve Schankman, Contemporary president and a 50-year concert vet.
Schankman has booked about 20,000 shows in his career, including George Harrison’s sole St. Louis concert and the unfaithful night in 1991 when fans incited a riot at a Guns N Roses gig. He can’t confirm if his team made the flyer specifically for Osbourne in Des Moines, but he thinks so.
“It’s just hype,” he said. “Same thing with Alice Cooper — with the snake and (cutting) a guy's heads off. It was show business.”
And show business translated to FM listeners. Local rock station KGGO promoted the gig — embracing the whirlwind of antics that surrounded Osbourne’s career. Tapping into a pre-Internet FOMO, they’d play up that Osbourne in Des Moines would be the concert of the year.
Radio sponsors didn’t have a financial stake in the show, but better ticket sales meant more shows to sponsors and, ultimately, more top-selling acts to associate the station’s brand with.
“It really was a game of one-upmanship, said Larry Moffitt, former KGGO morning show host. “It was like guerrilla warfare, if you had two or three or four stations in (the radio) format.”
In an era of KISS makeup and Cooper's guillotine, before YouTube and Twitter, heresay of what happened on tour would fly from city to city. It fueled concert line conversation, column inches in Circus magazine and scuttlebutt with local record store clerk.
Rumors of dove decapitation and exploding pig organs trickled into Osbourne’s fandom from DJs angling for higher market shares and magazine writers anxious to sell a story. This ignited a P. T. Barnum-like expectation to stun fans with more than Randy Rhoads riffs during a gig.
“If I had a nickel for every time I played ‘Crazy Train’ I wouldn’t have to buy lottery tickets,” said longtime Iowa on-air talent Jack Emerson. Antics helped sell tickets, Emerson agreed, but so did Osbourne’s well-oiled band.
“People couldn’t get enough of him,” he added.
Going off the rails
Osborne didn't exactly shy away from the stories surrounding him, either.
As Osbourne writes in the 2009 autobiography, “I Am Ozzy,” his Black Sabbath bandmates kicked him to the curb months earlier for being too strung out (although Osbourne argues he wasn’t any more stoned than the rest of the group). He was facing a divorce — from his first wife, Thelma — that would split his family apart. And he was still heavily self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
With songs reflecting his substance abuse (“Suicide Solution”), the occult (“Mr. Crowley”) and a sophomore album coined “Diary of a Madman,” his music embraced the chaos. And that influence seeped into the tour production.
It’s on the “Diary of a Madman” tour that Osbourne staged the hanging of a dwarf and incorporated a catapult that launched raw meat into the audience.
So audience members started smuggling in meat and, eventually, toy reptiles to throw back at the band.
Osbourne writes that he never believed in the satanism rumors that followed his career, mostly during Black Sabbath tours. He did, however, embrace heavy metal theatrics, a compliment to his “rock ‘n’ roller” showmanship.
“We had dead cats, birds, lizards, all kinds of stuff,” Osbourne wrote. “With every gig, it just got crazier and crazier. Eventually people started to throw things on stage with nails and razor blades embedded in them — joke shop stuff, mainly, like rubber snakes and plastic spiders.”
The media sells it
Word of the Ozzman's foolery reached Des Moines teenagers Mark Neal and Carmen Kelly.
About two weeks before the show, Neal’s younger brother found a dead bat (Kelly and Neal defend the bat was dead; Osbourne argues he felt the head twitch in his mouth, leading him to believe it alive when bitten) outside an elementary school on the city’s southside. Kelly suggested keeping it for the upcoming Osbourne show, so Neal stored it in a freezer.
She heard about an incident where Osbourne bit the head off two living doves — in 1981 during a meeting with CBS Records — and thought it’d be the right fit for the Prince of Darkness.
“I said, ‘Mark, I think we should take it to the Ozzy concert and … see what happens,’” Kelly said. “We had heard so many stories.”
Neal, a fan of “Sabbath and Judas Priest (or) anything that irritated the parents,” won tickets from KGGO. On show night, he tucked the bat into his pocket, found a close enough spot to the stage, and chucked it toward the band.
“It landed in front of Rudy Sarzo, the bass player,” Neal said. “He looked down at it and motioned to Ozzy and, as they say, the rest is history”
Or, as Osbourne described: “... my mouth was instantly full of this warm, gloopy liquid, with the worst aftertaste you could ever imagine. I could feel it staining my teeth and running down my chin.”
Osbourne took the bite, but the media devoured the story. It’s considered one of the craziest moments in concert history, with the likes of Rolling Stone, the Guardian and New York Daily News churning anniversary pieces on heavy metal’s infamous chomp.
It’s one Osbourne hasn’t forgotten, either.
“The name of the town of Des Moines is embossed in my head!" Osbourne told the Register in November 2001, ahead of his return to the auditorium for the first time since the beheading. "I've had some mileage from Des Moines.”
And Osbourne paid for that mileage. He earned roughly $39,000 for performing that night, Register archives say, but faced three weeks of rabies shots on the road ahead.
“Every night for the rest of the tour I had to find a doctor and get more rabies shots: One in each arse cheek, one in each thigh, one in each arm,” he wrote. “Every one hurt like a bastard.”
That’s just the price some pay in show business.
Tickets go on sale Friday for what’s anticipated to be Osbourne’s final Des Moines show, June 30, 2019 at Wells Fargo Arena. Find more information at iowaeventscenter.com.
So, About That Time…, a series from the Register’s Matthew Leimkuehler, highlights Iowa’s obscure and overlooked musical moments. Have a story you’d like to share? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8358.
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