[Please note: the following is part of a series on redemptive theological themes in rock music. It’s possible I’m implying themes in an artist’s music s/he never intended to be there. But that’s the beauty of art: the observer gets to read into it what she will. So could there be something Divine lurking behind the words of rock? Maybe… just, maybe…]
There aren’t many lamentations in modern Christian music. There is not a whole lot of stuff that bemoans the sorry shape of our world or an individual’s soul. But a guy like Ozzy Osborne is full of laments. From “Suicide Solution” to “Road to Nowhere”, Ozzy is a sad man. Over-riding sadness might be a little tough to swallow from a dude who’s been making gold records since his teens… but we’re all tormented in our own ways, even Ozzy.
Ozzy’s music has often been thought of as dark or evil–comparisons Ozzy hasn’t done much to counter. Some of his songs deal with the occult–like “Mr. Crowley”. But Ozzy never seems to espouse these dark themes as lifestyle options (or, in the case of “Suicide Solution”, non-lifestyle options). “Mr. Crowley” reads as an interview with the well-known occultist–even more it reads as gobbledygook. A lifestyle immersed in the occult is not glorified in the song. “Suicide Solution” is really about the hell a person creates around himself by living in a bottle of liquor. (I’m not trying to be an Ozzy apologist, just saying what I read in the lyrics.) Ozzy always points out his own culpability for the sorrow in his life. Self deprecation and a sense of responsibility is a theme that’s missing from a lot of 80’s rock–which is one of the reasons so many of us metalheads turned to the more “real” grunge in the 90’s. I think Ozzy’s sense of self realization has made much of his music (gulp) timeless. Though bands like Faster Pussycat and Bullet Boys became lost in musical space, Ozzy is still relevant.
And what’s not timeless about a song like 1980’s “Crazy Train”? It bears striking similarity to an Old Testament prophet (if that prophet had been British… prone to alcoholism… and familiar with locomotion, I guess). The lyrics in “Crazy Train” match themes of OT prophecy: the world is unjust because people are unjust (“Crazy, but that’s how it goes/millions of people living as foes”), the world needs to come back to God’s vision of justice (“Maybe it’s not too late/to learn how to love and forget how to hate”), or else we’ll face catastrophe (like “going off the rails on a crazy train!”).
Have we not heard the message before? Is it not written on our hearts? Are we not longing to (as NT Wright puts it) see the world set to rights? And why do we long for that? Even the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness longs for a more idyllic world. We are longing for a new creation. Might we be longing for the same world the Divine longs for?
The song was likely penned as a Cold War warning: “heirs of a cold war is what we’ve become.” The Cold War divided much of the world along ideological lines. We see the world divided similarly today–we are still greatly divided over East vs. West, religion vs. secularism, religion vs. religion… So Ozzy’s prophesy still has merit in the here and now… as do the warnings of Old Testament prophets: continue to abuse one another, continue to neglect the widow and orphan, continue to seek self-gain above all else and calamity will come. The relief in both Ozzy’s prophesy and the those of the Old Testament is that they are always conditional: if you stay on your present course, then the bad stuff happens. May Ozzy be correct in saying “it’s not too late to learn how to love and forget how to hate.”
Oh, but we’ve treated Ozzy as the world treated so many prophets before: as a whacked out kook. Well, maybe Ozzy played into the whacked out part. But that doesn’t deride an ability to occasionally speak truth. Is there truth to his assessment of our human condition? Not much has changed in 35 years since we first heard “Crazy Train”… we could use to learn how to love and forget how to hate, my friend.
Hey! Each week we’re going to identify what some the best rock songs of all time tell us about the Divine. Check back each Wednesday as we exegete some more of your favorite tunes. In the meantime, rock. on.