No one could remember afterward whose idea it had been to start a fire. We were at the cottage; having a fire was a given, and if there was no fire pit, that was nothing to stop us. Youth finds a way to believe.
That morning, we’d arrived in a caravan of hatchbacks and sedans, traveling from our tidy suburban homes up a northbound highway that shimmered in the heat. It was Alex’s place, or her parents’. They were out of the country for a week and had given Alex the green light to have up some of her closer, more responsible friends. She and I had been tight since grade school, so I was invited, even though I was a bit of a weird, sullen fit with the larger group, a mix of Tilley-hatted, beer-and-paddleboard types and more bookish kids who looked visibly concerned from the outset that the weekend was destined to lead to disaster. We all found our rooms and felt out our territories, some lounging on the dock, some organizing food in the wood-frame kitchen, some already jockeying over who’d be the first to break the tension by cracking the first Labatt 50.
I was sharing a room with my friend, Jack, who fit in the Tilley hat category but had a dirtier edge to him, a kind of northern hillbilly persona tied up in his older brother’s influence. Regardless, he was cottage through-and-through. I’d been up to his family’s place half a dozen times, where we’d bonded over an early appetite for rye whisky and, crucially, an appreciation for certain music. Any cottager of repute would be expected to turn up a Neil Young song on the radio, or weigh in with an opinion on whether the Tragically Hip deserved their title as Canada’s band. But us cottage skids? We liked metal. Zeppelin, sure. AC/DC, Rush, Maiden, Metallica. Any of that came on, you’d jack it up and take a big swig of your drink, maybe belch in salute.
There was only one artist, though, that had achieved in our minds the mantle of godhood. If you had ever thrown the devil horns, if you had ever proclaimed your allegiance to the canon and culture of heavy metal, by definition, you worshipped Ozzy.
Ozzy is one of those cultural figures who’s outgrown the need for a last name. Ozzy is John Osbourne, born December 3, 1948 in Birmingham, England. Better known, of course, as Ozzy Osbourne. Through his various incarnations, his legend has grown such that few on Earth would think of any other Ozzy before his crazed ringmaster’s face came to mind—chewing, perhaps, on the head of a bat. Beyond his pioneering work in Black Sabbath, where he helped invent heavy metal, and his successful solo career maintained through the drug-addled eighties and cold-sober nineties, there’s his sensational second act as a reality TV personality, bumbling and profane father to Jack and Kelly on the hit show, The Osbournes. Ambling into his 70s, he continues to pump out new records. Ozzy should be dead ten times over. Ozzy never dies.
At Alex’s cottage, Jack and I each had friends in the wider group but were offset as a wolfpack of two by our shared air of cheap weed and sullen discontent. We were not-quite-golden, “something off about that boy”; we had our own rituals. The most sacred, inherited from a friend of Jack’s older brother who inexplicably called himself Scratch, was to take a conscious moment of every cottage stint to collectively salute the Prince of Darkness, wherever and whenever it had to happen—almost like a prayer. At Jack’s cottage, there was no issue: “Paranoid” would be on the radio seven times in a weekend, and there was always lots of beer and people to drink it. Here, though, there would be no Ozzy on the radio. The group was much more likely to hew close to the safe zone of contemporary white-person music—Jamiroquai, maybe, or Dave Matthews. (It was hard to take Dave Matthews, even then.) So, it was agreed beforehand: at some point, when we could get away without drawing too much attention to ourselves, Jack and I would leave the group, head out to where the cars were parked, turn on the radio in Jack’s parents’ Volvo, and clink together a couple cold 50s in honour of the Ozzman. Maybe sneak a clumsily rolled joint or two. Pay proper homage to the lord of a chaotic ideal we loved, even as we believed, deep down, that it would never really touch us—teenagers out here in the woods, swimming in lakes, playing with fire.
As that afternoon deepened, the bustle of arrival gave way to the awkward, hormonally tortured choreography of teenage friendship. Who was hanging out where and with whom; who was infatuated with whose girlfriend or boyfriend; who among us were the responsible ones, and who the risks. Everyone was nervous and excited by all the exposed skin, as shirts and shorts came off to reveal glazed-apricot thighs and taut, lacrosse-team abs. The mix of bright sunshine, alcohol and roving pheromones altered the standard social dynamics. Up here, knowing your way around a boat boosted you two pegs on the tent pole, even if you were prone to binge drinking. Everyone respected a sense of fitting naturally into the northern landscape. This meant that Jack, with his burgeoning aura of mountain man, had more sway than he might have in a different setting—at school, say. It should have been a sign, when he was quiet about the campfire.
Ultimately, it was Alex who gave us the okay. Whoever suggested that we build the pit on the concrete dock, whoever shrugged off the particulars, I can clearly remember Alex nodding to say, yes, it’s cool. Build a rock circle to keep it contained, a patio tile for the base to blunt the heat of the wood. Stone doesn’t burn. Everything’s fine.
Dusk fell, and the smells of sunscreen and bottled beer and sweat swirled around the dock, tempting the dragonflies. By this point, everyone was several drinks in—even the wallflowers, a few of whom were giggly on hard lemonade. The sky purpled and became clear and calm. Soon there was a modest pyre of firewood in the pit, and we began finding our places around it, alliances blurred by drink and sunburns and water, the blessed light making the lines between us into glorious indigo smears. I remember, as we all circled the pit and gauged which stool or stump to claim, talking to a guy named Mike—one of three Mikes there that weekend—whose girlfriend, Erin, I had a thing for. He was odd, but athletic and handsome enough to hang with the popular kids, and had mostly come along as a concession to Erin, who was one of Alex’s close friends. At school, we kept our distance. If he showed up on the rare occasions I got to talk to Erin, I’d usually split. But here, we found some way to connect, to just be guys at the cottage—young, sure, but people who could transcend their assigned codes to have an honest moment, looking at the lake and finding beauty in the setting sun.
Sparks flew up into the warm night as the kindling took. There was almost no wind, which meant the lake was still and flat and reflected everything perfectly, upside down.
Jack and I were both probably four or five beers ahead of everyone else, so it didn’t take long for us to start looking for the right moment to get away. As soon as the deep navy of summer dark fell, reducing the world to fluttering orange and black silhouettes, we started throwing glances at the driveway. It was nighttime; our tribute was overdue.
We’d worked out a plan. Jack would go first and I would follow five minutes later. This collusion, in retrospect, is what made people suspicious, but the truth is it was driven more by fear than anything else—fear that we’d be mocked for being stupid, aloof, immature. Out of control. Better to be inconspicuous, we thought, to try and disappear into the night like wraiths on the cover of a black metal album, shadow on shadow.
Jack went without incident. I stuffed a bottle of beer in each pocket and waited for my moment to scuttle away. It came just after a joke from the loud, clownish guy in the group (who, I later found out, went on to become a urologist). His theatrics always elicited big laughs from everyone, and this was no exception: I don’t recall the comment, but I remember two of the bookish types doubling over, laughing themselves to tears. I laughed, too—not so much at the joke, or even as a cover, but at the weightlessness of everything, how in the firelight we flickered in and out of each other and between the million invisible layers of the universe surrounding us.
As I stood and turned, bottles clinking against the metal buttons on my cargo shorts, I had to resist the urge to start running. I managed to walk away without anyone asking me to bring them back a drink. My legs thrummed, mild sunstroke making my skin prickle and my head light, more prone to the effects of several 50s and a few Kokanees, too. Past an outhouse and a stack of logs, the driveway came into view. I saw Jack’s car and him in it, dimly illuminated by the weak, yellow ceiling light. He was smoking a cigarette, doors open, and there was music on the radio; but he had not yet put the sacred tape into the deck.
I climbed into the passenger seat and, without words, we looked at each other, raised our sweating 50s and took long, cold swigs of the barley-made stuff that we’d both fallen more deeply for than we realized.
“Fuckin’ eh,” said Jack, and popped in the tape.
There were no rules about what songs to listen to, except for what you had available, which in this case was a mix tape Jack had inherited from his brother. In no particular chronological order, it featured selections from Ozzy’s solo catalogue, from his debut, Blizzard of Ozz, to what at that point were his latest releases: 1991’s benchmark No More Tears, and its follow-up, Ozzmosis, from 1995. The first two tracks on the tape were both classics. “Crazy Train”, his debut single as a solo artist and arguably the quintessential Ozzy song, was followed by another highlight from Blizzard of Ozz: “Mr. Crowley”, an ode to the noted occultist and magician, Aleister Crowley.
I’ll admit that I sparked the first joint, a mix of weed and hash oil, right as “Crazy Train”’s opening salvo of All Abooooard bled out through the Volvo’s speaker. By the time Ozzy was proclaiming us heirs of the Cold War, Jack and I were halfway gone, buoyed to metal Valhalla by the guitar histrionics of Randy Rhoads, who died in a plane crash just as his fame was really beginning to explode. The beers went down easily, one after another, then more from the stash hidden in a cooler in the back of the car; then swigs from a bottle of Gibson’s Finest pulled from below the seat. We were still too young, then, to be afraid of a condition’s permanence. Ozzy had quite possibly put back more liquor than any human on the planet, and survived. And anyway, how could all this lightness be bad?
It was during the opening organ salvo of “Mr. Crowley” that reality started to wobble. That’s the best way I can describe it. Jack and I were passing a second doobie over the gear shift, and I remember a sensation of vertigo coming on like a wave, as the song’s intro built to a crescendo of woozy synthesizer—and then, piercing a void of silence, the signature whine of the Prince of Darkness. The drums and guitar kicked in, causing a shimmer above the hood, a nimbus of purplish-green light. The air appeared to rip like a sheet, and from the rift stepped a figure clad in black, hunched and wreathed in mist and ethereal flame—magician, madman, prophet, guardian angel.
A whiff of burnt cloth drifted past on the wind. Cicadas rattled in the trees.
Consciously or not, everything is hiding dark magic. The most mundane objects and circumstances conceal the potential for calamity. Take concrete, for example. It may appear solid and stable, but it’s just a bunch of bonded aggregate, hiding water that’s seeped inside to rest like a sleeping snake. When heated to 200 degrees Celsius, the water turns to vapour. The snake is awake, and it wants out. When the pressure builds so high that there aren’t enough pores to let it out fast enough—well, it finds a way.
One way or another, energy converts. You see it at metal shows, where kids with rage to spare bang their heads and run into strangers writhing in pits. You see it in sports, where people obsessively hone their bodies to be able to push themselves to exhaustion. These days, you see it online, where people pour so much pent up dark energy that we’ve forgotten what’s real and what’s nightmare.
Back then, there were fewer distractions. There was stone and water and heat, natural magic. There was lightness in the northern dark. And there was music, which has its own way of turning pressure into release.
The figure we summoned was contemporary for the era, clad in a classic black suit over black T-shirt, hair pulled into a black ponytail, wearing round sunglasses, tinted black. Notable modifications included the halo of dark fire emanating from his body and the thick clots of blood streaking his chin. (Neither, to be honest, much of a stretch for Ozzy.) He had a slight hunch and a puzzled but jovial look on his face. He was, no mistake, looking at us. He had come to communicate, make contact. With our ritual, we had brought our metal god or some phantom facsimile of him to this confluence of nervous and reckless souls, and he had a message for us—for Jack and me. We sat, entranced, stoned beyond movement, waiting for our dark priest to deliver his wisdom.
Leaning in, arms hung apelike from his hunched shoulders, John “Ozzy” Osbourne preached his rock and roll gospel:
“Goooooo FUCKING CRAZY!!!”
Inside the car, “Mr. Crowley” continued, the whine of Ozzy-on-tape divorced from the heavy metal gremlin who loped across the Volvo’s hood, exhorting us over and over:
“GO FUCKING CRAZY!!! GO FUCKING CRAZY!!! GO FUCKING CRAZY!!!”
By most any standard, we obeyed Ozzy’s command. We were paralyzed, consumed, ecstatic in metal.
By the time “Mr. Crowley” faded out into hissing silence, darkness had come down on the car again, no light visible except the sheen of the yellow moon. At some undefined moment, the Oz-goblin had returned to his realm, leaving his message behind in ever-whispering tinnitus:
“Go fucking crazy… go fucking crazy…”
The next track on the mixtape was a power ballad—Ozzy’s biggest hit to date. “Mama, I’m Coming Home” begins with a brief 12-string guitar lick from Zakk Wylde before Robert Trujillo’s rich, warm bass kicks in. It was that first bass note that broke our trance. Jack and I stared at each other, bloodshot eyes agog. He flicked the keys to turn off the power, and the music died. For a second, we just sat there, the silence blazing, until our ears adjusted and we heard the screaming from below.
Like a movie. Such a cliché, but that happens when so much of our imagination is given over to chaos. Bodies on the ground. Moaning, shrieks. Smouldering ash strewn over the dock, bright orange against the black lake. Air hazy with smoke, billowing from the cratered black eye of the fire pit. Chunks of concrete scattered everywhere like spilled popcorn, some still steaming. Smells of singed hair, burnt plastic, charred meat.
And all of the messy energy concentrated on one person—one of the quieter types, Sara Coswell. She was kneeling on the ground, holding her head in her hands, blood streaming through her fingers, which could barely contain the mealy red curd that a flaming crag of concrete had made of her left cheek.
A blur: phone calls, first aid, hushed conversations. Sara Coswell in pain but stable, much stronger than anyone expected, as she sat pressing a blood-soaked gauze pad to her face, telling everyone she’d be fine. Lights, sirens, paramedics, stretchers. An exhausting cascade of tears and sighs and burns and bruises. Except for us—Jack and me, who helped as we could and stayed out of the way and tried to offer comfort when possible, from a place of deep intoxication, in highly uncomfortable circumstances.
Mostly, we drank more beer and marveled at the manner in which we’d been spared.
John Osbourne is no god. He’s in his 70s and has Parkinson’s disease and will die soon.
You ask some in the group, they’ll tell you it seemed strange, in retrospect, how Jack and I had snuck off together from the fire. How we’d so conveniently escaped the carnage of what came to be known, in local lore, as “The Big Bang”. How there had been times Jack had been overheard in the cafeteria mocking Sara Coswell—as though we somehow could have engineered an uncontrolled blast to hit her the hardest, or would have any reason to. How we’d been drunk that night, not for the first time, and high on what were then illegal drugs, and a little too suspect in our fondness for music that tended to favour Satan over God or government or good careers in administration and finance.
Something off about those boys.
I don’t know what Sara Coswell’s take on everything was. We’d never been close, and I probably exchanged less than five words with her that weekend. In getting into the ambulance, she effectively disappeared from my timeline, not returning to school for the remaining two weeks and then dissolving into the blear of an unrelenting future. I heard she recovered well, although the wound left a sizable scar. I looked her up online and found a picture of a woman I didn’t recognize, her face a whole different shape—not from any deformity, just the transfiguration of age. Her profile photos showed a happy and confident adult, VP of Communications for a big tech firm, far removed from the shy teenager I’d barely known, but who still lives, bleeding, in my memory. I’m happy Sara Coswell seems to have turned out fine, at least as far as the Internet knows, where nothing is true and everyone has their own version of what’s real.
For a long time, if you’d asked me, I’d have told you that Ozzy Osbourne saved my life. I’d say that back when this happened I was young and stupid, much too stupid to understand the physics of concrete and water and fire, and that the spectre of a madman called me away from catastrophe in an act of dark benevolence—some product of the way heavy metal works as a kind of armour, shielding you from the fallout of other people’s successes and ruins.
Now, though, my answer would be different. Now I’d have to talk of how I understand that metal, like friendship, is sometimes a pact as well as a haven. How it can protect you from a lot of things—just maybe not from yourself, depending on how you carry it.
Jack and I lost touch years ago. I followed his life on social media, knew he got married, had kids. But I hadn’t heard anything of him for a long time, until I got the call from our mutual friend, Dave, telling me about the stroke. He wouldn’t have called, he said, if Jack hadn’t been saying my name over and over. It was a symptom of the aphasia. His wife, Carolyn, didn’t know what to make of it—my name meant nothing to her. But at some point, Ozzy’s name came into it, too, and Dave knew.
I can only guess what Jack was trying to say, or why. I’ve never gotten in touch to wish him well in recovery. I have my regrets about it. But it’s possible he doesn’t even remember that night the way I do—who knows how damaged his wiring is after the stroke? Age has little mercy on the body. I have lapses myself, these days.
Still, I’m certain Jack and I would agree on two things.
Ozzy saved us, for a time.
Ozzy will never die.
J.R. McConvey is a writer and producer working in Toronto, Ontario. His stories have been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize, and the Matrix Lit Pop award, and appeared in The Malahat Review, Joyland, EVENT, The Puritan,The New Quarterly and other publications. He won the 2016 Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award for Fiction, and was featured on CBC’s 2020 Writers to Watch list. DIFFERENT BEASTS, his first book, won the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Speculative Fiction. As a producer, McConvey explores emerging forms like interactive documentary and virtual reality. His productions include the acclaimed National Parks Project, Northwords, Mission Asteroid, and the CSA-nominated 360 film project, SESQUI. He sometimes reviews books and teaches about digital media.