When I first met Zakk Wylde around ’93 or ’94, I didn’t know what to expect.
I knew he had been the guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne‘s band for about seven years at that point and from the images and videos I’d seen, he looked like a pretty imposing dude. Long, stringy, blond hair cascaded halfway down his back and when he played those tresses whipped around his face and shoulders like some hungry animal attempting to devour him.
His arms looked like tree stumps and biceps bulged from his upper arms like something trying to escape the confines of his flesh. He wore a simple t-shirt—usually rolled up to reveal those menacing looking guns—and these old-school, big-flared bellbottom jeans over scuffed up work boots. He was never without a well-traveled cowboy hat and of course his ubiquitous bull’s-eye-painted Les Pauls.
So, when I drove up to Zakk’s house in the passenger seat of photographer Neil Zlozower—Zloz had known him for years at that point and would even name his son Zach in honor of the guitarist—I really didn’t know what I’d find. We drove up to his house and immediately the Viking shredder opened the front door and lumbered towards us. He grabbed Neil in a friendly bear hug and then shook my hand. Hours of pumping iron had made his handshake feel like I was placing my palm inside a vice-grip.
Neil introduced me and he said, “Hey, Stevie, how are you?” His voice boomed like it was addressing a ship of Norse sailors rowing across a stormy sea.
Calling me affectionately by my first name was the sign I needed to know that Zakk Wylde—born Jeffrey Phillip Wielandt in Bayonne, New Jersey—was not some scary or intimidating metal monster. Any celebrity who calls you by your first name after first meeting them has a big heart.
Zakk was wildly funny, opinionated, and a self-effacing gentle giant who loved drinking beer, making beer, and talking about beer. He was also addicted to working out. Pumping iron. He had a makeshift gym set up in his garage—free weights, barbells, bench—that looked well-worn. In fact, during one of our future phone conversations—we would talk to one another many times down the road—when I asked him how he was doing, he would usually respond, “I’m doin’ OK, man. Just workin’ out and havin’ a cold one. Let’s knock this out.”
Hilariously but incongruously, Zakk would drink a beer or many beers while working out. He bench-pressed insane amounts of weight to lose the pounds and then put them back on while sipping a cold one. Wylde’s life philosophy lesson 101.
Though the guitarist was relatively well-known back in the mid-‘90s from his work with Ozzy, not everybody knew about his fiery and passionate guitar playing. He was only then beginning to receive the accolades he so justly deserved. Guitar magazines were starting to notice him and he was placing high on Best Of polls and the like.
One of the first questions I asked him when we sat down in his well-appointed living room was, “How does it feel to finally be recognized?” Thinking the question would put him in a more reflective or serious mood, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“The running joke is, ‘See, asshole? You stuck around long enough and they had no one left to vote for.’ You know what I mean, hahaha. They just voted for the dumb Mick. It’s cool but it ain’t gonna change anything. Back when Randy Rhoads was winning those things and Eddie Van Halen won it, it wasn’t just because he could play ‘Spanish Fly.’ I don’t do it to get a f—kin’ pat on the back. Put it this way, if a show kicks ass, I don’t need people crawling up my ass telling me it was a good show. Or if a show was terrible it’s like, ‘Dude, leave me alone.’ I know if it’s good or bad. It’s definitely an honor to be recognized by your peers. With Black Label, it’s always a humbling experience because then I go, ‘See, Most Valuable. But then I won number two Best Metal Guitarist because Dime won it and everybody says, ‘You know what that means, jackass? You’re the first loser, motherf—ker.” I tell my wife I’d like to be called the Most Valuable and she says I’m f—kin’ dreaming.” She tells me, ‘Go out and clean up some s—t in the backyard.’”
Zakk may have worn the bell-bottoms but it was obvious who wore the pants in that family.
We spoke for over an hour and then Neil took Zakk aside for some photos. The guitarist posed on his workout bench with a barbell in one hand and a can of beer in the other. He then went outside into his backyard and then pretended to urinate on a bed of roses. Had he done so, Wylde would have incurred the wrath of Barbaranne, his wife of 11 years. “She’d kick my ass,” he admitted.
As I mentioned earlier, I would speak with Zakk many times over the ensuing years. We talked in 2003 for the release of Black Label Society’s The Blessed Hellride album; in 2004 for Hangover Music Vol. VI; and again in 2005 for the Mafia album. Zakk was still funny as hell and couldn’t help poking fun at himself. Here are a few of his classic lines from those various interviews.
Talking about religion during The Blessed Hellride interview: “I’m religious. Oh, yeah, totally, man, without a doubt. Who do you think makes the beer?”
Talking about being a proud parent: “I just had my baby son—Hendrix Halen Michael [named after baseball star Mike Piazza] Rhoads. With my luck he’ll end up being into f—kin’ basket weaving and ballet. But I don’t care. I would never force him to play guitar. My daughter is messin’ around with music now. She’s playing piano. So if she ends up being the next Jewel, cool. That way I won’t have to keep f—kin’ touring all the time. She can bring in some cash.”
Talking about being a guitar hero during the Hangover Music Vol. VI interview: “Some 16-year old kid will go, ‘Man, Zakk. You’re the reason I picked up the guitar.’ And I go, ‘F—k me. You want to hear the real deal? I ain’t even a pimple on Randy Rhoads’ ass. It came from him. You buy Diary Of A Madman and listen to some real guitar playing.’ And the f—kin’ kid goes, ‘Well, who’s Randy Rhoads?’ I go, ‘You gotta be f—kin’ kiddin’ me.”
Talking about the early days during the Mafia interview: “Dude, it’s beyond unbelievably hysterical because everyone was telling us, ‘Well, you’ll never make it in the music business if you’re not doing this kind of music.’ Dude, we made this demo and made Bon Jovi sound like Mötorhead on steroids. Hysterical. It was the wimpiest, crappiest guitar sound you’ve ever heard in your life. I’m sitting there practicing everyday because I’m idolizing Randy, Eddie, Al DiMeola and all the guys. I was doing this solo that was a cool solo like something from ‘Crazy Train’ and I remember the producer guy. He takes out his lighter and lights the lighter and goes, ‘Alright, now we’ve got that out of your system, f—kin’ do a real solo.’ And I’m going, ‘What?’ But the solo had to be the melody almost like Twisted Sister [sings the guitar solo melody line from ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’]. It was horrendous. ‘If the solo is the melody of the song, f—k off.’ You know what I mean?”
However, these were all phone interviews and I wouldn’t hook up with the guitarist again until 2006. Drum! Magazine wanted a story on Craig Nunenmacher, drummer for BLS at the time and so I was invited down to the band’s rehearsal space in North Hollywood to hang out and talk with Craig. I did interview Craig for the drummer’s magazine but it was much more than that.
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