Flying High (Again)

I listen to Ozzy Osbourne‘s first two solo records, Blizzard of Ozz (1980) and Diary of a Madman (1981), way more than the average person, but it’s not something I wear on my sleeve or have sewn onto my denim metal jacket. Considering Black Sabbath, I hear Ozzy on a weekly basis. His voice is a friend.

 

Blizzard

Blizzard of Ozz is a permanent entry on my Top 10 Hard Rock Albums of All-Time (currently at #3, just behind AC/DC’s Back In Black).

 

My two favorite Black Sabbath records, Vol. 4 (1973) and Sabotage (1976) come in at #15 and #22, respectively.

Certainly, we’ve all got opinions and tastes, and my logic goes like this: Ozzy is Ozzy no matter who is playing behind him. You either love the guy or you cringe every time he opens his mouth. However, he’s worked with at least two of the greatest rock guitar players ever, Tony Iommi and Randy Rhoads.

[Plus Zakk Wylde is really good, too. Meanwhile, Brad Gillis* and Jake E. Lee weren’t slouching, either]

*Even though I don’t particularly enjoy or endorse his work in Night Ranger, Brad Gillis has some insane chops, man.

When push comes to shove, if I were constantly asked to name my second favorite hard rock guitarist, I would take Randy Rhoads over Tony Iommi, every single time. Unfortunately, Rhoads only lived long enough to record two albums with Ozzy. Tony Iommi is going on album kajillion. Again, in my opinion, those two Ozzy records contain more cool riffs than the entire Sabbath catalog combined.

Randy Rhoads, 1956-1982

When Blizzard came out in 1980, I was 12-years-old and making the transition from drums to guitar. At this point, Eddie Van Halen was the god. Rhoads was the second coming of the ultimate guitar hero. Man, I really don’t want to say anything negative about Tony Iommi or Sabbath, but once you knew to tune your guitar to the record (because Sabbath used drop D and other tunings) it wasn’t much of a challenge to play along with them. They were one of the earliest punk bands.

Learning the riffs and chord changes to “Paranoid” took maybe ten minutes. “Crazy Train” took a month and help from tabs in Guitar World.

While Blizzard knocked my socks off, the follow-up, Diary of a Madman, is almost as good and I’d place it in my top 100, but I hate the album cover, and we all know how important an album cover is to an impressionable now 13-year-old aspiring musician.

In fact, Diary contains my hands-down favorite Ozzy song, and ironic title of this story, “Flying High Again

The Diary of a Madman album cover bothered me because I’ve never liked horror imagery. This is important.

I’ve always avoided so-called “slasher films” or anything with characters named Freddie because that type of shock and fright never appealed to me, in music or film. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are two of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen and nobody gets decapitated with a chainsaw.

In terms of rock music, by this time, I hated Kiss and wouldn’t buy Iron Maiden records because of the cover art. And I’d already seen The Plasmatics.

Wendy O

There was a time when Wendy O was the shit

One of the great things about Sabbath is that they managed to manufacture a dark and scary image without resorting to graphic depictions of bloodshed, demonic beings, human sacrifice, or any reference to the devil. [Note: exception of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1975)]. Thus, in 1981, any band that used horror or shock imagery was bullshit in my book. Therefore, buying and listening to Diary presented a definite challenge and I’m glad I got over it.

When Rhoads died in a tragic plane crash on March 19, 1982, maybe you can imagine my sense of loss. In the last two years, rock music had already lost three of its best and brightest: John Lennon, John Bonham, and Bon Scott. Now they take Randy from us…

By all accounts, Osbourne was devastated by Rhoads’ death. While some eyebrows may have been raised, he did what most people do in that situation. He mourned and then he moved on. Well, it was more like he had a tour to finish and the show must go on. Nearly every one agrees that it is what “Randy would have wanted.”

Ex-Gillan guitarist Bernie Tormé was the first guitarist to replace Randy, but he got bounced within a month. Auditions resumed and Osbourne selected Brad Gillis to finish the tour. The tour culminated in the release of the 1982 live album, Speak of the Devil, (which consists solely of renditions of Sabbath songs), however, the average 1982 set list was packed with songs from Blizzard and Diary.

Few people could hang with this dude.

What follows is what I refer to as one of my “Ozzy stories” and not one of my favorites to tell, mainly because it’s reckless and foolish. Of course, I wouldn’t even dream of trying to hold a candle to Osbourne’s legend. Pissing on the Alamo or snorting lines of ants is clearly in Ozzy’s wheelhouse.

However, in context, what follows is about as stupid and careless as I get. Fortunately, I don’t have too many stories like this to tell. That’s not to say I learned any great lesson from the experience(s). In many cases, there was nothing remarkable about my irresponsibility, thus, no story to tell. In other words, I never got caught.

Until that one day…

Could have been any one of those towns – except Chicago.

In the fall of 2006, I flew from San Francisco to one of the larger Midwestern cities that isn’t Chicago. The trip itself was the result of a musical collaboration with a friend and necessitated the use of my digital 8-track, which wasn’t designed for frequent travel. The only time that thing ever went anywhere, it was in the original box with all the original packaging. With a bit of luck and resourcefulness, my friend Chris found-slash-created a perfect travel case for the 8-track; a gutted-out photography case, relined with a spare chunk of soundproofing foam from the practice space. The new travel case also allowed for mics and two sets of headphones.

My total baggage consisted of the 8-track travel case and a small black carry-on roller which contained my underwear and whatnot. Also along for the ride was what I called my “medicine kit” – a modest but surprisingly varied selection of recreational drugs and in some cases, prescription pharmaceuticals, which were generally stashed in my toiletries bag. Depending upon what I had at the time, there were up to a dozen different party favors in the kit, but never any large quantities. This was strictly personal shit. Ever since 9/11, traveling with drugs for personal consumption has gotten prescriptively more difficult to get away with. In fact, these days, even if it was a nearly undetectable, vacuum-sealed, quarter-sized bud of compressed weed in the front hip pocket of my Levi’s, I don’t think I’d risk it. But in 2006, to me at least, there was nothing to worry about as long as I followed the rules.

Don’t fly with one of these.

There were certain things to avoid carrying, for instance used smoking paraphernalia like metal pipes or one-hitters. New stuff was OK but it was wise to avoid any metal objects larger than a cigarette lighter. To me, traveling with paraphernalia was unnecessary since it was easy to improvise. Potheads can be quite inventive under certain circumstances. Meanwhile, only a complete moron would try to travel with anything made of glass like a crack pipe or a bong, since it’d be broken by the time you got to where you were going. Another rule I followed religiously was never put anything in my checked luggage, even though it had been a decade since I checked a bag. You never knew who might be rifling through that shit once it got tagged, heaved on to the conveyor belt and disappeared behind the ticket counter. Plus, they sometimes have the dogs running around the baggage handling area. You don’t want to mess with that. No, if you’re going to travel with drugs, you gotta have ’em somewhere on your person or in your carry-on. That way, if you get spooked before going through the security checkpoint, you could at least duck into the restroom and flush that shit down the toilet.

The absolute enemy of flying high.

Up until this point, I’d successfully flown two dozen times with varying amounts of dope on me, usually weed. Most of my friends had, too. Not once did I raise suspicion or have an issue. There were several times that I got high in the restroom, moments before getting on the plane. I wasn’t exactly fearless but I felt I had a good handle on the situation. San Francisco is, or I should say was one of the most hassle-free airports to fly in or out of. The security checkpoint was in my mind notoriously slack. Even though the TSA was starting to get serious about invading your personal privacy, at least in San Francisco, you didn’t have to worry about full-body scans or pat-downs. I can only speak from my own experience and therefore, SFO was kind of a joke. They let me waltz in and out of there with God knows what in my medicine kit.

Let it be clear that I knew what I was doing was risky, but in all honesty, I didn’t know what the consequences were.

Before leaving for the unnamed Midwestern city that isn’t Chicago, I almost couldn’t believe my good fortune in scoring drugs. I’d just tapped into a new dealer and he was coming over with all kinds of shit. My regular connection at the bar had been surprisingly consistent with her products. All told, here’s what I had:

Brown Sugar and China White, upper left.

  • 1/8 oz. of Kush (from a medical dispensary, or “pot shop”)
  • 5 gms. of black hashish (supposedly from Pakistan)
  • 1/8 oz. of standard-grade cocaine (medium purity)
  • Approx. 1/4 gram of yellowish Heroin #2 (aka China White – for snorting)
  • A $50 chunk of brown heroin (aka Brown Sugar – for smoking)
  • Four 10 mg doses of Oxycodone (aka Percoset)
  • Three 80 mg doses of Oxycontin (aka Eighties)
  • Two 4 mg doses of Diluadid
  • Half a dozen “funny pills” of unknown origin (which I now suspect was Xanex)
  • Half a dozen Ambien CR
  • Half a dozen Ritalin (dosage unknown)

All of that, when held together formed a ball about the size of an egg, was bundled into a Ziploc baggie and stuffed into an empty vitamin bottle, which fit very nicely along side my toothbrush, razor, vitamins, nail clippers, and packs of wet wipes.

More like 10 times a day.

Going through San Francisco was almost a breeze. My carry-on roller went through without a hitch, but the woman watching the x-ray monitor did a double-take when she saw the 8-track; they didn’t ask to open it. Once I arrived at my destination, I rented a car at the airport and rolled a joint before pulling out of the parking lot.

The long weekend was a blast. It was one of the most pleasurable trips in recent memory. There was only one minor snag, and that was my friends (and hosts) weren’t quite as enthusiastic about my cornucopia of recreational substances available for free consumption. In fact, other than smoking a little pot, they didn’t want anything to do with it. So I said, “OK, I’m here four days. I think I can do a majority of that shit before it’s time to go home.”

My return flight wasn’t until Monday evening, so my hosts offered to let me hang out at their house while they went to work. Rather than wear out my welcome, I declined. After gathering up my things and saying goodbye, I spent the rest of that day driving around. I made a stop at the local modern art museum and wandered around the sculpture garden, wondering if I could work my way through the medicine kit, which was now down to:

  • 2 gms of weed
  • 1 gram of hash
  • $10 worth of Brown Sugar
  • One Percoset
  • Two Oxycontin
  • One Dilaudid
  • Three Ambien
  • Three Ritalin

Just me and the fluorescent glare.

Around 4:30, I decided to return the rental car and hang out at the airport until my 6:30 flight; maybe get drunk and eat a plate of $17.95 nachos. The rental car deal went smoothly and I headed up to the ticket counter. The airport appeared to be surrealistically deserted. Occasionally I caught sight of people drifting past and heard voices coming from the shadows. As I made my way through the terminal I kept saying, “Christ, this place is dead. It’s like a morgue. Where are the passengers?” It didn’t even occur to me that I was super fucking high—it rarely ever does.

At this point, I’d forgotten about the medicine kit. Sometimes it happens. You leave home without your house keys. You leave your iPhone in the back of a taxi. You show up early for a flight and forget that you have some contraband in your carry-on. Honestly, even if I had remembered it was there, I probably would have said, “Fuck it, just bring it home.” Once I returned the rental car, my focus was on getting to the airport lounge at the departure gate.

Prepare to have your privacy invaded.

My flight was on one of the lesser major airlines with its headquarters in the Midwestern city. There was neither a line at check-in nor another passenger in sight. As I approached the counter I looked over to the right and noticed a TSA baggage screening area—there was a huge sign that read TSA SCREENING—but didn’t think much of it.

The ticket agent was a courteous middle aged woman. She asked if I had a seat preference and I asked if the flight was crowded. Her response was “not really.” As she asked, almost as an afterthought, what was in my carry-on and had the baggage been solely in my possession? I replied: a digital 8-track recorder, some personal effects, and yes it has. She tapped on the keyboard of her computer and said, “Oh, sir. According to FAA regulations and blah blah blah, your carry-on luggage will have to go through additional TSA screening before I can issue your boarding pass. Then you can proceed to the boarding gate.” She pointed to the TSA set-up, which featured an x-ray machine, conveyor belt, staging area, several other pieces of electronic equipment, and a small group of agents standing around, bored out of their minds. My head did one of those ping-pong bounces and I said, “Huh?”

This way, chump.

OK, honey. Now you’ve got my attention. My body began to tremble, my heart stared going 200 bpm. The medicine kit.

The woman handed me a form and came out from behind the counter to inspect my bags. The 8-track case was strapped to my shoulder while the roller was on the floor at my left side. Two uniformed airport cops approached from behind, one of them saying, “I can help you with this,” and rolled the bag over to the TSA screening area while I desperately tried to scribble my name and address on the form. The second cop said, “Don’t worry about [the form], sir. Please follow me.” We approached the screening area and one of the TSA guys greeted me and gestured for me to hand over the 8-track travel case. “Afternoon,” he said, taking the 8-track. “Sorry about this. It won’t take long.”

Boss BR-1180

Two TSA guys stood at the x-ray machine watching my stuff, and I was taken to the staging area by a very young-looking guy in a uniform too big for his frame. He ran me through the bomb residue finger and clothing swab tests. Within a minute, the other agents were staring intently at the x-ray monitor and pointing at the screen. “What the hell is that thing?” one of them said. They retrieved my stuff and brought it over to the staging area. When the bigger of the two agents directed the young guy to perform a search on the baggage, he jokingly replied, “Oh, leave the dirty work to the rookie, huh?” The trio shared a chuckle and the other two guys went back to the x-ray machine.

The young guy first opened the 8-track travel case and said, “What is this thing?”

“It’s a digital 8-track recorder,” I said, surprisingly calm, taking note of his powdery blue rubber gloves.

“Really?” he said. “Cool. Are you a famous musician?”

“No.”

After the travel case was cleared for bomb residue, he moved toward the roller bag. It felt like my heart was going to explode. It took him less than 20 seconds to remove the toiletries bag and dump the contents on the table. He briefly examined the vitamin bottle and placed it on a shelf above the table. Right about then my heart was throbbing at every major acupuncture point in my body but especially in my throat, just below my jaw. I was about to learn the answer to a question I’d been asking all those years. Exactly what will happen if you get caught trying to board a domestic flight with a minor amount of contraband, narcotics, and/or controlled substances? I was thinking a minimum of six months in jail and a felony-type entry on my record.

Yeah, like this.

The young agent continued to screen my belongings by poking a gloved finger into various items, and then running that finger under some greenish-purple light. He finally retrieved the vitamin bottle. Upon opening it, he ran a finger around the rim and checked it under the light. As he was about to put the lid back on, he brought the bottle closer to his face and said, “What you got in there?” I couldn’t answer.

Deer in the headlights. Frozen in terror. Scared stiff. These are terms that I may have used prior to that moment but never had I understood so deeply what they meant, and that they describe a very real condition. Time stops. You can feel the blood rushing through your veins. It hurts to breathe. Fainting is a very real possibility. Karmic retribution was coming down, hard. All those time I got away with it? Distant memories now, kiddo. I’m going down, right here and now.

You got me.

He fished out the bundled plastic bag and briefly examined it before stuffing it back in the bottle and closing the lid. He once again ran his finger under the light.

“We ain’t looking for that stuff,” he said while returning all the items to my toiletries bag. He zipped it closed and made eye contact. “We’re looking for explosives,” and winked. He then waved to the ticket agent and said to the other TSA guys, “He’s clear.”

Never in my life had I ever been so unclear about anything. I couldn’t believe I had put myself in such a compromising position, and that I was walking away from what could have been a life-destroying mistake. If that young TSA guy had turned out to be a hard-on, I would have been screwed. And for what? For being careless? Even if the story ended here, which it does not, the gun has been presented, the trigger pulled, and the bullet missed its target.

It quickly dawned on me that I there would be a repeat scenario at the security checkpoint for the boarding gate, the one where you take off your shoes and walk through the metal detector. Any rational human being would have ditched the medicine kit before proceeding to the gate. That didn’t happen in this case.

Don’t be a dummy – flush that shit.

The first thing I did was retreat to a stall in the men’s room and brought out the dope. For a moment I was prepared to flush it down the toilet. Then I had a better idea. Better in the way a drug abuser thought about better. Unless I set off the metal detector, which almost never happened, they wouldn’t conduct a full-body pat down on me. The medicine kit was small enough now that I could theoretically put it in the elastic band of my sock and it wouldn’t get noticed. Popping the last of the Oxycontin, I thought, “If I’m going to get pinched, I don’t want to feel it.”

And it was a repeat scenario at the second security checkpoint. I cleared the metal detector but the woman operating the X-ray machine did a double-take when she saw the 8-track. Cops and TSA goons were called again. The black roller bag was essentially ignored. Once it was determined (again) that the 8-track was harmless, they let me pass. Just like that. Have a nice flight.

Make that a double and keep ’em coming.

The airport lounge bartender took one look at me and said, “Are you OK, pal?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“You look a little shook up there.”

“Do you know me?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know this isn’t the way I look all the time?”

“You’ve got a point there, pal. What are you drinking?”

“Absolute Bloody Mary. Double. Spicy. Yes on the salt.”

Sucks to be the guy in the middle.

Two drinks were just enough to take the edge off; three drinks and I no longer had a mini-panic attack every time I saw someone in a uniform walk by. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering about that young TSA guy. It didn’t seem possible that he could find drugs in my possession and not only let me pass, but give the drugs back to me. He must have certainly said something about it to his co-workers. Right? Granted, I took precautionary measures the second time around, but it’s only logical that if they knew I had dope on me, they would have given me a pat-down. Hiding the shit in your sock is hardly inventive or clever.

In the end, nothing happened. Back in S.F., I spent the next two days sleeping before returning to work. The booze kept flowing and the drugs kept coming. I was flying high and it would be a while before that flight made a crash landing. I’d like to say that I never again flew with drugs in my possession, but that would be a lie. If there is a positive or uplifting angle to this story it’s that I’ve never again been so scared in my life.

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