33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the eleventh installment of one person’s quest to read all 56 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Part 14 of 56: Master of Reality by John Darnielle (#56 in the series)
Imagine that you are a man from space! And you don’t speak English and you never heard of weed, and you landed in California and the first person you met up with took you to his house and said ‘Hey check out this band.’ And then he played you ‘Sweet Leaf.’ In my opinion, the man from space would hear that song, just the crunchy guitar sound and those bass notes, Geezer Butler is the best bassist it sounds like his strings are made from lime jello salad, and he would start banging his head! Because the riff on ‘Sweet Leaf’, that is something anybody could understand. ANYBODY.
That’s an excerpt from Master of Reality, John Darnielle’s work of fiction based on the Black Sabbath album of the same name. I’m not really a Black Sabbath fan, although I do remember them playing my hometown hockey rink in Maine when I was in sixth grade, and being thoroughly freaked out by the mass of people trudging to the venue (they didn’t look at all like the crowd who had queued up for Styx just the week before.) I’ve since come to dig the band’s first few albums, although I admit that ever since Ozzy remade himself into a reality tv buffoon, I lost interest a bit. Maybe his present clowning shouldn’t taint his musical legacy, but I’m not so good at partitioning these things.
But back to the book. It’s beyond terrific.
The narrator is one Roger Painter, a teen locked up in a California psych ward in the mid-80’s. His Walkman and his cassettes were taken from him when he was checked in; via daily entries to a mandated journal, Painter takes pains to explain to the staff just how much he needs his goddam tapes back. Specifically, Master of Reality.
It’s a daunting task to write convincing fiction; to write it in the voice of a teen and still be convincing — while advancing the narrative — takes a gifted writer, and Darnielle is just that. You don’t have to care in the slightest about Black Sabbath to feel Roger Painter’s anguish; you just have to care about something. If you do, you’ll be drawn in. The second half of the book takes an even more dramatic, unexpected turn, but I won’t pop a spoiler in here on you.
KEXP: Why Master of Reality ?
J. Darnielle: To me it’s the most Sabbath of the Sabbath albums, and it’s the one with the greatest legacy. Paranoid is the one that everyone knows more songs from, I think — people who don’t care at all about Sabbath can still hum a few bars of “Paranoid” and maybe “Iron Man” — but Master is the one that I think lays down the deepest groove. Also, it’s the explicitly Christian one, which I kind of wanted to work with — to have a kid who knows that there isn’t anything wrong with his music, and can demonstrate that, and still not have people hear him.
Did you pull from your own experiences working as a psychiatric nurse in setting the scene?
Sure. I mean, the physical structure of the unit, the daily routine, the communication between staff and patients — that’s stuff I know about from years working in that setting. I didn’t draw on any particular patients or anything though, I don’t think that’d be right. The bits of me that are in there are mainly hidden — nursing staff, that was my position. Nursing staff tend to occupy a sort of flexible role in that kind of setting — sometimes we’re loved, sometimes we’re hated ’cause we carry the keys but won’t open the door.
Writing it as a piece of fiction, in the narrative voice of a 16 year old… how did you come to that approach, rather than write a straight critique/assessment of the album?
I just didn’t think that anybody was better qualified to talk about what makes Sabbath special than a person who’s fiending for that groove. You know? It’s like, who wants to hear a dry assessment of why these riffs are monolithic. I personally would be interested in reading an account of the album’s recording, but otherwise, you know, songs like these aren’t for analyzing. They’re for taking in through your body, for having dreams with.
People who only know your work through the Mountain Goats seem surprised to find out that you’re an avid follower of black metal. They don’t seem to “get” that the author of those Mountain Goats songs could be over the moon about bands like Profanatica and Septic Flesh. Do you come across this a lot?
Yeah, I do, but I just don’t get it. Are other musicians totally really into their own genre and aren’t into other kinds of music? I can’t imagine that. I can’t imagine doing singer-songwriter work all day and then when it came time to chill with some music wanting only to listen to… more singer-songwriters.
This is the 56th volume in the series, and by my count really only the second one to celebrate metal. Any idea why metal is so under-represented? As a genre, it strikes me as a pretty influential one, especially when I listen to a lot of the newer indie bands that work that super-heavy sound.
Yeah. I would just guess there haven’t been as many pitches — I don’t really know. I’d guess that the urge to subject albums to lengthy analyses occurs more to people people who dig “in-your-head” albums like canonical rock stuff. But, I mean, there are at least a dozen metal albums that ought to be addressed before any more boomer classics do — Transilvanian Hunger, Into the Pandemonium, some Carcass — but then again, I mean, those are canonical for metal people. Most people haven’t even heard of ‘em.
Next week: “Horses” (Patti Smith) by Philip Shaw.