Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Black Sabbath's Master of Reality: 33 1/3 by John Darnielle

For those who are not familiar with it, 33 1/3 is a series of short books published by Continuum. Each book focuses on a different rock album. The subject of this book is, you guessed it, Black Sabbath's classic "Master of Reality."

I haven't read any of the other 33 1/3 books but, from what I've read about them, most take the form of either critical essays or rock journalism on the making of the record in question. John Darnielle, who is himself a musician being the singer, songwriter and principle member of a band called The Mountain Goats, has crafted something entirely different and ultimately more satisfying. "Master of Reality" is a short novel about a troubled teen in a psych ward who is a devoted fan of Black Sabbath.

Darnielle chooses to tell the story from the perspective of his main character, who's name is Roger. The first half of the story is Roger's journal while a 16 year old patient at a psych ward in 1985. Later, the story is picked up in the form of a letter from Roger to one of his therapists, written ten years after the main events of the story took place.

Although the character in the story was several years younger than me (five to be exact) and I never spent any time in a psych ward, it was impossible for me not to empathize with his passion for music in general and Black Sabbath in particular. In many ways, I think that Black Sabbath's role has always been to speak to the troubled teenager that many of us once were and that still seems to live inside. His passionate pleas to his therapist, whom he assumes is reading the journal, to give him back his Black Sabbath tapes, or at least "Master of Reality," made me think of the hours and hours I spent as a teenager listening to and talking about music. For that matter, it made me think of the huge amounts of time I still spend in these endeavors as an adult.

To put it simple, this little book blew me away. It is a very quick read but I wanted to turn back and reread it as soon as I had finished. In the reading and rereading, I found myself thinking about periods of my life that I hadn't thought about in a long time. Like Roger, I have changed greatly since my misspent youth as a troubled teen but, also like Roger, I look back on that time of my life with a complicated mixture of pain and affection. In this wonderful little book, John Darnielle has perfectly captured the complexity of those feelings while also conveying the dark masterpiece that is Black Sabbath's "Master of Reality."

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