Book Review: Master of Reality by John Darnielle (2008)

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Black Sabbath Master of Reality

essentialI don’t read many books about music. I don’t write much about music either, so it seems important for me to confess, up front, my willful ignorance of the 33 & 1/3 series of critical texts on classic records, many of which I love to the very core of my being. I guess I never felt the need. I was raised in a house where there was always something good being listened to. Eight-years-old and driving somewhere with my mom and my sister, our sing-alongs were to The Clash. Or Marvin Gaye. Or Al Green. Or Parliament-Funkadelic. There was no “discovering” punk or soul or funk in my house. My sister and I knew Never Mind the Bullocks Here’s the Sex Pistols because we were born into it, so, denied our opportunity to rebel, we found Korn and shit like Korn. When we found out that Mom hated bands like The Beatles and guys like Bob Dylan becuse she’d lived through that era and had their music hammered into her subconscious by the radio and her brothers on their reel-to-reel, we rebelled by listening to good music instead.

All of this is to say that I don’t read about music because music is a thing that I feel, and I don’t want my ability to feel getting brought down by my knowledge of process or humanity. That’s ridiculous and impossible, and hasn’t even been true for most of my life. Somewhere in Detroit there’s a box full of books about The Beatles and DVD documentaries about the making of albums like The Dark Side of the Moon. The White Stripes tour documentary Under Great White Northern Lights made me cry, and Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster made St. Anger forgivable. But the prospect of reading a slim volume of prose about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea seemed (seems) daunting because, no matter what that book says about that record, it will say nothing about my experience of it: How I purchased it blindly from Shake-It Records in Cincinnati because I had a lot of disposable income in those days and thought the cover looked cool. How it was the album I turned to after I botched the miserable job of coming out to some of my friends and teachers as an undergraduate. How I beat the shit out of my playing chops trying to get my trumpet to sound like every instrument from “[untitled].” Not that I expect the books in 33 & 1/3 to do this for me, but I’m just not in the market for an experience of a record that isn’t mine.

John Darnielle’s Master of Reality is different, though. It’s a novella, for one, and it’s by a lyricist whose music often feels like a spiritual event. It’s about a kid for whom Black Sabbath’s masterful trudge through the glop and doom of hopelessness is the soundtrack to everything: good times, bad times, depression, teenage kicks. Darnielle, a devoted metalhead, enters Master of Reality through a troubled kid’s journal. It’s 1985, and Roger Painter is in a mental hospital, trying to convince his caseworker to give back his Walkman and his cassettes. If he would just listen to Master of Reality and read what Roger has to say about it, Gary (fucking Gary) would know how important that record is, how healthy it would be for Roger to have it. He’d have no choice but to get the Walkman out from the cubbyholes behind the nurses’ desk and hand them back to Roger and admit that, yeah, this thing matters. But it’s October 1985, two months removed from Frank Zappa and John Denver and Dee Snider testifying before the United States Senate, two months from Susan Baker’s claim that “Much has changed since Elvis’ seemingly innocent times,” hilarious given the moral outrage his hips inspired. Roger doesn’t know any of that, or maybe he does and that’s why his treatise on Master of Reality and Sabbath and all the music out there like it is so earnest and vulnerable: It’ll take a miracle for him to get those tapes back. No such miracle is forthcoming.

Everything that gets tied into the experience of an important album is part of Roger’s story, which he spills out to Gary in good faith. There’s inside jokes and figures of speech between friends, sex, obsession, and rock mythology, the way your favorite band feels like your band, something you might have joined were you born in the right time and place. Roger, as he comes to realize, was not in the right time or place. The shelled-out England that birthed Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath is impossible to imagine from a California choked out by freeways and strip malls:

Ozzy Osbourne was born in the late 40s, so he probably grew up looking at a lot of bomb craters. I grew up in southern California, so what I grew up looking at was a lot of strip malls. Same basic idea. The only difference is that my neighborhood looked like it was waiting to be bombed instead of recovering from the bombing.

It’s easy, I think, for some kids to look at modern desolation and get romantic for old blight. I know that’s how I was. All of the geniuses I listened to, it seemed, were born in those bomb craters. I know I still get that way, sometimes, when it’ late and the music’s right and I’m walking past a strip mall with a Jos. A. Bank or something in it. And when the music’s right, yeah, it’s like exploring a cave or listening to a wizard deliver a sermon from a mountaintop. “We are the Masters of Reality!” Roger imagines Sabbath shouting from the mountains, black-and-purple capes flowing. “This is your reality!” I’m with him. I’d follow Ozzy anywhere, even knowing the only place he has in mind is Hell.

This book is perfect, small and agonizing. I read it once, then I read it again with Master of Reality on low in the background so I could feel every note, every wheeze, every plea. So I could feel Black Sabbath invading my brain. It’s not my experience, but it’s something close. Darnielle’s prose is all alienation and uplift and staggering heartbreak, a teen anthem in its own right. Its crescendos and peaks triggered my memories of Sabbath. Here’s one: I’m young and it’s my father’s weekend to take my sister and I, but the whole divorce/visitation thing has left him without whatever mechanisms fatherhood requires. He tries, taking us around with him to the places he works and showing us the cars he has built for others to race. His ass-crack is hanging out in a picture from an issue of Super Ford Magazine about some NASA-designed engine he put into a Mustang. We spent a lot of time at drag races, at go-kart tracks, playing slot cars. But neither my sister nor I have a proficiency for cars, and my big Black Sabbath memory takes place in the half-rusted Ford Bronco he drove from wherever he was living at the time to his work, where he’d fiddle around with that engine.

We’re in the Bronco, my father and I (I don’t remember if my sister was there), and it’s 5:00pm on a Friday, Arthur Penhallow on 101.1 WRIF playing the working man into the weekend. The opening chords of “War Pigs” cut in over the rumble of the truck. Dad asks if I’ve ever heard this song before and I haven’t, so he turns the radio up as loud as he can, just as the air raid sirens hit. We’re there in a vacant parking lot, feeling the song. Actually feeling it. Tony Iommi’s guitar, Geezer Butler’s bass, Bill Ward’s drums, so loud my teeth are vibrating. Ozzy over all of this, “OH, LORD YEAH!” and its the greatest thing I’ve ever heard because I’m hearing it with my father, because now I have something with him that I never had before, a connection. The song ends. Dad does a few donuts in the parking lot because there’s nobody there to stop us. We go home. Master of Reality was like that for me, like going home and driving past that parking lot. Sometimes it’s good to go home and sometimes it hurts, and every memory, good or bad, is an unexploded bomb I’m not equipped to handle. So I do it with care, hold them close and hope they don’t explode. Then I read a book like this, and they all go off at once. This is your reality, it says. There are no masters.

John Darnielle Master of RealityMaster of Reality (33 & 1/3). By John Darnielle. Published by Bloomsbury Academic on April 15, 2008. Order a copy of it at your local bookstore, from Powells Books, or Amazon.