I decided to pay $15 for all 100 pages of this book in anticipation of Mountain Goat’s front man, John Darnielle’s, first novel, coming out soon. Despite the price, I’m glad I read Master of Reality. It changed my perspective on music criticism, the role of early metal in the formation of teenage identification, and Darnielle’s writing. Truly, it’s great!
This novella is a part of the 33 1/3 series; it’s mostly a work of experimental music criticism. Though fiction, it attempts a rhetorical purpose: that is, destroy what you know about Black Sabbath’s 1971 record, Master of Reality. Because it’s wrong. Or, maybe it’s right but it’s not complicated enough. Rodger will tell you. Rodger Painter is a teenager committed to a group home for troubled youth. He tried to kill himself, so his family sent him to a hospital. The only thing on his mind is getting his Walkman back. The book is divided in half, the first half a notebook journal about why Gary, the youth therapist should give Rodger his tapes back, and the other half a letter written to Gary ten years later when the narrator is 26 expressing his feelings on the outcome of his time in state institution for wayward youth. Thus, the book takes three voices: 1. Why Master of Reality is the best Sabbath album and accordingly the best album of all time; 2. Why anyone who doesn’t like it is wrong and misunderstands it, 3. The people who need this album really need it and who are you to take it from them!
The Sunset Tree is proof that only John Darnielle could have written this book. He understands the voice of a dejected young person totally at odds with their surroundings. Darnielle had an abusive stepfather, did meth in Portland, and eventually became an aide at a mental institution in Texas. It’s easy to read Rodger as a stand-in for Darnielle. While the character shares different circumstances than his writer, they share a similar reflection about music. Darnielle forgoes “hard” facts, traditional to music criticism, instead favoring apocryphal tales a fan might tell or make up. It works good for a novel. The writing also details the affect of the music, i.e. how it makes you feel and the reason someone might want (neigh, need) to listen to it. It makes you feel angry and you need to listen to it if you’re angry, is what it inarticulately breaks down to.
Young Rodger’s sez “If you don’t get it, it’s not for you–but that doesn’t make it stupid.”
After listening to the Master of Reality while reading, I gotta say, I don’t like it. Even the book acknowledges, it’s a mediocre album by album standards–it’s short, there’s no hits, and two of the 9 tracks are short instrumentals. It’s not unpleasant to my ears (but probably to a nun’s), but I don’t think it sounds very heavy either. I would never think it to be the type of record that could capture a person’s passion for music as catharsis. The reason this book is good then is because it makes my opinions all stupid and wrong.
Rodger first analyzes music in a way similar to how I talked about music in high school. If you weren’t good at sports, remember how music was the integral component of your teenage identity? Music felt like the only suitable release for the rush of foreign and uncomfortable feelings I felt all the time–like listening to the music was allowing these gross, pus-esque feelings to pop out of the infected zit that was me.
Naturally, the title Master of Reality is a source of fascination to our narrator. As a teenager, his mind is awakened to the idea that the way you view the world is determines how you see the world. What teenager doesn’t want to master his reality?
“I think the point is to make you say “What is reality?” Which sometimes you might say is a stupid question. But I would say to you then, oh really? If “What is reality” is such a stupid question then what the fuck just happened…”
As an adult, Roger learns–your reality isn’t really determined by you. The things that happen and your reactions to them are really not under your control. Sure, you’ll face the repercussions of them, but the chemicals and drives in your brain are in control. Your ego isn’t. And that’s the problem with being a teenager. Your ego is finally formed–but it’s on overdrive. Everywhere way you turn tries to silence your ego. But those unconscious drives can’t be stopped. going. You’re out of control. Your brain feels like an unwilling passenger on a speeding rocket-ship.
Rodger feels this way, too (I think) so every detail about Black Sabbath, their image and their music, Ozzy’s lyrics and intentions are mulled over. Rodger sees the band Black Sabbath themselves, and Ozzy Osbourne in particular, as average dudes who are easy to identity with. Someone who feels just as stupid and shitty as you do, but for whatever reason can channel all of that energy into a four minute song. Kurt Cobain was this person. To me, Elliott Smith was this person. It’s the essence of what makes a rock god. This is the contact point of why music feels so damn good when you’re angsty. It changes who you are and lets you feel like confidence by mimicking the rock star who’s just like you–but way better..
Basically, Ozzy is Jesus. There’s so many different things happening to a person in a world, most people need a precise and generic operating system to define their course of action. Most people choose Christianity. But Rodger’s teenage rejection of Christianity (and in turn, his idolization of heavy metal) seems to be in direct contradiction with this. It’s not. But the adults in Rodger’s life are unable to see it any other way. Rodger argues that Ozzy’s music is Christian. It’s not godless, just murky. The sounds of industrial shredding will always be a comforting catharsis for angsty 20th century teenagers. But a close analysis of the lyrics shows…
“OK here is the deal. The song is being sung by the Devil. Not that Ozzy’s is the Devil, we all know that is a totally stupid thing to day. But he is pretending to be the Devil and telling ghem that they’re on the wrong track. “Your world was made of you by someone above. But you choose evil ways instead of love, you made me master of the world where you exist, the soul I took from you was not even missed.”
Rodger rediscovers this thought again as an adult rereading his journal.
“Ozzy was one of you guys! He was on your side the whole time, but you wouldn’t even listen to him to find out. I spent hours every day trying to let me listen to some guy sending teh exact same message that Blue Cross was paying you to sell me all day…For this I got my ass locked up in a fucking hospital while my friends were out getting jobs and and cars and girlfriends? What the fuck is wrong with you people?”
Ozzy then becomings a suitable access point to the feelings and isolation of existence, likewise outlined in the story of Jesus Christ. Ozzy was just a stand-in, in part created by marketing to sell to disenfranchised youth, but in equal part embraced by disenfranchised youth. Ozzy Osborne is some kind of a martyr: he does drugs, feels sad, and bites the heads off bats so we don’t have to. He was the Master of a weird, strange, and unlikeable reality. It makes perfect sense that he’s embraced by hulking teenage masses who need someone to scream that things will be ok. But an adult reading of Ozzy shows that the master of reality is your circumstance–you choose what to identify with out of a limited stock of options, and you choose to react to a limited stock of situations you were placed in. At first, being master of your reality sounds awesome especially when everyone’s always telling you what to do, but ultimately it’s not real. There isn’t even a God looking out for you making sure things turns out ok. You’re alone. You master reality simply by being exposed to it.
Thus, a fake kid with a real love of Ozzy shows the insolvable malasie of 20th century maturation. This is a good book. Read it if you like The Mountain Goats, metal, or experiments in music writing.