For this installment, of Continuum’s appealingly geeky 33 1/3 series, The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle tackles Black Sabbath’s seminal release, Master of Reality. Darnielle writes from the fictional point of view of Roger Painter, a teenager trapped in a youth psychiatric ward in 1985. Biding his time, Roger directs a series of angry journal entries at Gary, a counselor from the ward. Roger’s anger flies in the usual directions — at his parents, at his isolation — but we quickly learn that what burns Roger the most is that his counselors refuse to give him what he knows he needs to recover: his tapes. Roger tries desperately to explain Master of Reality to Gary — not just what the album sounds like, but why it means so much to him.
Darnielle treats Roger’s obsession with Master of Reality with respect; Roger may be an archetype of teenage angst, but he is certainly not a caricature. Naïvete and vulnerability are essential components of teenage emotional attachments, and it’s hard not to look back with a cringe or a snicker at the things that so moved us when we were 16. Accordingly, Roger’s love of the album is both ridiculous and sweetly relatable. Roger describes listening to Black Sabbath this way: “Like me and the band are in a hidden cave and they are telling me horror stories and if I even tried to tell someone about it there is no way they could understand, because they don’t even know there is a cave.”
Total affection for, and strong identification with, music is a cross-generational experience, and though the motivation behind the 33 1/3 series meshes nicely with a post-Generation X obsession with the minutiae of personal experience, it’s also immediately accessible to anyone who’s ever written favorite lyrics on her algebra notebook. While nostalgia runs thick in Darnielle’s book (the nature of the series essentially demands this), there’s a greater point about music and memory to be found in Roger’s story. Indulgence in the memory of intense feelings can be strangely comforting, and perhaps even necessary. Or, as Roger puts it: “It doesn’t have to mean that to everybody, and it means more no matter what…”