The 33 1/3 series is one of the most interesting book collections I think I’ve ever come across. This website gathers writers (music critics and more) to write lengthy essays on the importance of music’s greatest albums in fascinating ways. (Definitely unlike any boring magazine album review you come across nowadays.) They’ve covered everything from The Velvet Underground & Nico to Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love and even My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, their most recent release.
I recently read one of the series’ most acclaimed installments, the essay on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. Now, first, I will address any confusion people might have regarding how an indie folk rock artist like John Darnielle would have anything important to say about Black Sabbath. Well, let me tell you, I’ve seen The Mountain Goats perform three times, and all three times Darnielle managed to bring up Ozzy and Black Sabbath. The most recent show, a solo gig at the Old Town School of Folk Music near Chicago, saw Darnielle perform his only-live song “Song for Black Sabbath’s Second North American Tour,” retell the story of Ozzy’s rise to fame beginning with his early work in a slaughterhouse, and finally cover “Shot in the Dark” for his encore. He’s greatly indebted to heavy metal and he knows his stuff when it comes to Black Sabbath. It certainly shows in his really inventive personal essay on the band’s best album, or so Roger Painter, the young man trapped in a psychiatric hospital and the narrator of this diary, would say. Born Again is pretty good too, but that album didn’t have Ozzy.
The review follows Painter’s diary as he made his way through a psychiatric hospital at a young age, then picks up a decade later after he had finished his time in the hospitals. So, the book offers a lot of psychological insight into his teenage years, especially the profound impact the album had on his attitude and aspirations. I can only imagine that this young man’s reaction to Master of Reality is what John Darnielle experienced growing up. Such power behind every riff and Ozzy’s out-there, but preaching lyrics – Painter could sing the riffs in his head, even though Greg took his tapes away. Greg would never understand.
Painter (and Darnielle) deconstruct each song and its eccentricities, even the random instrumentals thrown into the album, maybe to make the album appear to have more tracks. They were basically intros, anyway. The album just resonated so much with this young man that he brought himself to send more letters to Greg, his caretaker at the facility, years after he was released, to try to explain why those tapes meant so much to him and that he wasn’t crazy for listening to Black Sabbath.
I was lucky enough to meet John Darnielle after that Old Town Mountain Goats show. As Painter grew up with the messages given to him through the music of Black Sabbath, I’ve found a lot of personal connections to Darnielle’s songwriting. The loneliness in losing an important person in your life in “Harlem Roulette,” struggling to grasp the true meaning and workings of love in “Love, Love, Love.” They’re songs I can sing from memory, even if I have my tapes (or iTunes) taken away from me.
I presented him with my school library’s copy of Master of Reality to sign.
“I didn’t know that this was in libraries, that’s cool. Promise me you’ll return this.”
And I did. So future young adults like myself can have the chance to understand how some of their favorite music has shaped them. And that, my friends, is exactly what the 33 1/3 Series is about.