Hallelujah and Hail Satan
The first book by John Darnielle, the singer-songwriter who tours and records (with and without a band) as The Mountain Goats, shares its subject, more or less, with “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” everybody’s favorite Mountain Goats song. The book, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, is the 56th entry in Continuum’s ongoing “33 1/3” series, each devoted to a single album. Darnielle’s conceit is to explain Paranoid’s sludgy follow-up in the voice of Roger Painter, a fifteen-year-old boy sent by his mother and stepfather to a long-term stint in a psychiatric hospital in the fall of 1985, for reasons having at least partly to do with his love of heavy metal. Deprived of his Walkman and cassettes, he explains and expounds upon his favorite record in mandatory daily diary entries.
“I thought if I could really show you how it felt to be listening to that music by myself in the dark… you would know what it is like in my heart,” says the depressed teenager after breaking into the nurses’ station to steal his Sabbath tape, in one of his many attempts at explaining how much better — how much more understood — he feels when he has someone to feel bad with. Later, he says, “The guitar tones and the thumpy thumpy drums soaking into me so hard… what I need in my life is to be liberated into feeling bad… What I need is a place where I can spray anger in sparks like a gnarled piece of electric cable.”
That Roger feels good about feeling bad is maybe the simplest way of saying that John Darnielle’s Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is about light and its opposite — just as Darnielle’s career is about lightness and its opposite. (Light and lightness aren’t the same thing, at least not always, as we shall see.)
There’s perhaps a religious element to Roger’s confinement, his folks trying to deprogram him from the cult of Black Sabbath. Listening to his liberated copy of Master of Reality, Roger hones in on “Lord of This World,” in which Ozzy Osbourne assumes the voice of the Devil:
Ozzy always says ‘Yeah!’ when he gets to a totally intense part of the song… When Ozzy says ‘yeah’ it is like ‘hallelujah’ for Ozzy fans. Or the part in church where the priest says ‘Let us pray.’ It’s like, ‘yeah,’ then you know where you are and who you are and what’s going on. And you feel totally comfortable and know you’re with friends who understand you.
Sort of like when the Mountain Goats play “Denton” and everyone sings along to the “Hail Satan” part.
The Mountain Goats climbed the indie-label ladder in the 1990s, the last point at which your favorite band could feel like your little secret for longer than it took them to record an EP. The initial lineup consisted of Darnielle, his guitar, and a boom box. For their outros, the earliest songs had a few seconds of tape noise in between Darnielle putting down his guitar and flicking off the “record” button. Mountain Goats songs started as an Ur-tape, copied for fans the same way friends copy tapes for friends, with hisses and skips already in place, to go along with the wear and tear of duplication and repeated listenings — after all, they were made with the same type of equipment they were played on. Roger gets at that closeness of communion when he says, “in the headphones, the sounds feel like they’re starting at the center of my skull….”
The implications of “communion” make me want to go back to that word “cult” for a minute, too, because it’s such an automatic descriptor for a band like the Mountain Goats that we forget how literally we should actually take it. Cult worship of the band, or any other band, is a matter of hallowed devotional objects exchanged outside of society’s vision, and used for private rituals by an introverted community of passionately devoted initiates. (And there were plenty of objects, the sheer volume of Mountain Goats rarities and one-offs and covers and entries in ongoing song cycles accumulating a vast, shifting mythology.) Alone in their rooms before sleeping, some kids pray; some kids listen to music on headphones. Without his tapes to listen to, Roger sings his favorite Sabbath songs to himself as he falls asleep. Hallelujah and Hail Satan.
In the first twenty-seven seconds of “Dance Music,” on the Mountain Goats’ 2005 The Sunset Tree, Darnielle sings:
Alright I’m on
Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo
And I’m five years old or six maybe
And indications that there’s something wrong with our new house
Trip down the wire twice daily. I’m in the
Living room, watching the Watergate hearings while my stepfather yells at my mother
The headlong “alright,” like a quick inhalation when you’ve already pushed off the diving board, the swiftness with which the personal is placed within the historical, the suddenness and absolute matter-of-factness of the revelation — the dazzling directness of it all makes me feel woozy and lightheaded, as if I’ve stepped out for coffee at the tail end of a hangover and the sun is coming in through my eyes and out the back of my skull.
“Tracing the lightning flashes of the mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time,” and especially “the maximum concentration of poetry and thought” is how Italo Calvino defines “Quickness” in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the collection of literary lectures he was scheduled to deliver at Harvard before his death, from a brain hemorrhage that came like a bolt from the blue in the fall of 1985. “Lightness” is the title of the memo that comes before “Quickness,” and is even more applicable to Darnielle: Calvino calls it a response to an “entire world… turning to stone: a slow petrification… as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa.” Among the things Calvino means by “lightness” are a “a verbal texture that seems weightless,” and “a visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value.” Darnielle’s nimble lyrics are practically airborne, as are his songs and album titles, woven from free-floating connections and literate, esoteric allusions — not that they’re remote from the weight of the world. Rather, they suggest what Calvino sees as the transformative potential of lightness — “atoms… make unpredictable deviations from the straight line, thereby ensuring freedom both to atoms and to human beings. The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities…” I’m thinking about “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?”, also from The Sunset Tree, a narrative of a boy’s abuse at the “strong and thick-veined hands” of his stepfather, ending with a hopeful metaphor from evolutionary biology: “But one of these days, I’m going to wriggle up on dry land.”
And there’s something antigravitational, too, about pop music stripped down to just one guy, his guitar and a boom box. This may suggest an explanation other than purist angst for why Darnielle’s recent albums, with their professional production and full-band arrangements, have been met with some ambivalence by longtime tape-traders.
“To cut off Medusa’s head without turning to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image [of Medusa] caught in a mirror [of his polished shield]. I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world,” writes Calvino. Darnielle is light and indirect like Perseus — not just because he’s an underground artist, but because he makes his points about thwarted dreams in between jokes about teenagers who can’t decide whether to name their band Satan’s Fingers, or The Killers, or The Hospital Bombers. Darnielle’s lyrics are quirky and plainspoken, his subjects and characters wide-ranging and eccentric, and his expressions of emotion raw and abrupt (concentrated to the max, per Calvino). They’re like lo-fi, bloody-knuckled versions of the short stories of Haruki Murakami or Miranda July; all three seem trustworthy — especially to cool kids who’ve learned to distrust open expressions of feeling — precisely because of the roundabout routes they take to emotional release.
Where were we? Oh, right. In the living room, watching the Watergate hearings, while Darnielle’s stepfather yells at his mother,
Launches a glass across the room
Straight at her head
And I dash upstairs to take cover
Lean in close to my little record player on the floor
So this is what the volume knob’s for
I listen to dance music
Roger Painter uses metal to liberate his bad feelings; the narrator of “Dance Music” uses pop to drown them out. Which reminds me: it’s not quite the whole truth, what I said before about Darnielle’s lightness appealing to people who’re cynical about the unbearable heaviness of sentiment, especially as shouldered by above-ground popular culture. Some kids don’t distrust heaviness — kids like Roger Painter, for instance, who turns (Top 10 hit) Master of Reality up to eleven for his emotional release.
John Darnielle didn’t really grow up around future Mountain Goats fans — the first Mountain Goats songs to be drawn explicitly from his life were the tales of his old meth-addicted friends on 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed. The stepfather in Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, a malignant presence in the life of his metal-loving son, seems a composite of the repressive parents of “Denton” and the abusive, working-class stepfather of The Sunset Tree. The latter, not incidentally, is based on Darnielle’s real-life stepfather. So what kind of music did Darnielle listen to as a kid? Well, he’s grown up and written his first book about the third Black Sabbath album.
Another thing I’ve said that’s not quite true is that music fans don’t feel like they’re keeping a secret anymore. Music will always feel like a secret to kids, at least at first, as they learn the language of the new cult they’ve been initiated into. When a friend (who also introduces him to pot) shows Roger the cover of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album, it seems “like a weird person made it, and showed it to other weird people and they all thought it was good.” Right. Because in the second verse of “Dance Music,” Darnielle sings, “I don’t want to die alone.” Along with “Hail Satan!”, it’s maybe the biggest singalong line in the Mountain Goats catalogue, a “massive gang-shout… like a large-scale involuntary tic,” per the Village Voice’s Tom Breihan. Like a “hallelujah” for Mountain Goats fans (or “Hail Satan!”). Everybody feels weird together.
It’s also a moment that runs private devotion and public catharsis together, like the two sides of a tape switching automatically. That’s how light and darkness are for Roger, too, and lightness and weight for Darnielle. Throughout Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Darnielle writes, to quote Calvino, “as if thought were darting out of darkness in swift lightning flashes,” probably because that’s how his narrator thinks. Like many of his songs, it is voice-driven, giving him the freedom for adolescent exuberance (“You heard a guitar riff that comes from a volcano under the ocean!!”) and unguarded diaristic pronouncements (“It’s just being who you want to be, even if you are a poor kid making loud music about being unhappy!”) alongside synapse-sparking eloquence (on his overmedicated roommate: “So he took all his new pills, there were like five of them, and now he is night of the living Fritz.”).
Then again, Darnielle floridly dedicates the book “to all the children to whom I ever provided care, in the earnest hope that your later lives have brought you the joy, and love, and freedom that was always yours by right,” which is some pretty heavy shit in every sense of the word. But lightness has value “just because we know the weight of things [and words] so well,” Calvino reminds us. Calvino goes on to recall the folktales of peoples “faced with the precariousness of tribal life,” in which the burdens of reality are alleviated by one who “rid[s] his body of weight and fli[es] to another world, another level of perception.” Listening to “Lord of This World” on headphones the night he steals the tape back, Roger says, “was like I was flying so high above your world.” Which initially sounds like he wants out, of the whole thing, until you remember that earlier he’s talked about “a mood which is way higher… than the words, it is always sort of always floating above the words,” and is universally understandable and relatable, the rising cadences drawing people into the experience regardless of the words, like the TV preachers Roger sometimes watches. So this is what the volume knob’s for — not to escape, but to get an amen. Like you mean it: HAIL SATAN!