Music of the mind
In 'Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me' and 'Master of Reality,' classic rock groups take their listeners to fantastic places
By Ed Park
Astral Weeks Pop Quiz: Name the piece of music responsible for these flights of fancy:
Example one: "About fifteen minutes [in] . . . I have entered a different reality and am in a strange part of the universe where you can sit on the tail of a flaming guitar and fly through the sun. It's fantastic."
Example two: "[I]t starts with just a one-string riff which late at night, everybody asleep, sounds like the world being born or something. It only lasts for a second. But it's this one note just sitting there. Do you even know what I mean? When I got to that point it was like I was flying so high above your world and I was so free. . . . "
Example three: " 'Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing. . . . [L]ook out for the part where you think you havedone with the goblins and they come back,' breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation a second time. Helen could not contradict them, for once, at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right."
The first two passages come from recently published novels: Martin Millar's "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" (Soft Skull: 222 pp., $13.95), a charming autobiographical novel with the band's epic 1972 Glasgow show as its life-defining event; and John Darnielle's brief, intense "Master of Reality," the fictional diary of a troubled Black Sabbath acolyte (Continuum: 102 pp., $10.95). (The songs in question above: "Dazed and Confused" and "Lord of This World.")
The third passage -- "panic and emptiness!" -- comes from E.M. Forster's 1910 novel, "Howards End," and describes Helen's vivid responses not to any sort of proto-heavy metal, but to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. (Though perhaps this "sublime noise" is proto-heavy metal?) In all three, shimmering worldviews and entire universes are born or destroyed.
What is it that makes us respond narratively to music, far beyond what the lyrics (if any) might indicate? ("The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning," Forster's Helen thinks, after the concert.)
Spontaneous conjuring -- shapes and colors, creatures and deities, fantasy and recollection -- is commonplace. So are long-lasting associations, for melodies weave into a life to such a degree that they can emerge, years later, as if on a hair trigger. Millar's and Darnielle's books effectively capture this two-sided ability, featuring narrators who built their teenage alternative realities on tenacious, life-changing sounds, sounds that echo down the decades.
Millar is a Scottish writer whose two recent U.S. titles ("The Good Fairies of New York" and "Lonely Werewolf Girl," both from Soft Skull) mix fantastic creatures with contemporary settings. For some reason those books haven't quite clicked with me, but "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" makes me want to try again. Form does not follow function here -- despite the narrator's Zep obsession, the novel doesn't try to replicate the sprawling grandeur and virtuosic excess of the band's music. Instead, it unfolds in irresistibly short chapters ("Short enough for your limited attention span") and simple prose. (Toward the end, Martin explains his revision process: "If I find any fancy adjectives have crept in I replace them with small words like 'nice' and 'big.' ") This makes for an entertaining -- and at times quietly sad -- story that winds up saying a lot about teenage angst, middle-age angst, the ecstasies of fandom, the virtues of " Buffy the Vampire Slayer," how to judge literary contests (Answer: Give the award to the most attractive entrant) and the pants styles of yesteryear.
The novel toggles between the narrator's present-day London conversations with his friend Manx (a single mom with lingering postpartum depression) and episodes filled with the anxiety and embarrassment of being 13, when the promise of hearing -- and seeing -- your heroes perform could make everything right. Awkward Martin has a close friend (Greg), an unwanted admirer (violin-playing social misfit Cherry), a hero (charismatic Zed) and a hopeless crush on the titular Suzy (attached, alas, to Zed).
Martin and Greg have their own secret fantasy world, like a game of "Dungeons and Dragons" without any rules -- a realm of sorcerers and orcs that the music of Led Zeppelin (equally informed by the blues and Tolkien) intensifies. Martin and Greg, "joint masters of the Fabulous Dragon Army of Gothar," fight the Monstrous Hordes of Xotha, and the two friends await reinforcements from Atlantis, the only other region that has held out against the enemy.
So: Why can't they get girlfriends? Actually, they can: Cherry, deemed even less socially redeemable than Martin, wants to join them, but she's insensitively rebuffed. (Millar is excellent and clear-eyed when it comes to the small brutalities of adolescence.) Though the book's construction seems casual, Millar expertly maneuvers his characters toward the climactic Led Zeppelin show (with young Martin imagining actual zeppelins materializing over Glasgow, bearing prematurely dead icons like Jimi Hendrix) and presents how the event resonates in each of their interconnected lives -- complicating some things, clarifying others. Even readers who last listened to "Houses of the Holy" during the Reagan administration will find much to enjoy here. For 200 pages, Glasgow circa 1972 shimmers like a vision of Atlantis, a lost world.
John Darnielle is the single constant behind the group the Mountain Goats and arguably the most rewarding lyricist working today. Taking into account his prolific wordsmithery ("Laugh lines on our faces / scale maps of the ocean floor") and affinity for horror both cinematic and literary ("Heretic Pride," the most recent Mountain Goats album, has song titles naming Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer and H.P. Lovecraft), it shouldn't come as a surprise that he'd contribute to Continuum's "33 1/3" series of short books pegged to iconic albums. But "Master of Reality" departs brilliantly from the typical "33 1/3" format, not just by choosing fiction over criticism or recording history, but in its structural gambits and unwavering sense of purpose.
(Following on the heels of Carl Wilson's fascinating, probing 2007 Celine Dion book, "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste," "Master of Reality" makes me think that the "33 1/3" line should devote itself to albums that aren't critical darlings -- the insights are fresher, the risks more worthwhile.)
Like one of Lovecraft's shattered narrators, teenager Roger Painter is writing from the other side of sanity -- or what we on the outside would call sanity. It is October 1985, and he is keeping a journal for his social worker, Gary, at the psychiatric center where his stepfather has deceitfully deposited him. His personal effects have been confiscated, and when the book opens his entries are terse bursts of all-caps rage. The words are all Roger's, writing toward an uncomprehending, withholding captor -- or god. "If you want me to focus you should let me do it the best way I know how!" writes Roger, in a conciliatory mood. "You should at least give me back Black Sabbath MASTER OF REALITY. It is my favorite."
Roger patiently explains what Black Sabbath means to him, and what makes the band unique: "Ozzy, he is the singer, he was singing about witches and wizards and corpses. . . . But there were barely any stories. Not like in Rush songs, where there is a wizard or whatever, there will be a whole story, like a Robert A. Heinlein book." The songs are direct in a way that most art isn't, at once frightening and exhilarating. Ozzy Osbourne's voice "doesn't sound like anybody else's, and also it sounds kind of like you know him. Like, when Robert Plant is singing for Led Zeppelin you can't really think you're ever going to see that guy at the arcade and play doubles on Galaga with him." (Some of Millar's characters would disagree.)
But it all falls on deaf ears, and Roger's situation resonates with the album's title: Who masters this reality? The asylum setting channels Roger's writing into an impassioned articulateness, words to ward off panic and emptiness -- yet his depressing fate shows how Gary literally holds all the keys. Then the thing splits open. Darnielle jumps ahead: Here is Roger, 10 years later, writing to Gary in complete sentences and brushed-up grammar but with not one iota of rage displaced. He listens to Sabbath from this new perspective -- call it wisdom -- but whether Gary ever gets the letter (in both senses of the verb), we'll never know. Darnielle's lost world stays lost, and it's a powerful, excruciating chronicle.
—Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2008