33 1/3

Reading Log: John Cavanagh’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn (A 33 1/3 Book)

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Yup, more rock journalism. I’m not tired of it yet.

Cavanagh sights in perfectly here, focusing on the album itself and only touching on the tumultuous events that followed (the mental illness and loss of frontman Syd Barrett). He introduces us to a massive cast of characters, and while I was never able to draw a round picture of anyone in particular, the movement and the era were captured perfectly, an uncorrupted glimpse into an incredibly interesting time and place.

Cavanagh isn’t the most sophisticated writer, but any shortcomings in his prose are offset by his boundless enthusiasm for all things Pink Floyd (focused on Piper, of course). It’s infectious, and his liberal use of exclamation marks -a practice that normally sets my teeth on edge- is endearing. This isn’t literary fiction. It’s a guy who’s madly in love with a piece of art, talking to all the people involved in making it and distilling the result into something accessible enough for the casual fans/passers-by and involved enough for the fanatics.

It’s a great story, it’s a great album. A book like this can go wrong so easily; veering off into inside baseball and the exclusionary, referential language of rock-geekdom, obsession over the dramatic tabloid celebrity or even sinking into saccharine nostalgia. This book is none of those things. It’s exactly what it claims to be; the celebration of a great moment in musical history, supported by an exhaustive body of interviews with the people who made it happen.

Recommendation: Read if you like Pink Floyd, counterculture, or good stories about weird shit. Pass if you hate exclamation marks or genuine enthusiasm.

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Reading Log: Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (a 33⅓ book)

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Kim Cooper’s 33⅓ entry on Neutral Milk Hotel’s magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a good read for fans of the album, the band, or the alternative music scene in Georgia during the 90’s but it probably holds little interest for anyone else. Cooper isn’t writing for people outside the fold; the book assumes a working knowledge of Jeff Mangum, his friends, and their work. Casual references are made to bands like Great lakes, Olivia Tremor Control, and Of Montreal, with their lineups occasionally mentioned absent any introduction or framework for understanding. If you’re not already at least somewhat familiar with the subject, a Wikipedia survey might not be amiss.

The back of the book describes it as “a lovingly researched oral history of the Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 collective”. The research is evident; Cooper seems to have made every effort to talk to as many disparate people as possible, peppering the text with long excerpts from band members and other involved parties. The choice to focus on the entire span of NMH existence serves the book well, and while her fact-checking seems to be especially thorough, but the presentation as “oral history” felt a bit clunky. It’s written in a loose past tense, with far too much self aggrandizing regarding the telling of the tale. Late in the third act Cooper abandons the form entirely to give us her personal interpretation of the meaning found within the tracklist of the album, a jarring and unnecessary break from the narrative that reads something like a good undgrad newspaper’s review of the LP.

Why do we read? Many of my friends read for practical edification; they consume long non-fiction tomes about economics, history, pop culture or technology. They read to learn something new or deepen their knowledge of something dear to them. If you are that kind of reader, (at least some of the time, like I am) and if you are interested in the subject, go ahead. The book is well-written, and the problems I’ve outlined above are more than manageable. If not, I’d look for a book in this series that touches on an album closer to your heart. While Darnielle’s Master of Reality is for anybody willing to pick it up, Cooper’s entry on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is one for the fans.

 

Reading Log: John Darnielle’s Master of Reality (A 33⅓ Book)

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I received three books from Bloomsbury’s 33⅓  series for Christmas, and since Master of Reality is the only other published book written by extraordinary human being John Darnielle, it was the first one I sunk my brain teeth into. Each book in this series is a prolonged look at a particular album, but the particulars beyond that point are left to the individual authors taking part in the project. Nonfiction is generally the rule of thumb (whether via the oral history of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or the series of interviews that make up Piper at the Gates of Dawn) but Darnielle chose to go the route of fiction. A young boy in 1980s Southern California is committed in a teen psychiatric ward and is made to keep a journal, which he uses to explain Black Sabbath’s album Master of Reality to the head of the unit in hopes of convincing him to give back his Walkman and tapes (or at least Master of Reality).

It’s an unconventional choice in a series composed mostly of rock-geek music journalism, but it works remarkably well. I listened to the album twice before reading and once again after, but the book would stand up fine without, although I’d strongly recommend a listen at some point; ,t does add something to the reading experience. Listening to each track as it’s mentioned would be really interesting… someone should do that and get back to me).

The voice of Roger (the boy in the psych ward and our narrator) is fully realized; it’s a nuanced perspective at an intelligent young person who is unmistakably a young person, not just a 34-year-old YA author living out their teenage fantasies from the blunted hindsight of adulthood. Roger is young and undeveloped (and dark) in those critical ways that make him believable and that set off his intelligence and his perception. Longtime readers of the blog know that Darnielle can write a troubled young male like no one else, (go read Wolf in White Van) and since he also spent some time working as a nurse in places like the one where Roger is being held he’s developed a special understanding of how they worked, as well as a deep rapport with and understanding of the kids who were sent there (go listen to The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton). When the story shifts forward ten years as Roger revives his correspondence with the head of the psych unit the narrative voice changes. Roger is still intelligent, still damaged and still unmistakable Roger, but he’s lost that frenetic chaos that typifies a certain kind of youth. He’s just as perceptive, but calmer; he can step back and see things better. His perspective on Black Sabbath has changed in an important way, as well.

The book gets across a good idea of the nature of the music in question, but those considerations take a back seat to the examination of who needs an album like Master of Reality and why. It’s amazing to read as Roger looks back ten years down the line and sees why he needed Black Sabbath so badly, why Master of Reality specifically had such a magnetic draw. This book isn’t going to tell you anything about the kind of amps Tony Iommi was using or get you inside the producer’s head, but it does examine why music that might not be the best music objectively is the best and most important music to some people and why that’s so goddamn important to understand.