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Continuum's masterful 33 1/3 series

August 31, 2009 | 11:12 am

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Imagine a Venn diagram with two circles: one for book nerds, one for rock geeks. At the intersection, you’ll find a lot of opinionated people with glasses, having arguments about the exact point in time when a particular author or musician ceased to be cool. You’ll find paychecks cashed and spent entirely at bookstores or record shops on the same day. You’ll find a great deal of love and devotion, and you’ll find the slim, pocket-sized volumes that make up Continuum’s album-oriented 33 1/3  imprint.

The series, which debuted in 2003, is based on the kind of premise that might sound simple but is still one that managed to elude publishers for decades: Publish short books by talented writers, each individual book about one significant album. 

This all could have gone terribly wrong. If your first thought is of an obsessed geek reciting an endless series of facts about the kind of guitar strings Sterling Morrison used on "The Velvet Underground & Nico," don't worry -- many of the authors in the series do love them some arcana, but they manage to make it interesting, punchy and relevant. And the authors write about albums they love -- not just respect, but love -- so there's no danger of witnessing a smug critic fold his arms, smile and inform you that the record that changed your life isn’t nearly as good as you think it is.

And while the vast majority of the books are nonfiction, a few are novella-length fiction.

My personal favorite of the series, the one I'd recommend to anyone, regardless of musical or literary preferences, is beautiful, incisive and heartbreaking enough to stand on its own, series or no. It's a reflection on Black Sabbath's 1971 album "Master of Reality" by John Darnielle, the singer-songwriter and guitarist for the indie-folk band the Mountain Goats.

I admit, proudly, to being a huge fan of Darnielle's music. It doesn't matter, though; this novel is as much about depression and desperation as it is about music.

Told in diary entries and letters from a young Californian named Roger Painter, involuntarily committed to a mental hospital following a suicide attempt, the book chronicles the boy's attempts to get his cassette tapes back from the hospital workers who have confiscated them.

The tape Roger is most concerned about is "Master of Reality," and Roger tries earnestly to explain his love for Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of the gang, who, unlike his family and doctors, might actually understand what the poor kid is going through.

The book is stunning on two levels. It works as an apologia, of sorts, for a somewhat neglected 1970s metal album. More impressively, it succeeds so completely and so fully as a novel that it's almost shocking to learn it's Darnielle's first book. Of course it would take a lonely teenager to explain this album, and Darnielle channels that voice flawlessly.

In the 2002 Mountain Goats song "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," Darnielle sings about two young friends who are convinced they'll make it big, dreaming of "stage lights and Learjets and fortune and fame," until one of them is sent away to a "school where they told him he'd never be famous." At the end of the song, Darnielle warns, "When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you." It’s a line that never fails to give me shivers, and this book did the same thing for me. It's unforgettable, and it represents the best of what this already unforgettable series of books has to offer.

By inviting a handful of musicians into the fold, the series editors allowed someone like Darnielle, who tells an excellent 3.5 minute story, to expand his repertoire. Other musicians' contributions have been fascinating. In particular, check out the volume on Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces," penned by indie-pop genius Franklin Bruno.

Part of the beauty of the 33 1/3 series is that there's something for any fan of popular music to appreciate. The series has covered soul musicians like Dusty Springfield and James Brown and country acts such as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. There are books for indie rock fans (Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided By Voices), hip-hop enthusiasts (Nas, A Tribe Called Quest), and Top 40 aficionados (Celine Dion, Bruce Springsteen).

The series puts the lie to the bromide "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," which has become such a cliché, nobody seems to want to take credit for first saying it (though Elvis Costello is usually blamed). Don’t write the obituary for original music writing just yet; these books could be the best thing to happen to the genre since a man named Leslie Conway Bangs bought his first typewriter.

-- Michael Schaub

Michael Schaub is a freelance writer and a contributor to the literary webzine and blog Bookslut. He lives in Portland, where he infrequently updates his Twitter feed.

Photo: Ozzy Osbourne backstage in Port Huron, Mich., May 1, 1983. Credit: L.A. Library

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