Infernal hails to Portland and all those who breathe its wet air! Maybe some of you reading this haven't actually been to Powell's. Me, I used to live in Portland. I spent more eight-hour days than I can remember haunting the halls, reading books I couldn't afford cover-to-cover, hunting down old Artaud volumes just to marvel at the cover design.
I was eighteen the year I lived in Portland. It was a fertile time for heavy metal, though a lot of what was going on was strictly under the radar: the music press wasn't reporting much on it except for the obligatory satanic-scare stories, and the cool kids — the ones people like to call "hipsters" now in order to let you know that they know who the hipsters are — could not be bothered with it. Celtic Frost played Satyricon that year, but I wasn't twenty-one, so I couldn't get in. Some of the tweakers I hung out with were really into Mercyful Fate, which brings me to the subject of this week's blogging: Five Albums I Might Have Picked Instead of Master of Reality.
When I first thought about pitching a book to Continuum, I wanted to speak for both a style and a population that I didn't think had been fully served yet by the series. Classic rock is well represented; so are the bedrocks of indie and alternative music. Heavy metal books include the MC5 and Guns 'n' Roses ones, but neither of those speak to the demographic I have in mind: the ones you call "underdogs" when you're feeling charitable and "losers" when you don't.It's hard to remember in a post-Osbournes world, but there was a time when Ozzy was a pretty marginal figure; he sold a lot of records, but he wasn't in everybody's living room. If he was an icon, it was only for people who hadn't been invited to the broader cultural buffet.
I share those people's musical taste; I consider myself one of them, though if I go to their parties, I'm usually gonna be the odd man out, and will get called "The Professor" once everybody's sitting around on the couches getting wasted and talking about music or what old TV shows ought to be brought back. I picked Master of Reality because it's a big enough touchstone to have resonance outside of the tribe whose cultural property I consider it to be. There are plenty of other albums that resonated just as strongly for adolescents in the eighties, though, but which for various reasons didn't get the nod from my inner teen psych-ward patient. This week I'll be talking about a few of them.
÷ ÷ ÷
Don't Break the Oath
First and foremost is an album I never heard at all back in the day: Mercyful Fate's Don't Break the Oath. Oh, I heard a little of it — just enough to get to King Diamond's piercing falsetto, at which point I tuned out. A lot of people tune out when they hear King Diamond's voice. There's never really been anything like it in rock music; Klaus Nomi's voice was in the same ballpark but had a completely different effect.
I used to think a lot about Mercyful Fate because of a particularly difficult evening I once had in Portland, which involved speed freaks colonizing my apartment, commenting ominously on the possible hock value of my stereo, and writing poems — swear to God — while seated at my writing desk. The author of the now-all-but-forgotten poem had used a single piece of writing paper, and she'd pressed her ballpoint pen so hard into the paper that the text of the poem was forever impressed into the desk's wooden surface. The poem completed, she had handed it around the room like a child showing off a drawing; I remember everyone reading it without comment. Lots of things pass without comment in the sort of environment I'm describing. The poem was a description of an imagined Mercyful Fate concert.
Normal people did not listen to Mercyful Fate in 1985. Few do now, but fewer did then. They were from Denmark; their singer wore face makeup clearly modeled on the example of Gene Simmons; all their songs were directly about Satan. I was something of a tourist in the scene going on in my apartment that night; come Monday, I'd take the bus to Portland Community College's Sylvania campus. At least one of the several faces I was trying on that year was a mask that didn't really fit me. But I wasn't sure about that yet, and I took note of the band that some nameless speed freak girl had thought to immortalize in verse when she was very, very high: Mercyful Fate. I figured there must be something special about them.
And in fact there is, and part of it is that they belong to their audience. The critics, what few are left, aren't going to one day embrace Mercyful Fate; their sound is too abrasive, their project too ridiculous, their meaning too rough to parse. Are they arrested adolescents getting a kick out of saying that they worship the devil?Are they Judas Priest fans wishing that Priest albums held onto their evil sheen longer than they do? What makes them want to write rock music like this: a sort of perversion of the arena-rock impulse in which the good-time feel of rock is systematically stripped from the basic template, leaving something willfully hollowed-out and almost wholly new? Do they know they're breaking a fair amount of new ground, or are they trying to do something recognizable and, in failing, making something new in the world?
Today I think of Don't Break the Oath as one of the great albums of the '80s — its riffs never seem to stop coming, and its groove is singular. It no longer sounds as incomprehensible as it once did; the world has caught up with it, or been brought down to its level. Either way is fine by me. The people for whom such an album was made recognized it almost immediately as belonging to them, and were, in one case at least, moved to write odes in praise of it. This occasion has always stuck with me, a sign of something. The ode in question however does not survive. I hope perhaps vainly that its author has.
÷ ÷ ÷
John Darnielle is the singer and songwriter otherwise known as the Mountain Goats.
Books mentioned in this post
John Darnielle is the author of Black Sabbath: Master of Reality (33 1/3 Series)