“This is a book written in the presence of music.” So begins Geoffrey O’Brien’s sprawling memoir-cum-critical essay, and the reader is tempted to ask: What book isn’t?


“This is a book written in the presence of music.” So begins Geoffrey O’Brien’s sprawling memoir-cum-critical essay, and the reader is tempted to ask: What book isn’t? As O’Brien goes on to extravagantly describe, we live in a world of wraparound sound, in which popular music can scarcely be escaped. Pop records play on our home stereos, are piped into restaurants and supermarkets, blare from the open windows of passing cars, tinkle behind the images on television and movie screens. Teenagers in the United States, Europe and Japan will spend tens of millions of dollars this year downloading ringtone versions of Top 40 hits to their cell phones. Even when momentarily out of music’s reach, we are hard-pressed to switch off the jukeboxes in our heads. In 2003 James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati, published a groundbreaking study, “Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on The Song-stuck-in-your-head Phenomenon,” detailing the way that tunes lodge in our brains, for maddening hours and days on end. Fully 99 percent of those Kellaris surveyed had endured the malady at one point or another, and more than half were chronic sufferers. If Kellaris is to be believed, that haggard-looking soul across the subway aisle may well be trudging through life with “Macarena” stuck on repeat in his cranial hi-fi.

Indeed, pop music is arguably the art that we experience most intimately. Even songs we can’t stand ricochet in our minds; those that we love become enmeshed with our innermost feelings and memories. Proust’s madeleines have nothing on pop records, the most powerful nostalgia machines ever devised: Who doesn’t know the sensation of being transported back in time by an old, half-remembered song, by the sound of a single piano chord or vocal quaver? “Don’t play that song for me/Oh, it brings back memories,” Aretha Franklin sang in 1970. “Singles remind me of kisses,” went a hit by the English band Squeeze. “Albums remind me of plans.”

O’Brien has spent years pondering the intersection of popular music and private experience, and the result is Sonata for Jukebox, a rambling, idiosyncratic, occasionally brilliant autobiography-in-singles- and-albums. O’Brien is the editor in chief of the Library of America, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and, it turns out, the product of a colorful, intensely musical New York household–part Glass family, part Dorsey family. His grandfather was the leader of the Rainbow Club Orchestra, a Depression-era jazz band; his father, a suave morning-drive-time disc jockey on New York’s WOR; his mother, a musical theater comedian. From them O’Brien inherited an abiding love of music and an insatiable pair of ears; O’Brien’s has been a life of voracious, deeply sympathetic listening–a life, even more than most, lived in pop music surround-sound.

In Sonata for Jukebox, O’Brien’s focus never strays far from his record collection. The book includes personal reminiscences, straightforward musical criticism and quasi-mystical ruminations on the meaning of recorded sound, but in the foreground, always, are the recordings themselves: hundreds of them, from Paul Robeson and Fats Waller 78s to the My Fair Lady Original Cast Album to “Dancing in the Street”; from 1950s advertising jingles to punk and disco singles to purely fanciful records–“Field Recording, Vocal Duet Accompanied by Mandolin and Accordion, Yonkers, New York, c. 1922”–O’Brien’s imaginary soundtracks to his family’s history.

Anyone who has ever known a record geek, or read Nick Hornby, will recognize the type: For O’Brien, pop fandom is religion, a 45 rpm record “a perfect mystical object.” Fittingly, Sonata for Jukebox includes a version of the creation myth. “Make it a gothic night, afflicted with lightning and bursts of thunder,” O’Brien writes. “A night when Victor Frankenstein might have been at work in his lab…. Thomas Edison shouts into a telephone speaker attached to a diaphragm…. A moment later, when the stylus is dragged back through the gouges, the assembled lab workers hear an echo, ever so faint and misshapen, of that shout.” The writing is a shade too purple, but here at least O’Brien can be forgiven, for in Edison’s lab he finds his book’s main theme: that the magic of records is not just captured sound, but bottled time. Not only was Edison’s shout recorded, but “the time in which the shout was made,” and it is this alchemy–the bygone made audible–that defines our attachment to records. As O’Brien writes elsewhere: “The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia–when was the past so hauntingly accessible?”

O’Brien’s personal nostalgia trip starts in a boyhood home of impressive urbanity. He writes lovingly of a house in which music seeped from every room: live broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, show tunes, Dixieland, Sinatra and, behind the bedroom door of his highbrow eldest brother, “the not so distant booming of Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Orff, Hindemith.” (For those of us raised in households of less rarefied musical taste–who stumbled through a gantlet of terrible LPs and worse haircuts on the long and winding road from Billy Joel to Thelonious Monk–it’s hard not to envy O’Brien his running head start.) Eventually, the 1960s arrive, bringing Motown, the Beatles and O’Brien’s teenage and young adult years, and here his musical reminiscences take a graver and more maudlin turn. We get the requisite Beatles conversion experience (for O’Brien, the occasion was a screening of A Hard Day’s Night), an essay on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in the form of a letter to an old friend (appropriately, named Rhonda) and an elegy for a fellow music freak, whose suicide in a record-crammed apartment–“a world of continuous sound into which he could withdraw”–reads like a cautionary tale about the perils of audiomania.

These autobiographical episodes are not terribly compelling, and don’t always bring out the best in O’Brien’s prose. “Listening became authentic only when two or more people participated in it,” he tells Rhonda. “Our eyes confirmed, with locked glances, what our ears absorbed in common: a disembodied mandala, displayed momentarily in the Museum of the Air Between Us.” 

What raises Sonata for Jukebox above the banality of personal memoir–and O’Brien’s poetastery–are its insights about pop music history and recording technology, little epiphanies that the author tosses off as asides. He writes about a weird transitional moment in the early 1960s, when Pat Boone, Andy Williams and the milquetoast old guard shared the charts with rock-and-roll insurgents; he points out that the promise of art rock was most fully realized in the ambitious early 1970s soul of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; he shrewdly diagnoses the 1990s lounge music revival as “a generational shift conspiring to admit a range of musical effects that rock had excluded so as to preserve the purity of its identity”; he identifies “the personal mix tape of favorite songs” as “perhaps the most widely practiced American art form”; and he mulls overs the curiosities of life in the sound-saturated twenty-first century:

If the technology of recording and broadcasting has probably not made the world any noisier than it was–in some ways, as brass bands in the piazza gave way to brass bands in someone’s headphones, it has made it quieter–the noise has at any rate become denser, and harder to interpret…. Some point of no return was reached when you couldn’t tell the phone beeping in the movie playing on your computer from the phone beeping in your pocket.

The book is strongest when O’Brien drops all pretense of a narrative thread–he’s a critic at heart. Shoehorned into Sonata for Jukebox are previously published essays on the Beatles, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and that supreme song-crafter, Burt Bacharach, whose musical Fabergé eggs, perched perfectly between pop eras and idioms, prove an ideal subject for O’Brien’s mystical-historical ruminations.

Yet I emerged from Sonata for Jukebox feeling frustrated with O’Brien. There is the matter of the book’s appendix, “A Jukebox of the Mind”: a list of 150 pop songs, presumably the author’s favorites, stretching chronologically from 1929 all the way up to…1982. Are we to understand that O’Brien has stopped listening altogether–that the erstwhile record junkie has closed his ears to two decades of popular music?

It seems possible: In the book’s final pa-ges, O’Brien lets loose a dismal rant against contemporary pop, scorning sample-based musical styles that “dispense with musicians altogether.” In fact, such musics–hip-hop, techno and their offshoots–are products of a different but no less authentic kind of musicianship, and O’Brien’s cri de coeur is as silly as those with which the Lawrence Welk crowd greeted rock and roll a couple of generations back. Of course, it’s no secret, and no crime, that everyone eventually turns into his grandfather, plugging his ears at the racket on the radio and complaining that they don’t write ’em like they used to. But it’s a bit of a shock to encounter such unembarrassed philistinism at the end of a 300-plus-page paean to the pleasures of open-minded listening.

A bigger problem is O’Brien’s writing itself. Records cram nearly every page of Sonata for Jukebox, but the reader doesn’t hear them in his mind’s ear. O’Brien is infatuated with ideas and associations, not sounds; faced with the task of describing a piece of music, he often loses the plot completely, unleashing torrents of doggerel. Woody Guthrie’s “900 Miles” is “a spiral modal sawing that generates space, miles and miles of it, a flat prairie seen from the rear car of a departing freight train. No time for farewells, no possibility of return: the abandoned past eternally wailing, beyond change, beyond hope.” Of the Beach Boys’ instrumental “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” O’Brien writes: “The ripples of that tropical surf might be the last dawdling vibrations of some Gnostic emanation. A molecular poetry, modular and self-sustaining, had been allowed to escape, like the light of an ancient star, from that Void whose centrality we found curiously reassuring.” The subject of soul singers sends O’Brien spiraling further into deep space:

Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Barbara Lewis, Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson. These are planets. A shape-shifting made audible. Stippled ceilings, carved bridges where they come to rest: those are momentary resting points before the next somersault. The sinuosity of the vocal line is establishing a model for the whole body, for the spirit: learn to unfurl and extend, it’s saying. Achieve the form of cloth in wind; of reed swaying in current; of flame. The voice is on fire. Hear what it sounds like for shimmying flame tongues to lap at the edges of night.

Smokey Robinson may well be a planet, but he’s also one of pop music’s great formalists, a master songwriter-producer whose records are burnished to perfection: Every vocal flourish, key change and lyric is just so. A discussion of his music should dote on its details; no one can deny the grandeur of “Ooh Baby Baby” or “Cruisin’,” but the beauty of such songs has less do with shimmying flame tongues than inside rhymes, elegant horn arrangements and the uncanny use of minor seventh chords.

Ideally, pop criticism should take account of music’s workaday minutiae before progressing to the topic of its transcendence; if a record transports us to what feels like an unearthly plane, it’s a safe bet that someone did a bang-up job miking the kick drum or performing some other equally mundane and essential recording studio task. But Sonata for Jukebox deals almost exclusively in grandiloquent musings on music’s otherworldly mystery. Why is it that normally temperate pens go into adjective overdrive when they turn to the topic of popular music? Why are the most celebrated rock critics–Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus–chronic overwriters? Is it because few pop critics are able to analyze music in even the most basic technical terms? Or is such writing an attempt to approximate in prose the abandon and attitude of rock and roll?

O’Brien’s bombast feels like a form of love; how else does a zealot describe his devotion but in the most fervent language? And yet, by filling page after page with beat poetry and insisting on pop music’s occult power, O’Brien obscures the real-world art of the records he loves, and tells us little about the human beings who make them. The final irony of such writing is the contrast between its sprawl and the rigor of the music it purports to describe. The essence of pop song art is concision, collapsing infinite feeling into radically circumscribed form: in the classic singles, a few chord changes, three and a half minutes, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-fade. Think of the standards of Kern, Berlin, Gershwin and Porter: all those wonderful melodies and lyrics, all that wit, invention and emotion compressed into songs of invariable thirty-two-bar length. Or consider “A Day in the Life” (to cite an O’Brien favorite), in which the Beatles march listeners through an astonishingly mercurial musical and metaphysical landscape–from delicate folk-pop to psychedelic rock to the atonal maelstrom of a symphony orchestra; from bus trip to head trip; from grief and gallows humor to erotic release and redemption–in less time than it would take to get a few pages into a novel, or listen to a single movement of a symphony. Today’s pop is more ruthlessly efficient than ever: Rappers, the biggest blabbermouths in music history, pack at least three times as many words, and all kinds of rhythmic excitement, into the good old-fashioned three-minute radio hit. Surely pop music deserves criticism that strives for a comparable discipline.

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