“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?”