Wading Into the Aural Tide: Pop and the Examined Life

Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life, by Geoffrey O’Brien. Counterpoint, 328 pages, $27.50.

All pop criticism is bad. Like a boring dinner guest, it’s garrulous and name-dropping. Under the pretense of informing you, it glories in your ignorance. It reeks of junk-strewn garrets and a degrees in semiotics from Brown. Why is it all so bad? Rock ‘n’ roll represents the final triumph of what Cynthia Ozick has called aural culture over literate culture. “I Dig a Pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids. Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats.” Ring any bells? John Lennon shouts it out during the famous rooftop concert at the end of the documentary Let It Be. In an aural age, what once would have been lost to the Twickenham fog is plucked up, preserved, spliced (onto the beginning of “Two Of Us”) and reproduced a trillion times. When anything can be made to last forever, the process is inherently deflationary-too few lives chasing too many memories. For respite we cleave to monuments: Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles.

Luckily, we have Geoffrey O’Brien, who writes about music with unmistakable literary intent while wading happily into the aural tide.

Some childhoods seem designed to produce writers; Geoffrey O’Brien’s produced an overwriter. This shouldn’t be considered a fault so much as the predictable consequence of his experience. During the Depression, his grandfather (“Pop”) led a traveling band, known as the Rainbow Club Orchestra (no rainbow, no club, barely an orchestra) through the more down-in-the-mouth precincts of eastern Pennsylvania. (Pop wanted to play jazz; the locals demanded polka.) When she wasn’t touring with a musical, his mother was a stage-actressy presence; his father was the voice of the Morning Man on WOR-FM in New York City. Thus Geoffrey O’Brien, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the editor in chief of the Library of America, had the good fortune to grow up in a family of Salingeresque hams, surrounded by good musical taste, on an Upper West Side that had yet to price out the last of its seedy idiosyncrasy. With a well-earned and tenderly nursed nostalgia, he has written Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life. Part Proustian rumination, part aural encyclopedia, the book is, from beginning to end, a messy and challenging delight.

Sonata for Jukebox opens with a relatively by-the-numbers essay on Burt Bacharach, for whom Mr. O’Brien displays an instinctive affinity. Mr. Bacharach’s music, with its tipsy elegance and what Mr. O’Brien calls its “well-bred melancholia,” always carried with it a vague aura of anachronism. It paid no heed to Elvis-made America and the global upheaval that proceeded under the banner of the Beatles. Instead, it created a competing sound for a generation that wasn’t joining in the youthquake: “Here was adult romance, born under the same astrological signs that presided over Sex and the Single Girl (book and movie), the Pill, and the perfume ads that instructed ‘Want him to be more of a man? Try being more of a woman.’” Mr. O’Brien is brilliant on how the songs, deceptive little profiteroles, on inspection open up to reveal a surprising compositional intricacy. Throughout the volume there are similarly astute essays, on the Beatles, Brian Wilson and that final gateway to total pop-culture snobbery, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

But the heart and soul of Sonata for Jukebox is autobiography. After all, in an age of recording devices and mass commercial exchange, people don’t ask of a piece of music “Is this beautiful?” based on, say, its proportion and harmony. They say “This is me” or “This is mine,” because it evokes intense feelings of personal allegiance. About our favorite music, we’re essentially saying, “This reminds me of me”-which isn’t as vacant as it sounds. The burden of good taste is simply thrown back onto the lives of listeners, about which we can ask the traditional questions: Are they unique, self-examined, full? Or common and unreflecting?

The question is only more vexed in a culture in which every sound can be preserved, high and low hopelessly jumbled, genius and detritus lying so close together.

As a child, Mr. O’Brien spent countless hours drinking in the sounds of a radio, which brought him everything from “the Yacht Club Boys to the Modernaires to the Pied Pipers, from the Mills Brothers to the Ink Spots to the Platters, from the Boswell Sisters to the Andrews Sisters to the McGuire Sisters to the King Sisters, from the Mel-Tones to the Hi-Lo’s to the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads, the Four Aces. It is the Church of Sound: an ethereal cathedral made of breaths that intermesh to form ‘Laura’ and ‘Poinciana’ and ‘Perfidia’ and ‘Stella by Starlight.’ In that realm there is mist in the lagoon, the moon shines alone, and the meadow is made of chimes.”

The names drop all around like a hailstorm: Hindemith, Perry Como, “Bud, Chet, Prez, Getz, Miles, Hawk, Newk, Monk,” Yvette Mimieux (Yvette Mimieux?)-until it feels like we’ve run through every decibel ever committed to acetate, from ad jingles to, yes, dolphin pings. Writing in a genre so often devoted to monuments-Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, we get it already-Mr. O’Brien’s preference is for sounds that are in danger of disappearing altogether, like the countless hours his D.J. father spent sending schticky little asides out into the ether.

A deep love for evanescence pervades Sonata for Jukebox, and also a love of mystery that, on occasion, threatens to get out of hand. “That I should hear my father first thing in the morning without seeing him (he had driven into the city many hours earlier, while everyone slept) and only hours later-in an entirely different and (from the perspective of the long childhood morning) remote phase of the day-see him, hear his non-radio voice, is just an aspect of the way life in the house goes, part of its obscure system of cues and exits and convergences.” Later, he’ll claim the Anthology of American Folk Music, which collected for posterity the likes of Dock Boggs and Mississippi John Hurt, “registered a search for hidden correspondences and occulted communications, and [Harry] Smith moved as easily among its implications as a shaman rapidly switching voices during a dialogue with spirits.”

Its taste for “occulted communication” aside, Sonata for Jukebox is sharply argued on the question of how recording technology has changed human experience. Gone is the whole world of small merchants (“barely a moment ago, it must have been just before the world war, music was still a matter of sheet music to be played on the piano in the parlor, an immense boon for publishers, copyists, rack-jobbers, song pluggers, piano players, piano teachers, and piano tuners”); that distinctly local arrangement (“If you wanted to hear mountain music you went to the mountains”) has been replaced with a globalist consumer paradise: “Free now to drop in anywhere unannounced, we listen in their secret fastnesses to Tibetan lamas or Moroccan jajouka musicians or the throat singers of Tuva.”

At this point in the narrative, the Fab Four appear as a kind of relief from the book’s unrelenting eclecticism. The Beatles were, in their utter freshness, a liberating force, but also a consolidating one. “Having walked into the theater as a solitary observer with more or less random musical tastes,” Mr. O’Brien writes of seeing A Hard Day’s Night as a teenager, “I came out as a member of a generation.” What comes next in the story, of course, are the hazy-crazy, guerrillas-in-the-midst 60′s, when all you needed was your Penguin Freud, some blotter and a friend’s mom’s vacant classic eight on the Upper West Side to have a good time. Here the narrative is most lush, as Mr. O’Brien captures perfectly the longing and anticipation of being young. (I won’t give it away, but one long digression-about a fragile young beauty on the fringes of Mr. O’Brien’s social circle and the rock star who befriends her-is particularly satisfying.)

Mr. O’Brien’s talent for drawing out a string of associations from a piece of music is impressive, though occasionally it gets the better of him. From writing about himself, he lapses into the second-person singular, an impersonal, vaguely contemptuous “you”: “Since you had long since gotten used to hearing canned versions of Bob Marley and Talking Heads en route to the yogurt or the breakfast links, it was not hard to accept the ersatz as ultimate authenticity.”

This is a wildly original and at times peculiar book, provocative and deeply felt throughout. In the final chapters, when the author is trolling the dial of “the musical unconscious, the sound of auditory residue, this radio station that will not permit itself to be turned off,” the prose becomes relentlessly incantatory; some sections read less like criticism or autobiography than the transcript of a Vulcan mind-meld gone wrong: “For a moment the names are on the table. Then, suddenly, like a pocket turned inside out, they are removed. Nothing refers to anything anymore. The warehouse is indistinguishable space. No songs have lyrics. Or they have lyrics like blank walls. I’m alone forever. The sun is on the lagoon. Welcome to the ice palace.” Faced with this sort of passage, one recalls an earlier, wistful aside. “How nice it would be,” Mr. O’Brien mused, “to clear away the mass of history and personal association and simply hear the records for the notes and words.”

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.