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SONATA FOR JUKEBOX by Geoffrey O'Brien


Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life

by Geoffrey O'Brien

Pub Date: March 1st, 2004
ISBN: 1-58243-192-2
Publisher: Counterpoint

Rumbling thoughts, sonorous and percussive as a truck driving over a plank bridge, on how the author makes sense of the music he hears and connects it to his life.

For O’Brien (Castaways of the Image Planet, 2002, etc.), music is a sweeping environment, a closet of memories, a looking glass, a visitation, a map of individualized reality, essential and immense. The songs he has appropriated have “a climate, a history, a state of being.” Sometimes they express a certain bitterness, remind you of “a scene already over by the time any public ever caught its afterglimmer . . . a succession of parties that one hadn’t attended.” They may have fallen into a memory hole, “that limbo where unrecorded dance bands play without interruption for the ghosts of the unremembered” (though O'Brien remembers well). Or they may achieve pure transcendence and “stop moments from passing. The song is the place where perfection stays.” O’Brien offers chewy ruminations on Brian Wilson and the Beatles, on minor-key melodies like “Greensleeves” and “Oranges and Lemons”: “universal folk music that dares to propose unhappy endings not only for individual lives but for life itself.” Music becomes a landscape in which “to lose yourself, or more properly to empty yourself of yourself,” to erase history as you keep on building more of it. Your record collection is more revealing than any resume, the very “substance of what pleased you,” with songs as loyal as dogs. Despite all the fiddlings and knockdowns, the self-criticism and the moments of overthinking (“it is a definition intended to undermine the notion of definition as such”), O'Brien, as much as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is saved by music. Everyone is, he asserts: “People sing when they no longer know who they are. They sing not to remember what was but to be in its presence.”

A bath of musical memory and association, drenched with emotion, time, and space.