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Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life

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From one of our most original essayists and critics, a wide-ranging, freewheeling, utterly brilliant foray into the last fifty years of pop music and the multitudinous ways to hear it.

Dazzling and original, Sonata for Jukebox is a brilliant foray into how pop music has woven itself into our lives since the dawn of the recording age. Geoffrey O'Brien has delved into 20th-century pop music as we experience it: a phenomenon that is at once public and private; personal yet popular....

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Overview

From one of our most original essayists and critics, a wide-ranging, freewheeling, utterly brilliant foray into the last fifty years of pop music and the multitudinous ways to hear it.

Dazzling and original, Sonata for Jukebox is a brilliant foray into how pop music has woven itself into our lives since the dawn of the recording age. Geoffrey O'Brien has delved into 20th-century pop music as we experience it: a phenomenon that is at once public and private; personal yet popular. This is not a history of pop music, although fragments of that history find their way into its pages. It is not a memoir, although it is an entertaining biography of the author's ears and his family's exceptional affinity with pop music-his father was a leading New York DJ and his grandfather led a dance band in Philadelphia. It is an exploration of what listeners hear, what they think they hear, and how they connect it with the rest of their lives. The dizzying array of musical references will play through the reader's mind like a soundtrack as O'Brien explores how lives are lived in the presence—and in the memory of the presence—of music.

Author Biography: Poet, critic, editor, and cultural historian, Geoffrey O'Brien has been honored with a Whiting Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Institute for the Humanities. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and is the editor-in-chief of The Library of America. He lives in New York City.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
O’Brien, a poet and critic, narrates his life through the recordings he has listened to—45s, LPs, radio jingles—shaping his memoir as a sequence of musical madeleines. Moving chronologically, he expands on the assertion that “the age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia”: the covers of jazz albums recall a childhood home where music was constant, even when it was “turned down so low it sounds like the scratching of a squirrel trapped in the walls”; a Burt Bacharach song exhibits “well-bred melancholia, the hidden side of a Kennedy-era effervescence”; and the Bee Gees’“How Deep Is Your Love?” incongruously takes over the lobby of a movie theatre in Osaka. But, for all the luxurious reminiscence, O’Brien is not merely a nostalgist, and finds the present as rich as the past—a healthy state for a critic, because, as he says, “you need ears cleared of that rattling debris to receive new signals.”
Publishers Weekly
This superb exploration of "some aspects of how lives are lived in the presence-and the memory of the presence-of music" is in some respects a companion piece to O'Brien's earlier The Browser's Ecstasy, his meditation on reading. These 15 new essays show O'Brien's remarkable sensitivity to his chosen subject and a stunning gift for crafting literary gems. But at almost twice the length of his earlier work, this volume allows O'Brien to luxuriate in his ideas, stretching them to touch on various music genres in a way that makes the book a joyous reading experience. The essays are united by O'Brien's search to capture how a listener "hears, or imagines he hears, and how he connects that listening to the rest of his life." Thus, an essay on the revival of interest in composer Burt Bacharach explores the forgotten ways mid-1960s pop music was defined by "genre-bending and marketing crossovers." An essay on Harry Smith's groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music collection of recordings examines how, for "a generation that lacked much sense of common national tradition it became the equivalent of Percy's `Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.' " Most striking, however, are the essays in which O'Brien explores the way music defined-and now defines how he remembers-his own formative youthful experiences, from the impact on his musical sensibility of his father, a popular radio disk jockey, to the way the pop music of the 1960s defined how he and his friends lived "as if we anticipated a world of exhilarated tenderness punctuated by brilliant invention." What emerges in the end is a remarkable book. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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, heasserts: "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. Agency: Wylie Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582431925
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2004
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.42 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Exposition
1 The Return of Burt Bacharach 5
2 House Music 29
3 From a Family Album Wyoming Valley's Most Famous Band 57
4 From a Family Album Early Experiences of a Radio Announcer 73
5 Back to the Country 105
Development
6 Top Forty 129
7 Seven Fat Years 147
8 Along the Great Divide 159
9 Central Park West (Side A) 177
10 Central Park West (Side B) 201
Recapitulation
11 The Lonely Sea 231
12 The Rabbi's Playlist 255
13 The Year of Overthrowal 269
14 Ambient Night at Roots Lounge 283
15 Silence in the Age of Noise 305
Coda 317
A Jukebox of the Mind, 1929-1982 321
Acknowledgments 325
Bibliography 327
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