“This is a book written in the presence of music,” observes Geoffrey O’Brien in the opening sentence of Sonata for Jukebox, an arresting, occasionally frustrating, and perhaps overlong rumination on the relationship between recorded music and the listener. Before long, it becomes clear that O’ Brien's has been a life lived in the presence of music, almost from the moment of birth. By that time, in 1948, his father, Joe O’Brien, had risen from the status of journeyman radio announcer to that of minor celebrity as the early-morning disc jockey on New York's WMCA, heard by commuters throughout the tri-state area. Geoffrey's mother, Maggie, a stage actress and amateur pianist, was the daughter of a former small-time bandleader in eastern Pennsylvania. That gentleman, Bob Owens, known to his grandsons as Pop, figures prominently in O’Brien's early recollections, both for his presence and for his fleeting role in musical history.
During the early years of the Depression, Owens toured towns and colleges throughout the region with his optimistically billed Rainbow Club Orchestra, receiving ample publicity through live radio broadcasts. As O’Brien explains, there was no Rainbow Club, and the ten band members were, like Owens, blue-collar moonlighters. Money was always tight, and despite the radio exposure, no recordings were ever made of the Rainbow Club music. After a few years, O’Brien observes with an early hint of his sometimes overblown style, “They disappeared into that limbo where unrecorded dance bands play without interruption for the ghosts of the unremembered.” By the time of his grandson's earliest memories, Pop was well into his sixties but always formally dressed, giving occasional piano lessons and mainly amusing himself at the keyboard. His story, told in the third chapter of Sonata for Jukebox, will reverberate throughout the volume, serving as a kind of cautionary tale for what is to follow. O’Brien is careful to note that Owens was born within two years after Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1887, underscoring the irony of the fact that his music, diffused by the later technological marvel of radio, was not to profit from the earlier invention of records.
Indeed, it is the twentieth century phenomenon of recorded music (the earliest recordings cited by O’Brien date from 1898) that informs both the theme and the title of Sonata for Jukebox. Music, of course, has no doubt existed longer than history, but until Edison's invention began to take root, it was primarily a collective phenomenon, performed either by a group or by a soloist before an audience. Only after 1900 did the concept of the solitary listener become a possibility, and later a reality. Throughout the essays merged into Sonata for Jukebox, O’Brien explores the interactive potential of “canned” music, the possibility and extent of listener participation. In an early chapter, he recalls his earliest awakenings to sound and noise, some of which turned out to be music, either broadcast on the radio or played by his two older brothers. The setting was a large house on the north shore of Long Island, a house strewn with musical instruments, records, and sheet music. In a prose style that swings between the poetic and the “purple,” at times lapsing into obscurity, O’Brien muses upon what might be called the “aesthetics of reception” with regard to music, frequently citing his own experience and recollections. The result is a thought-provoking inquiry into the role of music in modern society and its possible effects, whether intended or not, upon individual lives.
Although addressed to the general reader, Sonata for Jukebox frequently assumes a level of musical “literacy” beyond the range of the average listener, and at times O’Brien risks losing the attention of readers too young to share his memories of certain songs in their temporal setting. His basic premise, however, is that the phenomenon of recorded music has somehow managed to “freeze time” into an eternal present. In certain cases, the performers cited are still alive but have retired or moved on to other projects; what remains, however, is the voice frozen in time, accessible as memory to the solitary listener.
It is significant that O’Brien tends to treat recorded songs as an organic whole, melody and lyrics taken together: In the opening chapter, an extended essay on the music and musical fortunes of composer Burt Bacharach, O’Brien opens the question...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)