Who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop? For many, mostly male, of a certain obsessive cast of mind, this is a serious question. Pop music is an American mystery, to be studied and debated and parsed with rabbinical intensity. Those sudden, momentary, powerful flashes of revelation, glimpsed through the thickets of rhythm and melody, suggest that some high-value target is being protected, some secret is concealed within.
In his new, crammed iPod of a book, Sonata for Jukebox, Geoffrey O’Brien sets out in pursuit of the secrets of the music of his youth. There’s something noble and slightly mad about this endeavor. O’Brien, editor of the Library of America and author of The Phantom Empire, a book about movies and memory, has set off into a vast swath of American pop music (the discography begins in 1925, with Jimmie Rodgers, the great early country singer, and ends in 1982 with Orchestra Baobab) and the lives to which it was the soundtrack. The music brings O’Brien back to the houses of his childhood (notably a rather nice apartment off Central Park West), but for the most part he can’t take us with him. We meet his grandfather, the leader for five years of the Rainbow Club Orchestra—billed as Wyoming Valley’s most famous band, Wyoming Valley being in eastern Pennsylvania, around Wilkes-Barre. O’Brien’s father was a jaunty, punning radio announcer. His brother becomes a rock musician of some note, although O’Brien is careful not to specify exactly what sort.
Sonata for Jukebox is a strange book trapped between music and life. It’s a shadow play, filled with spectral presences, both furtive and indistinct. Its closest relatives are the books of Greil Marcus. Works like Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, and Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes explore the American subconscious, and can be as dark, as interior, as impenetrable as the musical jungle they map. At best, they communicate Marcus’s excitement at exploration, his thrill of discovery, even if what’s discovered can never quite be articulated.
O’Brien’s book is far more personal. Like an enormous Robert Lowell poem, the book tempts and frustrates, retreating into private meanings, which stay largely private. It’s a muffled memoir; O’Brien is bopping his head to music we can’t quite hear.
“The culture O’Brien grew up in and wrote about is a lost world, a sonic Pompeii, buried alive in its music. Meanwhile, the dreamed-of love-girls are less attainable than ever.”
Part of the problem here is that O’Brien is a reluctant memoirist, squeamish about revelation, careful to protect the secrets of his family. The other part is that music is common property, which means that everyone has a theory of the Beatles. Brian Wilson as Southern California poète maudit is a familiar story, not that one ever minds it being retold.
The book’s tragic heroine, the dream girl O’Brien and his friends imagine at the heart of every song of love, is named Susie, beautiful and understanding and philosophical in equal measure (and also, one imagines, somewhat amused by all the fan-boy stylings). When O’Brien’s brother ended up in a band with James Taylor, Susie ended up with James, and after her suicide achieved immortality of a sort as the girl in Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain.”
Part of the final chapter is an odd, dreamy requiem and funeral march for all the world’s dead music, a science-fiction vision of emptiness, where the technologies of reproduction have terminated music’s specificity. There’s something biblical about O’Brien’s tone. “It is a final indignity,” he writes, “the Memory Lane Massacre. You wake up in a world where you can’t identify or even distinguish among any of the songs, where in fact they aren’t ‘songs’ anymore but strips of sound with no beginning or end.”
Another way of looking at this is that O’Brien is getting old. (It has to be said that his days as a cutting-edge listener were largely over by the early seventies.) The culture O’Brien grew up in and wrote about is a lost world, a sonic Pompeii, buried alive in its music. “The new young, who grew up while I wasn’t looking in that direction,” he writes. Not only do they create their own music, to some degree impenetrable, but they take possession of what came before. Meanwhile, the dreamed-of love-girls are less attainable than they ever were in high school—and just as mysterious.