Excerpts from Sonata for Jukebox, by Geoffrey O’Brien

Here’s a strange coincidence.

Earlier this year, I read – more like drank up, imbibed, devoured – Geoffrey O’Brien’s “autobiography of his ears” Sonata for Jukebox. In Sonata for Jukebox, an intriguing and hypnotic book, filled with prose that flows like poetry (O’Brien is also a poet), O’Brien tells the story of his own life – as well as his parents’ lives, his brothers’ lives, even his grandparents’ lives – through the “jukebox”, through the music that marked them, marked time, informed and impacted them … the “playlists” that call up memories, and not just specific memories, but evocations of entire eras, all of the sense memories that make up childhood, an early ’60s adolescence, a coming-of-age in the mid-late ’60s … and thoughts on music, in general, its purpose, its impact. The book is about the act of hearing itself, the act of listening. It’s about silence, too. It is a truly remarkable book. There are chapters devoted to specific figures (Burt Bacharach, The Beatles, The Beach Boys), but the majority is devoted to the mish-mash of sounds, the playlists/mix-tapes of childhood (not literal playlists, just the things that were present in the air around him), and how music began to infiltrate his consciousness, solidifying. His father was a deejay, his mother an actress, and his brothers were music fanatics, who played in jazz bands. He grew up on Broadway musicals. The Beatles launched him into himself as an independent entity, making his own decisions and choices. There are chapters made up of “playlists”, his attempts to call up, say, the mood and tenor of teenage taste in 1961, or the “playlist” of the time the family lived in an apartment off Central Park West, the various tracks that call up moments, people, experiences. All of this is fascinating – the subject matter riveting – his way of thinking unique and personal – Proustian in approach – but it’s the WRITING that, ultimately, is the real hook.

The book, published in 2004, came on my radar because someone on Instagram – Andrew Chan, whom I trust, with whom I have a lot in common (we both love Elizabeth Bishop: it says a lot) – mentioned “Geoffrey O’Brien’s chapter on the Beatles” as a high watermark of music writing. I immediately bought the book. And started it that day. And did not put it down until I was finished. It was so breathtaking, and I knew I was reading it too fast – it is a book to savor – but I couldn’t stop. I will read it again. It very quickly became one of my favorite books of music writing.

Again, I discovered this book – written almost 20 years ago – just this year. I feel bad I didn’t know about it before, but I am grateful I know about it now.

Cut to: April of this year. A month after I finished Sonata for Jukebox. I am in the recording studio in New York, having just finished my voiceover narration for my upcoming video-essay on Raging Bull, to be included in Criterion’s release of Raging Bull (in 4K), due out this July. I am talking with the producer of my essay, and I asked her about other special features that will be included, along with mine. She told me about the commentary tracks, about my pal Glenn Kenny’s booklet essay (very glad to hear he was writing the essay, since his book Made Men – on the making of Goodfellas – AND his book Robert De Niro: Academy of an Actor – are such important entries in the “Books About Martin Scorsese” sub-genre) – and then she said, “And there will be another video-essay too, written by Geoffrey O’Brien, about Scorsese’s cinematic techniques.” Excuse me? I literally just discover this genius, and now our video-essays will appear side by side (so to speak) on the same release? I was blown away by the coincidental timing.

Thank you, Andrew Chan, for mentioning Sonata for Jukebox – and the Beatles chapter is a miracle to behold. One of the things I love so much about the book is how – through song choices and song-driven memories – O’Brien evokes a time in which I did not live, the pre-Beatles time, the post-Beatles time, the rise of Dylan, the ’60s decade turning sour and violent, chaos reigning – the whole Boomer experience – it all feels as real as if I lived it myself. This is the power of music: it is a time-traveler. And it’s the power of O’Brien’s ability to translate it to others, to generations that came after.

He’s a little bit hard to excerpt, since every single sentence is resonant with depths and echoes and unknowable mysteries … His writing really is overwhelming that way. But these are some of the sequences I flagged.

Listening to music, which can be the very embodiment of public life (whether at Woodstock or marching down Fifth Avenue on the Fourth of July), is finally the most inward of acts–so inward that even language, even the language of thought, can come to seem intrusive. It is necessary to proceed by analogy, by fable, by parody; by memoir that takes the form of fiction or fiction that takes the form of memoir. After all these procedures the unbreachable mysteriousness of music remains intact.

p. 12-13, “The Return of Burt Bacharach”
Irony quickly becomes a dead issue. Finally you are left alone with your ears; either you get pleasure from listening to Martin Denny or the Hollyridge Strings, or you don’t. The only variations are on the order of how much pleasure, to be repeated how many times. Irony meets its double: flat-out banality. The alienated contemplation of schmaltz merges with the unrepentant enjoyment of it. Or else it doesn’t quite merge, as the mind clings to a detachment in which unironic enjoyment is almost successfully simulated. You get the pleasurable abandon of sincerity with none of the heartbreak.

p. 14, “The Return of Burt Bacharach”
The shock of coming up against music that truly sounds like nothing ever heard before–whether the encounter is with a Caruso 78 of “Santa Lucia”, or the Basie band broadcasting live from the Famous Door, or the flip side of the new Zombies single–involves the apprehension, or the invention, of an unsuspected reality, an emotional shade not defined until then, the revelation (tenuous or overpowering) of a possible future. If music promised anything less than entry into a new world, how account for its hold on the many for whom it can stand in, if need be, for a belief system or a way of life? Every first hearing that is remembered constitutes a creation myth. What is created is a self irrevocably transformed by a particular piece of music, a particular phrase, a particular catch in the throat.

p. 16, “The Return of Burt Bacharach”
The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia–when was the past so hauntingly accessible?–but its bitterest insight is the incapacity of even the most perfectly captured sound to restore the moment of its first inscribing. That world is no longer there.

p. 27, “The Return of Burt Bacharach”
Bacharach lent himself to austere treatments because what counted in his music was fundamentally austere. The hard core of that music had always been curiously at odds with his image as diffident artistocrat given to breeding race horses, or strolling along that pristine stretch of Southern Californian beachfront that one imagined as his natural habitat. The period colorings, the mythology that would make him a walking advertisement for The Good Life, seemed finally irrelevant. The real Bacharach–the Bacharach one could not, finally, actually hear except obliquely and by implication–was Out There, totally gone into form. He was a maker of patterns whose stark durable structures could give continuing pleasure without having to be about something, as if to confirm Stravinsky’s dictum that “music itself does not signify anything.”

p. 29, “House Music”
Everything has to begin somewhere, but that somewhere is always the tangled middle.

p. 38, “House Music”
The stitching together of the fragments takes place in the midst of a present that never stops. Hard to find time to sort out the past while caught up in a circus full of noisy and imposing attractions.

p. 48, “House Music”
In the melancholy of minor-key melodies like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or “Oranges and Lemons” or “Greensleeves” can be heard, as through a half-opened door, intimations of a boy-soprano universe of lovely grief. It is a universal folk music that dares to propose unhappy endings not only for individual lives but for life itself. In its unearthly prettiness it is sadder than Teresa Brewer nursing a broken heart or Vic Damone having a lonely time on Saturday night. This is a sorrow that no big band flourish, with its brassy cheer, can quite put right: the sorrow that is our native condition, the one that advertised remedies can’t reach. It will come back, even after everybody else is dead, to clarify what the world finally is. The sweetness–the keening frequencies that will return in “Scarlet Ribbons” and “In the Pines” and “The Springhill Mining Disaster”–camouflages a message of doom.

p. 70, “Wyoming Valley’s Most Famous Band”
It’s as much of a past as I have, except of course that I don’t have it. I make it up by imagining connections between fragments. The fragments are small and irregularly shaped. Whole lifetimes could fit into the spaces between them–spaces in which my ancestors blur with other people’s ancestors, with the people in the newspaper photographs and the people who weren’t even photographed, with the unreal people in books and movies, and with the people imagined altogether. A remote past that is entirely imagined (the Gay Nineties, men in top hats with walrus mustaches, Thomas Edison inventing phonography) blends bit by bit with the primordially recollected: the interior of a Trailways bus, the small of soap from a country “notions” shop, the topography of a lakeside resort visited once only, the tone and rhythm (but not the exact words) of the repartee of bingo players on Saturday night. The inhabitants of that world have become figures in the dream of the past that in weak moments I might mistake for History. The retrievable sensations of the long hot bus ride from Scranton to Nanticoke is a transit between imaginary cities. Only music travels unchanged between those worlds, as if it were immune to such distinctions.

p. 76, “Early Experiences of a Radio Announcer”
Music is like having an extra room.

p. 81, “Early Experiences of a Radio Announcer”
So few manage to avoid being trapped. The real achievement of the greatest individuals is that they were able to escape the rounds of boredom that everyone else is forced to put up with. The genuine heroes–the ones who managed some kind of personal freedom–had to invent their own world.

p. 111, “Back to the Country”
That contrarian impulse to travel against time’s current–to gravitate toward the noise and detritus filtered out by the culture of Dynagroove–was crucial to what became, after a lot of listening to a lot of old records, the early ’60s folk revival. The road to the future lay in the past, among forebears so forgotten that they had become alien, so alien that they could almost be invented. Early listeners agreed that the Smith anthology’s initial effect was of uncanny strangeness. It seemed a repository of “lost, archaic, savage sounds” or, in the words of filmmaker Bruce Conner, “a confrontation with another culture…like field recordings from the Amazon, or Africa, but it’s here in the United States!” “Who is singing?” Greil Marcus asked. “Who are these people?”

p. 118, “Back to the Country”
Later, after the triumph of Pop around 1965, there would be relief for the young fans in realizing that they did not finally have to become coal miners or tenant farmers.

p. 119, “Back to the Country”
Copies, parodies, reversals, deliberate distortions, whatever was required to tone down, jazz up, smooth out, mess around, or make over: this had been the process of American music, of American entertainment, for so long before anyone took note that the recorded history could never be about anything but mixes, hybrids, crossovers. Pure strains could be imagined but not really experienced, since the moment they hit the air they became part of the fusion.

p. 121, “Back to the Country”
Long familiarity with the industrial cycles of pop permits us to observe the rough being made smooth while calmly anticipating the moment when there will be novelty value in making the smooth rough again. Blues goes lounge, lounge goes industrial noise, industrial noise prepares to merge, perhaps, with Gregorian chant. Our new tradition, however designated–fusion, crossover, sampling, mix–amounts to hardly more than a drastically speeded-up version of the way things have always happened. If a band in Madagascar plays the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” on traditional instruments or a London-based bhangra group fuses Punjabi folk music and James Brown grooves or an even newer group mixes all of the above in brief unrecognizable fragments, the process hardly differs from, say, an obscure Alabaman band of the 1920s lending Hawaiian inflections to a revamped English ballad whose original subject, somewhere back in the Middle Ages, was the blood libel of Jewish ritual murder.

p. 123, “Back to the Country”
What we heard on the Smith anthology was how people sounded before they knew how they sounded, in the same way that the first movies briefly caught the demeanor of people who had never seen anyone on film. The vocal styles had not been corrected by reference to recorded music or adapted to the microphone. All that was about to change irrevocably, as singers learned how the voice could be something separate from its body.

p. 139, “Top Forty”
America fostered oversized hilariousness, huge grotesqueness. It was all a laugh. The commercials on television and radio were funny; big-breasted blondes were funny; cops and private eyes were funny; Indians in war bonnets were funny; husbands were funny, mothers-in-law funnier; and teenagers, with their hairstyles and lingo and hysterical tears were funny up until the moment when puberty revealed that the moans and lonely teardrops were a manifestation of genuine suffering rather than episodes of a stylized cartoon. “It looks like raindrops falling from my eyes”: until one day you wake to find that Dee Clark is not joking.

p. 139, “Top Forty”
The teenager is the one who loses his sense of humor. Listening with desperate concentration to the same song over and over–radio won’t do anymore; he has to have his own record player so he can hear what he needs when he needs it–he initiates a practice that will be extended into the rest of life. The haunting melody takes up residence inside him. What he hears in it doesn’t change. The past is here made prisoner, except it isn’t even the past anymore. There is just this blind wall of song, the permanent night into which he wants to stare. The teenager, technologist of obsession, learns how to manipulate his own feelings with the proper ordering of playlists. He builds his nostalgia around himself, having no idea of how much time he is going to spend there.

p. 142, “Top Forty”
Now their resistance has melted sufficiently to respond to a sequence of ballads: Dell Shannon’s “Runaway,” if only for its shrieking organ and the yodeling upper reaches of Shannon’s singing; the plaintive hermeticism of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” spiraling toward an even higher pitch that translates the very idea of weeping into eerie abstraction; Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity”; Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now”; “Strange Feeling” by the physically corpulent vocally ethereal Billy Stewart, with its hovering chorus of women and the singer’s transmutation of “feeling” into “fee-fa-fee-fa-fee-ee-ling”; the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof” to help them feel the weather around them, the air of cities blowing through even suburban windows; Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” a song sung at the brink of the end of things, when “the land is dark and the moon is the only light we’ll see,” a song to hold a few things together in the midst of some ultimate foundering; followed (logically enough) by Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World,” if only because the evening is not complete without that angrily self-centered vision of the whole universe tumbling into oblivion because her love affair fell through.

p. 147, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
The Beatles had come, as if on occult summons, to drive away darkness and embody public desire on a scale not previously imagined.

p. 148, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
And what was the product? Four young men who seemed more alive than their handlers and more knowing than their fans; aware of their own capacity to please more or less everybody, yet apparently savoring among themselves a joke too rich for the general public; professional in so unobtrusive a fashion that it looked like inspired amateurism. The songs had no preambles or buildups: the opening phrase–“Well, she was just seventeen” or “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you”–was a plunge into movement, a celebration of its own anthemic impetus.

p. 149, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
The near-riots that accompanied the Beatles’ arrival in New York, bringing about something like martial law in the vicinity of the Warwick Hotel, were an epic demonstration of nascent female desire. The spectacle was not tender but warlike. The oscillation between glassy-eyed entrancement and emotional explosion, the screams that were like chants and the bouts of weeping that were like acts of aggression, the aura of impending upheaval that promised the breaking down of doors and the shattering of glass: this was love that could tear apart its object.
Idols who needed to be protected under armed guard from their own worshippers acquired even greater fascination, especially when they carried themselves with such cool comic grace. To become involved with the Beatles, even as a fan among millions of others, carried with it the possibility of meddling with ferocious energies. Spectatorship here became participation. There were no longer to be any bystanders, only sharers.

p. 149, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
I emerged from A Hard Days Night as from a conversion experience. Having walked into the theatre as a solitary observer with more or less random musical tastes–West Side Story, The Rite of Spring, The Fred Astaire Story, Talking Dustbowl, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, the soundtrack of Black Orpheus and El Cid–I came out as a member of a generation, sharing a common repertoire with a sea of contemporaries, strangers who seemed suddenly like family.

p. 150, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
Listening to Beatles records turned out to be an excellent cure for too much thinking. It was even better that the sense of refreshment was shared by so many others; the world became, with very little effort, a more companionable place. Effortlessness–the effortlessness of, say, the Beatles leaping around a meadow with goofy freedom in A Hard Day’s Night–began to seem a fundamental value.

p. 151, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
Many came to feel that the Beatles enjoyed some kind of privileged wisdom–the evidence was their capacity to extend their impossible string of successes while continuing to find new styles, new techniques, new personalities–but what exactly might it consist of? The songs were bulletins, necessarily cryptic, always surprising, from within that hermetic dome at the center of the world, the seat of cultural power.

p. 154, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
If one could imagine an alternate future in which Paul played piano for local weddings and dances, George drove a bus like his old man, and Ringo perhaps fell into the life of crime his teenage gang exploits seemed to portend, it was inconceivable that John could have settled into any of the choices he was being offered in his youth. None of them ever did much except prepare themselves to be the Beatles.

p. 157, “Seven Fat Years”, aka The Beatles chapter
Sometimes it’s necessary to wait twenty years to be able to hear it again, the formal beauty that begins as far back as “Ask Me Why” and “There’s a Place” and is sustained for years without ever settling into formula. Nothing really explains how or why musicians who spent years jamming on “Be Bop a Lula” and “Long Tall Sally” turned to writing songs like “Not a Second Time” and “If I Fell” and “Things We Said Today,” so altogether different in structure and harmony. Before the addition of the sitars and tape loops and symphony orchestras, before the lyrical turn toward eggmen and floating downstream, Lennon and McCartney (and, on occasion, Harrison) were already making musical objects of such elegant simplicity, such unhectoring emotional force, that if they had quit after Help! (their last “conventional” album) the work would still endure.

p. 161, “Along the Great Divide”
The history of rock and roll is the great melodrama and the great celebration; nostalgia for an irrecoverable past dissolves in the promise of perpetual rebirth as new styles and new superstars emerge on cue. It is a story with no real beginning or end, that starts when you happen to tune in–or in this case when a generation of teenagers happened to tune in–and ends, presumably, when you’ve lost the desire to keep listening.

p. 164, “Along the Great Divide”
Could I have tuned in every sound that was entering the world at the same moment that I was entering it, I would have heard all at once what it has taken the better part of a lifetime to begin to catch up with.

p. 171, “Along the Great Divide”
Except for those involved, no one was apt to think about the music at all except as scattered pockets of indigenous noise. Not many foresaw the imminence of the moment when a bit of genuinely strange back-country swamp-trance invocation like Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”–

Tombstone hand and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don’t mind dyin’–

would be transformed from the Other into the Main Thing.

p. 183, “Central Park West (Side A)”
It is here that the impending changes will come upon us. Was it we who were napping? So swiftly and stealthily does the decade work its transformations that it is already nearly over before any of us realizes the scale of what we have been living through: it wasn’t just us, it was happening everywhere.

p. 183, “Central Park West (Side A)”
The plenitude of the past was not intended for us, but (lucky accidental inheritors) we can appropriate pieces of it.

p. 187, “Central Park West (Side A)”
The art of living consists of tricking life into honoring its evasive promises.

p. 191, “Central Park West (Side A)”
If the talk reverts constantly to records it’s because the records keep flowing in. There’s always a pile of new ones next to the cabinet or stacked up by the piano. They are the noise the world is making right now. It’s like an advance warning system.

p. 198, “Central Park West (Side A)”
The new art is simplicity itself. It’s beyond words; you’ve got to develop a sixth sense for what makes things click. It’s Zen! Get that baroque junk out of the way: that grammar and filigree of bebop fussiness. Too much detail, nobody cares. That’s what killed the big bands, too many notes, too many horns. Make it simpler than you know how, and it’s still not simple enough. Listen to “Farmer John” again. They like it crude like that. A single hook makes the world yours. Can you believe what “yeah, yeah, yeah” did for the Beatles? Pete Townsend stuttering on “My Generation”: that’s all it took. Mistakes make the world yours! The singer comes in at the wrong bar of the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” and it sounds like deliberate artistry.

p. 202, “Central Park West (Side B)”
The song is the place where perfection stays. Outside the song is where it evaporates. Because the moment is already going; it’s gone. I can’t really remember what it was like, only that it was a shared space one degree removed from this world, and that we both knew it. I want to continue to be there. A song can help because, when used as intended, songs suspend time. If necessary they rewire time to make what didn’t happen happen.

p. 205, “Central Park West (Side B)”
Some records have to be played more than once. “She’s Not There” marks a new era. New eras begin frequently these days, sometimes two or three times a week. Ever since the summer of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” there hasn’t been time to look back.

p. 206, “Central Park West (Side B)”
Steve Cropper, the guitarist of Booker T. and the MGs, says in an interview that he drove off the road the first time he heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio. It sounded that different. Dylan certainly gives everybody enough to talk about: hours and hours on the implications of every phrase. He’s proposing a new listening experience, to which the words nail the listener’s thoughts even as they form, derail them by punning on the listener’s own hidden intentions, the ones he hasn’t expressed even to himself. If you’re not in the mood it can be like being sucker punched by a peculiarly unreliable kind of wise guy.

p. 216, “Central Park West (Side B)”
Pieces are thrown out like cards in a fast-moving game whose rules are reconfigured at each hand: the new Godard, the new Lichtenstein, the new Realist, the new Beatles single, the new Tom Wolfe article, the new Ginsberg poem, the new Sam Fuller movie, the topless bathing suit, the solarized publicity photo, the Green Beret who said “I QUIT!” on the cover of Ramparts, the newest and even more absurd-looking long-haired band to hit the Village club circuit–is it the Barbarians, the Mojo Men? It’s not so much what things are as what they border on.

p. 228, “Central Park West (Side B)”
There they remain, those people who were us. A person lets the songs enter him and mark him. How can he foresee a moment when he will try to forget some of those songs?

p. 233, “The Lonely Sea” aka The Beach Boys chapter
The Beatles, of course, belonged to everyone; that was their peculiarity. The Beach Boys by contrast suggested a more rarefied indulgence. To enter their domain fully involved an initiation. Not that they were hidden: they were rather, at the outset, the very emblem of obviousness. Our journey consisted of finding, in the heart of that obviousness, what was most secret.

p. 236, “The Lonely Sea” aka The Beach Boys chapter
I didn’t fully register the Beach Boys the first time around, any more than one fully registers one’s youth the first time around.

p. 240, “The Lonely Sea” aka The Beach Boys chapter
Smiley Smile was the token that made it imperative (by affirming that yes, the oddness was real, you hadn’t merely imagined it) to go back and listen to the rest of the Beach Boys catalogue as if for the first time, starting with Pet Sounds and moving all the way back to “The Lonely Sea,” that piece of primitive profundity in which the very young Mike Love assumed an absurd juvenile basso, like a junior high kid doing King Lear, thereby disguising as prank a true summons from the deeps. There had always been more than there seemed to be. Listen to Pet Sounds again–is this the twelfth time, or the twentieth, this week?–and then, with your head full of those solemn melting harmonies, go back to “This Car of Mine” and “Custom Machine” and “No Go Showboat” to hear what you hadn’t noticed before.

p. 241, “The Lonely Sea” aka The Beach Boys chapter
This archaeology of Brian Wilson provided the strange sensation that at the very time that everyone was moving forward, into new identities, new decibel ranges, new scales of Dionysiac self-abandonment, a hidden truth was to be found in what had already been tossed aside, the pop hits of five years ago. Perhaps the secret instructions were: Don’t follow the noise, follow the trail of hidden silences.

p. 245, “The Lonely Sea” aka The Beach Boys chapter
The blending of the voices of the Beach Boys floated through those spaces like the emanation of a dematerialized pipe organ. The space between the voices, the space between the notes: there was a bottomless theme for meditation. We imagined Brian Wilson as the orchestrator of ether, the architect of intervals. He could move and work in an environment that to most outsiders seemed nothing but empty air.

p. 276, “The Year of Overthrowal”
Nine hundred cultists die in the jungle, drinking their poison Kool-Aid after killing the U.S. Congressman who had come to investigate them. The news of it emerges like a new song, like a new kind of song. We thought we were living in our familiar world–whichever that might be–and really we were living in Jonestown. Some people always knew that. It shouldn’t have been so hard to figure out, what with the paranoid theorists running in and out of the copy shop with their urgent letters about secret lists and flying saucers and electrodes implanted by the CIA, or the emissaries from the Children of God making multiple copies of joky newsletters about the need for members to turn their children into holy prostitutes. Or the guys in the ski masks, or the hunger strikers in the German prison, or the Italian Fascists who blew up the train station in Bologna. Or the Munich Olympics, or the Greensboro massacre. These people who aren’t kidding, and who aren’t singing either.

p. 281, “The Year of Overthrowal”
I’m startled back from a reverie of continual forward movement by the emergence of the new young, who grew up while I wasn’t looking in that direction, and who have come to signal an irrevocable transition. They have evolved into their versions of the movies my friends and I watched back in high school. To seal a process of defamiliarizing that is already well underway, they will reinvent our past. They appropriate the songs from our private jukebox, and remix them to bring out different sound values, different emotions. What we once did to the ’40s they’re doing to the ’60s. They make Burt Bacharach strange the way we made Glenn Miller strange. They will tell us what it meant, as if our having been there must necessarily cloud our perception. To realize that in some sense they’re right begins to instill a new detachment. The years are gone and they don’t belong to us anymore, not any of them.

p. 293, “Ambient Night at Roots Lounge”
What more could humans hope to produce than a noise loud and deep enough to blow a hole into the nexus where space and time lock into each other? Tibetan deep-voice chanting–in which the impossibly low note resonates at the precise frequency that generates a simultaneous higher note, allowing the singer to harmonize with himself to the accompaniment of jingling hand-bells and crashing cymbals–destroys the universe without leaving any visible damage.

p. 297, “Ambient Night at Roots Lounge”
Imagine a planet where no one remembers how to make any of the sounds in the archive, any more than they know how to build a pyramid. This will be a few decades or centuries down the line, after the factories close and the index of specifications becomes garbled due to faulty transmission. Doesn’t anyone around here know how to make the parade play again? We lost the batteries. We forgot how to fix it. The depot shut. They mislaid the flow charts…In the world after the catastrophe, you and your fellow survivors would stare like helpless natives at the scattered inert machines, the mute disks, not knowing how to make them go. Perhaps you would continue to trade them as sacred objects to which disjointed legends were attached, fragmentary recollections of the sounds they had emitted before they were silenced. Only then–the machines no longer operable, the instruments and lyrics and chord changes a memory of a memory–would it become necessary to invent music again.

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5 Responses to Excerpts from Sonata for Jukebox, by Geoffrey O’Brien

  1. I skimmed right past this post because I just requested this book from my library and I want to read it “unspoiled”. Looking forward to it!

    • sheila says:

      I think you will flip over it. This is just a brief smattering of quotes – the thing is so rich it’s hard to absorb. I will definitely read again!

    • sheila says:

      No pressure and no rush – but whenever you get to it, I would love to hear your reaction!

  2. H in Addis says:

    One of the best books I’ve ever read about the experience of listening to music and its power – individually as a family as a community I push this book on people all the time saying ‘you love muic you have to read this’ Greg Tate is probably the only other person I rec as much.

    Sheila, link here to some of his criterion essays https://www.criterion.com/current/author/303-geoffrey-o-brien but also highly recommend all his film books

    • sheila says:

      Thanks, yes, a very happy discovery for me! I was blown away by the book. I really can’t wait to see his video essay. And the finished version of mine – I’ve only seen a rough cut. July!

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