by Geoffrey O'Brien
In a strange series of books, Geoffrey O'Brien has fashioned a one-of-a-kind style: a collective voice that speaks, moment by moment, the pop consciousness of the 20th century. He's not the sort of critic like James Wood or Pauline Kael whose reputations are built (justifiably) on the carcasses of those they have so authoritatively eviscerated. Instead, O'Brien's brilliance is as a channeller, not of the artist but of the audience. Sounding like a 1950s filmstrip narrator who has fallen in with the Beats, he has chronicled, in Dream Time, the mass transformations of the '60s and, in The Phantom Empire, the shared experience of movie mythmaking. (The Browser's Ecstasy, his "meditation on reading," was less successful, in part because the solitary act of reading could not support his communal impulses.)
His most recent book, Sonata for Jukebox (due out in paperback in a few weeks), is his finest yet, perhaps because it's his most personal, perhaps because his subject--popular music--is most suited to his choral style. Pop music, by compelling you to sing along, creates a "we." O'Brien's we is an intimate one: the we of the late-night hi-fi, not the stadium show.
It's also the we of his family: His grandfather was a journeyman bandleader, his father a successful New York radio DJ, his older brother a rock 'n' roll drummer. They lived through popular music, and suddenly in the mid-'60s, when O'Brien was coming of age, the entire culture began doing so too. The book is, as he writes in one section, an attempt "to describe how certain records sounded once," and when he's excavating those moments, whether it's a boy unearthing his parents' Fats Waller and Cisco Houston 78s, pajama parties with stacks of 45s by the Orlons, Gene Pitney, and the Marvelettes, or long nights of talking over--and about--the new Beach Boys LP, there's no critic I'd rather read.