Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You Think You Know Your Jukebox


The jukebox in a neighborhood lounge or tavern is an excellent metaphor representing the individual’s choice of preferred stimuli.  While we’re at it, the neighborhood lounge or tavern is no slouch as a metaphor.

Consider:  The lounge and tavern are in essence similar landscapes, separated only by cultural divisions and language use. Individuals frequent such places for a similar menu of reasons, among these the simple act of getting away from some other place or situation, often related to home or workplace.

Individuals may go to one or the other to meet friends, in hopes of igniting a sexual connection, or getting hammered.  A person who frequents a lounge may visit a tavern.  In similar fashion, tavern-goers may venture into a lounge on occasion.  But each will feel more comfortable in more familiar surroundings.

A lounge is less likely to have sports memorabilia or photos of pop culture icons or indeed, neon signs representing available avatars of beer.  A tavern begins with a shuffleboard, often contains one or more coin-operated pool tables, and features at least one bulletin board, if not an entire section of wall, on which are affixed with pushpins a galaxy of postcards sent by regular customers from their vacation travels.  Taverns do not have drapes, nor are they likely to have framed photographs of Myrna Loy or William Powell.  Their restrooms do not suggest aroma therapy or tropical flowers, rather they are evocative of the beer so many of their patrons have begun to part company with.

Consider:  The patron of lounge or tavern arrives for one or more of the purposes already noted, places his or her order with the bartender, takes a sip, then is transported into the heady cocktail of need and nostalgia, whirred furiously within the patron’s psyche.  The patron begins feeding quarters into the jukebox, selecting songs that increase the atmosphere of nostalgia because they evoke the mythical and mystical personal landscape of THEN, related in its idiosyncratic way to Oz, because transportation to each place, THEN and Oz, has been achieved because of a cyclone.

THEN is either “back in the past,” when the patron was involved and, presumably, happy—or the patron is waiting for the other THEN to merge as in, “and THEN—“ the landscape of fantasy played out in the patron’s inner iPod.  The songs on the jukebox are the cyclone, spinning itself into the vehicle, leaving now for Oz.

The jukebox as metaphor:  We play our songs, which is to say we carry on the hard drives of our emotion the memories of actual events and those outcomes we contrive in fantasy.  You hear singers as diverse as Helen O’Connell, and Carmen McRae, singing lyrics coded with images of times and individuals who still cause your heart to lurch and your senses to gasp.  Her.  Helen sings “Star Eyes” and you see a specific pair regarding you in their almond-shaped radiance, studying you as though you were the most resonant narrative you could ever hope to write.  Carmen sings the old Monk “Ask Me Now” and you’re back in the lounge of the Watkins Hotel on Adams and Western, south central L.A. hearing her sing it live, while you sat at a small table with someone who seemed to be the embodiment of what personal chemistry meant to you.  This had been the third or fourth date.  Seriousness was its subtext.  You’d already taken her on the first date to Ye Little Club on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, where Bobby Short nodded his approval as you sat near the piano, then began to sing “Let There Be Love.”  When he got to the line, “Let there cuckoos, a lark, and a dove/ But please, let there be love,”  you were aware of her knee, bumping your calf.

Voices and places and moods do matter.  Their effects haunt you, intrigue you, inspire you; they do all the things you could possibly hope to extract from voices, places, and the intimacy of ambience.  Sometimes, when you share such things, you begin a bonding process with someone.  Other times there is an ironic presence inviting itself into the conversation, a chaperone as portrayed by Peter Sellers.

This ironic presence is the essence of story.  Two individuals begin with the belief that they’ve decoded the essential mysteries of the universe.  They have, but the essential mysteries are different ones because the universe is so enormous and fraught that it cannot possibly have only one mystery.  Each of the two individuals is certain the other sees the same mystery.  They are both serene in the belief they are describing the same mystery, the same shade of blue, the same play of light on the same lake.  Now the story begins.  Each individual comes to the slow realization that the other is seeing a different shade of blue, a different play of light.  It is manifest now that there are two different lakes in the equation.

Life is rushing away from scavenging and foraging, away from agriculture, into urban chaos.  But the individuals and their visions and memories have not found ways to unfriend the ironic presence that is the essence of story.  More and more, the narrative voice has had to give up control of any message or pat explanation, stepping back into the shadows, happy to leave the discovery to the characters themselves and to the readers.  Sooner of later, for every Heart of Darkness that moves us and disturbs us, there is some direct response, reaching across generational and culture gaps to present us with Things Fall Apart.  It is enough to send us to a lounge or tavern of our choice, fishing in our pockets for quarters.


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