Thursday, January 26, 2012

no, seriously. put another dime in.

feed this jukebox.  Sharlene's, 353 Flatbush Ave. Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

I've seen my share of jukeboxes, but this weekend I had my mind blown by one.

It sat there like a birthday present, hunched in the back of a crowded dive bar. My friends and I had just had dinner to celebrate my 29th year, and contemplated calling it an early night. There were simply too many people around, not enough seats, and some really intense metal blaring over the speakers.
But then – silence. We were standing in the glow of the very thing that just moments earlier had assaulted our eardrums, and the credits stood at zero.

I whipped out some ones without much thought. There's nothing worse than waiting around to hear your songs after some idiot has blown twenty bucks to play Bob Dylan's entire catalogue, but when given the opportunity to start a new round I take full advantage.

The first, most obvious thing about this amazing machine was that it played CDs. Now, I'm sure there are jukebox enthusiasts out there that would scoff at such a modern thing in favor of 1950's era boxes that play 45s. Not I, not existing, as I do, in a wasteland of ugly wall-mounted digital jukeboxes. Even bars that I consider my favorites are foolish enough believe that these abominations fulfill their jukebox requirement, but that is painfully false. I can appreciate the breadth of choice offered by digital “jukeboxes” (if you feel it appropriate to bestow such a title on a overgrown, overly flashy mp3 player), but the highly inflated costs per play and the sacrilegious option to “play this track next” offered to line-jumpers are just a few of the evils that permeate the atmosphere around any digital box.

So yes, I marveled, if not rejoiced, that this was an automated CD player before me, and began to select my plays. Choosing songs for an entire bar full of strangers holds similar rules to making mixtapes for friends. You don't put on multiple tracks by the same artist. You don't go for the obvious – sorry, Johnny Cash, Abba, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, etc – unless you want to come off like an amateur. Deep cuts are always more respectable than well-known hits. Start with a banger, because everyone can see you still standing there choosing the rest of your tracks. Don't be afraid to vary genres and eras. And while they might be permissible on a personal mixtape, in a bar on a Saturday night there is just no room for downers.

The main difference in selecting songs for a playlist and selecting songs on a jukebox is of course that on a jukebox, selections are made from a set of curated parameters. Often this includes the dregs of the bar owner's collection of Metallica discs. But not on this jukebox. Instead, I was flipping through hand-made mixes and comps. Not Weezer's recent (read: shitty) albums, not Frampton Comes Alive! or the soundtrack to Grease. These mixes had themes and titles – WHAT IT IS! was fleshed out by 60's girl garage bands, WALKING THE DOG had Morrissey following Blondie, The Kinks, and Ike & Tina Turner. There were four expert Motown collections, three assemblages of unusual covers, and a smattering of rockabilly, sixties classics, glam rock, and nineties indie darlings under headings like TEXAS FUNK, DANCING BAREFOOT, and THE DAY BARTENDER. When a band's repertoire warranted representation by a whole disc, a best-of mix often featured deeper cuts alongside more well-known hits. Everything had personality - the Michael Jackson card was handwritten and labeled “Dead Kid Toucher (R.I.P.)”. It was like this jukebox was trying to animate and enliven and expound. I felt that it may even be able to teach me something and found myself wanting to go back to the bar in the daytime and start with 0101 until I'd cycled through every choice available.

The fact is that most jukeboxes never strive for more than “decent” status. My favorite jukebox of all time was in a diner in Ohio and had the Shins before Garden State blew them up, and the second EP the Liars put out, among other gems. Playing the last track on “They Threw Us In A Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top”, which clocked in at thirty-plus minutes thanks to a never-ending loop (the vinyl version is locked-groove), sometimes resulted in the staff shutting the jukebox down, and once resulted in the entire restaurant clapping when the onslaught had ended. But it was a “prank” we pulled often, over huevos rancheros and black bean burgers alike, at least until the old dear was replaced by a dreaded TouchTunes. The jukebox I met this weekend is leagues above all that. It feels wholly original, personable, and thought out by the bar's proprietors, and that alone sets it apart. It is a meditation on bar soundscape, a chance for everyone to become the most in-the-know DJ.

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