There used to be a bar I loved. There have been many over the years. Almost all of them were dives and there ain’t an ounce of irony in that claim, nor the slightest hope for your approval that I’m the type who’d hang out in one over some upscale place with six different Syrahs on the menu.
The best dives share one essential feature, and it is a mohawked bartendress with facial hardware, or the fact that after a certain hour, she’d reach a tattooed forearm out and light a cigarette for me. Nothing like that at all.
The true draw of all these wonderful shitholes was a well curated jukebox. One that not only enlightened and broadened my musical palette, but also subtly dictated the type of patron-alcoholic most welcomed there.
I starting bar hopping in the age of CD’s, so we’re not getting nostalgic about a needle dropping on a 45. But we are talking about a time when a good CD jukebox got you five songs for a buck, and you’d take your time clanking through the racks, deciding what the next fifteen minutes of vibe should be.
It was in a dive called Gary’s in New Rochelle where I first found the Velvet Underground’s outtakes LP, “V.U.” It was released by Verve Records in 1985 but good luck finding it in a record store.
(**Record stores were public establishments filled with vinyl discs organized alphabetically in big bins. You’d peruse isles and isles of them making selections based on cover art, pick too many of them, put several back, still have too many, torment yourself over final choices, then pay with something called cash.)
Gary’s had VU in their wall mounted jukebox, and I got to know it over the years, along with many other bands I didn’t own. I quickly learned which songs off the Violent Femmes LP would get a room full of strangers singing about why they couldn’t get just one fuck. Or the B52’s ever reliable “Wild Planet,” which would put people on the floor, wriggling like lobsters. These were the bands the Iona College/North Avenue crowd wanted to get sloppy too, and the jukebox was our great enabler.
The Candlelight Inn was a borderline biker bar and the their jukebox never strayed far from the fundamentals. It had plenty of bands I knew, like Sabbath and Zepplin and Skynyrd, but instead of their “Gold & Platinum” greatest hits, they had the integrity of whole albums.
“Gimmie Back My Bullets” was an LP I apprenticed over $6 pitchers of Peils and chicken wings. The best song on it, “I Got the Same Old Blues,” never made it to the greatest hits compilation and that was the reason I chose it over and over again. I must’ve spent $10 bucks on that track in the salad days of underage drinking… and the nods from the leather clad bad asses made me feel, at least for the 4:08 it played, like I was a bad ass too.
After turning 21, it was all East Village. The great 7B bar turned me onto the best of Brit Rock like Paul Weller and The Jam. And I’ll never forget the panoply of punk in the free standing machine at King Tuts Wah Wah Hut on the corner of Avenue A: Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Misfits, Sucidal Tendancies, Dead Kennedys, Buzzcocks. Fuck yeah.
I didn’t own any of those titles, but they all became mine in that isosceles shaped bar. I learned what to play by listening to what other people drove, and when. We sustained our own anarchic culture between those grungy walls, and the language we were bound by came thrashing out of that jukebox.
There were several nights when the jukebox determined our location. We spent hours with our faces pressed against the glass at WXOU or Mars Bar, McHale’s or The Cedar Tavern, Corner Bistro or Rudy’s or the P&G or the Whitehorse, pairing the exact right tune with whatever poison we were nursing.
Now it’s 2013. I’m over 40 and in Los Angeles. And there are some great bars in this town. Dives that made Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits proud, so New Yorkers back the fuck off.
The Parlour Room on Yucca had a classic jukebox. The bands it harbored had evolved but they were still indicative of good taste: LCD Soundsystem, Muse, Black Keys, Brazilian Girls… But a few flips deeper and you could find Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Beastie’s first LP and even deeper than that Elvis Presley and Nina Simone.
But on a recent evening, one in which I had agreed to meet a talented musician, I entered to see the old school jukebox replaced by a blindingly bright touch-screen monstrosity.
“What the hell is this?” I asked our bartender. “It’s great.” He beamed. “It plays everything!” And therein likes the problem. A jukebox that plays everything? I thought the whole point was to “make a selection,” not have your will satisfied regardless of the bar’s environment.
With it’s high speed internet and full on keyboard, you can chose anything from the planet earth’s library of music, from vomit metal to Christian rock to the soundtrack from High School Musical 3, which was played several times by a very wasted birthday girl in a tiara, heels too high to balance on, and satin pants a size too small. Sex-y!
So while that gaggle of giggling squeakers commandeered the music, and danced to what they had decided was ironically funny ’cause it was so cheesy, they became their own little ecosystem independent of larger collective that had assembled to enjoy a night out. The jukebox, once essential to unification, was now the source of alienation.
I searched for the bar owner in hopes of kicking him in the balls, but it was clear he had already lose them by cutting the anchor of his faithful base in favor of trying to please the hoi poloi. Maybe a cockpunching was in order.
One dude clad in leather was so miffed, he vengefully swiped his credit card for $10 and proceeded to play five Yngwie Malmsteen songs in a row, which may just have been worse.
The same owner runs The Well not to far away. It too is well known for baddass jukebox. I can only hope and pray to the music gods that it stays old.