Jukebox Mania

by , August 21, 2020

I’ve always been obsessed with jukeboxes. Going to the diner as a kid I was always loading it up with songs, playing the loudest stuff on there to ruin some straightlaced familys’ dinner. With any luck I would find Helter Skelter or something equally loud on there and blast them off. I used to love those little jukeboxes in the dining booth. Now they’ve faded away in time along with the 45 single.  There was also the big Rockola jukes. Growing up I would spend Saturday mornings at the American Legion bar with my Mom while she cleaned the joint after a drunken Friday night session of patriotic debauchery. I would get hopped up on Coca Cola and play Born To Be Wild and Sunshine Of Your Love on the Rockola while shooting pool or playing the bowling game. If I had a couple of bucks I would go record shopping at the 5 and 10 in downtown Metuchen. It was always all about the music. Later on I used to hang out at a restaurant near my house called the Chippery. It was a Fish and Chip joint that I ended up working at when I got old enough. They had a well stocked Juke that I spent hours feeding quarters into, blasting Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper. Later when I worked there, we would throw parties in the backroom when we were closed with all my ne’er do well friends, cooking food and playing music while we smoked up some of the herb I was selling at the time.

   When I hit 16 and I procured a fake ID ( the drinking age was 18 ). I found that bars had the best jukeboxes. I used to hit the Knox Tavern in Metuchen and booze it up while loading the box with quarters. It was there that I acquired a fondness for old school country music. Any place that had a well stocked jukebox was high on my list of places to hang out at. 

   In 1982, when I was around 21, my parents ended up running a bar in the Poconos. How could I pass up helping out? The first thing I did was take over the jukebox and stock it with music I liked. I loved shopping for 45’s and putting everything I wanted to hear in there. I made sure the local hillbillies were happy with old school country and also the weekend people from the city with Motown and soul. I made sure I had cool new wave stuff too. It was a wide cross section of stuff and I was proud we had a Juke that I would want to hang out and listen to. It was also the beginning of a love of Jukebox stocking that I would enjoy for many years. I would scour anyplace I could find singles. Like anyone that is into record collecting, you find your go to places.

   Fast forward to 1984. Somehow after hanging around the Court Tavern in New Brunswick for years they acquired a 45 jukebox. I descended on it immediately, taking it over and stocking it. Now I could put in offensive stuff like Flipper Brainwash and HA HA HA or Fuck You by DOA. I really started to collect a lot of 45’s now. At one point I got all of the Little Richard 45’s on Specialty and a lot of Funkadelic on Westbound and James Brown records. My favorites were the ones with the little James Brown head on the label. My main hook up was a guy that had a booth at the Rt 1 Flea Market in New Brunswick. He had a bad rug and a penchant for plaid polyester. He had hundreds of boxes of 45’s that I would spend Saturdays digging through looking for buried treasure. $1.00 a piece with discounts on larger buys. There was also the guy that ran the record store on French St out of the converted Mack Diner. I could find some good stuff there but he was pricier. He was a heroin addict and the prices would fluctuate depending on his mood. He later got busted for dope and guns and got 30 years in jail. Meanwhile we had to institute a new system for the jukebox to stop the customers from playing the same songs and driving the bartenders crazy. First we removed the tags and made it a potluck jukebox. This drove people nuts and they would always try to get my cheatsheet. We put some great ringers like the Parrot training record in there to piss people off when they made the wrong choice. That consisted of phrases like “hiya beautiful” repeated over and over. After a while there was a newsletter the bar put out where we gave a decoded list where if you worked on it you can find where your favorite records were. Finally the Court, for better or for worse, moved into the digital age and traded the 45 jukebox for a CD one.

   The digital era had its pluses and minuses. The upside was you could put on whole albums on there. The downside was now we were dealing with a vending company as opposed being able to go into the box anytime we wanted to. Then there was the issue of the actual dummies that worked at the vending company. The first CD’s that I gave them they cut the covers off and then threw away the CD booklets. I didn’t realize they did this until I took some of the CD’s off. I wanted to go full 3 Stooges on them. Then we realized when we decided to put the jukebox in the front room they made it stereo with the front and back rooms. In other words, the front room was one channel and the back was the other. If you played a record that had a stereo mix you would get drums and bass in one room and guitars and vocals in the other. Eventually, with the help of 2 friends that worked for Avaya, we went through the drop ceiling and rewired it correctly. The jukebox started to become renowned as one of the best in the state. With the advent of CD burning I decided to take it a bit further. I started to make my own CD’s and put them on there. Why get stuck with albums with bum cuts when you could make a CD with only the good cuts? And why put on a 25 minute CD when you could put on a full 80 minutes? And while this was probably illegal and met with some resistance from the vending company, I pushed it through and it was a whole new ballgame. After working out which CD’s worked as some types didn’t play (I found Black CD’s were the best) it opened up the Juke to putting on anything I could rip or download. Suddenly I could make up CD’s with anything I wanted. I would get nervous when bands played the bar that had their music on ripped CD’s. I found they didn’t care in the end. Grant Hart loved the jukebox even saying out loud “wow you have Wazmo Nariz in here” and Exene pumped a bunch of money in and played stuff. One of my favorite nights was when Todd from Maxwells came down with the Swingin’ Neckbreakers for one of their shows. Todd sat in front of the jukebox looking through it and said incredulously “this jukebox is almost as cool as Maxwell’s”. Jeff from the Neckbreakers turned to him and said “no, it’s cooler”. On any night I worked, the best part of the night was after we chased everyone out and we could have a few cocktails and turn the jukebox up as loud as we wanted. Sheer Heart Attack by Queen was always a favorite really loud. Almost any night we would, I would think to myself these are the best days of my life. When the bar finally closed in 2011 doing that jukebox was something I missed most of all. 

  Over the last few years I’ve been looking for a juke box for the house. Thanks to the vinyl renaissance the cost has become prohibitive. It’s not something you feel like taking a mortgage out for. As far as modern times, most places nowadays (pre-Covid) have been using the soulless Touch Tunes machines. They allow any douchebag with a cellphone to cut you in line to play their favorite Toby Keith songs. You can still have fun by playing Sister Ray or the 20 minute version of Humble Pie’s I Don’t Need No Doctor and driving the whole bar crazy. Still I’d rather have my memories of the old 45 jukeboxes. Or even the CD ones. The joy of learning that if you played #13 off of The Supersuckers La Mano Cornuda it would play the whole record on a CD juke. And finding a place hip enough to have it on their Jukebox but not enough to know was priceless. There is still the joy of walking into a VFW or Firehall that still has the old machines. I’m always like a kid again looking through it to see what they have.

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