Jukeboxes remain a constant when we're out having fun


By Cody McDevitt
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was the end of the workday as a 30- to 40-something crowd came pouring into Peter's Pub to drown workplace sorrows. It was clear that any no-smoking ban wouldn't go over well at this Oakland bar, with its draft glasses, pretzel bowls and ashtrays.

In the background, Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" came on. "Sittin' in the mornin' sun. I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come ..." The song would continue, background noise that would set the mood for Peter's Pub and reflect what so many take for granted: The role of the jukebox.

Since the 1930s, when they first found favor in primarily African-American establishments, the jukebox has become ingrained in our popular culture. Its heyday may have been in the '50s, but it can still be found -- albeit in a much more high-tech form than its predecessors that flipped and played 45s -- in bars and clubs across the country, setting the tone for the local watering hole as patrons do what they came to do: drink, play pool, socialize and have a little fun.

To get a sense of how jukeboxes still fit into the daily and nightly scene, I went to two local bars and a pool hall to find out what was playing -- Peter's Pub, the Golden Cue pool hall in Bridgeville and Jack's on the South Side. The jukebox models differed in all three places, as did the music and the crowds, but each establishment had a unique flavor, with a few shared preferences in their musical choices.

The men and women who sat at Peter's Pub said little to each other. When they did talk, most of the discussion centered on rock, sports and things of lesser importance. ESPN played on the TV, and the Touchtunes Digital Jukebox played the songs some wanted to hear. Others were just willing to listen.

Those who pick usually do so because of the experiences they underwent. Willie Nelson once said, "Ninety-nine percent of the world's lovers are not with their first choice. That's what makes the jukebox play."

If they're heartbroken, they'll pick "The First Cut Is the Deepest" or "Maggie May."

One man came in with a bandana bearing a Confederate flag and sat next to a napkin tray bearing the words "Southern Comfort." He spoke of history, be it of music or America. He seemed to know how it went, but wasn't fond of where it had gone. The Counting Crows' "Round Here" came on.

"Round here we're carving out our names. Round here we all look the same ..."

Those who paid for a song sacrificed a bit of money for their choice. It was $1 for two plays, $2 for five plays and $5 for 15 plays. The rest saved their money or spent it on beer instead.

The scene was markedly younger at Golden Cue Billiards.

The high school boys and girls who populated the venue were dressed casually -- usually shorts, jeans and T-shirts, with little thought given to color coordination.

They judged a man not by his clothing but by his ability to knock in a rail shot or draw a cue ball.

The jukebox is physically closer to a classic Wurlitzer than the model at Peter's Pub. It was 5 feet tall with a rounded top and fluorescent lights lining the sides of the machine.

Next to the jukebox, there was an electronic game where the prize was not money but a virtual stripper going through various stages of undress. In the age of the Internet, naked women are seen regularly. That's probably why no one plays the game.

On the jukebox, a computer screen substituted for the more conventional rotating record table.

Author Carson McCullers once made the point that roller coasters and jukeboxes were inherently American. She most likely had an image of the Wurlitzer in mind when she said that. The classic machine is still produced, but not at the original plant in North Tonawanda, N.Y. Instead, replicas are made in Hullhorst, Germany. That's like a Corvette being built in Germany instead of the United States. It just doesn't feel right.

Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" came on.

Teachers keep on teachin'. Preachers keep on preachin' ..."

Those who entered the hall come in for a different game than the one they live in. This one was easier to control, and determining the victor was as clear as the eight-ball in the corner pocket.

It's competitive but not cutthroat. Relaxing but not mind-numbing. It's everything wanted in life but provided only at a pool hall. The jukebox only further added to the aura.

At times when the jukebox remained unused, the radio stepped in, randomly deciding what songs would be heard.

When smokers were there, the air took on an iridescent shape, the haze hanging around long after the cigarette had been put out.

One kid smoked a cigar, went up to the jukebox and put in $1 to request two songs. He and his buddy argued about which songs to pick, but finally settled on Jane's Addiction's "Jane Says," and R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."

"That's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight, I'm losing my religion ..."

They say that a good pool shot is the sign of a misspent youth. It is debatable, as is whether the pool hall patrons misspent their money on a game and some music.

The college crowd at Jack's parted with their money at the jukebox much more easily, possibly because they had well-paying jobs or because their parents gave them more money. Most likely it was because Miller Lite was on special for $2. Billy Joel's "Piano Man" came on.

"It's nine o' clock on a Saturday. The regular crowd shuffles in ..."

There were two jukeboxes, both operating CDs, in two rooms at the establishment. They were separated by a short hall lined with two kitchen-sized refrigerators, permitting different songs to be heard in each room without canceling out the music in the other room.

Cosmic Burst, the one in the front room, was about 3 feet long and 2 feet wide, offering one song for 50 cents, three for $1 and 18 for $5. Emerald Ice, in the back room, was a bit smaller and had fewer payment options: $1 for three songs and $5 for 18 songs.

A green sign hanging behind the bottles of Jack Daniel's and Bacardi told customers, "In God we trust ... All others pay cash." Green ashtrays, mostly filled a fourth of the way, were located on every table and on the bars in each room. Some used the trays to dispose of their gum as well.

Tom Petty's "American Girl" came on in the front room.

"Well she was an American girl, raised on promises ..."

The two boxes attracted a crowd. Everyone wanted to showcase what they liked to listen to.

The music was eclectic -- and fragmented. One moment, a country tune would play. The next would be a song by a misogynistic rapper. After that, it was classic rock.

The differences captured the diversity of the crowd -- by gender, age and clothing.

While some music technology such as iPods and CD players isolates people from others, the jukebox still serves to bring them together.

It has not lost its original purpose. It provides the backdrop to people's lives.

(Cody McDevitt can be reached at )