Not so long ago, the mechanisms that turned a coin into a song seemed futuristic, robotic. The smooth series of gestures inside a jukebox — sometimes visible under a dome, sometimes tucked under a cabinet — was made with music-embracing arms. The selector arm pulled the disc (shellac or vinyl or aluminum) close, cradled it, guided it to the platter, set it gently down. The tone arm (and then its laser offspring) found the groove and played the selection: B9 or C12 or D4. After the song, the machine tended to its inner workings, returning the disc to its rightful place on a stack or in a carousel, its arms ready to reach out again.
That audible clicking of springs and drives is its own tune between tunes. But in recent years, it has become a rare melody. What you might call analog jukeboxes, once ubiquitous, have disappeared into the junk heap of obsolete technology, replaced by Internet jukeboxes. Numbered buttons are out; touch screens are in. Playing a song on these fancy devices costs 50 cents, sometimes $1. You also are no longer required to wait for your song to come on. In true capitalist fashion, Internet jukeboxes allow users to jump their songs to the top of the queue for an added fee — immediate gratification for the user. Ain't that America.
I became sensitive to the disappearance of the old-school jukeboxes a couple of months back, on a trip to Dave's Stagecoach Inn, in Westport. I live in Lawrence now but I used to frequent Dave's, when former bartender John Yuelkenbeck lovingly curated a jukebox packed with current indie rock, obscure 1970s and '80s acts, and mix CDs featuring the occasional local band. My heart sank when I saw a hulking Internet machine in the back corner, blasting Top 40. I explained my woes to a younger customer at the bar. I described those old mix CDs. He looked at me as if I'd asked where the wax cylinder had gone off to.
Obviously, this young man saw no problem with the setup at Dave's; he has never known any other way. But I see these Internet jukeboxes as just another means in which our public spaces are becoming homogeneous. And so, I set out over the next few weeks to scour the area for the survivors of the Internet-jukebox plague.
From Kansas City's downtown to the Plaza, as well as in Lawrence, I was able to find and play just nine jukeboxes — and two of those in Lawrence. (Though surely I missed a few, particularly in Kansas City's other areas. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll publish a comprehensive list soon.) Many old stalwarts have either vanished when the bars that housed them closed or been replaced with Internet boxes. That includes, in addition to Dave's: Buzzard Beach, D.B. Cooper's and the News Room (now Black & Gold Tavern).
Most of the remaining jukeboxes in KC and Lawrence share a few standards: Patsy Cline, Garth Brooks, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, Al Green. The View, a tiny gay bar in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, has a little more flavor than most. Its jukebox includes a wide selection of dance music and albums. James White, the bar's longtime owner, explains that the View actually did make the switch to an Internet jukebox, but it didn't last even a month due to customer complaints. "If you don't select something already on the box, it costs $1," he says, "and that is a crock of shit." Today, as before, the View's old-style jukebox plays five songs for $1, or 18 for $2.
Two River Market spots — Harry's Country Club and Caddy Shack — each boasts a juke. "Our customers just like it," says Joe Moretina, owner of Caddy Shack for 20 years. "It just adds to the atmosphere." And while the jukebox at Caddy Shack has some great music, the box at Harry's Country Club might be the most well-known in town for its hundreds of custom mix CDs and for the artists deliberately scattered throughout so that, according to one bartender on a busy Friday night, "No one can play 20 Johnny Cash songs in a row."
One surprise holdout is the Quaff, where I met Joe Bonino, who has been running the bar for 46 years. Asked why he doesn't make the switch, he cheerfully says, "We're just an old place." The jukebox features mostly oldies and classic rock, which fits the neighborhood-dive feel of the place. One of his regulars chimes in: "But you know they can spy on you through those Internet boxes." (He's referring to ASCAP — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — which vigilantly collects music royalties. And he's right.)
Heather Poort manages Lawrence's Harbour Lights, which still houses an old jukebox. "You have more control over the music," she explains. "[The jukebox] can change the feel of the bar." She explains that the older jukeboxes become more difficult to repair as parts become scarce, and the people who can repair them are becoming harder to find. Maintenance aside, she explains, one of the most important features of her juke is the music of "local bands. You just won't find it in the new ones."
Jeremy Sidener of Lawrence's Eighth Street Taproom feels the same way about his jukebox, which has a mustache and is sometimes called "Jukebox Jones." Of the new boxes, he says, "They don't really fit into the context of the Taproom. A lot of times, you get a lot of really bad music cluttering it up." Plus, he adds, "They're hard to use. They're expensive. You get two songs for $1. It's a ripoff."
At least three old-school jukes are left in midtown Kansas City, where Jazz, Chez Charlie and Gilhouly's are holding strong. Jazz loses points for keeping its jukebox in the restaurant end of the establishment (where it is less likely to get played) but perhaps earns them back for standing the box on mannequin legs. Chez Charlie earns a special place in my heart for being the only bar (that I'm aware of) with a jukebox still playing 45s (and it usually has free credits, plus a great selection). But the midtown winner in my book is Gilhouly's, for making it a truly neighborhood affair.
Gilhouly's (and its jukebox) is owned by C.J. Mandacina, who has given the curating responsibility to Jason Ryberg, co-owner of Prospero's Books, located directly across the street. Ryberg explains, "We have a big selection [of CDs], and I change them out once every couple of months or so. This neighborhood and bar are full of townies, artists ... all kinds of people. This jukebox reflects that."
Stocked with everything from classic Beatles to Nirvana's Incesticide to 1960s soul, the Gilhouly's jukebox, like most of the jukes I visited, is a mirror of its patrons and, in some small way, of Kansas City. So stop by sometime and pump in a few bucks. It's just about the least you can do to preserve a little civic heritage.
What'd we miss? Write us at feedback@pitch .com, and we'll publish a more comprehensive list of old-school jukeboxes.