A journalist's search for America's best jukebox

October 09, 1994|By Michael Anft

Those of us who've turned certain "establishments" into homes away from home have long hoarded a trade secret: If you want to get a quick lowdown on a place, don't bother with endless hours chatting up the regulars, inspecting the bathroom or comparing bar lists and menus.

Check out the jukebox.

You can learn more about a bar's character, clientele and management from a simple, knowledgeable gander at its Wurlitzer than you can from its appearance (often a mere reflection of the owner's vanity) or its location (since gems are found in the most unlikely spots).

Discovering whether a haunt prefers Pearl Jam to Pearl Bailey or George Clinton to George Jones can save you a lot of time -- and even trouble. Almost invariably, jukeboxes tell us something about what goes on around them.

Newsday reporter William Bunch's love affair with jukeboxes began when he was a kid, impressed by the "power" mere pocket change gave him to force others to listen to his bubble-gummy selections. It grew stronger as he grew up, finding its wellspring during lonesome newspaper assignments in the Deep South and in New York.

While many of his generation (Mr. Bunch was born in 1959) go on endlessly about concerts or vintage TV, Mr. Bunch has some endearing, occasionally overblown yarns about a Seeburg here or a Rock-Ola there. True believer that he is, Mr. Bunch is also rightly distressed at the juke's downward spiral, now in its second sad decade.

In "Jukebox America," Mr. Bunch mixes the hyperbolic with the elegiac. He wonders how an institution that has offered us such bacchanalian and cathartic release can be nearing the end of the road, thanks to "chains like Houlihan's and McDonald's, the rise of MTV, and the technology-driven suicide of the 45," he writes.

"Jukebox America," then, may be the last-ditch search for the best darned box in the whole U.S. of A. Over the 2 1/2 -year course of his research, Mr. Bunch made pit stops to about a dozen regions, looking for what he longingly calls "The Juke of the Covenant." He defines the ultimate juke as "the one in perfect sync with its time and place, which somehow knows when to belt out Frank Sinatra when you're on top of the heap and to spin B. B. King when you've been dumped."

Mr. Bunch's search is directed by hunch and geography. He visits Hoboken to commune with the boozy, smoky spirit of Frank Sinatra. Explores a roadhouse in Virginia to piece together Patsy Cline. Plods into Chicago for the blues. Ninety-fives it to Baltimore and worship at a certain Elvis shrine/bar.

What Mr. Bunch finds during what mostly turn out to be overnight trips isn't necessarily great news for jukebox fans. Many of the boxes he finds (including a vintage 1940s Wurlitzer, broken and dusty in a Mississippi Delta juke joint) aren't the prodigal ones Mr. Bunch had hoped for. Instead, he encounters modern machines -- overpriced, of course -- made for compact discs, and many old-style ones covered and used as tables for filmy glasses and over-filled ashtrays.

As is seemingly the case with every travelogue published these days, the personal asides and characters Mr. Bunch meets make "Jukebox America" bearable.

It's much more interesting to hear about Dale Evans, "The Human Jukebox" whom the author inadvertently stumbles over in an Illinois roadhouse, than it is to endure yet another version of Mr. Bunch's frustration at selecting from yet another mediocre machine.

The same goes for Fred's Lounge, the Lafayette, La., zydeco dive that is full of revelers (and a covered jukebox) at 9 a.m. Saturday. Or about the cold shoulder Patsy Cline's neighbors in Winchester, Va., have given her. Or that the founder of the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corp.'s given name is actually David Rockola.

These moments are intermingled with lengthy paragraphs on what Mr. Bunch didn't find -- grunge jukeboxes featuring the Sonics in Seattle, a perfect jukebox complement to Frank in Hoboken -- as well as tedious asides. "Jukebox America" could probably be edited down by 100 pages and be a better book.

Still, Mr. Bunch's selection of the late Lavonda "Miss Bonnie" Hunt's Elvis bar on Fleet Street is memorable for his impression of the jukebox, its owner, her son, her customers and the bar's tumultuous history.

Although Mr. Bunch finds his dream box, full of pop classics and multicultural tolerance and hope amid the ruins of a divided Detroit, one could find a better one, conceivably, right around the corner.

Even though his trip may be a bit too long and a little bumpy, Mr. Bunch deserves some credit for reminding us of that.

Mr. Anft is a writer living in Baltimore.

Title: "Jukebox America"

Author: William Bunch

Publisher: St. Martin's

Length, price: 293 pages, $22.95

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