By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
You know, the problem with real life is there’s no danger music — Chip Douglas
One of those bar staples so often overlooked is the jukebox. In a time when an increasing number of places are opting to just plug an iPod into some speakers, I still love bars that allow patrons the opportunity to choose the tunes that they are to hear for the night. However, of all the many jukeboxes I’ve seen in my day, the absolute best one I’ve ever encountered in New York City is to be found at the Brooklyn Inn (148 Hoyt Street, Boerum Hill), a tenebrous establishment that looks as though it dates back to the nineteenth century. Maybe it does…I don’t know because I’ve never asked. Though the aesthetic of the high ceilings and wooden walls may attract a fair number of people, to me their jukebox is the reason I find myself there whenever I find myself in the neighborhood.
The jukebox is one of those inventions that has been around for a lot longer than most people realize. The original idea behind it is fairly simple, so simple in fact that a predecessor to the jukebox we all know and love dates back to the nineteenth century. We do not think of Victorians when we think of the jukebox, however; it has been firmly implanted in the imagery of the 1950s, even the 60s and 70s. This iconic picture of the jukebox with its gaudy lights and booming speakers immediately makes one think of a time when kids rebelled against authority, when they fought for a nebulous form of liberation that they didn’t understand, that they didn’t fully know how to describe. Nonetheless, they proudly carried the standards of this movement—of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll—with whatever quixotic strength they could muster. Such an attitude was, in a way, nihilistic, as it proposed no real alternatives, but it sought all of the freedoms that square society was quick to deride, freedoms that square society continues to deride, although in new and bizarre ways.
The campaign against the squares, however, is rarely, if ever, a successful one. Though Hollywood may frequently present fictions in which the youth triumph, that they get the squares to change their ways and to accept the inevitability of change—perhaps not to the full extent that someone like Heraclitus would appreciate, but at least to a degree—reality would mock this fairy tale with its typical arrogance. The squares never really changed; rather, most of the wild rockers eventually mellowed out—they got jobs, got money, got complacent. True, some of them may still hang around the Village in leather jackets, living a Bohemian lifestyle, but just about everyone from that generation is just as rigidly square as their parents, though they believe themselves to still be rebels, still thumbing their noses at authority because they vote every few years against the GOP or some spectral boogeyman named Obama, whose tepidly Keynesian approach to an economy in a depression is regularly considered to be a form of Stalinism or Nazism (as the two are evidently the same to such individuals), and who, if given a second term, will take away everyone’s guns, imprison every Christian and reinstate jus primae noctis.
Brooklyn Inn, Boerum Hill
And yet for all of their errors, for all of their incompetence, their music continues to represent the pinnacle of youth culture in America (though the succeeding generation often claims that this apex was achieved by the Sex Pistols or the Ramones). Furthermore, the jukebox remains a symbol in the liturgy of rock that is as vital to its history as Elvis or Pet Sounds or heroin or “Eruption.” It continues to appear in bars, too, though with perhaps a bit less frequency than once upon a time. And though there may be an appreciation, regardless of generation, for the jukebox as a necessary part of bar culture, it’s not always considered to be the sacred symbol of youth that it once was, as it is often taken over by people who simply want to play the same shit from the radio that Elvis Costello denounced almost 35 years ago.
Then again, it may just be my perception. While the Velvet Underground may have sung about the life-changing effects of the radio on a suburban kid way back when, this music doesn’t have the same affect on someone like me who has been hearing it since I was born. For example, I don’t think of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll when Buddy Holly comes on the jukebox. I think of sitting in the back of my parents’ car, crammed between my brother and sister as we drove around metro Detroit or cut through the flat expanses of Ontario’s breadbasket en route to Niagara Falls. There’s an element of nostalgia there, but it’s a very different type of nostalgia than what a person born in 1940 may feel. To me, his music is an innocuous part of American culture. Buddy Holly, to me today, is similar to hearing Josephine Baker in 1957. Sure, she may have been risqué in 1931, but “J’ai deux amours” was no “Peggy Sue.”
It’s not that the music is bad, it’s that it rarely affects me in a significant way. This is because it’s not new. It is an example of a parallax: The music is the same, but, when seen from different perspectives, it becomes different. On the other hand, hearing music from an earlier generation that hasn’t been shoved down my throat by classic rock stations still excites me in much the same way as newer bands do. Yes’ Close to the Edge (1972) struck me in the same way that Maps & Atlases’ Perch Patchwork (2010) did when I first heard them.
Perhaps this is why I enjoy the Brooklyn Inn so much. It understands that great music knows no time, and that the soundtrack of your life is usually comprised of music that is new to you at the moment. True, sometimes it’s an old song, one that you’ve heard a million times before, but, when taken out of its normal context, it hits your ear differently. Great music cannot be oppressed by those who would prefer to kill time, for people who have heard the same song a million times and not only sing along with every word, but actually make the same comments about the song’s meaning and what they were doing when they heard it for the first time. And then comes the same old refrain of “they don’t write them like they used to”, which, while true, is kind of foolish since the “they” to which the speaker is referring is a vast and very diverse “they” that includes everyone from the Pete Seeger to Bob Seger.
This is not the only reason to love the Brooklyn Inn. The pool table in back is usually free, it draws in a relatively mixed crowd, and it has always had an impressive beer selection. On top of the selection, each pint continues to cost $5, even though most places a block away will charge up to $7 for the same beer. True, smoking outside can sometimes be a bit of a gong show, as the area is known to have a few abject crackheads jakewalking down the street, mired in confusion, speaking in constellations and dreaming of a life beyond the purgatory of the projects a few blocks south.
Still, what always makes me think of this bar is their jukebox, which is not one of those obnoxious Internet abominations, which may have a ton of music, but will charge you an arm and a leg to play anything that isn’t ingrained in the American consciousness. Selections at the Brooklyn Inn will range from Thelonious Monk to the Flaming Lips; dudes who look like Huggy Bear can jam to Cymanade; aging hipsters can throw on MGMT, while their parents (in from out of town) can rock out to a track from Exile on Main Street. The crowd may not turn into the drunken menagerie that is so very entertaining to watch and engage, but sometimes it’s better just to enjoy a solid night of drinks with your friends to a soundtrack that’s never stale.