Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
The Pipes Are Calling
Did you know that we can thank (or curse) Louis Glass and William S. Arnold for inventing the Coin Actuated Attachment for Phonograph? Back in the 1890s it was a nickel-in-the-slot phonograph, the first of which was patented and made by Edison. The music was heard via one of four listening tubes. Of course today the device is better known as a “jukebox”. It’s a word whose alternate definition is a disorderly, rowdy, or wicked joint. Probably explains why bars and jukeboxes go so well together.
Jukeboxes reached their heyday from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s as their styling progressed from plain wooden boxes to beautiful light shows with marbleized plastic and dazzling color. To those of us who can gently be called of adult age, the jukebox was a near hypotonic marvel of technology. While the older teenagers waited for their music to play we tykes were fascinated by the rotating trays of what seemed like an endless array of 45 rpm records. The amazingly precise movement of the diamond needle carrying arm was a marvel as it set down on the vinyl to play.
The true home of the jukebox however was not the soda shop but the bar. Then as now, almost every one had a jukebox. However today it is no longer the device of simple platters and low technology. Now most are wall mounted boxes with touch screens that let you choose songs from a hard drive or from the Internet giving you thousands and thousands to select from. I’m told some also let you signal outer space in a search for intelligent life, for an extra fee of course.
Even bastions of intelligent conversation such as my local pub, The Gaslight, have one. Their juke box is constantly in use when the college and yuppie types come in. I have to admit that unlike them, I’m not a music guy. In fact, I’ve never played the jukebox at The Gaslight. I prefer drinking and talking about beer. And to be honest, there’s another reason why I’ve never approached the jukebox - it doesn’t have an instructional manual. It’s a tad imposing for anyone like me who thinks that Michael Douglas’ cell phone in the original Wall Street movie was as high tech as the world really needs.
But I’m not a totally hopeless case. After every particularly annoying song I always ask Jeff the bartender who was singing it. You never know when useless information like that could be, well, useful. Somehow Jeff always knows the answer despite being near to serious adult age himself. He enlightened me about the Screaming Trees, Glass Pear, Appleseed Cast, Boiled Eggs, Lunchbox, Pizzamen, and of course, the unforgettable, Meatless Meals, a favorite of vegetarians everywhere. And yes, those are really musical groups.
Fortunately Gaslight management keeps the decibel level low enough that the sound doesn’t make conversation, eating, or drinking impossible but unfortunately it’s loud enough to still be audible. The sound level can change thanks to some sort of device hidden behind the bar that can raise or lower the machine’s volume at a slight touch. Once after a particularly annoying tune from the Screaming Trees I was agitated enough to reach over the bar in an attempt to find the knob and break it off in the silence is golden position. My mission failed when Jeff noticed me and asked what I was doing, I smoothly replied that I was just looking for an extra napkin. Hey, the guy is 6’5” and 230 pounds so the truth wasn’t an option.
It was at that point that my friend and BeerNexus colleague Dan Hodge came in. He took his usual seat at the very end of the bar which just happens to be next to my usual seat, the second from the very end of the bar. Not coincidently both seats are the closest to the men’s room and farthest from the jukebox.
Our conversation was varied and as usual, unpredictable. Dan talked about the Mets contending for the pennant (did he stop for a few drinks elsewhere?), detailed the parade his marching band, the famous Mummers, completed last week, and described his newly purchased set of bagpipes. He did not however laugh when I asked why do bagpipers walk when they play? To get away from the music, of course. That seemingly provoked him into trashing my view that Mickey Mantle was better than Willie Mays. Somehow we then got onto movie trivia questions. Back and forth we went until he came up with a question for the ages –“can you name the ten strong men who battled Mighty Joe Young in tug of war contest in the classic 1949 movie?”
“No, and neither can you”, I responded.
“Of course I can.” I had fallen into his trap. Again.
Just as he was about to tell me the answer when the jukebox began to blare a tuneless ditty of nonstop screeching performed by the Boiled Eggs. Dan hates the Boiled Eggs, though in his defense he enjoys them for breakfast. As the Eggs played on people in the crowded bar began to speak even louder to hear each other. Soon we were engulfed in a noise tsunami. Dan turned to the jukebox and angrily stared. I had often heard him say if he won the lottery he would gladly pay the proprietor double the jukebox’s value so he could take a sledge hammer to it. Needless to say, there were more than a few of us in the pub who hoped he had won too.
He hadn't, but he did have a plan.
Dan quietly called over Jeff for a short tutorial on how the jukebox worked. I overheard Jeff tell him how to find a song, any song, play it, and even get ahead of the waiting queue. Totally focused, Dan approached the jukebox, pressed several buttons, studied the screen, inserted several pieces of legal tender, and walked back to his seat. The Boiled Eggs song was reaching its crescendo just as the crowd noise approached Mach 1 levels. Then it happened.
As the jukebox clicked to play the next song I noticed Dan reaching behind the bar. He had found the volume control but instead of turning it off he moved it forcefully to its loudest setting. In less than a second music, real music, came from the speakers. There was a voice actually singing. It was a booming, majestic voice. I instantly knew it had to be one of Dan’s musical heroes, a renown tenor who at one time was called the “new Caruso” and “the greatest voice of the century.” It was Mario Lanza.
Even more, it was Mario Lanza singing Danny Boy.
It was as if Maxwell Smart’s cone of silence had descended on the entire bar. Conversations stopped in mid syllable, forks, spoons, and drinks were put down, dinners stopped chewing, and nary was a glass heard clinking. Everyone turned toward the jukebox, unbelieving. Staring. Listening. Mesmerized. Many knew the song; few knew the singer; all felt the power.
Some in the crowd seemed to wipe tears from their eyes, some nodded with every note, and others silently mouthed the words. Dan Hodge simply smiled.
As the golden voice of Mr. Lanza faded away the crowd seemed frozen, minds adrift somewhere in the Emerald Isle. It was then that Dan leaned forward, took a sip of beer, cleared his throat, and said: “Sammy Stein, Slammin' Sammy Meneker, Max the Iron Man, Bomber Henry Kulky, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin the Mad Russian, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and Primo Carnera.”
Dan sipped his beer and sat back satisfied in knowing he had just won his own tug of war with the jukebox.