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Salt Lake City Weekly The Juke Scene's Gone

Few party-time grooves are set by the coin-op box.

By David Madison

JANUARY 20, 1998:  At Bar X, the drinking rhythm was forever set by the clink of chipping glass and the commanding crack of a cue ball, hard into the break. These were the few sounds allowed to mix with the conversation at one of Salt Lake City's oldest downtown bars.

There was no music. The original owner wouldn't allow it. He depended on laughter and tipped tankers — the giant glass goblets given a jagged rim by drunks who've knocked them over for years. Clink, crack, "Hello, how are you how 'bout a Bud?" Few other sounds set the pace at this watering hole on 200 South.

Then came the jukebox. Five weeks ago, after the owner passed away, the tunes arrived in one of those modern-looking, CD-flip models, stocked with the latest tunes but lacking the bells and whistles found on the jukeboxes of the '50s.

Those were the glory years. With vinyl pressed by Fats Domino spinning in full view at the soda shop, jukebox popularity carved a permanent place for itself in Americana. Decades later, the groove would fade near the end of the disco era, and ever since, jukeboxes have struggled to remain the center of attention.

At Snelgrove's ice cream parlor on 2100 South, a piped-in stereo system upstages a vintage Seeburg model that has seen better days. A posted sign warns music lovers to "Play at own risk. All 'K's and 'J's do not work. No refunds."

Under "K" lie some classic selections in exile. There's "The Twist," by Chubby Checker, "Twistin' the Night Away" by Sam Cooke and "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles. No matter, these songs don't seem to be missed. The sock hop ended decades ago.

Snelgrove's jukebox lives on as a nostalgic prop. Its play list appears confused and forgotten, like a stack of scratchy garage sale records. Under "Fox Trots and Rumbas," the box offers "Roll Over Beethoven" by Chuck Berry. The featured "Hit Tunes" includes "Heart and Soul" by the Monkees, and listed with the "Waltzes and Polkas" there's "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan & Dean.

Equally out of place is "Cat Scratch Fever" on the classic Wurlitzer at the American Grill downtown. Here's a machine decked out in chrome and colorful lights. It looks like it should be spiffed with neon tubes that bubble a special jukebox oil. Inside its glass case an arm lifts 45s and the speakers hum like a dull hi-fi should.

photo: Fred Hayes
The joy of juke: Diana Darnell swings her daughter to the sounds of Snelgroves' tune box.

This machine could never replicate the wall of sound that remains Ted Nugent's signature. "Cat Scratch Fever" belongs in a football stadium with concert speakers stacked to the sky. Old juke boxes might be able to mimic the sound of an AM oldies station, but they don't always rock. Nugent's songs playing on a bubbly jukebox is kind of like Potsie from the sit-com Happy Days trying to hang out with the Hell's Angels.

Call it "tough-guy meets '50s kitch." It's a mix that appears live and in-person every day around noon when the power-tie crowd gathers at the American Grill for a power lunch. Jukebox repair man Mike Lynch knows the scene. It also thrives in the dens and basements of upscale homes where so-called yuppies have abandoned the souped-up stereo in favor of a classic jukebox. There's no BMW in the driveway. A beefed-up Harley sits in the garage instead.

Lynch knows which Salt Lakers prize their jukeboxes because he's one of the few guys in the Intermountain West who can fix these gismos. One client has over 100, with some boxes worth more than $15,000.

Other middle-class types have installed a checkered floor in the play room, stocked an old Coke machine, and flip on the jukebox whenever the fancy strikes. Lynch says the music scene at his house revolves around his jukebox, and that some owners will put off everything except the mortgage just to have their box repaired.

But even as collectors and enthusiasts rekindle the jukebox flame at home, those still in the field — the cocktail lounges and greasy spoons — aren't filling up with quarters like they used to. Between 1995 and '97, the national average income for old, vinyl-playing jukeboxes dropped by $9 per week, from $42 to $33. CD spinning jukes can rake in any where from $50 to a couple hundred bucks every week, but boxes continue to disappear as disc changers and cable radio systems supply the sound.

That revolution has yet to replace the tunes at the Pie Pizzeria, just off campus next to the U. of U. On a recent week night, college kids stumble in, with one looking like he just stashed the bong and headed out for a slice. On the jukebox, an extended jam from the Allman Brothers plays just above conversation level and a Pie employee reaches behind the box to re-set the volume.

Sometimes the music at the Pie makes unappetizing shifts as folks skip over the Stone Temple Pilots and head right for the "Macarena." Such variety gives juke boxes a dangerous allure. The bar sits quiet as self-appointed DJs make a selection and the crowd crosses their fingers, whispering "please, no Pat Benatar."

At roadhouse country-western bars and seedy, urban dives, flamboyant selections might send bottles flying as mid-day drinkers turn belligerent. With more bars hiring bands or offering karaoke at night, afternoon drunks may be a jukebox's only captive audience. Once a symbol of nightlife, these machines are now left to provide background music for the three-martini lunch.

But not at Bar X, where beer remains king and the King of Beers is the only brew on tap. For decades, that was it: beer, pool and peanut shells on the floor. But while jukeboxes in other bars continue to fade into the background, the box at Bar X has taken center stage. A younger crowd is now making the scene and there's talk of adding a disco night at Bar X — a disco night at Bar X? — the same place where drinkers mingled tuneless for decades.

Oh, what the drop of a few quarters can do.

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