Ghosts in the machine

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"But the later-model vinyl boxes are completely encased where you're looking at nothing but the title strips. If I know there's 45s in there, it's like, 'Oh, this is neat, it's playing 45s.' But you kinda lose that little bit of nostalgia because you can't see it happen, so you might as well be playing CDs."

There are genuinely few great jukeboxes left in town, and most are probably hidden off in the dark recesses of tiny, decrepit clubs that are more like homes to regulars--new customers and unknown faces being as unwelcome as the plague.

Naomi's Lounge on Canton keeps an old Rowe/AMI box that preserves the original intention of the jukebox, mixing in local music (four from Homer Henderson, including his infamous "Lee Harvey was a Friend of Mine," and Tex Edwards with "Jeckyl and Hyde/Man from Mars") among the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys ("Deep in the Heart of Texas"), Slim Harpo, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams, Booker T. and the MGs, and Faron Young. Naomi's defines the juke joint experience with its beer for a buck-seventy-five, pool for four bits, and seven cuts on the jukebox for a dollar.

And the music coming from the box is no mere aural wallpaper, but an integral part of the ancient country and blues atmosphere. If most places keep CD jukeboxes to provide background music over which patrons must scream--such as at the Elm Street Bar, which is loaded with such dreck as the Kiss tribute CD or Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam blasted at top volume--Naomi's is the sort of place that revolves around its jukebox, with patrons propping beers on the glass as they plug the thing full of quarters.

"The workers across the street come in and play the new country stuff, but the regulars play the country oldies," says Tex Edwards, who tends bar during the day. "'Green Onions' [by Booker T. and the MGs] is kinda the most popular song," he says. "It crosses all strata, everybody likes that. We have to have the new country stuff because that's what some people want to hear, but that's for people just stopping by."

Probably the most eclectic vinyl box in town sits at the back of the Stoneleigh P., where a modern-day Rowe/AMI still spins the likes of Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Beethoven (his 5th symphony), Miles Davis (including "All Blues") and Clifton Chenier, Nina Simone (the hard-to-find "Strange Fruit") and Carl Perkins and early Buddy Holly. (A single of Marilyn Monroe breathlessly singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" was recently swiped.) The machine also holds six CDs, but the Stoneleigh management has wisely decided to keep it free of modern hits, with Alberta Hunter, the Allman Brothers, Joe Ely, Oletta Adams, and an early Austin blues collection filling the few slots.

The Stoneleigh doesn't own the jukebox, but owner Tom Garrison has a deal with the local distributor, Excel, to fill the jukebox with his own singles--as opposed to the way it usually works, with distributors providing new singles and replacing old ones. Garrison owns thousands of 45s, often buying dozens on his various trips to places like Montreal, Paris, and London. He is intensely passionate about his music and his jukebox, which was once featured in an Esquire magazine spread about the 10 best boxes in America, and boasts he's "slightly jealous" of only one other box in America.

"When they told us we could no longer buy 45s, then I really made a concerted effort to keep this going," Garrison says. "I'm old enough to have lived some of this stuff. It's like a needle in the haystack. You go through hundreds of dirty bins to come up with one great record. I've gone to the end of the world to look for this stuff to put on the box and keep in my collection."

Throughout the years, Garrison has assembled other great jukeboxes throughout the country in various bars and restaurants, only to watch as Charlie Parker was replaced by Jackson Browne, Edith Piaf superseded by Fleetwood Mac and other hits of the day. He refuses to switch over entirely to CD--in fact, he's trying to repair a jukebox that plays 78s--but doesn't mind the combination machine that allows for a handful of discs to play alongside old vinyl.

"I do like the fact they combined them, because I can put Robert Johnson or Beau Jocque on there and some other things you can't get on vinyl," he explains. "But I like to hear the scratches on a Caruso song. Caruso needs that clickety-clickety-click. It just adds to it."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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