Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Jukebox Heroes (We Can Be) (re-post)



Not quite the above but close.

The below was originally published on a different (now defunct) blog in June 2006.  It does not necessarily reflect my current headspace.  The NYT piece mentioned is part of a series published around that time on the culture-jamming phenom that became known as Wyatting:


In the NY Times Magazine's "True-Life Tales" segment of its new Funny Pages section, Wendy McClure tells the story of bar that gets hijacked by Brian Eno. The story reminds me of vaguely Situationist experiments my high school friends and I would undertake in the crowded Pleasant Valley Diner (now known as the Arlington Diner), which was not actually located in Pleasant Valley, but in rather Poughkeepsie, which seemed only fitting for this particular hole-in-the-wall.

We would usually stumble in sometime between midnight and 4 A.M., eyes glazed, sometimes drunk, and generally giggling and fumbling like manic miscreants who had simply transferred their private late-night shenanigans to a public setting, much to the disdain of those around us for whom we were like the obnoxious table you can hear coming in from a mile away and cross your hands in prayer that they won't be seated next to you. To us, the diner was a mystical and esoteric over-caffeinated world, unstuck in time. It was a gluttonous land of jello and brownie sundaes and cheese fries and breakfast at two in the morning.

I'm always surprised when I meet someone who has never been to a 24 hour diner or experienced it at its peak existence; in the dead of night on a weekday. It may not be said establishment's busiest time of day, but it is rarely empty.

In these wee small hours, all the graverobbers, insomniacs, and other social miscreants can gather without judgment in a blissfully solitary and morose timeout from the strains of the quotidian purgatory assigned to those not following the American God's plan. The all-night diner is like the bar at the edge of the earth, where we can all enjoy one last pint before falling off into the abyss of the rest of our nowhere lives. Truckers, stoners, late-night lovers with nowhere else to go, quiet loners, people with secrets, people with phobias, people with sleep-deprivation habits, people who are running away, people who are afraid to the let the night end for fear they might wake up and realize it never happened, people who need to talk. You can imagine 95% of the conversations that leads to a late night diner experience being relatively the same. "I can't sleep/I can't stop thinking about it/ I have something to get off my chest/ I need to get the fuck out of this place...let's go to a diner."


And then there was us, for whom "Let's go to the diner," was like Lebowski and company saying "Let's going bowling." It was as natural as the air. After a long night of concentrated slackerdom, it was just suitable that we make a public appearance to reveal what we had produced that night, that being, of course, nothing.

The diner was the epicenter of nothing. Nothing for the public record, at least. It was where nowhere got done better than anywhere else. Not only for us nobodies and our reliance on late-night virtual reality of video games and altered consciousness and depended on being anywhere apart from the stale and stoic here and now, but for the others for whom the diner promised something more in the way of nowhere; secrecy, sanctuary, and solitude. Amassed amidst one's peers, the freaks who just couldn't obey the unspoken national bedtime, it was a judgment-free zone.

It was nowhere, with only the vague whiff of capitalist enterprise grounding the entire weird world in any semblance of popular ontology. It was not necessarily a means of escape, but rather a members-only club for professional escape artists. These were people who trafficked in escape. It was their trade, their hobby, and their passion. Not that they were any more or less guilty than the other shmoes who slept soundly at night and resisted the temptations of coffee, cigarettes, and cheese fries, but it was the late-night diner patron's skilled methodology at the craft of escape that assembled them all together in nowheresville.


Smoky hole-in-the-wall bars offered escape too, but bars were designed to act counter to one’s one sense of control. A few drinks in and you didn’t have to leave it inside anymore, it all came tumbling out.  This makes bars perfect for extroverts and diners perfect for introverts.  Introverts hide in diners from those in bars who won’t ever shut the fuck up. 


When the bar met the jukebox, bar owners found that people were drawn in by the jukeboxes and the democratic principles of freedom of choice that it promised. You could be the DJ and dictate the soundtrack to your evening.  Previously, music had functioned more like Muzak in bars- something to drown out along with your sorrow, the loungechair to Eno and Satie's armchair. Sure, there had been bars with hot jazz, warm feelings, and sexual tension before the recent influx of twenty-something or younger alcoholics colonized the local bar scene, but they were more of an urban establishment that overall alienated the country and city folk, whose parochial instincts begged them not to flaunt their bacchanalian urges.

As the bars crowds increased, the clientele's purchasing power increased as well. Happier people with happier music drank more, faster. They pumped more money into the jukebox, which got louder and louder to shout above the rowdy customers. Conversely, as the jukebox grew louder, the bar tended to fill closer and closer to capacity. The fresh faces that flooded in were younger and more energetic, punch-drunk, obnoxiously self-confident, sexually aware, and worst of all, completely guilt-free and unashamed. The parading and partying lot quickly transformed "nowhere" into "somewhere" and sent all the nobodies packing.

Sure, this didn't completely extinguish the sad and lonely late-night bar, but I like to think that much of the customer base relocated to the 24 hour diners (many of which serve alcohol). The diners still had the jukeboxes, but kept them relatively quiet, most of them even insulated within a single booth so as not to disturb nearby tables. Sure, much of it was the same stupid, snotty pop-rock trash that played at most of the newly-converted "spring-break" style college dives, but at least the volume was kept at a civilized volume level, goddamnit.

It was within this context that us, the young and the lethargic, bizarro world composites of those young and energetic belly-shotters from the late-nite bar scene, would stumble in with the ace up our sleeves for tonight's game of holdem hostage with psychological variables. Our weapon of choice for the night's mental roulette: David Bowie's "Fame."

It was well-known that the Pleasant Valley Diner contained one of the few jukeboxes still around using 7" vinyl for it's selections rather than CDs or cassettes. What we discovered independently, much to our psychotropic amusement was that there was a scratch embedded about 10 seconds into the thin white funk of David Bowie's infamous hit collaboration with John Lennon. The interesting thing about this scratch was that it could be have been carved by Grandmaster Flash or Peanut Butter Wolf themselves. It was a perfect half-loop of the song's main riff that sounded like a Steve Reich-concocted exercise when unearthed to its full capacity.

We would usually play at least two or three selections first effectively allowing the experiment to run its course as an intrusion seemingly untouched by human hands, a natural diversion. When the remixed "Fame" came on, in all its minimalist glory, practically no one ever noticed the error until at least several minutes into the song. Any reasonable kid with pop music in his veins would be able to immediately detect the glitch, but Poughkeepsie was not exactly a music lover's town. And besides, people were too deeply entangled in their own personal wreckage to notice the outside world's. When they did react, their reactions were subtle; irksome movements, irritated grimaces, baffled pauses mid-sentence.

The waitstaff, the innocent victims in all this, were likely the first to notice, but they were usually so busy or exhausted that it took them several minutes to respond. In the meantime, there would be no customer complaints. Some seemed refreshed by the crack in monotony, as if the skipping record suddenly put this nowhere diner on the map. Others were perturbed by the demanding forces of this instructive phenomenon, which vied for their attention in the exact opposite way that the loud bar jukeboxes did. They didn't want to be distracted from their distractions. For them, it was hard enough keeping everything in place as it was.

We felt like real hooligans doing it. We felt like merry pranksters, shaking up sensibilities and altering perceptions. I secretly longed for someone to explode in laughter at the fractured beat's insistent refrain as we often did during the song's umpteenth return, not being able to contain ourselves. No one ever joined the laughter. Perhaps they were scared of letting go of their problems that easily in this vulnerable land of nowheresville. Or perhaps they truly were not impressed and thought we were just a bunch of punks tormenting them with our sick sense of humor.

I liked to look at the experiprank as less of a psychosocial study or a cheap guffaw at the expense of the emotionally-less-fortunate and more of a literary flourish emerging life's narrative ether. I saw it as a lecture to all those dead and trapped souls, a prophetic gesture by a slacker visionary who was sure he didn't want to be one day struck at the nowhere diner in the nowhere town with nothing but a naked lunch to show. I wanted to illuminate the grave dangers of time standing still and the dizzying effect it had on those who remained trapped within the endless cycle of the mind's penetrating cognitive tricks. I wanted to illustrate how a steady diet of sameness could spawn an allergic reaction that could be fatal without some interjected variation and how an attempt to camouflage into the scenery could ultimately be the kind of glaring defect that ultimately gives you away.

Okay, so maybe this wasn't what I was thinking about at the time, but I certainly felt a kinship with the song's unaltering ritual. The junk food lifestyle was not enough and the immobility of my immediate surroundings was causing me to grow ever more claustrophobic. My complacency was turning into complicity. And yet no one was speaking up. Why would no one call us out on the song's neverending descent into mind-numbing, unresolved tension?

Rather than rattle up their sensibilities, most of the diners just stared into their coffees, patriotically content to permanently reside in their nowhere, a land they'd give their whole lives away for if it came down to it. In a world full of dreams and nightmares, of waking states and REM sleep, this was a place that represented that blank time of night when the mind is neither dead nor active. Pleasant Valley was free to be located in Poughkeepsie and Poughkeepsie was free to be represented in a single diner. It was beyond borders, beyond judgment, beyond forgiveness. Reciprocity of the damned. It was all nowhere, asking no fame, no favors, and please, please, please no futures.

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