In search of Milwaukee’s last remaining jukeboxes
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At Bruno’s On Brady (or Listwan’s, if you believe the big sign outside), a jukebox plays single 45 rpm records. You get one play for 25 cents, three for 50 cents, five for $1, and 30 for $5—arbitrary figures that are not only outdated, but also seem like they were drafted with abandon one night on a cocktail napkin. It’s quite a deal, though.
“We got, like, 30 plays on the juke,” some guy slurs to his female companion. She’s just shimmied out of the ladies room to a Queen song. “It swings, it jives, it shakes all over like a jelly fish,” Freddy Mercury sings. She joins in: “I kind of like it / Crazy little thing called love.”
You can generally guess what you’ll find when you step into a Brady Street bar, even if you’ve never been there before. But stepping into Bruno’s is like opening the door to a wardrobe and finding Narnia on the other side. It’s similar to a highway crossroads roadhouse somewhere in Sheboygan County, and sometime in the ’70s or ’80s. The walls are wood panel except behind the bar, where it’s all jagged rock faces. The array of chairs appears assembled from various aunt’s kitchens. An aged, red-plastic-molded “No Smoking” sign by the till definitely predates the ban, and looks like it probably whiffs of tobacco itself.
Bruno’s jukebox has everything that could make a person from 40 to 90 think of their youth, and make young folks think on a magical past they’ve seen in movies and dreams: Hank Williams, Dean Martin, Tammy Wynette, Dire Straits, Traveling Wilburys, CCR, Jimmy Dean, Roger Miller, Steve Miller, The Boss, The Chairman of the Board, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Temptations, The Doobie Brothers, The Blues Brothers, Dwight Yokum, and John Cougar Mellencamp, among others.
The woman who performed the duet with the late Freddy Mercury sits at a table with her friends and talks about jukeboxes. “There aren’t a lot of jukeboxes in Milwaukee,” one friend says. He means jukeboxes that don’t access the Internet, that aren’t dollar-a-play equivalents of Spotify. “They’re all that digital crap.”
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that digital crap. Sometimes hearing what you want to hear, when you want to hear it, is nice. Sometimes the moment calls for “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” but the bar’s jukebox doesn’t have “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” What then? The other side of the argument is that there’s charm and challenge in limitation. You can access any song anytime on your phone, and watch any movie anytime on your computer. In order to compose a playlist on an old-fashioned jukebox, you have to be chess player. It’s a skill, not an art. It takes strategy as opposed to inspiration.
The men and women at the table look at the ceiling, trying to think of other bars that still have limited-selection jukes. “Frank’s Power Plant,” one says. “Palomino has one, right? Fucking awesome bar. And Landmark.”
“There’s Circle A,” says another. “They have a crazy jukebox.” (They do, and it even has mystery plays. If you guess who sings the song, you get a free drink.)
Meanwhile, at The Standard, there’s a jukebox that plays CDs. A dude leans awkwardly into it—not just because he’s drunk, but because the glowing, Wurlitzer-style juke only comes up to the top of his stomach. The playlists are at his waist and they don’t angle up. If you’re over 3’6”, you have to stoop. The neon glow might be the most impressive thing about the jukebox, a golden glow like the inside of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Hell, maybe this bar is what’s inside that briefcase.
The walls are red, and the pool table’s felt is red. In fact, the whole place glows a deep red. It’s like you’re seeing the world not through rose-tinted glasses, but through blood-caked shades. There’s surf-rock and shouting and a flock of Japanese motorcycles happen to roam past. Betty Page is stenciled on the men’s room wall with a leopard skin draped from her curves.
The jukebox is not the steal that Bruno’s is, but it has firmer math: Two plays for $1; five for $2; and 12 for $5. It also has a weirdo selection: Flogging Molly is paired beside Tom Waits, and Kings Of Leon are paired beside Dr. John. There’s Robert Johnson, James Brown, The Black Crowes, Count Basie, Peter Tosh, Waylon Jennings, and Foo Fighters, among others.
The juke clunks from surf-rock to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.” There’s one play left, but the stooping dude must have forgotten about it, because Lou Reed’s saxophone accompaniment fades out and a Pandora station controlled from behind the bar takes over. Even when Chuck Berry is followed by the Geico gecko, no one notices the change. No one takes advantage of the single play remaining, with all its potential melodic energy. Sometimes, it gets to that point in the night when it’s better not to choose at all.