I’m not sure why I took the assignment to hit bars with jukeboxes. As a proud exclusive hip-hop head, I’ve never once been wholly entertained by any restaurant juke. Furthermore, I’m tired of those modern digital units most places have; while I can usually dig up some classic Wu-Tang Clan, I’m disgusted by the prospect of some yuppie asshole clandestinely over-bidding my song on his iPhone in order to skip my stuff entirely. If you want to drink to flowery sonic rot from four festival seasons ago, you should at least be forced to face the crowd in shame. Needless to say, I didn’t quite accomplish my intended jukebox mission, but I did get good and drunk. And really, that’s what counts here.
Highland Kitchen [150 Highland Ave., Somerville]
DRINK 1: Harpoon Boston Stout ($6)
Having only lived at the opposite end of Greater Boston, I had no clue just how packed this place would be. I’m fortunate enough to snag the last open stool at the bar, where I order up a stout and stash my shoulder bag. Pen and pad in hand, with my photographer snapping, I drop five singles in the CD jukebox, swig my beer, and scan a cornucopia of classics. The mix of soul, funk, and punk is leagues beyond my level of sophistication, but I know enough to tap Ike and Tina’s awesome “Come Together,” some Jimmy Cliff and Ray Charles, and “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Aretha Franklin, which proves to be a crowd-pleaser.
DRINK 2: Sheraton Commander ($8)In order to avoid being the sober beer drinker in a known destination for eclectic boozebags, I break my “never liquor”rule and order the Commander–a delicious explosion of Triple 8 Blueberry Vodka, Meyer lemon, and ginger ale. My crew keeps the melodic curve balls coming, and my photographer Derek selects “Proud Mary” by Solomon Burke. Another friend finishes us off with a track from The Cramps. I know it’s just a CD juke–not one of the old wooden numbers–but Highland boasts about as good of an accessible yet non-commercial musical spread as any. Plus, you still get to see the discs plummet through the clear display case and onto the player. It’s the simple things in life…
Charlie’s Kitchen [10 Eliot St., Cambridge]
DRINK 3: Lagunitas Draft ($6.54)
Charlie’s Kitchen is not the Jukebox Mecca I’d been promised. It didn’t take long before a regular gave me the lowdown: as it turns out, the universally adored music maker they had for generations disappeared last year, and was unceremoniously replaced by an awkward touch-screen clunker with the rough shape of a soda fountain juke and the soul of a Best Buy product catalog. The screen boorishly flashes an ad for something named Girl, which is confusing, followed by a Vampire Weekend song with Danny Brown that I’m not sure needs to exist. I’m not the only one in the house who loathes this cold, cultural tomb, either. A Harvard stiff near me at the bar says he’s smitten with the smorgasbord, but displeased with the low maximum volume set by the house. While sympathetic, I’d rather not hear anything they have. At any volume. I walk away, and leave.
Courtside [291 Cambridge St., Cambridge]
DRINK 4: Pitcher of PBR ($12)
I can’t remember who told me the Courtside had a jukebox. Well, they don’t have one. But this iconic East Cambridge dive does have the next best thing–Keno–so I tee up five three-spot games at two-bucks a pop. The result: I hit just one number out of 15, and lose the entire ten-dollar investment. This is failure. No juke, I’m out $25 including tip, and my tub of beer is getting warm, reminding me why it pays to have low standards.
Loft Party [Cambridge]
DRINK 5: Narragansett ($1)
That one-dollar price tag is no typo. I’m sipping through a six-pack that I bought at a bodega, trying not to plummet down the hazardously steep staircase at my friend’s Cambridge loft. The place is rocking, a combined birthday bash and video shoot for hip-hop radio jock Dana Scott and Golden Brown Sound, the latter of whom is taping retro party footage for a new song. As the duo’s MC, NoDoz, raps the hook–an appropriate shout to “1988” and “what’s real”–I start brainstorming ways to cleverly wrap up this saga with a metaphor connecting the decline in jukebox quality to Golden Brown’s nostalgia for the wonder years. I couldn’t think of anything.