The life of your average barroom sot is getting better. No, beer and whiskey have not become cheaper or any less debilitating. No, the long-term health benefits of cigarette smoke have not finally been revealed. Neither pool nor darts has been proven to be an IQ enhancer. Pickled eggs are not the new tofu. Life is better in neighborhood bars because of compact discs. The technological revolution that is killing record albums and 45s has enlivened jukeboxes. Raise a toast, brother!

The glowing juke in the corner is no longer merely the dispenser of scratchy plays and replays of "Hound Dog," "Scotch and Soda," and "Take This Job and Shove It." It is now a computerized, high-fidelity entertainment wonderland. Where once sat a carousel of 100 two-sided records (only half of which were hits), there now rests a sideways stack of 100 twelve-song CDs, many of which are greatest-hits and oldies compilations. Joe Barstool is a happier man. As is Josephine Barowner. Or, in this case, Elaine Collins, owner and manager of the Escape Hatch bar, a charming hole-in-the-wall tap room on West Thunderbird in exurban Peoria.

"It's your music that keeps your little neighborhood bars going," says Collins, who made the switch to CD about a year ago. "You can't compete with your competition if you don't stay right on top."

Collins' music machine, leased from a Phoenix company called Sound Entertainment, plays fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. The music mix runs from country through light rock, with just enough oldies to keep daytime drinkers listening. A dollar plays a four-song set--not as cheap as the old days, but worth it. "With this new jukebox you never get bored," says Collins. "Everyone stays happy. It's the best move I ever made."

THE JUKEBOX WAS BORN in 1889 when Louis Glass parked an Edison phonograph in the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco and charged a nickel per play. Four patrons, holding clunky listening tubes to their ears, could hear the single selection lifted off a wax cylinder. The machine was an immediate hit, proving that drunks will try anything. Within ten years, thousands of similar devices were cranking out tunes in big-city bars all over the country. The first multiple-choice jukebox appeared in 1906. The first electrically amplified model came along in 1927. Prohibition dented the growing juke business considerably, but some 400,000 of the coin-eaters were in place by 1938. In 1946 and 1947, the Wurlitzer company built more than 56,000 of its Model 1015, the classic design featuring plastic bubble tubes and lighted body panels. Sold originally for $750 new, a reconditioned 1015 can't be touched for less than $10,000 today. The Wurlitzer played only 24 records, and was made obsolete (and hence more valuable) when the Seeburg company introduced the first 100-record jukebox in 1948. From a design standpoint, the late Forties are now considered the juke's golden age. Organized crime got the jukebox and record-distribution business truly organized during the Fifties, so that more than 700,000 of the music machines operated in America by the end of that decade. The largest manufacturers of jukeboxes were Wurlitzer, Seeburg, and Rock-Ola. (Trivia note: That last one is no mere hep-cat coinage, but the family name of company head David C. Rockola.) The Sixties and Seventies saw a great change in the saloon industry. Bars got color TVs and, eventually, big-screen color TVs. More sports-watching meant less jukebox-playing. Disco killed a lot of jukeboxes, too. Estimates today place the total number of American jukes, operating in public, at 300,000 or less. SO FAR, THE OVERWHELMING majority of those jukeboxes still play seven-inch 45s. The first CD juke was put on the market in 1986. The conversion has only recently begun, in Phoenix and elsewhere, but the changeover is inevitable. Consider: * State-of-the-art CD jukeboxes come with an onboard computer, which can be programmed to do several amazing things, like play certain CDs during specific time periods. For example, if your bar and grill services a big lunch crowd of secretaries from the nearby business park, you can program polite background music for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The box will play tunes nonstop for free if you tell it to, thus providing the gals with mellow music for munching. When the construction crews come in to swill beer and play pool at 3:30, the unit goes back on a pay-for-play status. The boys can then blast Ted Nugent's "Yank Me, Crank Me" as often as they like.

* The computer tracks every one of the jukebox's 1,200-plus tunes. At service time, the bar owner and the jukebox company get a precise record of what was played, and when. Numbers crunched from this procedure guide juke handlers to stock only the most popular (and, subsequently, profitable) CDs. From this technology, we know that Bob Seger is currently very, very big on local jukeboxes. Also very big is the hit by country artist Garth Brooks, "Friends in Low Places," with its obvious barroom appeal. Because of the computer, we can also learn precisely who the 24th--or 30th or 50th--most popular performer is, too.

* The CD era's fidelity achievements (each of the new jukes holds six internal speakers and has the capacity to drive eight external speakers) allow the box to act as an all-around public-address system when needed. Add a microphone, a master of ceremonies and a pitcher of cold water and, bingo, it's Wet Tee Shirt night. Or you might actually have a game of bingo. The possibilities are vast. * For longer album cuts (or particularly long and/or annoying album selections, such as the Beatles' "Revolution Number 9" or anything by the Oak Ridge Boys) the computer can ask for a premium payment. On some jukeboxes, ultrapopular songs like "Stairway to Heaven," "Free Bird," or "Layla" cost more than others. If it discourages overplay of these three tunes alone, this is a breakthrough worthy of a Nobel Prize. * Certain songs can be "locked out" from play entirely. When players push these banned numbers, the computer tells them, "Song Not Allowed." Chris Wilson, president of Sound Entertainment, one of the local leaders in placing CD jukeboxes in bars, has a customer who requested that a certain song on a Jimmy Buffett best-of disc be locked out. The bar owner, who was otherwise pleased with his rowdy late-afternoon crowd, begged for Buffett's "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw" to be banned. "When they hear that song they go nuts," the bar owner told Wilson. "Pool cues start to fly. What they really hear is, `Why Don't We Get Drunk and Wreck My Bar.'"

* Because of the great variety of CDs available, specialty programming is a possibility. Irish bars can fill a dozen slots with Chieftans albums. Go-go bars can fill theirs with butt-shakers by ZZ Top and Van Halen. A Mexican food restaurant on lower Central Avenue can fill its rooms with the latest sounds from south of the border. It's possible for bar owners to slip a few personal favorites onto the list, which explains why you might find Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington on jukeboxes at biker bars. Jukeboxes are no longer limited to the 100 greatest hits of all time. Variety has given the medium new life. * It's even possible to "program" a bar's customer mix. To avoid having to clean up after rough 'n' tumble construction workers, leave the Metallicas and AC/DCs off your box. To ensure a healthy draw of morning drinkers (primarily older fellows and night-shift workers), be sure to include a couple of big-band discs or old-time country artists like the Hanks--Snow, Thompson, and Williams. The after-work pool-and-darts crowd prefers "classic" rockers. "There is some science to it," Wilson says. FROM CHRIS WILSON'S perspective, the ideal jukebox bar is open for business 129 hours a week, the maximum allowed by law. Zero or very little live music occurs. The TV's always on, but the sound is off. The clientele is peaceful and respectful of the property of others. Wilson does a detailed examination of a bar's potential before he'll lease out any of Sound Entertainment's expensive equipment, and can usually predict whether a place can make his desired weekly nut. If a bar comes up short in Wilson's eyes, an owner will have to cough up the minimum himself. A brand-new CD jukebox costs upward of $6,000. Add the CDs--"software" in the parlance of the business--and you add another $1,000 at least. It's a major investment, particularly for businesses that sometimes count their daily profits in bar change. Hence the market slot for businesses like Sound Entertainment, founded by Ben Brooks, a local businessperson who foresaw the CD-jukebox revolution in time to venture some capital on a fleet of the machines. Chris Wilson runs the business for Brooks, and oversees the company's dealings with more than 100 local bars and restaurants. In addition to putting the machines in place, Wilson and his staff see to it that they keep running. The CDs, though smaller and more fragile looking than 45s, are actually much better built for the rugged bar life. Instead of a metallic pin carving its way through a record's groove, CDs make music via pits cut into the disc's surface. A laser reads the coded pits and converts them into Patsy Cline singing "Crazy." All service--replacing and updating the discs, programming the microprocessor and routine cleanings--is handled by Sound Entertainment staffers.

Sound Entertainment promises a ninety-minute response time on repair calls and helps bar owners "program" the boxes. "The bar owner is in the business of selling whiskey," Wilson says--not following every wrinkle in the pop or country music charts. Unlike the days of 45 machines, bar workers don't get to mess with the equipment. "There's nothing good he can do by putting his nose in there," says Wilson. "The bartender doesn't get a key."

Every day, Wilson installs a new small fortune in some dark, smoke-filled room where people drink and play with pool cues. And, he hopes, cheerfully play lots of Bob Seger tunes. People do tend to make jukebox selections while holding a drink in one hand. Often, they already have several drinks inside themselves as well. Spills, smoke, cigarette burns, kicks, flying tackles--the life of a jukebox isn't easy. Every time Sound Entertainment employees visit a piece of company stock in the field, they take with them a roll of paper towels and some glass cleaner. The theory: If the machine looks new and well maintained, there's less likelihood that it'll be mistreated. "People do respect the equipment," Wilson says, somewhat hopefully. "Anyway, they're designed to go in bars." THE OLD-FASHIONED 45 jukebox is dead in the water, to hear Chris Wilson tell it. "They're headed for Third World countries, living rooms, rec rooms, basements," he says. "And in some cases, they'll become boat anchors."

To support his sales pitch, which he admits is aimed at bar owners who still cling to their trusty 45 machines, Wilson unfolds a ream of clippings from newspapers and music-trade magazines.

Teenagers no longer flock to the record store to grab the latest single release from their favorite artists. Cassettes and CDs are the overwhelming preference of people who buy music; as a contemporary format, the 45 is doing a vanishing act. "There's an entire generation of people who don't know what to do with that little adapter," says Wilson. Even in the jukebox-reproduction business--companies are manufacturing vintage-juke look-alikes--CDs are beginning to edge out 45s. Mitch Menaker runs Antiquities, Incorporated, a local jukebox dealer. "People who buy reproductions that play 45s either have an original 45 collection and want to play 'em," he says, "or they're people who, though not buying an original, still want the machine to look like the original."

Menaker says his shop sells three CD-equipped reproductions for every 45-playing jukebox. Antique Apparatus, a California-based manufacturer of repros (you've seen them in the Sharper Image catalogue and on the floor at Menaker's store) still builds both styles of jukebox. But Glenn Streeter, founder and boss at Antique Apparatus, says the compact-disc share of his business is 40 percent and rising. Neither Streeter nor Menaker is willing to write off the 45, however. They both point out that plenty of 45-playing jukeboxes are still in basements or in bars (though few of the mass-produced boxes made after the early Fifties will have much value as collectibles). And a giant market still exists for the records themselves, both for the original oldies and reissues. "The 45 market today for oldies has never really been stronger," says Menaker. "I can get you almost any 45 that's been cut in the last 35 or 40 years."

Says Streeter, "Maybe at some time in the very distant future there will be no more 45s, but there are approximately 300,000 jukeboxes out there now. . . . It's going to take them 25 years to replace that entire market. And some of those places won't replace their boxes. A little neighborhood corner bar, where the jukebox still might be working on dimes, they don't see any reason to replace their jukebox. It works fine. Why put in something that costs 50 cents a play or even takes a whole dollar? The market for 45s will last for years and years. Longer than we need to worry about it."

GRAVEYARD WORKERS from nearby industrial parks pack the Antlers on Baseline Road in Tempe each morning. A different crowd of thirsty people piles in every few hours throughout the day. Scott Jones, Antlers owner, has had his CD jukebox about four months, and he programs it with a sturdy selection of country music, some soft rock, some ZZ Top and Rod Stewart. "It's a good selection," he says. "There's no Frank Sinatra on there. You go with what the customer wants."

Asked if everybody at the Antlers is happy about the new juke, Jones passes the telephone to the guy next to him at the bar. "Oh yeah," says the anonymous lunchtime tippler. "I like this one better." Jones returns to the phone. "I'm doing probably $80 more a week for myself," he says. "I'm probably one of the better jukebox bars there is."

The glowing juke in the corner is no longer merely the dispenser of "Hound Dog," "Scotch and Soda," and "Take This Job and Shove It."

The jukebox was born in 1889 and was an immediate hit, proving that drunks will try anything.

Bob Seger is currently very, very big on local jukeboxes. Also very big is the record by Garth Brooks, "Friends in Low Places."

"When they hear that song they go nuts," the bar owner said. "What they really hear is, `Why Don't We Get Drunk and Wreck My Bar.'"

People do tend to make jukebox selections while holding a drink in one hand. Often, they already have several drinks inside themselves as well.

"Oh yeah," says the anonymous lunchtime tippler. "I like this jukebox better.

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Dave Walker