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.