I was sitting at the Red Dragon on Lyndale Saturday night, nodding my head to the bar’s always excellent jukebox roster of classic funk and hip-hop, when something unexpected fell upon my ears. Straining to hear over the barroom buzz, I identified the smooth opening strains of Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” Assuming it to be the five-minute radio edit, I chalked it up as a welcome, out-of-left-field selection.
But when the song cruised past the five minute mark and started spiraling off into serious noise-rock territory, I realized there were mischievous forces at work. Some prankish hipster had queued up the full-length version of “The Diamond Sea” from 1995's Washing Machine, and the increasingly packed house was going to have to endure all 19 minutes and 35 seconds of its feedback-dripping glory. Maybe it was just the Red Dragon’s dangerously strong mai tai talking (seriously, it should be illegal to drink more than one of those things in a sitting), but as Thurston Moore’s atonal antics escalated and I watched a wave of irritation ripple across the room, I just had to lean back and chuckle.
As my wife can attest, I’m a big fan of aural vandalism. Back in the early days of our cohabitation, I used to delight in slipping Lou Reed’s anti-musical masterpiece Metal Machine Music into her CD changer when she wasn’t looking. I eventually halted the practice out of fear that she’d outright break my pricey import disc. In my barista days, my pal David and I would often try to clear the coffee shop of bothersome customers by firing up an especially difficult album – Nico’s The Marble Index, say, or something by the aforementioned Sonic Youth.
But there’s a special place in my heart for jukebox jerkitude. I think it’s the dedication that impresses me. It requires a financial investment, however small. If caught, one risks the wrath of a roomful of booze-swilling strangers. And like all the best forms of vandalism, it makes a noticeable impact while incurring minimal physical damage to other persons or their property.
Applied creatively, a jukebox hijack can add a welcome dash of surrealism to an evening out, but there’s a thin line between amusing and just plain obnoxious. Sometimes it’s a question of volume. Inserting a lone Ricky Martin track into a playlist of classic country tunes can be funny, but playing the entire Ricky Martin: MTV Unplugged album (yes, such a thing exists, for some reason) start-to-finish takes it too far. Other times, it’s a matter of setting. Those public domain “Music for Every Occasion” albums can yield some great non-sequitorial material, but take care – follow up Night Ranger with “The Star Spangled Banner” in the wrong bar, and you could be looking down the barrel of a decidedly non-ironic beatdown. And sometimes it’s a combination of both. I’ve heard a friend play Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” back-to-back-to-back in a small town bowling alley, much to the delight of the other patrons. Try the same thing in a hipster pub and you’ll likely get little more than some affected eye-rolls.
Like anything ironic, jukebox vandalism is best doled out in small doses. When the closing squawks of “The Diamond Sea” finally faded out on Saturday night, the assembled crowd looked relieved to have the format switch back to something easier to groove on. Following up with another aural assault like The Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery” – another coffee shop favorite – would have been just plain dickish. As it was, our unknown prankster added a caustic conversation piece to everyone’s drunken Saturday night. I, for one, applaud that achievement.
- Ira Brooker