Sign up for our free newsletter
It’s quitting time at D.C. Vending Co.
Tom and Bill Deoudes, 48 and 50, have just finished a game of Golden Tee and are making the lazy yet practiced movements that suggest they’re almost ready to drive home to Maryland. On the billet this weekend: an outing to a baseball clinic for Bill and his son, maybe deer hunting for Tom. Certainly nothing that involves peering into a box.
Around the Deoudes brothers’ Petworth warehouse are jukeboxes. A Wurlitzer “Bubbler” is on prominent display—an ’80s replica of the ’40s model, supposedly the most popular jukebox ever made, now shining with plasticized chrome. The brothers rent it out for high-school graduations and office parties, where it earns its keep blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd. Most of the boxes lead less active lives. In fact, the ones the brothers aren’t fixing appear to have languished in situ for a long, long time. They’re pushed behind arcade-game terminals and other vending apparatus or, as is the case in a room off the fixing floor, stacked in the dark.
When John Deoudes, their Greek-immigrant father, cut the ribbon at his D.C. Novelty Co. in 1947, there wasn’t a chance of one of his machines’ being attacked by dust bunnies. His Seeburg Bs—classic record cabinets like the one the Fonz was so fond of abusing—soon flooded the city, kicking up sweaty dancing and gulping a river of coin. The late ’60s set his jukebox enterprise’s high-water mark, with about 400 boxes stationed around town. By the mid-’70s, however, those boxes and the neighborhood bars that nurtured them were pretty much gone. John Deoudes once maintained two dozen boxes on Georgia Avenue NW alone. Now the company has just a lonely pair to look after on the rushing thoroughfare, one at the Penthouse strip club and the other at a lounge that’s “a little seedier,” says Bill.
Today, D.C. Vending operates about 125 jukeboxes, about half of them in bodegas and other Latin-music joints. “They stopped playing music like they used to,” Tom says. “There’s not as many ‘Cheers’ around….That’s given way to the T.G.I. Friday’s, the big places.” The big places like to supply the music for free, via a piped-in, CEO-approved soundtrack. It’s good for corporate branding, bad for the Deoudeses. “They have killed the jukebox business, those kind of places.”
Bill and Tom might be the last of their family to work here. Both brothers are encouraging their children to find more promising careers. “We want them to do something else,” says Bill. The warehouse, from the outside, seems to anticipate their desertion: two stories of old brick on its knees in dead grass and shredded tires. The windows are boarded, and the only sign of life is a security camera peeking out from the upper floor. There’s nothing to suggest the building’s hectic past servicing a city that clamored for that floor-shaking jukebox music.
Before locking up for the night, the brothers dust off their favorite jukebox yarns. These stories inevitably take place decades ago. At the top of the list is the one about New York Sen. Jacob Javits and Bulldog, their delivery driver of 30 years. Bulldog arrived at the senator’s Watergate suite for a holiday bash and tried to muscle a rental up his tiny spiral staircase, tearing away hunks of pricey Italian wallpaper before finally pushing the box through a pane of glass. The late Javits’ wife, says Bill, “was ready to faint, like the woman in Caddyshack.”
Then there’s the one about George, a former repairman, at the Irish bar. He couldn’t fix the jukebox and had to play polkas all night on the piano. “He was still drunk,” says Bill, “when he came in the next morning.”
Every so often, one of the men encounters a clue that somebody out there cares about jukeboxes. The clue usually masquerades as property damage. A box might have a hunk of outer material torn off or a cue ball hurled through the display window (or a cue ball followed by a bar glass, as was once the case in a 14th Street NW pool hall). There was once even a box perforated with dual bullet holes, lending credence to Mark Chesnutt’s “Bubba Shot the Jukebox.” But these attacks could just as well indicate catharsis for woman trouble as vengeance for somebody’s ill-timed country-western weepathon.
That former ruling tribe that enjoyed a special kinship with the jukebox has seen its numbers scatter and begin to die off. They’ve been poached by MP3s and TV—but they’re not extinct yet. There are still folk who bond with the machines, but, like the Mole People, they are hard to find. Their most sanctified gathering place, the malt shop, has like them experienced a sharp decline.
What are left of the jukebox junkies tend to accumulate in the darkest corners of town. And the torches they carry for their ancient, booming gods burn in strange ways.
The woman sits on a bar stool in the corner of Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, romancing the resident video-game console. Her fingers trace a languorous loop from the onscreen antics of “Castle Bandits” to an ashtray to a snifter of Courvoisier.
It’s hard to see it now, but there she is: Diane Bush, the Terror of Tunetown. “Hello!” says Bush, cheerfully tapping embers from her hollow-filtered Vantage.
The atmosphere at the Adams Morgan hangout percolates with the pleasant drone of chitchat. There’s no music, for the jukebox is turned off tonight. Perhaps it’s no accident: Bush, four nights a week for a year and a half, used the box to play the same song.
The repeat recitals might seem a lot like what the FBI did with Christmas carols outside the Branch Davidian compound, but Bush had better music. She had “At Last,” by soul crooner Etta James.
“That song was awful,” says a man who’s eating his dinner from the bar.
Bush’s technique—she carried a list for this—was to plan for an hour of honored oldies: Aretha Franklin, Lionel Richie, Miles Davis. But regardless of what she chose for filler, she always slapped a slice of “At Last” onto either end of her playlist to create a hearty sandwich of musical comfort.
Although Bush played her favorite song only a couple of times each evening, it proved to have an unexpected viral quality. Other people found themselves giving over to the slow, moody enunciations of Etta. They went over to the box, flipped through the pages of CDs, and put “At Last” on again.
“We’d hear that maybe three or four times,” says bartender Kim Jaka. “She’d play it, and then somebody else would.”
Naturally, Bush got the blame for the chorus of “At Last”s that soothed Ike’s into a coma throughout the week.
“You would hear that song more than three times in a five-hour period. And that’s being conservative,” says 33-year-old general manager Bob Belmonte. Bush’s other picks seem to have made no impression on Belmonte. “I wish she could’ve found it in her to play other things at the same time,” he says.
You never heard Bush complaining when someone put on the song for its fourth encore of the night. “It’s such a cool song. I mean, nobody has ever objected to it,” she says, turning to the man eating dinner at the bar, “except Doo-Doo Head over here.” The diner raises his head from his plate. “And that’s just because he never grew up listening to good music.”
“I’m really not named Doo-Doo Head,” the man says. In between bites, he mumbles something about “forked tongues.”
Loud and willing to sing anything for money, the jukebox has long been an eager accomplice in torture. In fact, the only jukebox model that didn’t hold the potential to be obnoxious was the first. That’s because it was basically a silent oak cube. Louis Glass, general manager for the Pacific Phonograph Co., debuted the cube (or, if you prefer the inventor’s nomenclature, nickel-in-the-slot phonograph) at San Francisco’s Palais Royal Saloon in 1889. Customers put tubes in their ears that channeled a single song playing on a wax cylinder inside. When the song ended, they removed the tubes, returned to the bar, and had another snort.
Those were the semisweet days before amplification. Several years later, an earthquake leveled the Bay Area and, by most accounts, the Palais Royal as well, but it was too late for America’s collective ear: Jukeboxes spread through the land on the fuel of their own noise. At first acoustic and kept alive by hand cranks, they delighted small groups by blatting out gospel and polka through fat horns. 1924 signaled the arrival of the electric-powered Brunswick Panatrope, which proved to be the starting shot in an epic Race for Bass. These days, you can get a box that wields a 2,780-watt amp. To put that kind of power in perspective, Michael Jackson’s definitive song on the subject of high amplitude was titled “2,000 Watts,” and even that number seemed to scare the King of Pop: “Eight ohms, 200 volts, real strong/Too much of that, fuse blown.”
Bush says she’s felt potent chemistry with jukeboxes since she was 13, when her father, a bricklayer in Newark, N.J., took her to the local hooch house to celebrate her eighth-grade graduation. He filled the jukebox with money and then surprised his daughter by swinging her out onto the dance floor. “He was kind of a stout, heavyset kind of guy,” recalls Bush. But with that jukebox playing, he was light on his feet—a ballroom dancer. “He led me and I followed and we were perfect. And we never danced again.”
Bush became addicted to what she identifies as the jukebox sound, a particular resonance that lets her lick up every delicious ingredient of a good tune. She says she experiences music as a physical sensation—when it’s good, her body purrs, but when it’s bad, she suffers pain. Her constituent cells reject certain songs as they might reject a donated liver. “Bluegrass makes me so physically uncomfortable that if I can, I get out of the [room],” she says. “I just can’t listen to it.”
One thing that doesn’t cause an adverse reaction in Bush’s fibers is soul music. “I’ve been listening to female jazz vocalists since 1964. I started with Nancy Wilson. Then I moved on to Dakota Staton, and then I discovered Etta Jones and Etta James.” Soul, to Bush, is an overwhelming drug. “When it’s good—like ‘At Last’—it hits you in your gut. And you ride with it. And it feels good,” she says. “The way she starts out sucks me in, and then when she closes I wanna raise my hands. I wanna clap.”
A particular Carmen McRae song, “I’m Coming Home Again,” carried Bush through boyfriend and money problems in the ’80s. Etta James took over for the hectic ’90s. Bush hunted “At Last” down in her travels through the South while organizing policy briefings for state legislatures. (She now works a similar job at the Consumer Bankers Association.) She deployed it wherever she found it hiding: bars, hotels, airports. “I missed my little dose of ‘At Last,’” she says.
The song became so dear to her that she’s kept it as a theme for the current decade. She imagined it signifying a not-quite-guaranteed arrival into the new millennium. “It’s like a reward,” she says. “I’ve walked down this road, I’ve walked down that road, and I’ve walked down the other road. And it’s kind of like: At last.”
It’s too bad, then, that she can’t hear it anymore at Ike’s. Last year, the company that operates the jukebox replaced all the personal CDs of bartender David Wellbeloved with its own music. Etta James bought a ticket to Racksville.
At last, says Belmonte.
“How do I feel about that song? Good song. It was a good song,” he says. “I will definitely say there are appropriate times to hear that song.” But all the time isn’t one of them. “It kind of brings you down a bit.”
Bush first blamed Wellbeloved for what she assumed was a backhanded coup d’état. “I said something to him one day, like, ‘You know, Dave, I am really not pleased with you.’” Upon learning the truth, she went on a jukebox strike anyway. “After they took my song out, it’s like, ‘OK, you don’t get my money no more.’”
She ordered the CD and now listens to “At Last” in her apartment, three doors down on Columbia Road.
“I live alone,” she says. “But whoever’s in the house listens to it, too.”
George likes fun, singalong music. “Rush,” by Big Audio Dynamite. “Tired of Waiting for You,” by the Kinks. “I’m a Believer,” by the Monkees.
And George knows where he likes to listen to his music: on the jukebox at JP’s, a strip joint on lower Wisconsin Avenue NW.
The dancers at JP’s know what kind of music George likes, too. That’s why they try to block him from playing it. “It’s kind of funny when he comes in,” says club manager Ted Hiller, “because all the girls rush over to the jukebox.”
George sometimes has to fight his way through naked women to get to that box. “I actually go there for the music,” explains the 54-year-old mechanical engineer for the federal government. “I know how to play the kind of music people want to hear.” That’s not to say the dancers always realize at the time that they want to hear it. There are always a few “willful individuals,” as he calls them, who put up a fight.
“In fact,” George says, “I’ve had a couple of them refuse to take money from me because they’re like, ‘I can’t dance to that.’ That’s bullshit! Then, of course, we have to go through this little question-and-answer period about, ‘Why is it you came here tonight? Did you come to work? Or did you come here just because you have some kind of attitude problem?’”
In most strip clubs, the dancers get to choose the music, the rationale being that when listening to what they like they gyrate better and get more tips. There are defenses protecting their treasured jukeboxes against customers with a fierce yen for musical exhibitionism. A common safeguard is a sheet of paper taped to the box: “DANCERS ONLY.” (Often these flimsy notices are enforced by a guy with big muscles.) Some nightclubs, such as Good Guys, across the street from JP’s, have CD boxes that the dancers can stock themselves with groovable Top 40 and alternative melodies. At other joints, there are actually buttons nestled near the poles. One tap of a dancer’s finger and the Swinging Blue Jeans yapping about the “Hippy Hippy Shake” become Mystikal demanding that you “Shake Ya Ass.”
There are no pole buttons at JP’s. The jukebox is a digital-download model with more than 400,000 songs on call. Hiller says he’s tried to block certain types of music from the playlist, mostly slow stuff, for obvious reasons. “You’ll have a crowd be in a party mood,” he says, “and all of a sudden Barbra Streisand comes on singing, ‘They don’t bring me flowers anymore.’ It sort of kills the mood.”
But the filters or the scrum of dancers or even a manager who cusses him out can’t stop George.
“I’ll just be sitting there sipping on a chardonnay”—in a martini glass with olives, as is his wont—“and I’ll hear a sound or something and it’s like, ‘Man, I just thought of a great song!’” he says. “And I’ll jump up and I’ll go up there and do a search for Walter Egan[’s] ‘Magnet and Steel’ or something like that, and it’s like, ‘Man, I got myself a cool song I haven’t heard for like 10, 15, 18 years!’”
George worked his way into JP’s hall of fame over the course of more than a decade. His first visits, occurring a couple of times a week, he says, were fueled by the typical single-guy yearning for a “lonely-hearts club.” But the thrill of watching nekkid girls dance, dance, dance simmered down into the profound comfort of relaxing in a cool bar where nekkid girls just happened to dance. JP’s became the spot where George deflated after a hard day of dealing with Pentagon brass. He let his rock anthems fly at high volume, which he couldn’t do at his town house in the ’burbs. He and the regulars—diplomats, lawyers, dentists, a pediatrician—formed a brotherhood of boogieing. “Older guys like me,” he says, “just digging the music, chilling out, and relaxing a bit.”
George stopped visiting most of his other watering holes and made himself a home at JP’s. He grew especially fond of the upstairs lounge: a snug space with a single pole and Christmas lights. It’s open Wednesday through Saturday. It has its own jukebox.
It’s where George drops the bomb.
“Oh, man, we light it up with Joan Jett[’s] ‘Light of Day,’” he says. “‘One! Two! One, two’…You know how that goes.”
Odds are about half the dancers do, too, though they’d have to seriously alter their dance moves—and their health coverage—to keep pace with the relentless rhythm: “Drivin’ 500 miles, got 500 to go, yeah!/I got rock ’n’ roll music on my radio!”
Like any jukebox aficionado, George expresses strong feelings about his preferred tunes. He characterizes dance-club music as “generic bullshit music” and “generic, machine-driven, nonsense noise.” But to George, music surpasses simple matters of taste. Music is about order.
“Music…brings a certain civility to life that you don’t get through other media,” he says. This has been true for George ever since he flew F-14s for the Navy. George and his buddies invented a catchy mnemonic that cleverly positioned the calculations needed to chart a true flight course: variation, magnetic heading, deviation, and compass heading. And he can sing it to this day: “Twooo Virgins, Make Dull, Companeee!”
So when George walks into JP’s and everybody’s just going through the motions of having a good time, he’s obligated to invoke the commanding force of classic rock and bring the troops in line. On occasion, he says, his jukebox picks have ratcheted up the action to Austin Powers proportions, with the dancers cutting their best go-go moves from the Flower Power era.
“When you put the right kind of music on a jukebox, it just sets the absolute mood for the entire room. Just makes it a friendly, cozy, real interesting place,” he says. “Usually, when I walk in and I start playing music, it becomes like a social lubricant. Everybody just lightens up and starts to have a good time with it.”
“He likes to play old ’60s music,” says Natascha, a waitress. “But then he goes with Debbie Gibson.”
“Has he ever asked you to do the Watusi?” Hiller asks.
Not yet, replies Natascha. But she’d probably oblige. “I’m a professional,” she says. “He’ll give you a $20 tip if you let him play the music.”
“I think the word has kind of gotten around over the last number of years,” says the man himself, “that George likes to play music, and there’s always good things that happen after George plays music. So let’s make an allowance for George.”
Patrick Mooney, 19, stands in front of the jukebox: skinny legs, starter ’stache, stocking cap pulled low over his eyes.
The box, a recent arrival at Arlington’s Cowboy Cafe South, looks down over him. It’s a hulking, ’Net-enabled TouchTunes model, with a screen flashing blue-and-white lightning and fanlike side speakers that seem to reach out to envelop the kid’s head.
Mooney raises a hand up to the screen but keeps it inches away. His mouth moves in what looks like speech. With the body-beating concussions the box is throwing out, it’s impossible to hear anything.
“Breathe Again” by Toni Braxton comes on. Suddenly Mooney’s in action.
He hits the “Now Playing” button. That conjures a picture of the Braxton album cover. When it disappears, he hits it again. Then he goes to the scrolling alphabetical list on the right side of the screen. He hits C. He hits B. He hits the “More” button. He finds the Braxton album among a field of other B-named artists and pulls it up on the screen. Then he withdraws his finger, staring at the shorthaired woman with her hips defiantly cocked.
Behind him a man and woman approach. They make small talk while the guy fidgets with a dollar in his palm. They wait about 10 minutes before realizing Mooney’s not going anywhere. For the past three minutes, in fact, he’s been inspecting the cover of an Aretha Franklin greatest-hits album.
They walk away.
Patrick isn’t intentionally hogging the jukebox, protecting his playlist from inferior picks. In fact, he doesn’t choose songs unless coaxed. Patrick has what his social workers call “multiple disabilities,” a consequence of his brain’s blood vessels’ rupturing at birth. For some reason known only to him, Patrick has made jukeboxes into playmates.
“I’m speaking for Patrick here, but after all, he’s my son,” says Tom Mooney, talking later over a beer at Champion Billiards in Shirlington. Across the table, Patrick consumes a club sandwich and chips. “It’s not very polite talking about Patrick in front of him…but the truth is the truth.”
“Any bar you can go to,” says Tom, “if they got a jukebox, he’ll land over there.”
Patrick rarely speaks. When he does, it’s in a low, clipped monotone. He says nothing when asked about his attraction to jukeboxes.
“His mother, when she was alive, used to put music on for him a lot, CDs and things,” guesses Tom. “He’d stand by the [stereo], maybe read the CD label and stuff.”
Father and son have, until recently, spent much of their time in bars. The elder Mooney, a 75-year-old who wears red-tinted spectacles, would meet up with Patrick after his classes at the Stratford Program. Then they would head to some nearby place for pub grub.
Cowboy South was a regular destination. Patrick liked to camp out in front of the old CD box. He’d be visible over the pool tables for hours, staring at the flipping sleeves. Usually, some variety of raucous metal would be playing: Metallica, AC/DC, or heavier. It was never clear who was choosing the music. Sometimes, when he stood alone for long stretches with a hand near his temple, he seemed to be controlling the musical selections through sheer power of mind.
He has favorite artists.
“Tell him one or two of them,” says Tom. “The names. Think of ’em? Van Halen, right? Think of another one. What? Rod. Roood.”
“Rod Stewart,” Patrick says in a faint voice.
“What’s another one? Another Van. Vaaan…”
“Van Morrison,” says Tom.
The Mooneys don’t spend as much time in bars in the past few months, since they got a housekeeper who cooks them meals. When they do go out, however, people want to dance with Patrick—and he obliges, though he never leads. They ply him with money for the jukebox. He inserts the bills and then usually just stands there.
“Pat likes pinball machines and that sort of thing, too. But it doesn’t matter if there’s any money in it or not, because the lights are flashing up there and he can push on the buttons,” says Tom. “What’s important is standing there and hitting the things and watching the action.”
Tom doubts the routine Patrick has with tracking an album from the “Now Playing” screen to its twin in the album directory signifies an interest in the music. It could just be an exercise drill for his sprawling, idiosyncratic memory. Patrick is a self-taught reader: At age 3, he was calling out “For Sale” signs while walking with his father. He won his second school spelling bee in the sixth grade at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington.
“When he got done and he came downstage—‘Hey, Pat!’—they were all congratulating him,” says Tom. “It didn’t mean nothing to him. We got home and that night I said to Pat, ‘Pat, something special happened to you at school today. You remember what happened?’…And he’s thinking. He goes, ‘I hit Joseph, and Ms. Pasternak told me not to do that anymore.’”
Patrick shows as much hurrah when he’s engaged with the jukebox. He has another ritual with newspapers, removing each page, looking at it, folding it, and stacking it to reformulate the paper. “This can consume a half-hour in the Cowboy Cafe,” says Tom.
Patrick didn’t change his spot or his routine when the bar carted in the TouchTunes to replace its beat-up CD box. “We’re talking about obsessive-compulsive behavior. We’re talking about a habit that essentially doesn’t have any meaning at all,” says his father. “It’s just something…” he trails off.
“It’s something he has to do.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.