Elegy for a jukebox
In the final days, weeks and months of Ralph's Corner, regulars cased the place, looking for mementos they could pocket. Nobody was scoping out a profit. Rather, longtime customers just wanted to have something to remember the bar by after it clo...
In the final days, weeks and months of Ralph's Corner, regulars cased the place, looking for mementos they could pocket. Nobody was scoping out a profit. Rather, longtime customers just wanted to have something to remember the bar by after it closed Saturday, like the "Hoof Arted" hat that sat atop the front freezer for years.
It was kind of like relatives visiting an ailing uncle and walking away with a keepsake ashtray. Only this uncle was smart enough to hide anything of value in the back room and then cover that room's window with cardboard, which only made him more endearing in an eccentric kind of way.
Come to think of it, I don't know if there were any ashtrays on the table at Ralph's on Saturday at all. Those must've been packed away, too.
Two friends who no longer live here and wouldn't make the journey like those who came from Minneapolis, Madison, Wis., Chicago and even Denver, asked I steal the Ralph's jukebox for them. The jukebox wouldn't have gone unnoticed, but right around 2 a.m., I saw an older woman grab a speaker off the wall. Earlier, a young man tried to subtly pry off pieces of wood paneling, leading me to believe he was on a salvage mission while redecorating his basement.
It was predicted that anything not nailed down would disappear, but hardware never dissuaded a drunk. Friday night someone tore the men's toilet from the floor. That stall on Saturday was the site of a bottle smashing contest (I don't know who won, but it was someone who yelled "wooo wooo" a lot) which made it hard to concentrate for those of us seeking upright relief at the adjacent urinals.
By the end of the night, the bar floor was a swamp of spilled beer and cigarette butts and the air was as stifling as an un-air-conditioned San Antonio saloon in July.
In that aspect, it was not unlike Kirby's closing 22 months earlier, when thirsty patrons carried around cans of Milwaukee's Best by the 12-pack. Ralph's sunk to similar lows as its former cross-street rival. When tap beer ran out around 10 and after the great bathroom bottle bust of '05, there was a run on cans of Schmidt and Pabst Blue Ribbon Light - the favorite drink of hipster waifs.
What separated Kirby's from Ralph's, even in the bars' heyday in the 1990s, were the jukeboxes. Kirby's was standard bar fare of classic rock. Ralph's, on the other hand, documented the time and place. It wasn't uncommon for bands coming through the bar's back room to find their CDs being played.
When I first started hanging out in the early '90s, the jukebox went unchanged for years, and you could count on hearing chestnuts like Louis Armstrong and lesser nuts like R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" a couple of times a night.
As the decade progressed, the selection grew to represent the Midwestern music scene, from the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Hüsker Dü and Uncle Tupelo to the more national trend toward grunge with Mudhoney or the orchestrated rock of the Smashing Pumpkins. By the dawn of the millennium the box earned its reputation as the loudest between Minneapolis and Seattle, boasting a noisy selection by Kyuss and Slayer. Still, "Haunted," the curious duet pairing a drunken Shane MacGowan with the siren, Sinead O'Connor, was a closing time staple.
With the turn of the century the jukebox, like popular music itself, turned back to the classics and "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society" became a favorite.
I couldn't tell you all the songs that played in my eight hours at Ralph's on Saturday. I got a kick out of hearing local oldies from Slippy McGee and Ugly Stick. I felt Social Distortion's "Bad Luck," Hüsker Dü's "Celebrated Summer" and Uncle Tupelo's "Graveyard Shift" were all fitting, though none more telling than the Walkmen's "Little House of Savages."
There was a rumor that a certain pair of leather-jacketed brothers planned to don helmets at closing time and ram the jukebox head-first, creating a noisy and messy finale for a noisy and messy night.
It never happened, though I secretly wished it would have, just not while my picks were playing. Come to think of it, I'm still waiting to hear "Haunted."
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533