Juke it out

Photographer Aaron Fraser’s 1978 Rock-ola jukebox weighs 500 pounds and holds only 60 records, but they sure “don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

photo Aaron Fraser

A representative of a local internet service provider stands in Aaron McKenzie Fraser's living room, having fixed the problem. He's about to head back into the grey afternoon when his gaze finds the corner of the cozy space with its blue walls and clusters of vintage cameras.

"Where did you get that?" he asks.

"A 1978 Rock-ola jukebox." Fraser introduces the 500-pound machine that anchors his living room, with more than a hint of pride.

The man shakes his head, impressed. He doesn't need to say it: They don't make "em like that anymore.

Not a little ironically, "Utilities," the final track of The Weakerthans' latest LP Reunion Tour—patched into speakers via electronic device—scores the exchange.

Two years ago, before he moved to Halifax where he works as a photographer, including for The Coast, Fraser was nearing the end of an eight-year stint in Ottawa. He met an amusements dealer in an alley during a neighbourhood-wide garage sale, parked next to a pair of jukeboxes and a pinball machine. He couldn't afford what the guy was asking.

"I told my roommate about it and she said, "I don't understand. You love music so much, and this would be the most hilarious thing,'" says Fraser now. "And I said, "But it's massive.'"

The roommate convinced him, and with some negotiation, a special lift and a bunch of hands, they had a new conversation piece in their apartment.

"I'm pretty sure it came from a French-Canadian country bar. Because it was like a weird mixture of really old French traditional songs and really bad new country like Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks," says Fraser. "There's a couple of Garth Brooks songs I really like, but it didn't have them in there. Some older ones too, so I kept a couple—a Patsy Cline one that was really good, a Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings duet.

"The guy who sold me the jukebox also had boxes and boxes of 45s. And I was like "Can I buy some of these?' because they already had the labels with the records. And he's like "You can buy them, but you're not allowed to look through them.' "I'll take three boxes.' A lot of them were duplicates, so there was a whole shitload of Mariah Carey and Madonna. But then there was also Color Me Badd"—spelled "Bad' on the corresponding label—""I Wanna Sex You Up,' which I was really excited about."

A scan of the current playlist finds old-school classics—"Hound Dog," "Super Bad," "Superstition;" wedding-reception favourites—"Tainted Love," "My Sharona," "Funkytown;" and one-hit wonders—"Let's Talk About Sex," "Fantastic Voyage," "These Boots Are Made For Walkin.'"

Fraser pulls a quarter out of the oversized shot glass of coins sitting on his windowsill and drops it into the machine. Starship's "We Built This City," song 137, is chosen by pushing down the bright blue numbers on the side panel. They're thick and respond slowly, solidly.

"That was one of the first songs I really, really wanted to get for the machine," Fraser says approvingly. "When I was a kid, my brother"—i see rowboats' drummer, Darcy—"and my mother and I would go to Hines Restaurant on Mountain Road in Moncton. And they had a jukebox and we'd always ask her for a quarter and we got hooked on this song. And she's like "I'll give you a quarter but only if you don't play that freakin' song.' And we'd be like "No, we're gonna play something good.' And we'd go over and it's like a Sunday morning and all these old people are coming back from church and we're like "Built this city!'"

He has a few contemporary tracks, like Beck's "Loser." Fraser found the newer records in England, though they arrived with a challenge—the hole in the records is only big enough to fit on the needle. Standard North American 45s feature a hole a bit bigger than a toonie.

"There's an actual device called a Dinker—you would Dink your record, which is taking a seven-inch and turning it into a big-hole 45. I was gonna buy a Dinker but they were 40 or 50 pounds in the UK," says Fraser. "So I went to Home Hardware and got a drill bit. A neighbour said, "If you're gonna do that you should use a drill press because if you try to just drill it it's gonna shoot back into your face.' I borrowed his drill press and did an Arcade Fire, "Keep the Car Running," and put it in the machine and it plays fine.

"If you don't get it right, it changes the pitch. So when I was doing the Arcade Fire, I had my iPod on with the song and then put it in the machine. But it's like comparing apples to oranges, the digital format and the record. It sounded so much fuller. And it was interesting, too, to get some of the newer records because they didn't have all the dust and weren't scratched, so when you went to play it you thought it was an actual digital copy in some sense because there's none of the noise to it."

He makes the labels himself, blue and orange and pink, with templates he found on the internet. He's constantly sifting through piles of flea market records, scanning eBay, juggling donations from friends. It's a lot of work for a maximum of 60 records, or 180 songs—"Less than iPod shuffle."

"It holds less than that, it weighs like 100 times more—this thing is 29 years old," Fraser says. "In 29 years we figured out how to transfer all this shit into something that's this big." He holds fingers apart about an inch to approximate the current model. "But it's the physical nature of being able to put records in and being able to press numbers to get songs and get that. Someone said, "You should try to hook up your iPod to this thing.' Yeah, but the magic is lost."

Tara Thorne has a complex relationship with both technology and music. She writes and talks for money in Halifax.

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