The Jukebox at Brooklyn’s Commonwealth - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The Jukebox at Brooklyn’s Commonwealth

In the age of “there’s an app for that” and an era of streaming everything, an honest-to-god jukebox can seem a quaint anomaly. And maybe it is, but then again, the same goes for many of the best things you’re likely to run across in a bar.

At Commonwealth in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, owner Ray Gish acknowledges that having a jukebox isn’t without its challenges. But each day, as afternoon fades and morning still seems a remote possibility, a jukebox can help the bar’s drinkers determine their own aural direction to surf well into the night. “It helps set the mood, for sure,” Gish says. “Songs are a quarter, and I think it’s great that people can come in and play stuff they’ve never heard before, and take some risks.”

In the May/June 2023 issue, Brad Thomas Parsons writes of how he stopped by Commonwealth one evening to drink beer and play songs on Gish’s jukebox. Each of the jukebox’s roughly 2,000 tracks has the performer and title painstakingly listed in Gish’s handwriting and are spread across 100 custom CDs created from his personal music collection. 

We spoke with Gish to get more insight into his approach to the jukebox at Commonwealth, and to dig into its deep musical catalog. As a bonus extra, Gish prepared a Spotify playlist inspired by the songs on Commonwealth’s jukebox—so pour a beer, cue it up, and listen along.

Imbibe: What’s the basic focus of the music on Commonwealth’s jukebox?

Ray Gish: It’s a big mix—there’s a lot of punk, there’s a lot of country, there’s a lot of soul. It should appeal to most people with ears, but we’re not quite sure about that. But as a central focus, it’s sort of punk rock and its antecedents—aka, things that sound like Pavement.

How much do you use the jukebox, versus you or one of the bartenders playing your own music?

A lot of the time, when bartenders play their own playlists, they’re playlists that generally include half the jukebox. The thing about the jukebox is, if people aren’t playing it, then, you know, there’s silence. If somebody goes up and puts in a dollar, then four songs get played, and either I have to run up and put in a bunch more stuff, or we have to go back to a playlist. But the jukebox also has a random function, so pretty much every bartender who works here three nights a week will spend at least one of those nights just letting the jukebox play on random, because people like it. Sharing my musical taste isn’t a requirement for working here, but tolerating it is. 

When people are actively playing the jukebox, do you see certain musical directions start to emerge over the course of an evening? Do patterns happen, if somebody gets something started?

At least once a week, there’s a group of 40-somethings or 50-somethings who come in and just play the jukebox and sort of compete with one another to make playlists. I wasn’t here when this happened, but a few years ago, Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo were here, and apparently Ira [was at the jukebox] and was like, “Georgia, Georgia—you’re not gonna believe this, come here!” But sometimes there’ll be a full table of people who’ll spend $20 on the jukebox, which is about four hours of music.

When you’re looking at the number of songs you have on the jukebox, how did you structure it so that you’re able to provide plenty of options for people to go in a bunch of different directions, while still putting up guardrails to keep them from taking things in a direction where you don’t want it to go?

The main rule is there’s not a single song on there that I don’t actively really, really like. There are exceptions, like if a new record comes out and there are a few things that annoy me. But basically, if there’s something we hate, it doesn’t go on there. For bands that are really popular, we don’t put the hits on—it’s all like deeper cuts. Most of the soul music is I guess what you’d consider classic, like basic Motown and Sam & Dave and that sort of thing. But basically, there’s nothing on there that I don’t like, so it’s never gonna piss me off, and that’s the important part. 

Do bartenders ever find a reason to intervene in jukebox picks?

There was a guy who would come in and play “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” four times in a row, and we finally asked him to stop, and then he stopped coming here. And the bartenders are really, really tired of “Rock Lobster.” So when those things happen, I’ll either re-burn the CD with that song missing, or just cross it off the list. 

You created a Spotify playlist with 100 songs on it for Imbibe readers. This is a small percentage of what you have on the jukebox—how and why did you select these songs?

It was really, really difficult. I could have done 200 songs easily, and I may add to it later. But these are the songs that we think of that are available on Spotify and that get played a lot at Commonwealth, or have sort of a special historical meaning to us—songs that people get excited about seeing on there. But it was tough.

For people who are listening along at home, how should they approach the playlist to best replicate the jukebox experience at Commonwealth? 

Some songs are a pair, and there are a couple of places where I’d play several songs in a row, but every now and then there has to be an abrupt break, because that’s what happens with jukeboxes. So I tried to mimic the way it sounds if this guy plays three songs, and then that woman plays four songs, and then some rando dude just puts a country song right in the middle of all these punk songs.

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