Meet Terry Swords of New York Jukebox, the Brooklyn storefront/workshop where Terry customizes Seeburg HF100R jukeboxs from the 1950's for his clients, programming them with the music they request. We dropped by NY Jukebox to chat with Terry about his earliest musical memories and where the worst jukebox in New York is.
What is your earliest music memory?
As a kid I was into the Beatles above all else, with Chicago and Elton John getting a lot of attention also. I didn’t know the Beatles had broken up until I saw Beatlemania in the mid-seventies. I was devastated. I remember being very upset about stepping on my 45 of Imagine, and also of preferring its b-side “It’s So Hard.” I remember turning the house upside down looking for my copy of a Four Seasons single, and of my mother trying to talk me out of bringing some Elton John records to my grandmother’s house because the songs had so many “mature themes.” I remember my uncle riding a motorcycle up from Florida with a copy of Grand Funk’s “Survival” album strapped to the back of it. It has an amazing cover of them posing as cavemen, with giant meat bones. The record was terribly warped.
What Inspired you to open New York Jukebox?
Before starting New York Jukebox, I was a social studies teacher in the public schools. I loved teaching for a long time, but was definitely worn down by it. My family moved to Khartoum, Sudan for two years, where my wife and I taught in an international school. I couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the schools. Unhappy teachers are rarely good for children. The jukebox idea was kind of a fantasy at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense, both for me personally and for Brooklyn. Everybody loved the jukebox I had at home, but I never saw them around. I persuaded some old-timers in Los Angeles to take me on as an apprentice for a few weeks. While there, we were loading a jukebox into The Queen Mary (an old cruise ship permanently stationed in Long Beach) and some of the maintenance guys saw us wheeling the thing in, and one said to the other “Now, the party can start.” That sealed it for me.
What can someone expect when they stop by your store?
The location on Dean street is a work-shop and a showroom, of course, but also a place to drop in for a few minutes of pleasure. There’s a jukebox ready to play, and a chance to share memories and music, and an opportunity to see the inner workings of the machine. It’s an amazing piece of equipment, the state of the art in 1954. I would like to see it become something of a clubhouse for those who love records, and to that end, I’ll keep it open some nights for small events.
What is it about the jukebox that you find so fascinating?
The jukebox today is a novelty, but also a familiar part of our history, and it would be interesting for that reason alone. It’s a simple thing, in a way; you put coins in a box, push two buttons, and sound comes out. But the more one examines it, the more it fascinates.
Inside, there are both mechanical and electrical systems, each with intricate cycles and sequences of their own, which must communicate with each other. The mechanical are easier to grasp; you can see the cams and gears, the levers and switches and springs, each distributing force and energy through motion. The circuitry is more mysterious, but no less elegant. Coils, wires, and components like resistors and capacitors, distribute voltage and current (both AC and DC) to operate the mechanical parts, but also to amplify and shape the sound. It’s 350 pounds of applied physics, and countless small engineering puzzles and problems solved.
What’s even more fascinating is the engagement between the machine and the people of every age and background who interact it. For older folks, it’s very personal, and often emotional. They are often reluctant to touch it, as if there’s a spell they are afraid to break. Adults tend to be interested in the mechanics, the history, and the music selection. The young first love the lights, and sound and feel of the buttons. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve seen anything actually playing music. They are also the first to dance. And of course, everyone has a relationship with music itself. A jukebox encourages people to share with each other. I like that a lot.
How did you learn the ins and outs of the jukebox?
Learning the ins and outs has been a time-consuming process. It helps to have been a teacher, and to have observed other people learn. First, there’s a a technical language to learn. Seeburg’s technician’s manuals are comprehensive, and I’ve gotten a lot from old radio repair guides. More importantly, there are still people with extensive experience who are eager to share the fruits of their work. I’ve depended a lot on the wise elders for counsel. Thank you, wise elders, and thank you, internet.
Naturally, the bulk of the learning is hands-on and observational. I started by disassembling a few beat-up machines, studying one system at a time, learning the names of parts, and finding the rationale for each detail as I cleaned and reassembled them. I wanted to make as many rookie mistakes as I could on machines I wasn’t going to depend on, and I wanted to understand the operations as well as getting the thing to work. Even as I’ve tried to fast-track my education, it took almost two years to get ready to open the doors.
What albums have really stood the test of time for you?
A lot of the albums I’ve played most are on a lot of other people’s lists: London Calling, Double Nickels on the Dime, Physical Graffiti, Sign of the Times, Ramones and Revolver are the first that come to mind. Some others that I haven’t lost anything after many, many, many plays: Cheap Trick, False Start (Love), 16 and Savaged (Silverhead), Born Innocent (Red Cross), Laid (Skunk), Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds (Randy California).
Which bars in New York have the best jukeboxes?
The best bar jukeboxes in New York is a question I can’t answer yet because I know of only a very, very few that have record-playing jukeboxes. I can’t count digital or cd “jukeboxes;” though they are a tremendous advance in terms of variety. A record-playing jukebox offers a much better opportunity for a place to define itself; it permits no filler. I think that’s good for any establishment. I expect to be able to direct you to plenty of great bar jukeboxes in the future.
I will tell you my least favorite cd-playing “jukebox” bar. That would be Hank’s Saloon on 3rd Avenue. The bartender there turned off the jukebox because she didn’t think the song I chose was appropriate for the bar. Admittedly, the Shangri-Las’ “Past Present and Future” is kind of a downer, but if a customer can’t play it, it shouldn’t be on the “jukebox.”
Check out Terry Sword's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Allie Sarachene - @alliesarachene