Old Music, Old Souls.

Have you ever noticed, when walking into a divey bar or pub, that the music is decidedly uncool? Especially at odd hours or during the day? I’m not just stating the obvious; there are reasons for that.

On a base level, it’s a means of self-selecting one’s market. Those who frequent this type of place at non-peak hours tend to be regulars who are okay with the bartender’s musical selections, or folks more focused on either the work at hand—usually writing, although various forms of telecommuting have also been noted—or the drink at hand to care about what’s coming through the speakers. (Daytime laptoppers often use headphones to provide their own personal soundtrack, or keep tabs on their co-workers.) The crowd is generally older, having some familiarity with the music even if it’s not their particular cup of tea. “Bad”, “boring” or “old” music can serve to deter the young, hip, & trendy from finding out about and overrunning the joint. (Not always, as there’s a subset of the young, hip & trendy who specialize in finding dive bars and ruining them…a story for another time.)

Yet perhaps there’s also a more esoteric reason, one that probably isn’t a conscious decision on the owner or management’s part but happens nevertheless. Think about how many people have spent time in these bars over the years—living & loving, drinking & dying. In a way, playing music from another time evokes and honors those who frequented the place back then.

For example: a couple of days ago I had a delightful writing session at the Spring Lounge (also known as the Shark Bar). While there’s been a bar at the corner of Spring and Mulberry for nearly a century, it didn’t properly become the Shark Bar until the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, the cheesy soft rock oozing from the speakers dates from the very same period in time.

As I sat at a corner table with an open notebook and a pint of Empire Cream Ale, I easily saw in my mind’s eye the more hardscrabble denizens of Little Italy and SoHo from 30-odd years ago flowing in and out of the bar, sitting in their favorite stools and booths, telling each other stories and dreaming their dreams. The music, while passé to 21st century ears, seemed viable enough for past regulars to come back around for one more can of Schaefer.

Another example: Canal Bar in Gowanus has an incredibly diverse jukebox. Jazz, Blues, Classic rock, Disco…all types of music are represented. Things get a bit spooky when the Doo-Wop comes on, however. More than once I’ve been there on a late afternoon, with 5 or so customers at the bar, and a weird sensation suddenly falls over everyone when the harmonies start. Invariably a discussion of what Gowanus used to be like 50 years ago, when mostly Italians lived and worked there, will arise. Names and businesses get mentioned. But no-one at the bar—not even the owner—was alive 50 years ago when those tunes first came out.

Being a realist, my first assumption is that people are talking about their relatives or ancestors who spent time in Gowanus. Hypergentrification in that part of Brooklyn, however, makes the possibility of grandkids living and drinking in the same place their grandparents lived and drank rather remote. Canal Bar, like others in that neighborhood, promotes itself as a bar that caters to residents who come from another city (Chicago, in their case)…likely because “locals” can no longer afford to live there. So where are these conversations coming from, and why don’t they ever happen when the Jazz or Blues tunes hit the jukebox?

Canal Bar opened in 2005; I don’t recall what originally stood there, somehow I thought there was a much older bar there previously. The area was heavily industrial, and very close to SBB territory. I wonder if some of the old greasers come back around to shoot the shit when they hear the music they enjoyed in life? If one feels discomfited by the idea of ghosts or paranormal woo, consider this: that particular genre of music would have been immensely popular with whoever worked or hung out there back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. When it comes on the jukebox there’s a resonance…not presences or “hauntings” per se, more a sense of recalling those who came before.

Whatever is going on in bars like these when deeply unpopular music plays is integral to the ambiance of these spaces…part of what makes them what they are. The feeling is subtle but definite, keeping the atmosphere consistent year after year, decade after decade. So don’t complain about the wack tunes—sit down, order a drink and give props to those who sat in that same seat back in the day.




  1. Very nice to read your take on the history of these social places; I feel as if I am flaneuring with you, living in both past and present in them.

    • I’m sure you’ve spent many a time at Shark Bar when you were here, it’s in one of those liminal spots that’s a mix of Little Italy, SoHo, and the LES. (Also Chinatown these days, but less so back then.)

  2. I REALLY wish I’d been able to read this stuff before my one and only visit to NYC, fifteen or more years ago – it would have made the trip so much better!

    • Things have been going so well with your writing, who’s to say you & T. won’t be visiting NYC in the near future? 😀

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