New York Times JUNE 4, 2006 - by Wendy McClure


My boyfriend, Chris, and I were at Rossi's, an amiable dive bar where everything was burnished with nicotine. Except the jukebox. The jukebox was new, and with its cheerful, glowing computer screen, it looked like a particularly glitzy A.T.M. The music didn't come from CD's or records inside the actual jukebox but from an immense database somewhere on the Internet or maybe even outer space.

The place was filling up. Chris grabbed our pitcher and topped off the glasses of our second round. We paused to listen to the song that was just starting. It built up slowly - a low, swelling hum punctuated by simple, tentative piano notes. They went, "Ting. . .ting ting.. . ."

"Didn't someone play this song before?" Chris said.

We waited to hear more of the song. There wasn't more. Just ting and ting. And ting again.

"Before when?" I asked.

"Before, uh. . ." Chris put down his glass to think. So did I. We both got faraway looks in our eyes, spacing out, trying to remember. The song was particularly well suited for spacing out. Ting.

The last jukebox selection we could recall was by Pink Floyd, but that was practically a whole beer ago. This new song, we realized, had been playing ever since, steadily emitting an ambient drone and random tings for nearly ten minutes now. It sounded like excellent music for floatation-tank therapy. Less so for Miller-Lite-and-video-game therapy, the kind you get at Rossi's.

Chris went and checked the screen. "Well, that explains it," he said. "It's a Brian Eno song." The song was called Thursday Afternoon.

I don't know much about Brian Eno. I know that he is a highly innovative artist and a very important producer and also that in the 70's, he used to wear a lot of ostrich feathers. I would read later that with songs like Thursday Afternoon, he was experimenting with what he called a "holographic" style, composed according to mathematical principles, in a series of repeated loops in which each component represents the whole. A whole that does not, technically speaking, rock.

Before long a girl approached the jukebox and peered at the screen.

"Is it stuck?" she asked no one in particular. "Or skipping, or. . .something?"

She wandered off. The song wandered on.

I poured the rest of our beer. The TV above the bar had Jeopardy! on mute, and we tried to follow along. Chris visited the men's room. Chris came back from the men's room.

He said, "The song is still playing." Because it was.

People were turning in their seats to stare at the jukebox and then glance at the Michelob Ultra clock. I read the lips of a woman in conversation across the room; I could definitely make out the words "song" and "my God." The song had been playing for about twenty-five minutes, sounding exactly the same as it had when it started. Only somehow, paradoxically, worse.

Two college-age guys came up to assess the jukebox grimly, as if they were inspecting a car for damage. "Who played this?" one of them said. "It's like yoga music or something."

They looked around, but out of the two dozen or so people in the bar, nobody owned up to playing a twenty-odd-minute yoga song. Which, at this point, was getting to be more like a thirty-odd-minute song.

"When's it going to play my stuff?" the other college guy asked. By now this seemed a hypothetical question. Elsewhere throughout the bar, there appeared to be considerably more fidgeting and peeling of beer bottle labels than usual. Darts seemed to miss their target more frequently. Ting. . .ting.

"Weren't we going to get dinner shumwhere?" I said, with difficulty. We were on our second pitcher of beer.

Chris shook his head. "We can't leave." Either he wanted to stay until the end of the song, or else the song was making it physically and inexplicably impossible for us to leave the bar, as in that Buñuel film where nobody can leave the dinner party. Imagine replacing the brass cylinder in a music box with a Möbius strip made from nerve endings, and you might get a sense of how Thursday Afternoon felt after forty-five minutes. The mood in the bar was approaching that of a hostage crisis.

"I put ten bucks in that thing," one of the college kids kept saying.

"This isn't right," said an older man near the bar. "This isn't fair."

Four male patrons took it on themselves to investigate the jukebox. They felt along the sides of the machine as if in search of a button or switch. We all watched. "Turn it off!" someone yelled.

"I'm not going to turn it off!" the bartender called out suddenly. Everyone turned to look at her. The room fell silent. "Someone paid money to play that song. So they're gonna get their song," she said, bitterly. "You think I like it when you guys play that head-banger stuff?"

Ting. . . .Ting. The men stepped away from the jukebox. If Thursday Afternoon was to last all night, so be it.

After an hour and fifty seconds, the tings tapered off, and then the synthesizer drone ceased. And then a moment of heavy silence, and then scattered applause throughout Rossi's.

We all looked back at the jukebox. Any Song, the screen read. Any Time.