The other four guys got to the bar first. Scott was putting money in the jukebox. The regulars at the bar were giving him dirty looks.
"What the heck," Scott said as he came and sat down. "You see those decrepits at the bar? They were looking at me like I was a child molester."
"You were putting money in the jukebox," I said. "Now they can't hear the TV."
"Screw 'em," Scott replied. "Tell them to go home and watch TV. A bar is for music and talk and babes. I like a good game on the screen, but keep the volume down."
"Yeah," Mike added. "It seems like more and more people are coming to the bar to watch TV. That's weird, but I see it all the time."
The bar in English-speaking countries traces its roots back to Roman Britain where drinking establishments flourished. The establishments declined with Rome's decline, but they came back in the Middle Ages, largely through the efforts of monasteries to provide for travelers. By the fifteenth century, three different drinking establishments were found in England: inns, which provided rooms for travelers like their predecessors in Roman Britain; taverns, which provided food and drink; alehouses, which solely provided beer and ale.
What I wonder is, "Why the taverns?" Inns provided necessary beds. Alehouses, I'm told, were often necessities for the poor, a place where they could get ale as a substitute for water that was often polluted and dangerous. But why taverns? "The taverns," an Internet pub site says, "were where the professional classes ate, drank and relaxed. The tavern offered comfort and served superior food." Leisure and pleasure, that was the purpose of the taverns. In the famous words of Sam Johnson, " No, Sir; there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn."
The English, it would seem, went to the taverns to congregate and meet others. If so, then music–at moderate volume–should be preferred over TV (TV being as inherently anti-social as tear gas).
A similar thing goes for bars in the United States. After the Pilgrims came in 1620, taverns were among the first structures erected. There were dozens of taverns in Boston by the 1680s. The taverns were accommodations for travelers, but they were also the forum for social intercourse. Daniel Dorchester, an anti-drinking historian of the nineteenth century, described the tavern scene of the early American years as places where "motley assembly . . . came together to hear the news, gossip and talk politics."
So basically, taverns have always been used to "come together" for sundry purposes: news, gossip, talk. If the Watching Heads in today's bar are watching the news, it might be rooted in the American tavern tradition, but to watch a sit-com or movie? It's a break.
Some people dismiss such historical analysis as irrelevant because the historical antecedents are so different from today's situation. "All right," the argument might go, "so people went to the bars to socialize. That was before TV and recorded music and videogames. Now that those things are available, the bar is transformed into something different."
They're right, to an extent. The bars today are different. The historical analysis isn't conclusive.
But it's still helpful. In today's confusing world, it helps to single things out and analyze them through history's lens in order to get a feel for what they are in their simplest form.
If I analyze something solely by what it is today, I get dizzy and fumble around. Consider today's megabars, like the Hard Rock CafÃ©s. They have many layers and attractions: Drinking, socializing, TV watching (with lines and lines of screens), games, shops, atmosphere (cool paraphernalia on the walls), and the tourist factor (going just to say you were there).
If you only look at the megabars and their smaller cousins that are found in almost every county in America, what will you conclude? Difficult to say; there's so much to consider. It's complex.
But looking at a nineteenth century tavern, there's much less to consider; it's much simpler. You can find the essence quickly and effortlessly. That's important for a simpleton like me. I'll let the academic researchers test the consumers at Hard Rock CafÃ© and measure their cognitive status and give them questionnaires to complete. It's enough for me to see British Bill at the Bull and Woolpack two hundred years ago to figure out what really underlies all the flash and gore of today's megabar.