It was one of February's crisp days, just after the first ice had come and thawed, and us two guys were in my Honda with the bent weather strip on the back left door, cruising northeast toward Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We were talking about the Internet, and bad movies, and Malcolm's band, Gumball. We ate some pretzels, guzzled some Pepsi, and saw what we could passing by the Harley Davidson plant outside Lancaster. The York Barbell factory wasn't far off, with its huge rotating strongman on the roof.
There wasn't time for that particular bit of kitsch, however. Malcolm and I were on the way to see something bigger than any cast iron carnival act. Waiting for us in Lancaster, piled chest-high on the third floor of an abandoned candy factory, was a mountain of infinitely looping, colorfully packaged, plastic- shelled, cheese-o-riffic 8-track tapes. Twenty-five thousand of them. Twenty-five fucking thousand of them.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I would never see music in quite the same way. That pile of 8-tracks would teach me invaluable lessons about my humanity, about the loops we all find ourselves stuck in, about how no matter how far we wander, no matter how much we change, no matter how desperately we push and punch the shrink-wrap we call our daily lives, we always return home like a magnetic tape hissing and kerchunking inside the walls of a dead musical format.
Don't worry. I'm just kidding.
The 8-track mountain is stored in a practice space rented by Gumball, which is Malcolm from Takoma Park, Don from New York, Jay from Harrisburg and Eric from Pittsburgh. They gathered here last year to prepare their new album, due out soon. They wanted to promo it on 8-track, just as Rage Against the Machine did with their album, but Gumball's label, Columbia, gave them the choice between releasing an 8-track promo or a release on vinyl. They took the vinyl.
Malcolm and Don and Jay were longtime members of the Velvet Monkeys, a D.C. band from the '80s who put out a few records (but no 8-tracks). The guys in Gumball are devoted to LPs, with 8-tracks as a sideshow collection that until July 23, 1993, consisted of a few thousand 5 1/4-by-4-inch titles stacked on metal shelves.
I have to say, I've seen a lot of sights: babies born, dead bodies, sunsets, dwarfs, UFOs. But I have never seen anything like the 25,000 8-tracks heaped in the band's Lancaster space. Malcolm climbed the mountain so I could snap a photo for scale, and he stumbled, and I thought he was going to pitch forward and send tapes tumbling like stones to my feet. But he recovered, and stopped to examine a case here and there, as if he were picking wildflowers during a hike.
The 8-tracks came from a junk store, Porter's Furniture, which is a couple of right turns on the way out of town. Mr. Porter's kid did the deal. The band was scouring for tapes one Friday and was disappointed by the selection and prices (Porter charges a buck apiece, which is no garage sale price, that's for sure). Shorty, the guy who scurries the busted chairs, wobbly tables, gummy typewriters, locked trunks, dirty mirrors, pink mattresses and thousands of other overpriced items between Porter's four floors, mumbled something about 8-tracks. It didn't sink in with the band; after all, Shorty mumbled a lot. But then Mr. Porter came by. He was always coming by, making a pitch or eyeing the boys suspiciously, one or the other. "You guys lookin' for 8-tracks?" he cawed. "I got 8-tracks."
He led the gang around the corner to a garage and pulled the doors wide. The air was filled with the stench of cat piss, but the boys were too stunned to notice. There, stacked on shelves and in wooden kitchen cabinets and cardboard boxes and garbage bags, were thousands upon thousands of 8-track tapes. More 8-tracks than the children had seen in their whole lives!
The boys offered Porter a hundred bucks for 1,000 of their choosing. The old man stuck his hands in his pockets and shook his head. No dice. He had stored these tapes for come near a decade, and he wasn't about to let some rock-n'-rollers mine the gold and leave him the dirt. But then his kid, Porter Jr., said "You can have 'em all for $450," and that was that. Malcolm threw in $125, Jay the same, and Don $200.
They put on work gloves and began dropping 20 tapes at a time, held like an accordion at full bellow, into black plastic garbage bags: Open the bag, lift, pivot, dump. They borrowed a pick-up and drove to the candy factory and hauled the bags up in the freight elevator. They worked four or five hours a day. It took four days.
Eight-tracks, needless to say, are no longer state-of-the- art. If you can remember when they were, you are also no longer state-of-the- art. The reason Malcolm and Gumball enjoy 8-tracks isn't the sound quality, although a few diehard collectors insist that CDs and cassettes are no more than blatant attempts to deceive you and your ears. The boys like 8-tracks because of the bootlegs, rarities and obscure artists that will never appear in any other format. (Malcolm calls their collection "a musical Bermuda Triangle.") They like them because you can get a lot of music for a dime or a quarter, and 8-track players, of which they have 30, can be had for $5 to $30. Sometimes people will just give them away, if you can believe that. The band also owns portables that they drag along on tours. They use an 8-track, the pumpin' electric soundtrack of the movie "Cool Breeze," as the intro to their performances.
The band tried to tame the 8-track mountain, but soon gave up. Along one of the red brick factory walls is the skeleton of their filing system, short stacks of tracks, A through Zed. Beyond that, in a corner listening pad (a scrap of yard sale carpet flattens the acoustics) sit boxes of Bootlegs, "an amazing amount" of Jazz, a few Homemades. Those are Malcolm's favorites. "It's a time capsule," he says, holding up a tape with a handwritten playlist of Linda Ronstadt songs on the label.
There is no Beatles in the bunch, no Zeppelin or Mozart. This is Grade B material, so far, although they haven't seen the tapes at the bottom of the pile yet. Many of what they have sorted are duplicates, which wasn't unexpected but still disappointing. What can you do with 103 copies of a record by the Andrea True Connection? (Andrea True was a porn star who became a disco singer, and that's interesting, but her music is not.) There's Captain and Tennile if you want them, and Tammy Faye Bakker singing corny gospel, and nearly the entire Misty Label catalog with selections such as "Feelin' Groovy" by the Rock Revival, and albums by Kiss and Journey several times warmed over. There are "tribute" albums such as Malcolm's prized "Excerpts from the Rock Opera Tommy by 'The Who', Vol. 2" with the disclaimer that the album is actually "Played by the Decibels." Other 8- track bands would take names like "Rubber Soul" (after the Beatles' album) or "The King" (Elvis) to prod buyers into thinking they were somehow karmically in possession of the real thing.
The Grade A stuff, as in any format, is hoarded and sought after, although the boys aren't complaining about the Miles Davis, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Sun Ra, Charlie Parker, Jethro Tull, and Captain Beefheart material they've rescued. And Malcolm considers any tape offered in quadraphonic a prize. These tapes might have been mixed, say, with the drums in speaker one, the guitar in speaker two, the bass inspeaker three, and the organ in speaker four (the Pink Floyd concerts this summer were presented in quad). Trouble is, Malcolm hasn't been able to find a quad player. When we visit Porter's later, he weaves up and down the aisles searching, searching. He says he once found Emerson Lake and Palmer's first album in Quad while exploring the mountain, but he set it down and hasn't been able to find it since.
A week after the band bought the trove, the boys were looking through Goldmine, a newspaper for record collectors. Malcolm spotted a classified ad that read, "STUFF CHEAP! 25,000 8- tracks. All Styles. All Sealed. Asking $450. Lancaster, PA." Old Man Porter had been advertising! It made their find all the more exciting, knowing how easily other trackers might have beaten them to the loot.
But when Malcolm called the number in the ad, Porter didn't answer. Someone at the cafe next to the Lancaster Domino's did. His name was Keith, and he couldn't believe the boys also had 25,000 8-tracks.
"50,000 8-tracks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania!" Malcolm exclaimed. They'd located the 8-track center of the universe!
Keith had been an 8-track wholesaler once, and he'd squirreled away his stock after the format began its long, slow death. As it turned out, he'd sold half his stock years ago to Old Man Porter, which is how Gumball eventually got them. Now Keith was moving, so he'd sell the other half of the locket for $300 if the band would haul the stash away.
Because the band was heading to upstate New York to record their album, it couldn't close the deal. Keith moved the tapes himself, and it was a goddamned hassle, as the band could imagine. So when Gumball came back after a month of studio work, Keith wasn't in the mood to negotiate. The band hasn't given up on buying the tapes, and Malcolm would have paid a courtesy call on Keith at the cafe the day we drove up there-except that the Domino's next door had just burned down, and there were police lines everywhere.
They still make 8-tracks, country and western mostly, for truckers. The last plant is located in Nashville, Tennessee.The technology behind 8-tracks is simple enough; Malcolm snapped open an Engelburt Humperdink to show me the guts. There's a 300- foot loop of magnetic tape which winds infinitely back onto itself and plays up to 80 minutes of analog sound. It feeds from the inside of the roll, passes over a pinch roller and capstan and tape head openings and under two pressure pads, and then wraps itself back around the outside of the roll. Four "programs" of stereo are recorded on each tape-4x2=8-hence the name "8-track." The signature ker-CHUNK! sound the 8-track player makes at the end of each program is the noise of the tape head disengaging from a program and engaging the next.
The inventor of the 8-track was John Lear of Lear Jet. He registered his first patent in 1945, but his big break came 20 years later when he convinced the Ford Motor Co. to offer in-dash players as an option for their 1966 models. Until then, auto's audio cutting edge had been FM radio. Once RCA Victor and Capitol began released their catalogs on 8-track, Chrysler and General Motors joined the fray. The carmakers would usually toss in a corny sampler of rock, classical and jazz music to whet your appetite.
The 8-track's heyday ended around 1971, when the first car auto-reverse cassette decks appeared. The boxy tapes were a big pain in the butt, with all their hissing and kerchunking and jamming, and they still are for those who keep the dream alive. If you're not careful, the rubber roller can melt from the friction of the tape, spewing a tarry substance that destroys the 8-track and clogs your player.
Radio Shack hasn't offered an 8-track player since the 1990 catalog, when item number 14-935 went for $9.95. You may still find blank tapes or head cleaners at some Radio Shacks- the ones nobody visits much-but the company doesn't stock them officially. Mail- order record clubs offered the format until as late as 1988, which explains the Madonna 8-tracks every car built before 1975 seems to have in its glove box. A few devoted trackers still cross out "compact discs" on the club's postage-paid membership cards and mail them back with "8-tracks" scribbled across the top instead. The clubs reply with form letters.
There are three 8-tracks that get you invited to the ball. The first is Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music," the fingernails-against-the- blackboard release, which Lou claimed he made to satisfy the record deal he wanted out of. Malcolm calls it "the Holy Grail of 8-tracks." Don has a copy and got Lou to sign it. So Don gets an invitation.
The second tape is "The Yardbirds Live with Jimmy Page" (with its smoking version of "Dazed and Confused" called "I'm Confused"). The third tape is the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bullocks." A copy recently sold for $100 at a Dallas record store, which caused a gnashing of teeth among heavy duty trackers. The store owner, Mr. Bucks, who got started with his own collection by assembling the entire Beatles catalog, said he had put the $100 price tag on "Bullocks" because he didn't want it to sell. One day some kid came in while Bucks was at lunch. Didn't even try to bargain the clerk down.
This transaction set off a panic among the readers of 8- Track Mind, the quarterly bible of the tracker community. Trackers are worried that the high-end sales of Bullocks by Mr. Bucks, like that of baseball- card profiteers who sent the cost of Mickey Mantle skyward, might drive 8-track tapes beyond the $1 to $5 collectors were paying for premium titles. 8-Track Mind, which is edited by a color copy consultant named Russ Forster, has 100 subscribers. During its heyday, when 8-tracks were still alive, the 'zine supposedly had thousands more. Russ can't be sure. He took over from the founding editor in 1990, at issue 69, and has lost track of him. Malcolm writes articles for Russ once in a while, mostly on his specialty, bootlegs. When Malcolm wrote to tell Russ about the band's 25,000 tapes, Russ's response was "My head is spinning."
Russ, who owns about 500 8-tracks and many more albums, is shooting a 16mm film on trackers and life. He hopes the film, which took him from Seattle to Dallas to New Orleans to North Carolina to Washington to Lancaster to New York to Cambridge, will "dispel the notion that people into 8- tracks are beer-bellied ex-hippies trying to relive their glory days." His readers, he says, are generally white, middle-aged and educated.
A few years back, Russ helped organize an "8-Track Fest" in Chicago, which was an evening of performances by some artist friends. They performed thematic interpretations involving 8-tracks. For his act, Russ pretended he was a professor and gave a long-winded lecture on the spiritual nature of 8-tracks. "People said it was really realistic," he says. "I don't think that was a compliment." Russ laughs remembering that, mostly because he doesn't take 8-tracks that seriously. Just seriously enough to compose a list of the noble truths of tracking, but no more than that.
Russ says the Chicago band Big Black has a compact disc called "The Rich Man's 8-Track." "That really hits it on the head," he says.
On our way out of Lancaster, Malcolm and I stopped at Porter's. Just inside the door, we admired a liquor cabinet/miniature bar/8-track system unit, priced not to sell at $375. The cabinet had a serving rack for eight shot glasses, and below it a fireplace with a plastic log facade and a rotating orange light to stimulate heat. Endless drinks, infinitely looping music, a fire that never goes out-it summed up an entire decade.
We laughed at that thought, but then, abruptly, Malcolm's eyes widened with betrayal. Sitting next to the cabinet was a box of shrink-wrapped 8-tracks.
"They held some back," he said, picking up a copy of Funkadelics' "One Nation Under a Groove" and turning it over in his hand. Shorty rounded a corner just then, and Malcolm had a flash of fire in his eyes, as if he might gather him by the scruff of the neck and shake him until he confessed. But he caught himself, and his shoulders fell, and he flipped the tape back into the box. Soon Malcolm-and Gumball-will be the undisputed 8-track kings of the world, and no piddly puddle of tracks in a junk store in the middle of Pennsylvania able to topple them.
A rollicking wake was thrown last week in a Takoma Park back
alley for the late, and in some small circles lamented, Gumball. At the vigil, the
occasionally local band's legacy and the basis for its shtick--the biggest agglomeration
of 8-track tapes this side of the 1970s-- was divvied up among surviving members and some
When Columbia dropped Gumball from its stable and members took up residences in different parts of the East Coast, the tapes went from humorous identity builder to something of a nuisance. After assorted moves, the 8-tracks ended up in the garage of [tour manager John] Hansen's house in Takoma Park. About a month ago, Hansen let his buddies know that he no longer wanted the entire stock on his premises.
With only minor negotiations, an informal and amicable settlement was hammered out that called for Riviera, who now lives in Taylorsville, N.C., and Spiegel to come to Takoma Park for a more or less dignified divvying up of the wares. (Fleming, who live in N.Y.C., declined to participate.) The agreement called for Riviera and Spiegel to take as many trash bags full of 8-tracks as the trailer-equipped vehicles they brought to the function would hold, and Hansen would hold onto the balance. During the loading session--which was performed while deservedly obscure 8-tracks from various former members of Uriah Heep blared in the background--participants only rarely singled out titles from the cargo they were moving. "We don't want to get emotional," explained Hansen with a sigh.
Before heading back to Taylorsville in his dad's comically overstocked Cadillac Seville (the Gucci model), Riviera held out hope that the Gumball legacy would come together again in the very near future. His unlikely dream also includes the establishment of an 8-track museum. And Taylorsville, he added, would be the perfect place for such a shrine for at least two reasons: "I was born there... plus, there are still people in that town who don't know that 8-tracks aren't made any more."