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Gary Martin's eyes are getting big again. They tend to do that when Martin shows off his music collection. He'll point with passion at familiar recordings from the classic-rock era. He'll wave his arms and give pithy sermons on the merits of fusion-jazz titles from the early Seventies. Gary Martin's a man in awe of his own hobby, and he loves sharing his life's interest with anyone who'll listen.
But that's a problem. Martin's hobby is collecting eight-track tapes.
He's got more than 1,600 of them. They line one of the walls of his living room and threaten the entirety of his bedroom. It's like Eight-Trackpalooza. And eight-track players, too. Martin's got eight-track decks in every room of his modest, east Phoenix apartment. He's even got five or six back-ups tucked away in a closet, just in case.
"It's an obsession," Martin says without the slightest hint of remorse. "It's to the point where I can't go past a thrift store without thinking I have to stop in. Because if I don't, I'll miss that one special find, that one Big Star tape that might be out there."
As he speaks, The Raspberries Greatest Hits clicks through songs on the living-room deck, a Pioneer Centrex player/recorder found for $15 at a local Salvation Army store. Memorabilia abounds at the Martin abode. An original 1965 Beatles lunchbox with Thermos bottle beams from a corner next to the kitchen. And on the wall is a framed collage of ticket stubs, ranging from a 1975 Elton John show at ASU Activity Center to a Redd Kross performance at the Roxy just a few months ago. Down the hall, in the closet, next to one of the tape decks, Martin's got some tee shirts tucked away, including one from 1978 that marks the "last tour" by the Rolling Stones.
It's all very cool, in a rock-retentive sort of way. But 1,600 eight-track tapes?
"Hey, it's a good way to get a lot of music for not a lot of money," Martin says.
Not that a 29-cent eight-track is always a bargain. Martin's rocker-dude hair shakes slowly when he considers the many defective tapes he's run into. He remembers he once discovered two coveted Tom Waits titles, Blue Valentine and Nighthawks at the Diner, at a thrift store. He took the nuggets home only to watch in horror as his Centrex made a meal of both tapes. "Munched and mangled beyond repair," he mutters. "A crushing blow."
Martin says the silver sensor tape that signals track changes is usually the problem in such cases. It often makes for a death sentence, but not always. Martin runs to the closet and pulls out a roll of sensor tape, a combination penknife/screwdriver and a surgical hemostat. He grabs a copy of Linda Ronstadt's Hand Sown, Home Grown and proceeds to demonstrate how to pry open a cartridge and repair a diseased tape.
"Some of the stuff I just don't want to lose, even though it may cost only a quarter," he explains, snapping his plastic patient back to life. "Other times, it's my pride. I want to see if I can get them to work."
Martin's a longtime Valley musician, having played drums most notably for the Feedbags, most recently for the Cheddars. He says he first started collecting eight-tracks while working for Tower Records in the early Eighties, about the time the format was being phased out. Martin's collection didn't get serious until a few years ago, when he couldn't help but notice the same music on a $14 CD going for a couple of dimes at a St. Vincent de Paul Society store.
"Go to the music section of these places," he says of thrift shops. "They've got all these cheap tapes there and no one even sees them." Martin's current job as a delivery driver allows him to stop for quick checks at secondhand thrifts on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. He says he doesn't bother with antique stores or used record shops. "Too expensive," he says. "If it's over a buck, I won't pay it."
Martin pauses. Like most collectors, he guards his territory. He figures there are others out there digging for the same treasure.
"I guess I'm kinda letting the cat out of the bag," he says sheepishly.
Martin needn't worry. Not according to Roger Emory, co-owner of Prickly Pair Records & Tapes in Phoenix.
"No one buys eight-track tapes," Emory says from behind the counter. He seems slightly bemused that someone would come to his collectibles shop and even ask about eight-tracks. "You know," he says, "I'm not so sure I want to be known as being knowledgeable on the subject."
Emory brightens a bit when he learns there's at least one person in town collecting the plastic relics. Emory lumbers over to the far end of his store and opens a small, dusty display case. He seems to find new interest in eight-track copies of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Elvis Christmas Album. He then takes special notice of some Byrds tapes.
"These might be worth something," he says. "They're four-track tapes. You can tell by the green cartridges." Emory thinks four-tracks preceded eight-tracks by a few years. He figures Columbia must have been behind the short-lived technology, because so many four-tracks were on the Columbia label.