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.
Eight-tracks, according to the 1993 Goldmine Magazine Yearbook, first came clicking on the scene in 1965. The technology was developed as a prototype affordable car stereo by Bill Lear of Lear jet fame. And, indeed, for about a decade, eight-track decks were the definitive automobile sound system. Operation was simple: You just grabbed a cartridge, pushed it in and the songs went on forever. Some of those songs would be interrupted by an abrupt changing of channels, and occasionally, you'd find various songs missing or maybe the same song played twice. But the bulky format could also provide pleasant surprises. The eight-track edition of Sgt. Pepper's, for example, includes 20 seconds of music not found on vinyl.
For children of the Seventies, the tail-enders of the baby-boom bunch, eight-tracks were as much a part of growing up as flared jeans, Earth shoes and Black Sabbath. Indeed, eight-tracks were once de rigueur in high school parking lots, introducing a generation to the joys of cranking tunes with the windows down so everyone could hear how cool you really were.
Toward the end of the Seventies, eight-tracks began to lose favor. Cassettes, once woefully inferior in sound quality and sturdiness, began to get the attention of technicians. The sound was cleaned up, and the tape and fragile cassette chassis toughened. By 1982, cassettes were king and eight-tracks were following CBs to the dark end of the street.
Emory now says he rarely gets any interest in the hulking plastic corpses. The only time he takes them into the store is when they're included as afterthoughts in estate purchases. He remembers one such buy that proved profitable.
"We got all these David Bowie tapes from this one estate," Emory says as he motions over to four or five remaining copies of The Man Who Sold the World. "We put an ad in Goldmine, and for some reason, the majority of the Bowie tapes were bought up by different people in France. I didn't even know the format ever made it over there."
Emory adds: "What we usually get we get rid of in January. That's when they have these three big collector-car auctions in the Valley. People will go and get themselves an old muscle car and it'll have a tape player in it. They'll keep trying to jam their cassettes in there and wonder what's wrong. When they find out it's an eight-track machine, they'll get all excited and come in looking for a tape, and they'll buy something, take it out to the car and try and play it. The machine usually just chews it up."
Back at Gary Martin's apartment. "Waldo P. Emmerson Jones," from The Archies, is screeching out of the bedroom speakers. "That was Jughead's real name, you know," Martin says of the song title. As the next selection, "Bang-Shang-A-Lang," kicks into gear, Martin begins a guided tour of his collection. He points out the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks--Here's the Sex Pistols, Television's Marquee Moon and Iggy Pop and the Stooges' Metallic KO.
Other items include two copies of the first New York Dolls album, one copy each of the first three Raspberries releases, six recordings by 10cc, 12 years of Jethro Tull and the entire Kiss catalogue through the first four solo releases. Martin shows no less pride in owning one-hit wowsers by Paper Lace ("The Night Chicago Died"), Looking Glass ("Brandy") and Tee Set ("Ma Belle Amie").
Perhaps most impressive is Martin's ownership of Switched on Bach, recorded by Walter Carlos before Carlos underwent a sex-change operation and became Wendy Carlos, who recorded Switched on Brandenburg Concertos, which Martin also owns. He's got two examples of John Travolta trying to sing, and he's got Bing Crosby letting his hair down on Hey Jude, Hey Bing. ("Had to buy it," Martin says of Der Bingle's lunge at the Beatles.) Martin couldn't resist A Brady Bunch Christmas, and he's also in possession of the frighteningly similar A Partridge Family Christmas Card. "That's Keith singing 'Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,'" Martin enthuses. "Total, just total, anarchy."
Martin's managed to hold off listening to Telly Savalas' Who Loves Ya Baby?, which still sits in its original cellophane wrapper, as does Bob Dylan's Saved. "I just don't want to listen to them," Martin explains. He pulls out a preserved copy of Air Supply's Greatest Hits. "That one'll never get out of the wrapper, either."
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Martin's stacks of eight-tracks are impressive, but is this the stuff of an auction at Sotheby's? Not likely, and Martin says he really doesn't care what his tapes are worth. Even so, an eight-track collector in Texas told Goldmine that copies of the Sex Pistols' Bollocks might go for as much as $100 each these days. And who knows what something like Woody Allen's The Night Club Years: 1964-68 would fetch under the right circumstances?
But it's a slippery market out there; not every eight-track is as it seems. When Spinal Tap's latest album was released, the record company sent out a few eight-track versions as promotional gimmicks. The tapes were actually old Kool and the Gang and other disposable cartridges redecorated with Spinal Tap cover art.
Martin revels in that kind of eight-track trivia; music is his passion, his life. But most of all--and there are 1,600 testimonials to this--he loves eight-tracks.
"Hey," he says, pulling out a copy of The Best of Hugh Montenegro. "Why else would I own something like this?