Eight Track Cartridges: A museum opens in Roxbury
During our family’s recent road trip across America, I made a point of visiting music museums, from Memphis to Kansas City to Cleveland. I hadn’t expected to return home to the Catskills and find that the picturesque but remote village of Roxbury, in Delaware County, would soon be added to that list. Stranger things have happened in the world of music archiving of course… I’m just struggling to think of one right now.
The Eight Track Museum, on the second floor of the village’s new Orphic Gallery, which recently took over the 7,000 foot building known as the ‘Roxbury Corner Store,’ officially opened its doors on Saturday October 13 with a full-on party that belied the town’s sleepy reputation. Yet it is not the world’s first permanent monument to the portable musical medium that gained popularity in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s and then disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived. It is in fact an off-shoot of an 18-month old Eight Track Museum in Dallas, TX, whose founder Bucks Burnett parlayed interest in a temporary show at the Orphic from the Roxbury gallery’s owner, Phil Lenihan, into a permanent satellite museum. Burnett, for whom the description “a character” would appear to be a profound understatement, was on hand for the Roxbury opening, bringing his friends Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth over from Connecticut to add some star power to proceedings, while my own pal Jezz Harkin had the pleasure of hosting his Saturday night radio show for local community station WIOX from the Museum’s kitchen. Downstairs, meanwhile, recently-relocated San Francisco photographer Peter Stupar was on hand to talk about his exhibition of iconic rock photographers, All Most Famous, including some truly stellar shots of The Who at the Winterland Auditorium in 1976, as well as classic prints of Freddie Mercury, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, David Bowie, and a truly unique photograph of Linda Ronstadt on stage with Mick Jagger during the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls tour of 1978. Ronstadt is wearing hot pants; Jagger, for reasons that beggar all belief, is wearing a Destroy T-shirt with a swastika.
But we digress. I never owned an Eight Track Cartridge, never even operated one to the best of my knowledge, though I do vaguely recall their popularity when I came to Canada for two consecutive summers in the mid-1970s. As such, I learned much about the format at the Roxbury-based Museum: how they were originally commissioned by Bill Lear so that pre-recorded music could be played in his Lear Jets, only to make the natural jump to the automobile as a format for the working class instead, providing a first ever challenge to the ubiquity and cultural dominance of the American car radio. I also learned that Eight Track Cartridges were so-called because they comprised four pairs of stereo tape aligned alongside each other, meaning that each LP was split into four sides, songs themselves often ending or fading out abruptly, only to pick up again a few seconds later once the tape flipped over. (When consumers objected to this, record companies opted to re-arrange the running order, repeat shorter songs, or even edit tracks to compensate!) The format was bulky, and it was low on artistic aesthetics, but for a while there, it was installed in most car stereos that merited the name. And then came the cassette tape – a smaller, re-recordable format which could break LPs into their originally sequenced lengths, and the Eight Track began an irreversible slide into obscurity.
The Orphic Gallery’s museum serves, to some extent, to preserve and glorify the medium in all in its fleeting glory, with a grand wall of cartridges (most with 25c stickers from the truck stops and yard sales that have offloaded them over the years), an impressive display of Eight Track hardware, and the housing of what Burnett claims to be indisputably the rarest tape of them all – a Sinatra/Jobim collaboration that the singer nixed at the very last moment – in a glass cabinet with a lone cigarette for a prop. But the Museum does much more than just focus on what was, after all, one of but many passing musical formats: it also celebrates those that preceded and followed it, from the original Edison phonograph that utilized wax cylinders, through to the phonograph, the reel-to-reel tape, and onto the compact disc and iPod. Lost in the musical shuffle is the Digital Audio Tape, the Mini-Disc and the Digital Compact Cassette, all of which failed to catch on with consumers despite massive industry funding. As such, the Eight Track Museum is right to conclude: “Think the iPod is the end of the Musical Format Timeline? Think again.” We just don’t yet know what will replace it.