Last time I was back in Pennsylvania, I hit a place in the local mall that’s a sprawling flea market. Used to be called Phar-Mor, a cross between a large drug store and small chain, but that went out of business a long time ago. A few years ago, like weeds sprouting between the cracks of downtrodden concrete, that space was taken over by some odd coalition of flea-market folks, the concept being each had their lot (of which there are a few dozen), stocked with whatever second-hand items they have for sale, and there are cash registers on the mall and parking lot entrances, so shoppers can peruse and buy at their leisure.
It’s a strange place, filled with memories, useless gadgets from the 60s and 70s, beer cans for extinct beers, mothbally clothes, albums, cassettes, jewelry, paintings. The same stuff you’d find in Salvation Army stores and lower-end antique shops. The kind of place you can get lost in. Just wandering around it, seeing toys I used to play with, books I’ve read, posters that were once hot stuff at Spencer’s, old army gear of the kind we used to sport as kids playing army – it was an oddly reassuring place to spend a few minutes.
The mall is dying. I remember when it opened back in 1980, a momentous occasion, like a new world was opening, stores everywhere, the place to be. But this was before Walmart took over everything. Malls themselves at the time were usurpers of downtown shopping areas, which went destitute almost immediately afterwards and have stayed that way decades later. You walk through that mall now, half the spaces are empty, and it just feels like the wind has been knocked out of the place.
A perfect environment for second-hand shopping! I saw the usual selection of vinyl and cassettes. It seems like now is the time to hunt down vintage cassettes if so inclined. Every lot in the place that had music-leaning items, there was a box or two of dozens of cassettes, reminding me how hot those things were through most of the 80s.
But the real find for me was eight-track cassettes. Not every place had them. The ones that did, the selection was sparse. Most were selling them for anywhere from $3.00 to $5.00 a piece. Just picking up one, for me, was like touching history, a part of my life that no longer exists, and I can’t find my way back.
I have the music on the eight tracks, on my iPod. Shit, I have the music, I have bootleg copies of demo tapes of the music, I have unreleased live versions of the music, I have songs the band never released because they thought they weren’t good enough. I have a vast knowledge and grasp of that music that I never could have had at the time – who had demo recordings of bands in the 70s, but the bands themselves and maybe guys who worked in studios?
But, I don’t have the eight track! I had eight tracks for some of these bands. I didn’t have a lot of eight tracks. In their prime, maybe two or three dozen, tops. Some guys had way more, carrying those massive suitcase-style storage boxes that they’d flip open on the hood of the ’76 Nova and marvel at their rock expertise (Frampton, Styx, Foghat, Head East, Heart, Steve Miller, Joe Walsh, etc.) before kerplunking one into the Sparkomatic to blow everyone's mind.
Eight tracks sucked. In my opinion, the absolute worst product the recording industry ever put out. Cassettes were a close second – they sounded a little better, and the songs wouldn’t split between tracks. And the timing was such that cassette recorders were much more available in the 80s than eight-track recorders were in the 70s, thus we could make our own mixes. Both eight tracks and cassettes had the same problems: sound bleed-through from other tracks/sides, and the tape would often snarl in the player, thus ruining the recording. Happened to me many times with cassettes and car stereos. So, if you liked the music enough, you’d have to go out and buy another copy.
Something came over me while perusing those eight tracks. Not necessarily nostalgia, but something similar. Touching those things reminded me how far I’ve slipped away from that 70s rural existence, moving to a major city in the 80s and staying there. I felt like I was physically touching a burned-out memory. It just seemed like such a different world then. Before computers. Before the internet. Before MP3 files. Before so many things that are part of my daily routine now.
I didn’t mourn this loss – just became more aware of it. Like how when I’m back there in summer, that feels more like a gateway to that time, the green grass, the heat, mowing the lawn for old times sake. I guess a similar comparison would be an older man in the 1960s in Europe going back to visit his home village that was devastated in World War II, walking around, everything’s different but the same in a sense, and he comes across something that touches him like a direct path to the time before all the shit happened.
Not like a war has occurred here. But I’m trying to recall that world where I would go out and buy an eight track, listen to it religiously on a stereo, dogging the same album for weeks, read about the band in Creem or Rolling Stone, maybe see them on The Midnight Special if I was lucky, but otherwise just going about my teenage life, riding around on bicycles and then in cars, writing it all down in spiral notebooks on my bed, a bed I still sleep on when I go back there.
There was such an intense bond I had to certain bands and artists back then that I don’t have now. Certain albums, I know every moment, sometimes even have skips and glitches memorized from the vinyl albums and tapes I had at the time. Back then, it was like I was married to music, whereas now I have thousands of relationships that overwhelm me sometimes. Quantity over quality. I still hear plenty of quality, it’s just the sheer volume of what I can listen to now is so much more than what it was then. I’ve turned over every stone that was a mystery to me for decades throughout my musical life. But the emotional connection just isn’t the same.
So when I pick up an eight track, it reminds me of that emotional bond, not just to that eight track, but to that way of life, being a kid, living in the country, being fairly happy with it all, not a bad childhood or way of life, parents in their 40s and 50s at the time, so many other kids in the neighborhood, some good friends, others pains in the ass. I guess that sense of everything being in front of me. Whereas now, I’m halfway through life and feeling much more constricted, whether I am or not. The eight track feels like freedom, in a sense, or a doorway to a lost world. Of course, I realize that world and feeling are an impossible way of life to me as an adult, but it doesn’t mean I can’t tap into it every now and then, in a car, driving at night with the windows down, few days off from work, just taking it easy as opposed to resting before the next work day kicks into over-drive.
And that is nostalgia: romanticizing a time that, I know from memory, didn’t feel romantic at all. I don’t think it’s that specific time period that I’m romanticizing so much as time itself, the passing of it, how you can see it move in with you and everyone you know. I’m good with moving for the most part, but shit, over 20 years in the city, living a way of life that can get to be a bit of a grind at times, and it’s easy to lose track and fade out memories and connections that should remain as guide posts, if nothing else.
I find it good to slow things down in my spare time and do this, just write, like I always have, or honestly, don’t do much of anything. People at work are always carrying on about going this place and that, doing this, doing that, social get-togethers like a crowded business schedule, but, man, I just want to take it easy when I’m not working, do some errands around the apartment, help the landlord keep her place clean and in order, hit the gym, listen to music, get take out. I don’t know if that’s insecurity with people that they have to feel like they’re gunning it in their spare time and doing thousands of things, but it seems more important to me at this point in my life to take it easy and relax. Whether or not that impresses anyone else. When I read a good story or see a good movie, it’s that sort of understanding I value more than any flashy plot or visual aspects. I want to know people – I want to know myself. Which takes time, a lot of it, and doesn’t happen when you’re trying to do a thousand things that, I guess, make you think you’re a more interesting person.
In any event, the eight tracks I picked up were Sleepwalker by The Kinks, Dreamboat Annie by Heart and The Slider by T. Rex. All of which I had on eight track at the time. I want to get Heaven Tonight by Cheap Trick and Hermit of Mink Hollow by Todd Rundgren, as those, too, were key eight tracks at the time. I realize how goofy this all sounds. Not just buying eight tracks in this day and age, but buying them not for the purpose of playing them, but more as a form of recent cultural archeology. I found these fossils, and now I’m remembering all these other dinosaurs that used to roam rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s.