"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Behold the humble 8-track, a sandwich-sized plastic portal to the days before compact met disc. This cartridge was the first truly portable version of tape, the masterstroke that 40 years ago shrank reel-to-reel to a size that would fit in your dash.
It's also a fossil, a faded flea-market filler relegated to the same media dustbin where old Atari cartridges and Beta home movies decay, an afterthought, if that, to a generation raised on Napster and 10-disc changers in the trunk. Today some Kelly Clarkson-infested iPod Nano docked in a piece of Korean fiberglass purporting to be a car is considered superior to the noble, unrewindable tape that back in the day let your uncle blare “Led Zeppelin IV” out of his third-hand Charger when he smoked grass before football practice. Some world this turned out to be.
If the 8-track is dead — and it has been, essentially, for a solid quarter-century — then Nathan Brown is running a morgue. On a recent night, the lanky, mustachioed 34-year-old musician and producer welcomes a visitor to the Stifft Station two-bedroom he and his wife, Tara, share with a little black dog named Cricket and a new kitten named Sneaky. He apologizes for the clutter: speakers stacked in a corner, 8-track decks on the floor. An open closet near the dining room table reveals a wall of hefty cardboard boxes labeled in tiny letters on Post-Its. “I work at Vino's, so I get the cracker boxes for free,” he says. “It just happens that they hold 52 8-tracks perfectly.”
That's untold hundreds of corpses in one closet alone. For Brown, one of Little Rock's certifiable audiophiles known best perhaps as the solo act Browningham, the 8-track is such an object of obsession that he's hoping not only to repopularize, but almost literally to resurrect it. This year he has recorded and engineered releases by two local bands — the Crisco Kids and San Antokyo — solely on 8-track, with plans to do the same for The Thing That Always Explodes, Magic Hassle (release show slated for Sept. 4 at Sticky Fingerz) and the Evelyns (release show July 19 at the White Water Tavern).
If he succeeds in stirring interest in analog music, he'll of course have a corner on the market for the cartridges and for the machines, which he buys used and restores to a condition less likely to eat your tape. As for the 8-tracks themselves, you almost don't want to know. To recycle the old cartridges (and there are only old cartridges available), he rebuilds them individually, cutting the tape to fit the duration of the recording, and duplicates them one by one.
“Everything I'm using,” he says, “people basically are setting out for the garbage.”
It's a pursuit both time-consuming and quixotic. (And maybe, one day, commercial, though for now he estimates, “If I had to guess what I'd be making an hour, it would probably be less than an Indonesian factory worker.”)
It's also highly stuff-intensive. The clutter exasperates Tara — “I love the man's brain, but sometimes I look around our house and think we are stocking up to sell homeless people some real estate,” she writes later in an e-mail. But she also accepts some of the blame for his obsession. It was about three years ago, on a tour road trip without a working stereo in the car, that she, a photographer, began discussing the differences between film and digital shots.
Film, she told him, is a physical mirror image of a scene. Digital, however, is a computerized simulacrum of the same. To her, the colors are askew; the details, fudged. The result is flat, she said, except in the most costly digital photos.