Friday, November 27, 2015

Author Tom Stevens Talks About Ups And Downs Part Two: 8 Track Chicken Shack

This post contains spoilers.
They're out of high school and have found a mature dynamic for working together as business partners. Neither is afraid of hard work on their own terms, but nothing is formal and their brainstorming is still playful. It's how it works.

At this stage, David is the idea guy and Jim the risk taker. David doesn't have Jim's tolerance for dangerous or blatantly illegal work like transporting weed. Still, the anti-establishment vibe of the time leads David to the idea of 8 track tape piracy, which wasn't a criminal offense in the U.S. until early 1972. Those tapes were common and sold well, so David figured that the business was relatively safe, and could make them a lot of money in a short time.

The 8 track tape cartridge was very popular in the late 1960s and 1970s. It gave people something to play in their cars besides the radio. Muntz had a debatably better sounding cartridge with their 4 track, but when Ford Motors picked Learjet's 8 track cartridge as their choice for factory-installed tape players and record labels began to fall into line, it was all over--the 8 track cartridge had won and 4 tracks became obsolete. Cassette tapes of the day were too new and sounded bad, worse than 8 tracks.  Their time was yet to come.

8 track players and tapes were everywhere then. I have memories of walking into the automotive section of a new Kmart in 1968. The first CCR LP blared from a demonstration 8 track car player. Dozens of different car stereos were on display with blinking Christmas lights around them, and the area was full of teens and 20-somethings. There was excitement that came with the new format. It pulled in music fans, automobile heads and created a new boom industry: car stereo installation. All we'd had before this in the car was AM radio. The wide acceptance of 8 tracks changed that.

Pirate (aka bootleg) 8 tracks were a dollar or so cheaper than legit tapes. I remember them nearly everywhere--record stores, variety stores, pharmacies, not just truck stops.

The hits compilation tapes I saw were called Sound Singles, which was how I got the Sonic Singles name. My neighborhood stereo shop had an 8 track trade-in program. That was how I first discovered Sound Singles. I was in 7th grade, riding an aging yellow school bus to watch crosstown after-school basketball games to suspend the drag of depression from another too-long, sun-starved winter. The bus driver was playing a Sound Singles 8 track tape on repeat as I leaned away from the frozen window watching sheets of snow fall and feeling the blast of the bus heater at my feet. The music had a healing effect and negated the otherwise gloomy seasonal environment.

I finally tired of 8 track tapes--they broke too easily and I didn't like how songs faded in the middle before changing tracks. I still expect Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" to fade after the "I met a girl so fair" line, having worn out the 8 track. I sold my entire collection, along with my stereo home player, for just enough to replace all my favorite tapes with the vinyl equivalents. The first time I heard the Abbey Road LP on a proper stereo, I knew I'd made the right choice. Still, 8 tracks have sentimental value for me, which led me to write about them.

There are truck stops in the southern United States that are like giant swap meets with regular hours. They're an important little piece of Americana, and nothing really compares with them. Those places often have impossibly large collections of records, books, comic books, trading cards, figurines, even fishing lures. So in the late 60s, it was also common to see huge selections of pirate 8 track tapes in those truck stops.

I grabbed that bit from a legend floating around in the early 1970s. The rumor was that Jerry Lee Lewis had smashed up a rack of pirate 8 tracks that he found at a truck stop. The story was repeated everywhere from Mercury LP sleeves to Rolling Stone magazine. It was an obscure Zelig-like incident into which I couldn't resist inserting David and Jim.

Ups and Downs Part Two: 8 Track Chicken Shack is available here.

Ups and Downs Part One is available here.

For more about bootleg/pirate 8 tracks and 8 Track history:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Author Tom Stevens Talks About Ups And Downs Part One

This post contains spoilers.

It was time to do something different. Most of my past writings were either music reviews for magazines or poetry and verses to store up for new songs. Lately it's been longer pieces. Ups and Downs is the first novel I'm sharing with everyone.
I wanted to capture a history I remember before all of its witnesses fall silent. There's no shortage of writings about America in the 1960s, but for example, where are longhairs portrayed as successful serial entrepreneurs? The atmosphere was full of creativity, possibilities, risk and the removal of limitations. There was a lingering anti-establishment vibe, which drew some of the characters toward less-than-legit enterprises.
The characters are 100% fiction, yet familiar to me. The historical settings are real, and the timeline of history will surface more in coming chapters. Some comes from what I observed and remembered, some comes from oral histories, like friends talking about what they remember best about the era. Some events I had to research, since I was never, for example, a weed mule. I graduated high school in 1975 and had a draft card, so I was very familiar with making decisions based upon the possibility of military service. Some served, some stayed in college or used other methods to avoid it, but every young American male during that era lived with that prospect.
Popular media has boiled the sixties down to boring cliches: peace signs, drugs, flower power, hippies, Woodstock. Survivors who lived through it are dying off every day.
David and Jim would look like hippies to those from another era. They have long hair, they smoke weed, they love rock music. But they're also creative and driven. They want to open a record store and are focused upon how to make that happen. That means they're potentially good capitalists in any era. But rather than working for Wall Street, which is today's cliche, they focused on building upon their own ideals.
There was also moral ambiguity in the air, so many felt that breaking the rules to get what you need was no vice. There was a ton of money floating everywhere--the American middle class was huge with disposable income and an eagerness to consume, and youth culture was emerging strongly with rock and roll and everything surrounding it. That attracted creative minds to produce cool new stuff to profit from leisure spending for American youth.
It was indeed possible to open a cool record store in the late 1960s anywhere in America and be successful. Small record shops were well cared for by record companies and distributors. There is so much in this book that cannot happen today. What I miss above all is the spirit in which all things were possible.
I found myself thinking a lot about young Jim and Ann's forced separation. Sudden changes after a period of comfort can take a toll on anyone. What is heartbreaking is that these kids are so young and at peace with each other. Their lives together is their sanctuary, and suddenly it's gone. As a result, Jim starts to have doubts about his faith.
Milton's descent into heroin addiction was also a challenge. My brother in law was a heroin addict who died at 33. Milton is fairly innocent and very creative, but also high strung and not real sure of himself. The last thing he needs is smack, but he falls prey to an older neighborhood kid who sells it. But it's still a choice.
The record store dream isn't going to die, but they'll take a detour first, to raise more cash. You'll also see the timeline of the 1960s into the early 1970s as historic events affect their lives, for better or worse.

Ups and Downs Part One is available here.