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Reel World: eight-tracks across America



Most people think of the eight-track tape as a dinosaur, assuming that it perished alongside other oddities of the 1970s, like leisure suits and pet rocks. But those bulky plastic cartridges containing loops of oft-interrupted--kerchunk!--audiotape continue to inspire Russ Forster, editor of 8-Track Mind, a zine devoted to keeping analog alive in our digital world.

"I wasn't into eight-tracks the first time around," says Forster, who's 32. "But when a friend gave me an eight-track player and a lot of eight-track tapes some years back, I became hooked."

Forster says his distrust of CD--or "seedy"--technology is a reaction against the "lemminglike consumer culture of the past decade." His magazine's manifesto, "The 8 Noble Truths of the 8-Track Mind," bears out his Luddite sentiments: "New' and "Improved' don't necessarily mean the same thing."

But don't eight-tracks sound awful?

"Not necessarily," Forster insists. "The eight-track can have amazing sound because the tape moves at twice the speed of cassettes. The quality can almost be as good as reel-to-reel." He attributes eight-track's bad rap to record companies cutting corners when manufacturing the tapes.

Five years ago, Forster hooked up with a small group of like-minded enthusiasts in Wicker Park centered on Gordon Van Gelder, who claimed to have published 68 issues of a magazine called 8-Track Mind in the 1970s. Though the group never saw a copy of his publication, they designated the first issue of their magazine #69 out of respect for Van Gelder. But the group soon split, and Forster became the sole publisher when he moved to Detroit a few years ago. "I wanted to keep 8-Track Mind going. I saw from the response I was getting through the mail that there were sects of eight-track fanatics scattered all across the country. The magazine had become a forum for them, a way of networking, of exchanging stories and advice."

After working on a couple of no-budget movies, Forster decided to make a film about the eight-track subculture. "I knew there were some interesting personalities out there who were contributing to the magazine." He joined forces with local cinematographer Dan Sutherland, and in March 1994 the pair set off on a 25-day, "10,000-mile eight-track trek" to capture aficionados in their natural habitat. The result was the documentary So Wrong They're Right.

"The trip was amazing," Forster says. "The pace was really frantic. It was literally roll into town, knock on the door, set up equipment, film, break down equipment, eat, sleep, get up early, drive to the next town, and start the whole thing over again. I guess you could say it was one continuous loop around the country."

So Wrong They're Right won an award for best documentary at this summer's Chicago Underground Film Festival, and Forster already plans to make a sequel on the history of eight-track. For now he wants to have So Wrong They're Right translated into Japanese. "One of the collectors featured in the film, who is also a dealer of eight-track tapes and machines, sells a lot in Japan. There's a real fascination with American culture, kitschy or otherwise, and I think they'd be really receptive. I think eight-track could explode there."

So Wrong They're Right will be shown at 8 PM Friday and Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers' Kino-Eye Cinema, 1543 W. Division. Forster and Sutherland will be on hand after each screening to answer questions, raffle off eight-track treasures, and give a brief lecture on eight-track repair. Admission is $6; call 384-5533 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chip Williams.

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