Tiny Tim, Mr. Ed, and eight-track collecting: a conversation with Bucks Burnett
A few weeks ago, I passed a press release on to you regarding record store owner Bucks Burnett and his quest to establish an Eight-Track Museum deep in the heart of Texas. Most readers who cared to respond to the idea treated it as a novelty at best and a bad joke at the worst, but after talking to Burnett at length over the phone, it became very clear to me that, above all else, he is an astute lover and chronicler of pop culture who is totally committed to preserving the legacies of everything from talking horses to wax cylinders. In a sense, he is a classic rock version of Harry Smith, seeking to build not only a homage to a format the general public has forgotten about, but to also create a sort of grassroots version of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also the type of guy who’s personality and thoughts shouldn’t be bastardized and edited for a routine article, which is why I have decided to present our conversation almost totally uncut.
AS: As you know, the main thing I want to ask you about is the Eight-Track Museum and eight-track collecting in general, but before we do that I’d like to talk a little bit, if we can, about some of the other ventures you’ve had throughout your career.
BB: Ok, cool.
AS: Let’s start with the Mr. Ed Fan Club. The first thing that comes to mind with that is why Mr. Ed?
BB: Well, I actually made up the Mr. Ed fan club in the mid-’70s as an excuse to talk to Monty Python over the phone. Dallas was the first city in America to air Monty Python in the mid-’70s on KERA Channel 13. And you know how they have their pledge drives every three months? Well, they actually appeared at the Dallas pledge drive and you would phone in your pledge and somebody from Monty Python would answer and that was the pledge drive because the show was so instantly popular in Dallas that people would call in just to see if John Cleese would answer the phone. So I was just in my teens at the time and Terry Gilliam answered and we talked for a couple of minutes and he asked me if I wanted to join Channel 13 and just off the top of my head I said “No, do you wanna join the Mr. Ed Fan Club?” I made it up as something ridiculous sounding and he said, “Is that the horse?” and I said, “Yeah.” And so he laughed about it and then he made a joke with everyone else in Monty Python and that’s how it started: with a joke between me and Terry Gilliam.
It sort of culminated and turned into an actual fan club and culminated with a rock festival I organized, an indoor one-day festival called Edstock, which was basically a Mr. Ed version of Woodstock. Our headliners were Joe Ely, T-Bone Burnett, Tiny Tim, and we had Alan Young who played Wilbur Post. It was at a venue called the Bronco Bowl Auditorium in Dallas, a 3,000-seat venue which was the best venue in the history of the city and has, sadly, been torn down about 10 years ago. So the Mr. Ed Fan Club sort of started with Monty Python and ended with T-Bone Burnett and Tiny Tim.
AS: Yeah, I read where there were some pretty notable members of the fan club over time, as well.
BB: Yeah, I’m sort of in my heart of hearts a groupie. I’ve always made it a point to meet my heroes and I quickly found out that when you want to have a conversation with your hero, start the conversation with something they haven’t heard yet. So when I met Eric Clapton, I wasn’t going on about how great “Layla” was. I was like, “Hey, would you like a free membership in the Mr. Ed Fan Club?” And, you know, hit ’em with something like that and they start laughing and kind of relax.
I’ve personally inducted at least 25 rock stars including Clapton, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page, Alice Cooper. I met Alice Cooper in 1990 and we had a nice visit on his tour bus. When I told him about the Mr. Ed Fan Club he told me I was a great American.
AS: How did you hook up with Tiny Tim?
BB: Tiny Tim played Dallas at a club called Confetti in 1982 and I became fascinated with the idea of meeting him, because I grew up about the time he was getting famous. I was only 10 or 11, but I remember seeing him on Laugh-In and The Tonight Show. Me and my parents were actually Tiny Tim fans. Then in 1982, I sort of snuck backstage at this little club and met him and asked him for an interview. We did an interview later that night and stayed in touch and I brought him back to town in ’84 for Edstock. I actually brought him back to town a month before Edstock and we produced him singing the Mr. Ed theme song, which we had for sale at Edstock. So my first professional relations with him was producing the Mr. Ed 45.
Then, I started booking a lot of his Dallas gigs and I produced his last two CDs, one of which was Girl on Rounder Records with Brave Combo, which people were into. It actually got good reviews and we went out of our way to, without losing our sense of humor, prove that Tiny really was a good musician.
AS: Oh yeah, I think that people like him, and there’s a lot of others- I’d even count Alice Cooper in that group- who have some sort of novelty factor which causes people to stop taking them seriously as artists.
I think Tiny’s problem was not a lack of talent. I think it’s just that after he got dropped from Reprise he repeatedly fell into the hands of producers with bad ideas and people who just wanted to exploit his name and they had no real vision for him. That’s why in the ’70s and ’80s there’s some good material, but there’s also a lot of mediocre material. Just because, you know, he got hooked up with small-time people with bad ideas.
AS: What’s your fondest memory of working with Tiny Tim?
BB: I spent hundreds of hours with him over a 14-year period and it was all fun, it was always fun to talk to him. He had these great stories and we’d talk on the phone a lot as well. I think that my favorite memories were always watching him actually lay down a vocal in the studio, to watch him work, because he took it very, very seriously and he was very challenged in certain areas. For example, he had really bad timing and he would lose track in the middle of a song and we’d have to correct that a lot. And at the same time, he was dead serious professional. He knew when he’d done a great take and he knew when he hadn’t. He was really serious about being the best vocalist he could be, so he really did have the personality of a famous opera star, if you can imagine that. He had a very big personality and he was very confident and consumed with the concept of greatness.
AS: To switch subjects, when and why did begin collecting eight-tracks?
BB: In 1988, I found the Beatles’ White Album at a garage sale. It was $7, which I thought was an insane price and the guy would not negotiate. But I bought it anyway because it had this really cool black slipcase with a gold apple on the front and I’d never seen one before and I thought it was exotic. So I took it home and I’m like ‘wait a minute. Now I have to get every Beatles eight-track.’
Now this was before eBay was around and they weren’t making [the tapes] anymore, so to fill my Beatles collection, I had to start going to flea markets and thrift stores and that kind of stuff. So it took me five years to complete the collection, but in the process of collecting Beatles eight-tracks, I discovered that you could buy a lot of cool eight-tracks dirt cheap. You know, you could get a whole box for five bucks.
I owned a little record store at the time called 14 Records in Denton, Texas. I had 14 Records from ’88 through ’91, then we moved down to Dallas from ’91 to ’95. Throughout the whole history of my record store, I went from selling a small box of eight-tracks kind of as a joke to the point where they were selling so quickly even as I started raising the prices on them and they began to dominate my store. Then the reputation got out and I sold a Sex Pistols eight-track for $100. That actually did begin the collectability of eight-tracks in the early ’90s when an Associated Press wire story went out about that tape selling for $100. So overnight, I managed to create the concept of eight-tracks being valuable and a lot of collectors hate me to this day because they blame the high prices on me and I guess they’re right.
AS: What’s the most that you personally have ever paid for an eight-track?
BB: A thousand dollars.
AS: For what?
BB: I found out there was another Beatles eight-track I didn’t have that came out in 1982. The Beatles’ 20 Greatest Hits. It was just one of those cheesy reissues that the company put out, but they made a few copies in the initial test run and- this is as the eight-track was dying- Capitol decided not to release it at the last minute. So those prototypes are all there is and it’s widely believed that there are 10 or fewer copies of this particular eight-track in existence. I found one and that’s what the guy wanted, so that’s what I paid.
AS: What’s the allure of the eight-track for you?
BB: Truly, just as an artistic relic and I think they’re underrated as legitimate pieces of a band’s discography, and to me are also underrated as collectibles. To me, if 45s and LPs and 78s are to be respected, why can’t tapes be respected? Now there’s a lot of high prices going down every day on eBay, not just for eight-tracks, but for reel-to-reel tapes and four-track tapes and a format called two-track tapes. You know what the two-track was?
BB: Google “two-track Playtape” or look it up on eBay. They’re about half the size of an eight-track. Tiny little tapes, but most of the Beatles albums came out on two-track as well.
AS: Do you own all of those as well?
BB: I don’t have all of them. I have almost all of them. But the two-tracks are a lot harder to find than the eight-tracks. But in my museum I have a wall dedicated to completing collections of every single Beatles release. And, you know, that’s a lot of tapes. The Beatles had a lot of albums, and I’m getting complete collections on eight-track, reel-to-reel, cassette, four-track, and two-track. Are you familiar with the four-track tape?
BB: So it’s actually a big wall and it just has hundreds of Beatles tapes on it. So when you see it in person, it’s really stunning to see that many Beatle tapes taking up that much space. And what’s funny is that directly facing that wall in the museum is my Rutles wall. I have a wall dedicated to the Rutles as well, so I think the two kinda balance each other out.
AS: I saw where you had mentioned before that you are trying to complete the collection for all of the major rock artists of that era. Is that correct?
AS: Which artists do you have complete right now and which ones are you looking to complete?
BB: I’m absolutely certain that I have complete collections by Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk, and a few others. But so many of these artists made like 20 or 30 albums, so to get every single last one, there’s still quite a few major artists I haven’t completed yet.
What’s funny is there’s no rhyme or reason to why certain albums by some artists are so scarce on eight-tracks while others are not. For example, there’s several Bob Dylan titles that never turn up on eight-track, but I know they were released on eight-track. Miles Davis, for instance, almost never surfaces on eBay on eight-track. So there’s certain artists- people assume it’s real easy, you just go on eBay and pay $5. Well, it’s not that easy. There’s a lot of titles that aren’t on eBay and if you do find them they’re 50 or 100 dollars. So it’s a real challenge to build these collections.
AS: But you’re also interested in not only collecting or preserving the eight-track format, but also bringing it back.
BB: Yeah, I’m actually launching on February 14th a new eight-track label and it’s called Cloud 8 Formats. I though Cloud 8 was a funny name for an eight-track label and I’m also changing the name of my record store to Cloud 8 and the gift shop of the Eight-Track Museum is called Cloud 8, so I just want to have the same name on everything to kind of unify everything into one.
But our first two releases on Valentine’s Day. We’re making eight copies by Dallas’s most popular local band. They’re called the O’s. And they’re going to be playing at the museum on February 14, along with another local songwriter named Stu Dicious. Then I’ve got Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Tom-Tom Club. After the O’s play, Chris and Tina are going to do a meet and greet and sign their eight-tracks. We’re also releasing a limited edition of 30 eight tracks of their new live album, which is called Genius of Live. They wanted to do 30 copies in honor of the 30th anniversary of the band.
So it’s gonna be a festive evening. An evening of love.
AS: Have you considered branching out by talking to artists about releasing eight-track copies of their albums on an on-demand basis?
BB: Yeah, that’s fully my intention and that’s why I made it a point to bring in a national act. I mean, the O’s are hugely popular in Dallas and since we’re only making eight copies of the eight-track, I’m pretty confident we’ll sell all of those in one night. But the reason I wanted to have the national act as a way to get people to take the label seriously. It’s my full intention to ultimately continue to put out new releases and, if I could get the rights, go back and reissue classic titles. Or go back a little at a time and put out a Bob Dylan eight-track that never came out on eight-track. I’ll put out Modern Times on eight-track as a limited edition if his manager and record company will let me.
I mean, there’s no limit to what you can do and the reason I’m calling it Cloud 8 Formats is that I’m going to be releasing music on a variety of formats. I’m going to put out 78s. I’m also going to put out wax cylinders. I found a company who’s still making wax cylinders, which was the very first music format in the 1800’s. I think it’s going to be a great, fun way to promote physical formats. I don’t play mp3s. I use actual things and I want to promote that.
My problem with mp3s is that I want to include- with the museum it’s mostly eight-tracks, but I do have an exhibit of every single format ever made and to be fair, I did have one mp3 player installed in the museum, but I can’t find it.
I think any cool musician would be interested in putting out something on a so-called “dead format.” And the point is, the formats really aren’t dead. My band, Rachel Bazooka, just released our first album last year on three formats: CD, eight-track, and two-track. We put out the first commercial two-track in 40 years. [laughs] That’s just nutty.
AS: What’s your opinion on the resurgence in vinyl in recent years?
BB: I couldn’t be happier. From 1990 until 2005, you couldn’t give away a record. Literally nobody was buying them and I’ve worked in record stores for 35 years, so it sorta broke my heart to see records just become worthless. And you know, I absolutely love CDs; they’re actually what I primarily listen to, believe it or not, just for casual listening, but it was a heartbreaking 15-year stretch where no one cared anymore. It was just a small handful of collectors. So the comeback of vinyl- which is not being exaggerated, it’s very significant and it’s very real- means records matter again and I can have a record store again. I mean, to have any physical format selling is cool to me.
And do you know about the growing underground movement of cassette-only artists who are releasing really great-looking well-designed cassettes? I’ve just found out about that recently, so I’ve really gotta catch up on that movement.
But the LP format coming back is hugely significant to me, because I now own my second record store. I had 14 Records for seven years and Cloud 8 is now in it’s third year. It’s just great to see them appreciated because, a) it’s just the way it should be, but b) I can sell records again. And there’s a lot more profit for a store owner from selling used albums than there is in selling used CDs.
AS: With used CDs, you can find them on Amazon for a penny.
BB: Yeah, and that market’s just crashing right now. They’re still selling but the prices are decreasing. LP prices are climbing and it’s really exciting. Two-thirds of the LP customers at my store are average age 20 to 25. It’s cool to see kids, as I call them- at 52, everybody’s a kid compared to me- it’s just great to see them so enthusiastic about the LP and the cover art and get inspired by the history of the band and then they turn into collectors. LPs inspire collecting. I don’t think mp3s inspire that same kind of passion.
AS: Getting back to the eight-tracks, you’re also working on a documentary film about eight-track collecting, correct?
BB: I started filming just a casual documentary about the eight-track tape in 1992. I got the idea when eight-tracks started selling and becoming collectible again. When I sold the Sex Pistols eight-track for $100, I thought ‘wait a minute. These things are really important to some people.’ And it just struck me as interesting that a documentary should be made.
I figured it would take me a year, but because I’m so half-assed about it, I can’t be bothered with my own film. [laughs] I’m now in absolutely my last year of filming and I’m going to release it in 2012, so when it says “20 years in the making” on the package, it’ll be the truth. But I’ve gotten no less than 40 or 50 rock stars, including the Talking Heads, Jimmy Page, Tiny Tim, I got an interview with Sterling Morrison before he died, Matthew Sweet, T-Bone Burnett, I mean it’s just an endless list of rock stars I’ve interviewed just about the eight-track. There’s a lot of historical information and, I guess, at the risk of sounding self-indulgent, the film is going to end with the grand opening party on Valentine’s Day at the Eight Track Museum and the launch of the label.
The name of the film is Spinal Tape. And I have a suspicion that the fake rock band has very real lawyers. [laughs] I’ll probably get a cease-and-desist from a fake rock band if I call it Spinal Tape. We’re about to find out.
AS: It wouldn’t surprise me.
BB: [laughs] Hey, you know what? I could use the publicity. It’d be a great way to launch my movie, for Spinal Tap to shut me down. [laughs]
I am really excited about the film and I’m glad you asked about it, because I’m not a filmmaker. I spent the first five years every time I scored an interview, I’d have to go borrow a friend’s camcorder. [laughs]
AS: Somebody wanted me to ask you this. It seems that for every format, there is one artist or one album that is identified with that format in the eyes of the public. For example, Sgt. Pepper or The White Album on the LP, Thriller or even Appetite for Destruction on cassette, Nevermind on CD. What is the one album identified with eight-track?
BB: Oh wow. There’s a lot of answers to that, but I’d say Led Zeppelin. I couldn’t tell you a particular tape out of their discography, but probably Physical Graffiti or Led Zeppelin IV. I mean, Led Zeppelin ruled the ’70s and that was the absolute zenith of the eight-track’s popularity. A lot of younger people don’t know how well the eight-track sold and dominated the market. It was the second-best selling format, after the LP, and it sold multiple millions of copies every year for 15 years.
AS: Do you have any idea what the best-selling eight-track was?
BB: No, but that’s an excellent question and now that you’ve raised it, I’d like to find that out. I pray to God it’s not Thriller. [laughs] But by the time that came out the eight-track was kind of waning in popularity, so it was probably- I would predict- either Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or Saturday Night Fever. Maybe Hotel California. It would probably be a mirror of whatever the best-selling LP was. Real mainstream bands like that were the bands who were most popular on eight-track, because those were the bands people wanted to listen to in the car. But it’s just a tough question to answer and the documentation probably doesn’t exist. In fact, the next time somebody asks me that I’m just gonna like make something up and act like it’s true.
AS: Yeah, make a band up and everything.
BB: Yeah, just tell a lie. Who’s gonna correct me? I’m the king of the eight-track.
AS: What are your future plans for the Museum. Right now you’re doing an exhibit dealing with the first years of the eight-track in 1965 and ’66, but what will your next exhibit be after that?
BB: I couldn’t tell you. This one’s probably going to stay up until April, because we’re kinda having a slow, organic start to the Museum. Here’s the deal: the Museum actually has two rooms, the little room and the big room. The big room houses what will always be the permanent collection and we’re going to be putting better condition copies on the wall and taking lesser conditions down as I buy more and more tapes, so it will be constantly improved. We also have in that permanent collection unusual items such as the dental mold of Tiny Tim’s teeth and I just bought Tiny Tim’s 1968 passport. Also, Dylan’s stage harmonica from Ft. Worth, 1978. So it’s not just tapes, but also actual historical items. So every two or three months we’ll stage a new exhibit. You know, I might have a tribute to Led Zeppelin or Alice Cooper in April or May. Then, in that type of exhibit, I might have only 10 eight-tracks, but 50 other relics presenting all facets of their career and history.
That’s really what frees me up to have the most fun with this is that we have eight-tracks and every other format in the big room, but being able to do anything we want to with the small room. I mean, if I want to I could stage an exhibit about underground comics. To me it’s all about promoting 20th century rock and pop culture. And the important part of it- not to get too serious about this- but the important part is that a lot of the pop culture history was so poorly documented when it was released and for 20 or 30 years after it happened, that there’s just a lot of missing information on what happened in the ’60s and ’70s. Jimmy Page has even said that the reason you don’t see a lot of Led Zeppelin concert DVDs is that the band was completely under-documented.
AS: While the Grateful Dead have the opposite problem.
BB: Yeah, that’s interesting. In fact, I just bought a Grateful Dead taper’s collection. He made custom covers for every cassette and he literally had a few thousand cassettes, some of which he had the only copy of. I just acquired the collection and in the new room sometime this year, there’s gonna be an exhibit about what a Deadhead’s tape collection actually looked like. A lot of people won’t be excited by that because it’s just going to be a room full of, say, 1,500 cassettes, but to me that’s an important part of rock and roll history to document for a month or two. I think it’s gonna be really great.
AS: That raises an interesting point: in the world of record collecting, much of the appeal to collecting old 78s from the ’20s and ’30s is that the music isn’t available on any other format and it’s became about preserving the music itself rather than just collecting the format. It’s a really important part of our history and record labels have been established just to document this music. Is there any music that is only available on eight-track and do you ever envision eight-track collecting going in this direction?
BB: Absolutely. That’s already happening. There’s probably about five eight-tracks at the moment that have been documented to have sold for well over a thousand dollars. I think the highest price to date, and it’s happened two or three times that I know of, that has been in the three to four-thousand dollar range.
For instance, there’s an edition of Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy that came out on Capitol Records, but only on eight-track and four-track. No LP. It was totally instrumental. Then it came out a year later on MGM Records, but he’d added vocals. The instrumental version was a one-off record deal with Capitol. No one really knows that Frank Zappa ever made a recording for Capitol Records but he did. It only exists on two tape formats and it sold poorly, so there’s just a handful of these on the planet and the last time one sold, like two years ago, it sold for $3,500. There’s three or for other stories like that which I’ll spare you the details of, but the point is that there is music that is still only available on eight-track.
I think we’re still just at the dawn of eight-track and tape collectability. People have to realize that even 30 or 40 years ago, no one would ever believe that a Superman comic book would sell for $100,000 or whatever the first issue of Action Comics is worth now. That was laughable at one point and theres’ nothing more laughable than eight-tracks being worth money- –
AS: Look at baseball cards.
BB: Yeah, everything was worthless at some point. Nothing is instantly valuable and the smartest collectors begin collecting something before it’s worth money or just as it’s starting to become valuable. Then if it maintains that value in any way, you can either have a fantastic, valuable collection or make a big profit. To me, the profit of buying and selling eight-tracks serves a higher purpose than just me making money. At least I get to acquire cooler stuff for the museum. Like the Tiny Tim passport. That didn’t come cheap. Part of the reason I could buy it is that I can sell used LPs for a profit at my record store.
But to get back to the point, I understand why people laugh at the eight-track and don’t take it seriously, but the longer that lasts, the better for me because it just means I can get them for $10 instead of a hundred. There are a lot of eight-tracks I’ve bought in the past few years that were 25 to 50 dollars on eBay and that really adds up. [laughs] I just bought a 1984 David Bowie eight-track. By 1984, nobody thinks Bowie’s stuff was even on eight-track, but it was. I paid like $65 for it and if you buy a few of those a month, you’ve got a serious expense on your hands.
AS: If somebody were to visit the Eight-Track Museum, would you personally be the one guiding them through it or do you have a staff?
BB: Right now it’s just me and the reason we don’t have regular hours yet- we’re fully stocked and loaded and ready to go- is that we’re taking it easy and doing it by appointment only. Then starting in mid-February, we’re gonna be open half a day two days a week and build up to regular hours slowly. Part of the reason is to test the actual demand for the Museum. I think I’m going to have to take some take to grow that interest. Also, I’m doing this myself. I don’t have any investors, or backers, or anything like that. It’s all self-financed, so I can’t really afford to have a staff. But at the same time I am going to have to move into having a small staff of at least volunteers to help me out when I can’t be there or just to do specific things. But right now it’s just me. Me and my publicist. [laughs]
The Eight Track Museum will celebrate it’s grand opening on February 14th. You can find out more by visiting http://www.eighttrackmuseum.org/ The photo of Mr. Burnett was taken by Robert Greerson.