Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Goodbye to My Cassettes

By Blair Jackson

If you see me wandering around Berkeley and Oakland wearing a black arm band and weeping uncontrollably, it may be because I have finally decided it is time for me to part with my large collection of Grateful Dead cassette tapes. This is not a decision I have arrived at lightly. These cassettes provided me with thousands of hours of pleasure (and occasional pain and puzzlement) since I started collecting Dead tapes around 1977. (Before that, I owned only a handful—can’t even recall how I obtained them—as well as a number of live bootleg LPs.) But it’s time to face facts: I never listen to tapes anymore, my Sony dubbing deck was put out to pasture many years ago, and the cassettes are just taking up space in my already cluttered storage room. Most are still sitting, collecting dust, on the mounted shelves I bought long ago through an ad in The Golden Road. One of the wall units crashed to the floor recently, sending cassettes flying on top of the other junk and keepsakes that sit in chaotic piles below them. I took that as an omen. Other cassettes fill unmarked bags and boxes, the sorting significance of each long since forgotten.

I was never a truly serious tape collector—maybe a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. In the early years of amassing tapes, I relied completely on the kindness of friends, and my friends’ friends, to hip me to shows I “should” have and to make me copies. Honestly, until I started The Golden Road in 1984, I did not follow the Dead’s tours night to night, so I would never know whether the 5/9/79 Binghamton show was better than the one in Amherst three nights later. In fact, I might not have even known the Dead were on the East Coast at that time. But tapes would sort of dribble down to me from a variety of friends and acquaintances who were serious tape collectors, and the more I listened to them, the more I wanted. (“Must … get … more!”) For many years I had considered myself a Dead Head, but I quickly learned there were vast gaps in my knowledge of the group’s musical evolution, and collecting tapes brought me up to speed.

It was always exciting to get a new batch of tapes, and I’d pray that the quality was OK. Each year seemed to bring more and better soundboard recordings (“How do those get out of the Vault?” I wondered), but much of what came my way were audience tapes of varying audio fidelity, and that was fine, too. There were a few that sounded really, really bad—as if they were recorded from the inside of a garbage can in the alley behind the venue. But in some cases I kept them because the show was so good or it had some particular historical or sentimental value (like the hideous tape of the Gaelic Park ’71 show I’d attended). I rarely played tapes around my non-Dead Head friends, but when I did I was careful to limit it to soundboard copies. “Regular” people could not abide a hissy, distant audience tape.

Ah, yes—remember that first second when you put on a new tape for the first time and discovered whether it had a lot of hiss or some other audio flaw? Although I did have a few fairly well-connected friends making me tapes, I was still down the chain a few links, so I rarely got pristine copies in my early days of collecting. It’s when I started looking for “upgrades” that I knew my little hobby had gone to another level.

After I started The Golden Road in the winter of 1984, passing myself off as some kind of authority on the band (the nerve!), I decided that if I was going to write intelligently about the scene, I should probably make an attempt to hear every show the band played. This proved to be more daunting than I’d expected, as it required reaching out to many different tapers (or friends who knew who had taped which shows), and the first year there were several shows I just couldn’t find. By the end of ’85, however, a steady stream of soundboard and audience tapes—some arriving many weeks after the shows—found their way to the Golden Road mailbox. “Oh, goody! New stuff to listen to!”

I dutifully listened to each one, kept the ones I liked and recorded over the rest. Really, there was no reason to hear that Boreal show again. Being there was bad enough. Occasionally there would be a bonanza that would get everyone excited: “Have you gotten the ‘Betty Boards’ yet?”

As my collection grew, I joined the legions of folks who used custom J-cards. Mine had a discreet “Stealie” (without the lightning bolt) on the left-hand side of the spine, and I developed a color-coding system based on the band’s different eras, using fine-tipped felt markers: ’65-’70 tapes had a red Stealie and writing; ’71-’75 were dark blue; ’76-early ’79 (when Keith and Donna left) were purple; the Brent era from April ’79 until Jerry’s meltdown in ’86 were green; post-coma until Brent’s death were turquoise; and the Bruce and Vince era had a red Stealie but blue writing. When I started my J-card system, I didn’t know that within 10 years the purple on the spine of the late ’70s shows would almost completely disappear, for some reason, and a few years later the green ones started heading towards invisibility.

I organized my shelves chronologically (by color; I was never anal enough to do it by date within each color). Unfortunately, though, my unpredictable listening habits meant that tapes might disappear under the seat of one of our cars, or in the living room or office in my house, or get loaned out to a friend who might or might not remember to give it back to me. I wasn’t real good at keeping track. Over the months, I’d get lazy about returning tapes to their proper region on my shelves, and instead just plunk them wherever; often on top of what was once a neat row of organized tapes. Cases would break or vanish (like socks in the laundry), and suddenly I had some cassettes with labels but no cases piling up in odd places, and cases with no cassettes. Every couple of years I’d try to marry the errant cassettes with the empty cases, but it never worked out completely right, one-to-one.

As usual with all things technological, I was way behind the curve when people started converting their tapes to digital and putting shows on CDs. I never had a setup of my own to do that and I found it incredibly daunting to try to replace all my tapes with CDs by once again begging from friends. Where do I start? Nevertheless, I much preferred the CD format to tapes (“Hey, it’s easy to skip ‘Little Red Rooster’ or zip right to that ‘Morning Dew’!”) and I did manage to acquire a few choice nuggets on CD. But I never pursued it with the zeal of my tape quests, so to this day I don’t have very many shows on CD.

If I had been savvy or determined enough, I could have joined the many thousands of Heads who downloaded hundreds of SBDs from Archive.org while that practice was permitted (now SBDs can only be streamed), but I wasn’t and I didn’t. Still, that website has allowed me to hear any Dead show I care to, and has been an invaluable aid to the research I’ve had to do for books, stories or liner notes I’ve written though the years. The quality is better than on my old cassettes, and it’s right there at my fingertips! Of course, the cool fools now have everything on hard drives; CDs are passé. I’d do that, too, if someone would just hand me an already filled one; too much work otherwise. Still lazy after all these years.

And so, the ol’ cassettes have no value to me anymore. Do I toss ’em and let them become more landfill? That’s seems kind of wasteful and un-green. Try to find a home for them with someone who still collects and plays cassettes? I don’t want to box ’em up and send them somewhere; too hard. It’s a quandary. I’ve taken some off the shelves and put them in bags and boxes, and others are still up on the wall. Sometimes I’ll look over and see the date on the spine and think, “Oh, I love the ‘Scarlet-Fire’ from that show!” I’m getting wistful in my old age.

But I know I’m never gonna listen to that tape again. Its time has passed. Its gotta go.

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mkav's picture
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Joined: Jun 30 2007
@markabes1

i just reread this again...and it is still an enjoyable, joyful, kind, selfless story that i have enjoyed reading from time to time. i would have liked to have been there.

mkav's picture
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Joined: Jun 30 2007
@markabes1

i just reread this again...and it is still an enjoyable, joyful, kind, selfless story that i have enjoyed reading from time to time. i would have liked to have been there.

mephillips57's picture
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Joined: Oct 8 2013
Cassette tape trading anyone?

Hey now,
I just opened boxes of cassettes stored for 16 years! Nearly 1200 tapes and they still sound great! Looking to fill holes and start trading again!

Any takers?
Mike Phillips
mephillips57@aol.com

Working on my list

cbailey8772's picture
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Joined: Mar 12 2018
Tapes

Rich...I am very interested if no one has claimed them yet!

Chris

Jbhiker's picture
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Joined: Jan 10 2009
Cassette Tapes-Getting rid of my GD cassette tapes

If anyone wants them please contact me. Free to a good home. I have a few hundred, including some GD Hours.
Very hard to part with but the day is at hand...sigh

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Joined: Jul 26 2016
Interested

Hi Rich,

I'm Elizabeth and I'm interested in your tapes! I'm totally new to the dead head community, but I dated a guy who was super into it and he was always talking about how neat the community is and trading tapes. I recently bought a Buick Roadmaster with a tape player and thought "how perfect!" I've wanted to enter the scene and decided just to go for it! So if you have any advice on the tape trading community, or still have any tapes--I'm interested!

Thanks!

~Pepperleaf

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Joined: Jun 23 2015
Interested!

Hello Rich,
I just sent you a PM regarding your tape offer. Please take a look at it so we can try to set something up if it still stands. My father was a Head back in the day and he's passed that on to me so we love listening to the Dead together. Let me know! Thanks!
Max

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Joined: Feb 21 2016
Tapes

Greetings from Long Island NY.
I have about 200 tapes I would like to send to someone to enjoy as I have over the past 40 years...
Interested?
Thx!
Rich

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Joined: Nov 24 2011
cassettes

Hi Blair...and Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Just discovered your blog. Big fan of your writing back to my days as a subscriber to the Golden Road magazine (your book on Jerry...was awesome!). Along with tapes, loved getting your magazine in the mail. I knew I was going to get educated even further on our favorite band and its music! My head friends always wondered how a jock got so up to speed on the Dead and its music so quickly...thanks to your magazine and the tapes!

Speaking of tapes...don't do it! The memories, the nostaglia, the nuggets of amazing music...come on. I have a decent size collection and they have been sleeping (for more than a few years) ever since my mini-systems tape player went down. As soon as other fuctions went down, I went on eBay and bought a new system with a dual cassette feature. Not only am I enjoying all those old treasures and accompanying j-cards, but have a wealth of jazz and blues tapes I made for myself that I have rediscovered. Boy, I did a nice job on those back in the day...and am now re-enjoying them again as well!

Prior to the new mini-system, the tapes would come out of hibernation when a few years back I went on eBay and bought a Sony Walkman (to replace an older version). I going skiing with a group of guys every year, and love it when they make fun of my Walkman (they all have their cute ipods). My response is always, "Yeah... well all I know is what I'm listening to is much better than anything you got going!!" You know what...they all know I'm right (think- "Here Comes Sunshine" -Madison '73 amazing on the tape version)!!

So my recommedation would be...get organized (condense your collection if needed), get yourself a tape player, and enjoy! There are all kinds of technology out there and tapes, though not at the forefront like they were in the '80's, still should have a revered spot in every Deadheads collection and continued musical enjoyment!

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
now that

is a cool tale!!!

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