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.
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!
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!
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...
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!
is a cool tale!!!
Just catching up on your blogs and had to post to this.
I ran into the same dilemma a few years ago. I had replaced most of my favorite shows digitally (thanks Archive!), bought most released CD's & downloads, and now only listen via my iPod/iPhone. So I decided to give my tapes away, and what better place then the lot of a show?!
So 2 years ago for the Dead at Shoreline I brought a case of 120 cassettes, set up in the lot with a sign "'Gone Digital, Free Dead Tapes!", and gave them away to probably 40 or 50 total different people. I told them they could take a few, just asked they not be greedy. In less then an hour they were gone and I made many friends, giving people their first dead tape, or some show they had been long looking for. It was hard to see them go after so many years of effort to put the collection together. This was quickly forgotten as it was truly fun and gratifying to see them go to new homes.
The next chance I got was at Shoreline for Furthur this past June. I brought almost all the remaining tapes (300+), keeping just a few special ones I wanted for sentimental reasons, and again set up in the lot with just a sign and my open cases of tapes. I had a blast giving them away, talking to people, and in particular was happy knowing they would continue to get enjoyed by other heads for years to come.
In a hilarious moment as the lot staff was trying to crack down on excessive vending, they asked me to shut it down. I asked what I was voilating by giving things away for free? This completely befuddled the poor rent-a-cop, who brought his supervisors over. They talked to me again confirming I was really giving hem away (they could not understand that either), then huddled together, and decided that it was OK and moved on.
I am sure you could make a lot of people happy with late x-mas gifts outside the Bill Graham in December!
A couple or 3 months ago I helped another "ex-tape-collector" unburden himself; he filled 2 USPS boxes w/ JGB & GD & I sent him postage & handling costs. I'm enjoying listening in my car (no cd player for a reason, so I have an excuse to listen to my tapes) and catching music that I didn't have before. So, as others have posted, there is life for these tapes of yours somewhere, and someone would surely enjoy them. Or perhaps a donation to a university folklore collection or some such?
I just remembered this story I have to share. My friend Rob (early tape collector friend) was doing a tribute show recently (I've played a number of gigs with him but wasn't at this one) for an old friend of his. This friend was the guy who turned him on to the Dead in the early eighties. He died in a car accident years ago, but some of his friends and family were going to be at the show. So anyhow, I reminded Rob of this classic first set audience tape that this guy recorded from Hartford ('83 or '84?). Just as the band is starting Little Red Rooster, he realizes that one of the channels isn't plugged...starts cursing and freaking out...gets it plugged in and you can hear the stereo kick in...it's hilarious. On the tape it was labelled "Silly Willy Blues". Priceless.
It also blows my mind that people continue to tape at shows. A time-honored tradition I suppose, and I do enjoy listening to 'em on the archive!
Cassettes and tape trading are definitely an important part of my history with the Grateful Dead! It's amusing to read offers of people willing to take 'em off of Blair's hands and provide a home. I actually got a message through deadnet here from somebody looking to trade and I haven't responded yet 'cause all I really want to do is send 'em to the archive! Seriously...I didn't really listen to it ever mostly because I never had a hi-speed internet connection at home until close to two years ago. Between deadnet and the archive (I didn't know you could download soundboards free for a while!) I have no use for listening to the tapes...except in the car sometimes or if I don't have the same reliable internet (like at my house in Maine). When I do listen to them it's fun...brings back memories in a more concrete way than streaming audio, maybe? Yeah, I wouldn't mind getting rid of a few of them (duplicates or ones I have primo cd copies of now) but I'm in no big hurry.
I would like to figure out how to get rid of my VHS tapes without just tossing 'em. I had a friend who paid someone a minimal fee (years ago) to take 'em apart and recycle individual components...hardcore.
I could go on and on about the glory of the old tape trading days...good job, Blair. Yeah, that Madison '73 2nd set kicked ass! And for the guy looking for 7/13/84...that 2nd set soundboard kicks ass too! I remember when I started at Hampshire college in the Fall of '86 I used a friend's artwork to make a poster ad to hook up with traders and I hung it around campus...damn, did I get some sweet tapes! I even had some good ones to trade in return. Those days will never return (as we all know)...just as the musicians we knew and loved who passed to the great beyond. The memories sure are sweet though!
Bury your tapes in a time capsule.
Someone can crawl across them in
the future. Talk about your Plenty!
Take care Blair!