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 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!
Thanks Blair for all your wonderful writing over the years. Got The Golden Road #1 when it came out and carefully annotated "shows of interest" from your reviews over the ensuing years. I appreciated that you were often rating the taped show and how it came across, rather than the personal report of being there (so subjective!).
Two comments about analog and audience tapes. Both often convey the "it" that digital soundboards miss. I can think of many like this. Particularly in the "in ear" monitor era.
After discovering the tape phenomenon in 1980 while living among a host of Deadheads at Vail, I enhanced my collection borrowing crisp reel-to-reel soundboards from a new friend (how he got these he never revealed!) a couple years later. I would then go about "buying" a reel to reel machine from a SF audio store that had a no questions asked return policy of 7 days. Taped like mad for a week to cassette. I repeated this several times, and armed with these second gen SBDs was off and running.
I now have my tapes nicely stored in several old library card catalog cabinets stacked on top of each other, two obsolete testaments to the passage of time.
One of my Nakamichis died recently. Sigh. I still enjoy them. Can't replace the audience of 5/8/77 where a young woman passes by the taper trying to find her friends: "Stephanie and Rhonda" she yells in the middle of Scarlet. Priceless. Gave a copy of this tape to my sister. Now when we reminisce, Stephanie and Rhonda are often a part of the conversation.
Can't forget Stephanie and Rhonda. I wonder if they had bells on their shoes.
Anyone that would like to sell or share Grateful Dead Concert Tapes, please contact me, I like tapes alot, something about the warmth
I recently went through the same thing you describe Blair. I have amassed a huge amount of music over the years. Most cassettes by other groups are long gone..... but until recently I had all of my GD stuff. Even the worst sounding audience tapes I was cranking in high school with enough high pitched hiss to piss off all the dogs in the county. I went in my basement one day to find this huge pile which used to be so perfectly - in order - numerically of course.... like any OCD tape trading guy would do. I made the call that a large amount was going to have to go. I kept tapes from shows I attended, the great SBD recordings, or the ones with sentimental value. And a good 350 to 400 tapes went. Matt was a young guy at the 7-11 down the street, he never got to see Garcia. We would talk music, concerts and especially The Dead whenever I went in there to get a drink or 12-pack. I made his day when I walked in with two huge brown boxes filled with my old tapes. I gave him a quick, here's what you should listen to first speech. He was blown away. I stopped in his store about a week later and he said he has been listening to live stuff around the clock since he saw me last. I know my tapes are in good hands.
Pass the tapes on to someone who would otherwise never see something like that. Even if most of the world does not own tape players.
I know a very nice home for your cassette collection, Blair - my 2001 Subaru Legacy. It only has 21,000 miles, so the listening enjoyment coming from the dashboard ought to last me another 30 years...
Thank you for your consideration,
I think you have a good excuse for not getting rid of your cassettes!
My first couple of tapes were reel-to-reel's that I had taped off of KSAN or KMPX...Allman Brothers live at Winterland and GD @ GAMH... After that no tapes until 1977 when I got a couple from my fellow BASS Tickets employee, David Gans...He gave me an excellent audience of The Last Waltz and an extremely poor quality audience of 6/9/77 (the show where I "got it.") From then almost nothing until I started working for Grateful Dead Productions dba GDTS. I had the balls to ask Phil if I could get copies of shows out of "The Vault." And he said "yes, as long as you don't go over board." I didn't...I asked for one show only...6/9/77. A few weeks later there was a little box in my cubby at the GD office with a note, "I couldn't remember which show from that weekend, so here are all three." signed Phil (no, I don't still have the note!)
Well that spoiled me for good. Short of Europe 72 or Live/Dead I had never heard anything so crisp and clear. From that point (mid 1983) until 1998 I ended up collecting over 1,000 soundboard cassettes...most 1st or 2nd generation off the masters and over 100 cassette masters of my own on my WM-D6 and D6C (thank you Dan Healy!) I still have them all and do not plan on getting rid of them anytime soon! (I also still have over 1,000 LP's!)
I'm not doing anything that requires actual work (i.e. shipping)... I have a surprisingly weak '77 collection on tape, anyway. There's an area where I do have more CDs than tapes...