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.
a while ago (but still have my Nak 550 that I used to record, I cannot part with that!) What I did was this---I would take a small box of tapes with me in the car, and whenever I would drive by a car with a dead sticker I would roll down my window, toss a tape to them, smile, and leave. I wanted to spread the love, so to speak. Now I have only about 10 tapes left, no real way to play them, but I hope my collections, which was pretty big, is still giving some heads out there some pleasure (and there are some I was DUMB to get rid of, a couple of masters of shows that to date no better copy or soundboard is out there, silly me!)
A week before Blair posted this topic, a friend told me that he had run out of storage space and it was time to get rid of his tapes. I told him to put them in a box (or many boxes). After all, there is no need to take such a hasty and drastic action. This is a matter that has to be carefully pondered. I have my own serious storage problem, but I still record my own stuff on audio cassettes on a regular basis. The only drawback is that the good quality blank tapes are harder to find nowadays. Aside from the historical value of tapes, they are analog. (Here comes the analog versus digital debate.) Some of us can deal with the extraneous sounds--like the friend who wanted to keep talking even though you were recording. I think of some of the really old blues recordings, like those of Charley Patton. They are so scratchy that they sound like they got kicked around on a beach or gravel road. I can listen beyond that. Nowadays, we have the advantage of listening to music that is 'pristine', and that's cool, too; but, there is something irreplaceable about the 'warmth' of analog recordings, in spite of their flaws.
Hey Blair..I always enjoy your blogs, and this one hit close to home. I am doing the same cassette purge. Though my plan is to somehow get some of my cassettes on my computer, and maybe eventually to some sort of cloud. With so much available " out there " it just gets overwhelming to deal with these things physically. Honestly, I never play cassettes. Thanks for the blog !!!
Wynton and Clapton is fantastic. The Layla as sort of a New Orleans funeral march is worth the price alone. But it doesn't have to be. Just listen to the teaser on Amazon. That was enough to get me to buy it on the release date.
On priceless moments on tape: Santa Fe Downs 1982:
"Oh no, not Althea"
"Shut the F@#* up."
"Oh, sorry man."
I haven't seen those guys in eons but picture them every time I hear (or think of) that tape and that show.
Is that new Wynton and Clapton as good as the Wynton and Willie Nelson one (which I loved)? I'm intrigued but haven't heard a note of it...
I remember my first years, no cassettes, (cassettes suck, they break, they ruin your player, have to listen to the whole thing or spend time rewinding) but the Dead are only available on Cassette so I started 'collecting the occasional show'. I had 40 tapes before I bought a player. Then rerecorded the ones I could on the new player. I have about 400 or so tape 62(SleepyHollowHogStompers) to early 80's when I started (5/13/83) and then most of the shows I attended and a few choice nuggets from friends (3/27/90 Branford on Eyes) but since 2000 I have not listened to one tape only cd's and I am still behind on the cds, and now with the Europe'72 stuff, it's just backlog but hey that's what I live for, music music music, Just got the new Flecktones, new EC and Wynton, Willie and Wynton, Corea, Clarke, White, and the new Superheavy and the new YES so. got my ears on.
Great blog as usual, Blair. I haven't gotten rid of my tapes yet, and probably never will get rid of the best ones. I still have a functioning deck and listen sometimes. One particular favorite: a tape with nothing on it but the Dark Star encore from July 13, 1984 at the Berkeley Greek. It sounds awesome, and since I was there, brings back great memories. It was one of those "peak at the Greek" moments.
Funny, I too was at that show. And it was the first GD show I received on tape, 8 Track tape ! My older sister brought it home that fall (Thanksgiving ?) from college for me. It had nice GD art work on the lable, but the sound was not the best. But still it was cool to listen to in the car with my Dead Head friends while enjoying a smoke. Ahh! the good old days.
... there gotta be an exellent crisp soundboard tape out there somewhere of that magical night in 1983 ... ^_ ^
it's hard to believe what people had to go through to get some of those tapes back in the day!