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 recently parted with most of my cassettes. The hardest thing was 'Who do I give them to?' I mean you can't just randomly give them away. I mean, think about how much time was spent writing out "J" cards, and dubbing tapes from whoever I could. Of course nowadays, you could burn 50 or 60 cd's a day easily. It would take weeks to dub that many tapes. anyway, I gave them to a really good friend and told her to keep what she wanted, and pass them on to people that she knew would appreciate them. It wasn't to difficult to do once I found the right person to pass them on to. I only had about 300 or so Dead tapes. All said and done, I ended up giving away about 1000 tapes all together. I used archive.org to replace most of the tapes first. I did keep a handfull of really good audience masters. Those I will transfer onto cd as soon as I am able. For those you out there who are looking for a good program to use, Sony has a good one called Soundforge Audio studio. It works really good, and fairly easy to use. I had no workind tape deck for a couple of years before I let them go. I was going to get another tape deck, but it wasn't worth it. Cd's are much better. Most of the tapes that I had didn't sound all that great anyway, so I can't say that I will miss them.
Everybody's been there or going there.
One marker that I noticed on J-Cards was whether people wrote "Grateful Dead" on the card or not. I always did. I'm not sure what the sociobiological differences were between those who wrote "Grateful Dead-Fillmore 12-19-69" vs "Fillmore 12-19-69" but it was one of those strange little variables.
I'm not sure if this will help you, but anyways...Years ago when I wanted to transfer my tapes to cd I bought a machine made my Tascam which features a cd recorder and tape deck together. It's very user friendly, though kind of pricey. I'm not sure about computer programs which accomplish the same task as this.
I own an imac and all you have to do is loop the audio out to the audio in and record to GarageBand and burn cds as a back-up. Your Welcome.
It's so cool that you posted the insert from 2/15/73 Dane County Coliseum. That's a great show...it has Donna singing (in the first set, I think) "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man.) I'm sure Keith had to enjoy that. I can just see Donna on the edge of the stage giving the evil eye to some hippie chick who was fixated on Donna's man.
But the best thing about this tape is the Dark Star. There's one part in there during the jam where Jerry plays....this....chord. That's all it is. One chord. It's completely mind-bending and mind-blowing, and I'm sure that people in the coliseum that night who were properly tuned in just melted. I've suggested this one as part of a Road Trip release...Midwest '73 road trip.
Great post Blair....I've been thinking about what to do with my tapes...I actually still have my tape deck plugged in and I do listen occasionally....to things like 3/15/73.
...it was the first time Bobby sang 'Look at it right!' three times with Furthur."
LOL! I kid the Blair. Toss the tapes. I dumped most of mine years ago.
Digitizing - Is that the word? A few years ago I started trying to put cassettes into my hard drive via the free program Audacity. It worked OK but I had problems with marking separations between songs and other things. Oh, and I am technologically challenged, to be kind to myself.
Just wondering, what program do people recommend for this?
You don't want your tapes any more
You don't have much on CD
You don't have much digitally stored
You don't indulge in the digital age thrill of grabbing the latest Charlie Miller upgrade or Hunter Seamons matrix.
So apart from the official releases, from now on you're going to rely on archive.org to store all that music you love ?
Are you really ready to put such faith in the internet? All that great stuff hanging out in the cloud somewhere? Nothing you can actually lay your hands on? One global crash and you are bereft. Would you do the same with your diaries, writings, notes, projects etc??? Have you really thought this through? Really?
Great piece by the way, thanks.
A friend of mine once told me, if I listen to my tapes backwards, while standing upside down, I'll hear "Paul is dead. Paul is dead." But seriously, I have boxes of tapes in a storage room and can't part with them, not yet anyways. They play too big a part of my own personal history. I did buy a recorder years ago and transferred some of my favorite (and greatest sounding) tapes to cd. Maybe one day I'll let go of them- or let go enough to only keep 50 to 100 of my favorites.
Thanks for your blog entry, and for all your great work over the years on The Golden Road, which I read and collected avidly. Thanks too for your essays and liner notes, which are informative and enjoyable. Most of all, thanks for your superb work in writing Garcia: An American Life and The Music Never Stopped, rewarding works I consult frequently and with perennial appreciation for your pellucid prose.
Before you discard your cassettes, please note that not everything circulates in lossless digital format. I have just about everything from '65-'84 in lossless digital, but some sources have remained elusive even after all these years. I personally know of, and am transcribing, certain uncirculated audience sources (masters and dubs) that currently exist only on cassette.
Would you please take a look through your estimable collection (probably many low-generation audience and soundboard dubs in there) for the following ten items? If you have any of these sources, I'll pay the freight to have you mail or ship the cassettes to me here on the East Coast (no profiteering, of course) so I can transcribe them and get the music into circulation. Here's the list:
04/26/70 York Farm, Poynette, WI (red Stealie with black writing)
01/21/71 Freeborn Hall, U. Cal. Davis (dark blue)
11/01/73 McGaw Mem. Hall, Northwestern U., Evanston, IL (first set only)
09/23/76 Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke U., Durham, NC (audience) (purple)
03/18/77 Winterland, S.F., CA (Bertrando: Sony ECM-270's → Sony TC-152-SD)
01/21/79 Masonic Temple, Detroit, MI (audience upgrade needed)
02/06/79 Fairgrounds Pavilion, Tulsa, OK (tapers were spotted)
10/18/80 Saenger Perf. Arts Center, New Orleans, LA (soundboard) (green)
10/19/80 Saenger Perf. Arts Center, New Orleans, LA (soundboard)
04/19/83 Alfond Arena, U. Maine, Orono (soundboard upgrade needed).
Thanks for considering this request. If you wish to reply, feel free to leave me a message in my account on this site. Again, I appreciate all your scholarly and journalistic contributions through the years.
Best to all,