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 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,
I still have about a thousand tapes in my basement collecting dust. I just can't get myself to part with them. I can still look at certain tapes and know when I received them, who I traded with, etc. Also, all the "hard" work put into my custom cards. I know I will never listen to them but just having them makes me feel young again and reminds of a simpler time when I anxiously popped in the tapes for the first time. You also learned which tapers A+ were really A+ whose weren't. Times were simpler then. Now we have worry about when our remastered, pristine copies of the entire Europe 72 tour are going to arrive! :)
Put them on craiglist for the first comer to pick and take off your hands. In fact I'll volunteer myself!!! I know some people would still treasure them and I'd hate to see all that time and passion just put out to pasture! Let the tapes play and live on!!!!
I never have collected tapes...and I have friend to "blame" for it. He laid a half-dozen tapes on me in the early 80s, including tapes of my first two shows, at a time when I was unaware that such things even existed. All of them were probably 4th or 5th generation tapes, all sounded as if they were recorded in the parking lot down the street from the venue. I remember that one had a recording level so low that I needed to crank the volume up ALL the way just to make out what songs were playing.
My response was, "What's the big deal with this? These suck!" And I never went back. I guess the upside is that I don't have a room full of cassettes with the "keep or toss" decision to make (those original 6 hung around unplayed until I tossed them during a move seven years later).
If not for the Archive...
... but some of them I will certainly keep until they are being released on CD, preferably HDCD. But then again, I will probably keep some just out ot nostalgia reasons.
Before I read your book "The Music Never Stopped" I didn't know about tape trading. In the late 1970's I used to get every issue of the English magazine/fanzine Dark Star but I never saw anything on tape trading. Perhaps there were tape trader ads but I probably never thought of a tape trader tradition and therefore never looked through the ads in general.
In the early 1980's I began to see people who offered to sell Dead tapes through ads in Rolling Stone magazine and once sent a check of about $25.00 to someone in, I think, Arizona. As it turned out I was being ripped of. I never got any tapes. I tried to trace the guy but recieved notes, perhaps through the American Embassy (??), that he had taken precautions and used a post box with a false name.
After recieving my first issue of The Golden Road (issue #4), I decided to place an ad in issue #5. It read: "HELP! Have no tapes! Want hi qual GD 64-85 (esp. 12-28-69, 2-11/13/14-70, 3-71, 10-20-74, 8-13-75, 10-10-76, 3-28-81, 12-31-84). Grateful thanks!"
It took a copule of weeks and then I recived two tapes of the complete 8-13-75 show, with a filler consisting of some studio music by John Cipollina and others (among the songs was Ghost Riders in the Sky). The nice Frenchmen who sent the tapes didin't wanted anything in return, certainly not money!! I also recieved an offer from a feloow Dead Head in Austria who wanted to trade. I would send him 12 tapes and he sent me 10 tapes back - no money involved there either.
Then I also got a contact in the Bay Area, a guy who was taping shows himself. Since I had no tapes to offer, I simply said I would send him the cost of about ten tapes in money. He wasn't pleased about the arrangement but agreed to it. So I sent him $25.00 but recieved tapes to a value of $50.00!! Of course I was stunned by everyone's kindness ...
Well, in the end I never became an avid tape trader. All in all, I just traded about twenty tapes an year, from 1985 to about 1990. I was more of an avid record collector and have always been. But I do still have certain tapes, that might be of poor quality but which I still hold very dear to me.
Just because you may never listen to a specific tape anymore,
does not mean that it does not have value. They are worth a
great deal just for the memories and thoughts that specific
tapes evoke. You said this yourself...
> 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
The tapes have served as an integral tool that you used to
bring yourself to your current position as an extraordinary
GD journalist. And they continue to awaken such emotion!
And what about your legacy? And what about the insight
and assistance to future Blair historians that the tapes
could provide? And what about your estate to be passed
down to your decedents?
I do not see a good reason for you to part with your tape collection
Really nice read, Blair! Ah, the cassettes....
You should mail them to fans that will give them a new home. I'm serious. Tapes are a genuine piece of history, as well as my youth! I'm sure fans would send you a self addressed package, etc and you could send them a few tapes, from different eras.
Tapes are something to pass onto the next generation, in my book.
Give the idea some thought :)
PS - if you have a 7/13/84....I'll take it!! :)
I will drive up to your neck of the woods to bring them all home. Home is where the heart is & if you have reached the end of the line with those wonderful tapes, then all ya gotta do is give the word & I shall be happy to safeguard them. I'm registered here. If, in the meantime, you find a more suitable home for Les Cassettes, then by all means, go for it, Bro.