Documenting The Dead: Taping the Dead
By Nicholas Meriwether
Taping the Dead
One theme that emerges from any time spent in the Press series of the Archive is that Deadheads have attracted almost as much attention as the Dead, though often for superficial reasons: strange dress, affinity for inebriants, and perceived deviation from a mainstream lifestyle. Missing from these dismissals are the constructive behaviors and positive norms that helped forge the Deadhead community and made the Dead experience for many Deadheads such a formative and enduring dimension of a rich, creative, and productive life. Some of the most active participants in the scene were tapers, a major theme in the history of the Grateful Dead phenomenon found in several of the collections comprising the broader Grateful Dead Archive.
Fig. 1. Tapers at a Dead Show. Photo © Michael A. Conway.
An earlier entry in this series looked at the Dick Latvala Collection, which documents one of the foremost Deadhead tapers, but three other collections in the Archive amplify and illuminate the significance and role of tapers in the Dead phenomenon: the David Lemieux Collection, the John Dwork Collection, and the Jim Daley Manuscript Collection. For the Archive, the ways these collections sketch the story of Deadhead taping show how even small, specialized, and very different archives can work together to outline larger, complex ideas that can get lost in the forest of details that more extensive archives present. For scholars interested in the development of Deadhead taping, or what historians more broadly call recording culture, these collections chart that activity from genesis to result, from recording gear to final collection. Together, these collections map a foundational Deadhead activity, from the tangible and immediate- -the recording of historical events- -to the more diffuse and dispersed effects: the stories, memories, and metadata that surround these artifacts and trace their passage into history.
Deadhead taping began early- -the first audience recordings of the Dead were made in the 1960s- -but the first real surge of fan taping began in the 1970s, as technology improved and cassettes became widespread. The band's hiatus from late October 1974 through June 1976 was another prompt, with the lack of shows sending Deadheads scrambling for live recordings. As always, Deadheads were resourceful- -and committed. Dead Relix, later Relix, began in the fall of 1974 as something of a forum for Deadhead tapers and traders, featuring how-to articles on recording, trading etiquette, and classified ads for collectors and tape-trading clubs. (The inaugural issue was even dedicated “to the memory of the world's sneakiest tape collector- -Tricky Dicky.”) Tapers saw their mission simply: to capture history. For a band whose performances were defined by improvisation, that alone imbued tapes with some of their allure. Every Deadhead understands what noted Deadhead writer Steve Silberman eloquently called “the treasures buried in the taped record of the Dead's pursuit of their restless muse.”
Yet taping was also more than just capturing history: tapers understood that the recordings they made had the power to help create the subculture. As Relix publisher Les Kippel explained, tapers felt they were “doing something good for the community. That's why we kept going.” Critics agreed. Band historian and publicist Dennis McNally called tapers “of particular importance because their labors produce the sacred talismans that unite the tribe as a whole.” It was a charge tapers took seriously. By the 1990s, Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads defined tape trading as “one of the most durable binding threads in the fabric of the Deadhead community.”
Fig. 2. Deadhead Tapes. Photo courtesy Grateful Dead Archive.
The instinct to preserve history, or an aural reminder of personal experience, is a hallmark of amateur recordists. Both of those instincts can be found at work among Deadheads as well, but what defined Deadhead taping was trading, and that adds a significant element to recording culture. Balancing the uniqueness of Deadhead culture with its broader cultural resonances is part of the challenge of the Archive, but that challenge begins by building a truly representative set of archival collections that express the Grateful Dead phenomenon- -or even one dimension of it. Fortunately for the Archive and its researchers, three generous donors made this possible.
At first glance, it would be difficult to find three more disparate collections. The Lemieux Collection consists of David Lemieux's concert taping equipment: a Nakamichi 550 recorder, along with its Nakamichi microphones, the CM 300 and CP-4, as well supporting materials, manuals, and associated gear such as carrying straps and bags, all of which add to its research value as a collection. Its history is also significant: these mics and recorder taped more than 40 Grateful Dead concerts between 1989 and 1991, including much of the spring 1990 tour. As a museum collection, it is designed to provide the kind of insights that only physical artifacts can provide: seeing the size and weight- -and quality- -of the gear is critical, especially as technology progresses and researchers are increasingly removed from the analog era and the burdens it posed for tapers.
Fig. 3. Tapers' Decks, 1980. Photo © Jay Blakesberg.
The reward for acquitting those burdens was considerable, however, which is what the John Dwork Collection demonstrates. Comprising nearly 1,000 cassettes, it demonstrates how complete a history of the band a dedicated trader could amass, long before lossless digital recordings and Internet trading sites. The sound quality of the tapes is often noteworthy, despite their age, format, and origin. Not only are the later era cassettes often sonically superb- -such as those created by equipment in the Lemieux Collection- -it is the range of the collection that is especially significant. Dwork began collecting tapes as an undergraduate, founding the Hampshire College Grateful Dead Historical Society, a tape-trading club that also sponsored events and lectures. He later worked with Peter Martin on the Deadhead newsletter Terrapin Flyer before cofounding Dupree's Diamond News, a forum that gave him access to the band. The interviews that he did with Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and a host of associates, from Candace Brightman to Dan Healy to Ken Kesey, even Owsley Stanley, show how Dwork used his taper's education to participate directly in the phenomenon.
Dwork's collection reflects and outlines his Deadhead education and career; Daley's recounts his. The manuscript for what became Daley's self-published memoir covers more than a decade of shows, beginning with the show where he got on the bus: “That night inside McNichols Arena, while staring at the stage from my position in the crowd, I had an epiphany … when it came right down to it, I could be anyplace in the world and I'd still want to be right where I was … What mattered was that I was there to see the Grateful Dead. This was my moment of clarity; the moment I felt I became a Deadhead.”
Daley's manuscript fleshes out Lemieux's and Dwork's collections with a narrative that traces a related Deadhead arc, different yet not far removed from their experiences. He notes the shows he recorded- -104, of the 157 shows he saw- -and faithfully recounts the lessons he learned along the way. His memoir provides enough technical details to give a good account of the challenges tapers faced without losing sight of the deeper significance of the experience: how touring and taping fostered a sense of deep involvement and identity. “I did feel like a member of [the Dead's] extended touring family,” he reflects at the end of his story. “When you travel to as many shows as we did, consecutively, you feel like you're part of something really special. Add to that, taping most every show that I went to and it becomes something bigger.” As does his collection, when viewed from the larger perspective of the Dead Archive.
Fig. 4. The Tapers Section, 1990. Photo © David A. DeNoma.
Choosing which archives to collect, which collections merit the time and cost of curation, is one the most critical jobs archivists perform. Most archivists have the luxury of viewing individual collections in isolation; the particular challenge, and opportunity, of the Dead Archive is that it requires a broader view of archival appraisal and selection. These collections are fine representatives, standing in for hundreds of Deadhead tape archives, taper's gear collections, and stories, but their real power is the way they work together to help explain how Deadheads built community. The story of Deadhead taping is more significant than just a tale of transformative technology- -which amateur and often underground recording certainly is- -and it is also more than just an example or extension of humanity's abiding fascination with and love for music. Historian Timothy Day ended his book A Century of Recorded Music with the observation:
The study of recordings may give particular assistance to the scholar who wishes to write history by presenting musical activity as existing in many different dimensions, at many intersecting levels simultaneously, and in doing so suggest in different ways the richness and the complexity of musical experience as we ourselves know it always to be.
Day's book provides one of the major reasons why collections like these are so important, and not just for those scholars studying the Dead. “But if recordings have played such a critical part in music in the twentieth century,” Day asks, “why have they been so neglected by scholars and historians?” The answer is, in no small degree, because of the lack of archival sources. Collections like these make it possible for scholars and historians to remedy that neglect.
These collections also make it possible for other Deadheads to see a reflection of their own experience- -as Steve Silberman observed, writing about DeadBase, “If you gave your heart to this music, your story is here, in the tour adventures recalled as you daydream through these setlists.” That is also why these archives matter. Ultimately, the same spirit that brought these collections into being is what sparked the archival impulse that curated them, preserving that spirit for others to see, experience, and understand.
It's interesting to note that these collections also document emergence. All three donors went on to play roles in the broader Dead phenomenon, to varying degrees of visibility: Lemieux as Vault Archivist and Legacy Manager, a role he continues to fulfill today; Dwork, as editor of Dupree's Diamond News and later as an impresario himself. Daley went on to be an author- -two years after he donated his manuscript, he published it himself, and gave a copy to the Archive, the source for the quotations included here. It joins a small but growing checklist of self-published Deadhead memoirs, which scholars often appreciate precisely for their semi-samizdat qualities; as I've argued elsewhere, these unmediated Deadhead narratives are really published manuscripts, the sort of account whose chances of being read before digital publishing would have been limited to a lucky researcher, scouring an archive for first-person narratives.
Dwork's collection demonstrates his rigorous, thoughtful approach to collecting as well as his own voice, in the form of his interviews, but he left an even more extensive account of what his collection taught him in his wide-ranging contributions to his coedited The Deadhead's Taping Compendium. His interviews with dozens of tapers inform the series of essays “Outside the System,” which traced the development of the Deadhead taping scene, but it is his reviews of recordings, from the earliest years to the final show at Soldier Field, that provide the critical, personal side of his reactions to those tapes.
Lemieux's collection documents the genesis of his archival training, which would culminate in two master's degrees and his eventual appointment as Vault Archivist. His work speaks for itself, as the critical ears and thoughtful voice informing the selection and release of dozens of concert recordings from the Vault. Occasionally he offers glimpses into the personal dimensions of that job, such as his “Producer's Note” to the two boxed sets of the spring 1990 tour. He recorded the first ten shows of that tour with the equipment in his collection, an experience he called “one of the most fun times of my life”; every Deadhead would agree with his recollection of that time: “there were plenty of worse ways a 19-year-old could spend two weeks, and as far as I can tell, no better ways.” As an archivist, his work represents a kind of stewardship that is rarely seen and frequently misunderstood. His archive is not public; he is charged with cultivating the reception of his archival releases and stewarding the public perception of the band's history, in the most direct way: through their music. And those recordings represent a body of work that will help scholars better understand the band's achievement.
If these collections encourage and reward deeper thinking about the role of taping in the Dead phenomenon, they will have fulfilled their promise as archives. But my hope for them is much more than just as documents of Deadhead taping. Viewed in isolation, these three collections can be dismissed as strange and exotic- -a collection of obsolete taping equipment; a trove of decaying analog media; a manuscript. But viewed from the right perspective, these collections, and the stories of their donors, show us how deeply Deadheads participated in the Dead phenomenon: not just how they listened and learned, but also what those lessons could mean.
Fig. 5. The Tapers Section, 1985. Photo © Robert A. Minkin.
All illustrations © their respective creators. All rights reserved, used with permission. Images courtesy Grateful Dead Archive. For more information about the photographers:
Jay Blakesberg: http://blakesberg.com
Michael A. Conway: http://info.means-of-production.com/blog/bid/322789/An-Insiders-View-of-The-Grateful-Dead-Marketing-Philosophy
Robert A. Minkin: http://www.minkindesign.com/photo
Standing near the right center of the photo that is me in the red baseball cap staring up at my taping partner's mics. Not satisfied with the aiming. Oxford Plains Speedway, I think first day.
Hi Wissonoming DH,
Was just reading your article about taping,I see you still have a big collection. If I sent you tapes, would you tape me a couple of shows, I still have a lot of cassettes I listen to thru my 2 motor Direct Drive Onkyo tape deck. The best quality tape set I have is "One From The Vault" that I bought at a local store the day Jerry died. Those tapes still sound great. I love stuff from 72-77. If you are not into this anymore, I understand.
Wonderful article and glad John Dwork got his due. I was a new student at Hampshire College during my initiation into everything Dead at the age of 16 and benefited from his passion and massive energy. Thanks to John we enjoyed our own versions of the acid tests in the dining hall with light shows on 4 walls, outdoor parties with big sound systems and enough pot smoke to get the girls down the street at Smith and Holyoke stoned, his great tapes mixed with live bands, free joints handed out and always folks looking out for us young uns when the acid rides got hairy. He was the first person who showed me the way outside the box- who else would major in "frisbee dynamics"? Rock on John!
from back in the Jerry Band at the Keystone days, of bringing in bits and pieces of James Olness's taping gear in with my camera stuff, where one more battery pack, etc., wasn't too conspicuous. The Keystones did not officially allow taping, though strangely there are tapes of most shows. Much gear also came in under long skirts.
My tape of the Keystone Berkeley show where Jerry took off for Alpha Centauri in the middle of Don't Let Go has an altercation between Keystone security and the taper in mid-solo.
Fig. 1 looks an awful lot like Oxford Plains Speedway in '88- I spotted a couple folks who look pretty darn familiar...
I never taped a show, but I did get caught up in the phenomena. A post on a bulletin board at college, got me started: "Dead Tapes" with the phone number. The call set off an amazing college experience and a lifetime of great friendships. Tape decks stacked up, marathon radio sessions pulling in Harvard's annual feast. The tapes kept everything flowing between tours. Each one an audio and visual treasure. Our gang was a generation or two from some of the best tapers and it took some time for the most recent stuff to arrive. We loved it all. The first tape I had was labeled "Englishtown 77" but it was actually a chopped up recording from Passaic 78. It didn't matter. I loved it. Still do.
My knowledge of recording Grateful Dead concerts is very limited. The first Dead tape I ever heard was at Stonybrook College on 10/31/70 in the student union before that nights show. A regular at Dead shows from those days, "Charlie O" from Brooklyn had a cassette from the Dead show from the night before (10/30/70). He had a high end looking cassette deck.
The next Dead tape I remember was in reel form from Tiger Graham who worked at the Fillmore East. It was a recording from 4/27/71, a show that my brother attended. The first side of our copy was super high fidelity and the other side had some serious problems.
The next "bootleg" I remember was the LP put out by Mammary Productions that I bought during my first visit to the Bay Area in 1971. I think that was from a Winterland recording.
The fourth tape I remember was from 12/5/71 from the live radio broadcast from the Felt Forum on WNEW fm.
Some friends had a couple cassettes we played at a post party after the 3/28/73 Springfield Dead show. I remember one of the tapes was Jerry and Bobby jamming with the New Riders at the Felt Forum. Jay Kerley had made that tape from the WNEW fm broadcast.
The next tape I remember was given to me when I attended Kansas City Art Institute in the fall of 1973. It was a Dead Head (Peter ?) from Pound Ridge, N.Y. who turned me on to that one. A patched together recording of 67-68 partial shows.
By 1977 the Great American Music Hall recording (radio broadcast)of 8/13/75 was played in Lukes Bar in Missoula.
It wasn't until December 1981 that I really started to assemble Dead Tapes. I was visiting Jay Kerley in Glen Ellen, Ca. and he recorded numerous Dead tapes for me.
In November 1985 I bought a used Sony D-5 from a guy in Berkeley that I would patch in with others in what was at that time the newly created tapers section behind the soundboard. I still have those metal tapes from a few shows from 85 through 87.
The heavy weight archivist/collectors that I've known through the years have been Jay Kerley, Pete Bogle and Charles Conner.
I was talking with a psychologist friend of mine recently about the human desire to recreate or relive the past, positive experiences ect. He told me that Sigmund Freud had said that a great deal of the human awareness and thought process is wrapped up in trying to recreate those past experiences.
And I used to laugh about my parents listening to Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.
on an important aspect of the archive. the social, material technological and aesthetic importance of the taper community begs to receive scholarly scrutiny, and the archive we'll help facilitate this to a great degree. my old Nac 550 still sits in the closet awaiting an occasion to emerge again! on a lighter note, prior to the establishment of the taper tickets you had to sneak your gear in to shows. I would love it if other old tapers would share their stories of the most interesting way they ever got their gear into a show.
I appreciate the tapers for the ethics they brought to the enterprise. It really developed into an alternative way to be honest and true without bending to the anti-copying policies that Big Media has convinced the Government to adopt. That is, it's morally and ethically OK to record a live performance and to share the recording provided that no money changes hands. It is fine to trade recordings, or to offer recordings for "blanks and postage", but not OK to make a profit off music that you did not create.
The 5 shows I still listen to on tape even though they've been officially released;
5/6/81 partial 2nd set
3/29/90 from a DAT Master
Just like I miss the clicking of vinyl in between songs I also miss tape hiss.
By the way ALL of my 1100 hours of GD/JGB tapes STILL exist.