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