One night in the winter of 1996, Rob Eaton, a recording engineer who’d worked with Duran Duran and Pat Metheny, showed up at the home of a high-school chemistry teacher in Petaluma, California. Eaton had heard that the teacher had something that he and others like him were eager to get their hands on. He’d also heard that the teacher wanted to sell what he had for a million dollars, a sum no studio engineer was likely to supply. Still, one could always tender expertise. The teacher drove Eaton to a barn he owned, and they ran in through the rain. Inside, amid piles of junk, were three road cases, of the kind that rock bands use to cart around their amplifiers. Each had “Grateful Dead” stencilled on its side. In the first one, Eaton found, in addition to some rotting cookbooks, several dozen reel-to-reel tapes, caked in mold and silt. Most of them were unmarked, or at least too encrusted to read, but Eaton had an idea what some of them might be, and he felt a surge of excitement. The other boxes contained dozens more tapes, similarly degraded.
Eaton told the teacher that it was impossible to evaluate their worth, since they couldn’t know what was on the tapes, or even whether they were playable. The teacher grudgingly lent him five of the worst-looking reels, and Eaton took them down the road to a friend’s house. The friend was Dick Latvala, who at the time was the official archivist of the Grateful Dead, the keeper of the band’s fabled vault of live recordings, and an unapologetic enthusiast who would listen to old Dead shows for twelve hours at a stretch, notebook in hand. Eaton, too, was a longtime Deadhead—he had seen the band perform around four hundred times and had been making and trading tapes of their concerts for twenty years.
Eaton cleaned the tapes with cotton balls and alcohol, and Latvala loaded one up onto his reel-to-reel. The exposed outer layer—the first thirty seconds or so—was ruined, but as the music kicked in they realized they might have a treasure on their hands, a tapehead’s Nag Hammadi. They heard Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s lead guitarist, performing a set with the organist Merl Saunders, at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, on September 6, 1973—a concert that hadn’t previously surfaced. Eaton and Latvala stayed up all night listening to the reels: other Garcia solo performances, a piece of a rare Dead show from the early seventies. The most remarkable thing was the crisp sound. They were first-generation two-track analogue soundboard recordings, with stereo separation among the instruments, a chunky bass, and plenty of air.
Eaton and Latvala wondered if these were Betty Boards—tapes made by Betty Cantor-Jackson, a longtime recording engineer for the Grateful Dead. Almost from the outset, the Dead were meticulous about taping their concerts. During several periods in their history, Cantor-Jackson did the taping, mixing the soundboard feed directly onto a two-track tape as the music was being performed. (She sat offstage, wearing earphones.) In Deadhead circles, she was renowned for her ear.
In the mid-eighties, she got into a dispute with the band over money. She went broke and lost her house in a foreclosure. Her belongings, including her tapes, which she’d withheld from the band, wound up in a storage locker in Marin County, and in 1986, after she failed to keep up with the payments, the contents, many of them damaged in a flood, were auctioned off. The Dead and its delegates declined to bid, even though dozens of Betty Boards were missing from their vault, but a few hundred people showed up—a stoner’s “Storage Wars.” Several bidders made off with batches of tapes. One batch fell into the hands of some enthusiasts who cleaned them up, transferred them to a digital format, and began distributing immaculate copies to the vast network of Deadhead tape collectors.
Another went to the chemistry teacher, who was not a Deadhead, by any stretch—“I like the Doobie Brothers,” he told me. But a kid who mowed his lawn, a member of the Dead’s road crew, had suggested that he go to the auction. As he recalls, he paid about a hundred dollars for the three road cases, which were so waterlogged that it took four men to load them into his pickup truck. He was interested in the cases, not the contents. He drove them to the barn, had a look inside, saw a sodden mess, closed them back up, and left them there for ten years. Along the way, he learned about Betty and assumed that he might have some of her coveted boards. When Jerry Garcia died, in 1995, the teacher began looking for a way to sell them.
The teacher hired Eaton to restore his tapes. In all, he restored two hundred tapes—nearly a hundred hours of music. The teacher had Eaton sign a contract stipulating that he not distribute the tapes, but
Eaton made digital copies. “The music deserved to be preserved and properly archived,” he told me. “It would have been unconscionable to let it go.” The teacher, meanwhile, reached out to the Dead, in an effort to sell the tapes. Through a lawyer, he says, they offered him a hundred thousand dollars. The teacher asked for ten times that. The Dead, reeling from the loss of touring revenue after the death of Garcia, reminded him that they owned the music, even if he owned the tapes. He didn’t sell. Still, before long, copies found their way into the vault. The music came home.
In 2003, the Dead released a four-CD live album from one set of the tapes, from a series of concerts that they had performed at the Academy of Music, in Manhattan, in the spring of 1972.
The teacher, now retired and the keeper of hundreds of rescued pet goats, still had the reels when I talked to him, in July. He didn’t want me to print his name, lest he become a target of theft. He was on the verge of being evicted from his home. He was still trying to sell the old reels, and said he’d recently stumbled on another box. He asked if I had a million dollars. I told him I did not, though I’d be eager to hear the tapes.
The first memory I have of the Grateful Dead is of a classmate in sixth grade telling me he’d gone to see them with his older sister. He reported that the band consisted of a bunch of hairy old guys in baggy clothes sitting on a stage eating spaghetti. It occurred to me later that he might have made this up, or that his sister had perhaps said something about “noodling.” I’ve since concluded that this would have been the band’s fall, 1980, stand at Radio City Music Hall, when the Dead, most definitely hairy and baggily clothed (though none of them yet over forty), opened each night with an acoustic set, during which a few of them sat on stools. I’ve never found anything in the literature regarding spaghetti.
Otherwise, I thought of the Dead at that time, if I thought of them at all, as some kind of malevolent cult, or, at least, a heavy-metal outfit, like Black Sabbath. A kid saw the iconography around—the skulls and skeletons—and imagined dark, angry noise. When I was thirteen, I bought an album of greatest hits, “Skeletons from the Closet,” and discovered that I’d been wrong. Many of the songs were delicate acoustic numbers with rustic harmonies and bouncy, if obscure, lyrics. There was some country, some folk, some blues, a Chuck Berry rocker. The lead singer, or one of them, had a delicate tenor. No Ozzy Osbourne, this guy. Maybe they really were just hippies who ate spaghetti onstage. It didn’t seem like much. Give me the guy who bites heads off bats. Give me “War Pigs.”
A few years later, I went to a boarding school where the Dead was something of a cult. The cool older kids had trays of cassette tapes of Dead concerts—copies of copies of copies, usually many generations removed from the original source, which might have been an audience tape (or aud, made by someone in the audience, with a microphone), a soundboard tape (made by someone who’d plugged into the main feed from the public-address system), or a tape of a radio broadcast.
“There’s a customer–satisfaction questionnaire for you to fill out and for us to not look at and immediately throw away.”
None of it sounded like that album of greatest hits. It was denser, feverish, otherworldly. If you took an interest, you’d copy a few tapes, listen to those over and over, until they began to make sense, and then copy some more. Before long, you might have a scattershot collection, with a couple of tapes from each year. It was all Grateful Dead, but because of the variability in sonic fidelity, and because the band had been at it for twenty years, there were many different flavors and moods. Even the compromised sound quality became a perverse part of the appeal. Each tape seemed to have its own particular note of decay, like the taste of the barnyard in a wine or a cheese. You came to love each one, as you might a three-legged dog. Or, having decided that it all sounded like one long meandering dirge, you went back to whatever normal people listened to.
That summer, I went to see the Dead for the first time, at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor venue in Maryland. It was 1984. I was fifteen. I went with two friends and one of their older brothers. We got there just in time to hear the opening of “Casey Jones,” which, despite being a staple of classic-rock radio, was by that time a rarity in the Dead’s repertoire, and the crowd went berserk. My impressions of the night were diffuse, many fixating on the shabby human carnival that had taken over the parking lot and the pavilion: freaks dangling from trees, skulking muppets muttering, “Acid, acid.” In the pavilion, the tapers had set up a cityscape of microphone stands, like minarets, and through them there was the sight of Jerry Garcia, fat and hunched, virtually immobile in a haze of his own cigarette smoke. His hair was long and lank. He hardly looked up. He was, at this point, very deep into an addiction to heroin. Backlit, he looked like some woodland ghoul. But he played in long, convoluted paragraphs and snappy banjo blurts. Torrents of melody poured out of his stubby, tarred hands, chiming and snarling into the night. The sounds produced by the bassist, Phil Lesh, were by turns plummy and thick, trebly and melodic. The music was somehow both pretty and mean, bouncy and diabolical, busy and clean. You could get lost in it. I went again the next night. That show, in retrospect, was the best I would ever see.
Later, I got the tapes. To my ears, the performances held up, and the music, on repetition, began to feel like something composed, rather than improvised. It took on a life of its own, apart from my experience of having witnessed its creation. The tapes themselves are long gone, but I still listen to those shows from time to time. I’ve even found an amateur video of the second night on YouTube, synched to a soundboard recording. The fact that I also listen, with equal or even greater regard, to many dozens of shows that I never attended, the majority of them performed during my nursery-rhyme years, props up my usually fruitless contention that nostalgia has nothing to do with the way the Dead wormed their way into my mind’s ear and fought off all comers even decades after the band had disappeared from the stage. The Dead inspired many lamentable bumper stickers, but one good one captured how it felt, and feels, to be under their sway: “Who are the Grateful Dead, and why do they keep following me?”
The Grateful Dead occupy a curious spot in the canon. Their music has turned out to be extremely resilient, considering that they were primarily a live act and effectively ceased to exist seventeen years ago, when Garcia died, and that for many of the years prior to that (how many is just about the most debated question in Deadland) they were a weak incarnation of themselves. They made a lot of studio albums, but few memorable ones, and had just one Top Forty hit in thirty years, and not for lack of trying. Yet it’s probably safe to say that the Dead have more recorded music in circulation than any performing group in history. (History, admittedly, is short. If there’d been such a thing as a Nakamichi 700 tape deck in eighteenth-century Leipzig, people might be trading bootlegs of Bach performing his own fugues: “St. Thomas’s Church, 5/8/39, Johann rips on the ‘Little’—epic!”) From their establishment, in 1965, to the death of Garcia, in 1995, they played 2,318 concerts, and more than two thousand of those are available in some form or another.
The band has released a hundred archival concert recordings, under various rubrics, but they also often (though not always) tolerated the taping of their concerts by people in the audience, as long as the tapes were traded, not sold. As Garcia said, “Once we’re done with it, the audience can have it.”
The Dead’s immense body of work invites and sustains obsession, and its variability is in some respects the draw. All this may dilute any song’s or album’s or concert’s case for canonical consideration—it’d be hard to know what to send into space. This spring, the Library of Congress announced that it was adding a Dead recording to its National Recording Registry. It chose a Betty Cantor-Jackson recording: Barton Hall, Cornell University, in May of 1977. It has never been released by the band; it’s not even in the vault. In the opinion of many, including me, it is not even the Dead’s best performance that month, much less in their history. But because a good audience tape of it circulated right after the show, and because a particularly clean soundboard version materialized, in the eighties, with the appearance of the first batch of Betty Boards, and because it is a polished and accessible example of the band at a high point, it became a mainstay of most tape collections and is possibly their most beloved piece of work. Blair Jackson, a Grateful Dead historian and biographer, estimates that it has been copied two million times. That’s a lot for a bootleg—enough for a conspiracy theory to have sprung up around it. Some believe that the show never happened, that the tape is just a collection of performances culled from other shows.
It is very easy, and in many circles compulsory, to make fun of the Dead. “What does a Deadhead say when the drugs wear off? ‘This music sucks.’ ” The Dead, more than any band of their stature, have legions of haters—real hostility—as typified by Dave Marsh’s remark, in Playboy, that they were “the worst band in creation.”
What’s to hate? Even the fanatic can admit to a few things. The Dead were musically self-indulgent, and yet, to some ears, harmonically shallow. They played one- and two-chord jams that went on for twenty or thirty minutes. One live version of “Dark Star,” a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge, clocked in at forty-eight minutes. (Oh, to have been in Rotterdam!) Even their straightforward songs could go on for ten or twelve minutes. Pop-craft buffs, punkers, and anyone steeped in the orthodoxy of concision tend to plug their ears to the noodling, while jazz buffs often find it unsophisticated and aimless. The Dead’s sense of time was not always crisp. It’s been said that the two drummers, in the eighties, sounded like sneakers in a dryer. For those attracted to the showy side of rock, the Dead were always an unsightly ensemble, whose ugliness went undiminished in middle age—which happened to coincide with the dawn of MTV. They were generally without sex appeal. Bob Weir, their showman and heartthrob, might be said to be an exception, but he spent much of the eighties performing in short cutoff jean shorts and lavender tank tops—a sight even more troubling, I’d submit, than that of Garcia circa 1984, drooling on his microphone as he fought off the nods. Even the high-tech light shows of later years and the spaceship twinkle of their amplifiers could not compensate for a lumpy stage presence. They could be sloppy, unrehearsed. They forgot lyrics, sang out of key, delivered rank harmonies, missed notes, blew takeoffs and landings, and laid down clams by the dozen. Their lyrics were often fruity—hippie poetry about roses and bells and dew. They resisted irony. They were apolitical. They bombed at the big gigs. They unleashed those multicolored dancing bears.
Most objectionable, perhaps, were the Deadheads, that travelling gang of phony vagabonds. As unironic as the Dead may have been, Deadheads were more so. Not for them the arch framings and jagged epiphanies of punk. They dispensed bromides about peace and fellowship as they laid waste to parking lots and town squares. Many came by the stereotypes honestly: airheads and druggies, smelling of patchouli and pot, hairy, hypocritical, pious, ingenuous, and uncritical in the extreme. They danced their flappy Snoopy dance and foisted their hissy bootlegs on roommates and friends, clearing dance floors and common rooms. The obnoxious ones came in many varieties: The frat boys in their Teva sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts, rolling their shoulders to the easy lilt of “Franklin’s Tower.” The so-called spinners, dervishes in prairie skirts and bare feet. The earnest acoustic strummers of “Uncle John’s Band,” the school-bus collective known as the Rainbow Family, the gaunt junkies shuffling around their vans like the Sleestaks in “Land of the Lost”—they came for the party, more than for the band. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to go in to the show. They bought into the idea, which grew flimsier each year, that following a rock band from football stadium to football stadium, fairground to fairground, constituted adventure of the Kerouac kind.
“Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”
This is not to say that adventures were not had. At a certain point, later in the band’s career, the Dead became, especially on the East Coast, a token of entitlement squandered or lightly worn. Consider the preppy Deadhead, in his new Jetta, and his counterpart, the Jewish Deadhead, with his boxes of blank Maxells. In “Perspectives on the Grateful Dead,” a volume of scholarly writings published in 1999, one author, in an essay called “Why Are There So Many Jewish Deadheads?,” attempts to explain the affinity in terms of the Diaspora’s search for spiritual meaning (neshama) and community (chevra). The goyish trustafarians lacked that excuse. At any rate, they all quailed in the presence of the biker Deadheads, the leather-vested roughnecks crying out for “U.S. Blues,” but were heartened, in absentia, to have seen them there. The tough guys seasoned the scene with authenticity and menace.
The Dead’s reputation and press coverage have always fixated on the culture that sprouted up around the band, and that then began to choke it, like a weed. When the Dead stopped touring, many of the fans moved on to other travelling carnivals—often to the so-called jam bands that had drawn inspiration and a music-industry approach (though not quite a musical vocabulary) from the Dead. This, too, was often taken to be a kind of indictment: the Dead are sometimes damned by the company their fans keep. The conflation of the Dead with, say, the Dave Matthews Band—incongruous as the two may be musically—can really smart.
There is a silent minority, though, of otherwise unobjectionable aesthetes who, as “Grateful Dead” has become a historical record, rather than a living creative enterprise, have found themselves rekindling a fascination with the band’s recorded legacy. These are the tapeheads, the geeks, the throngs of workaday Phil Schaaps, who approach the band’s body of work with the intensity and the attention to detail that one might bring to birding, baseball, or the Talmud. They may be brain surgeons, lawyers, bartenders, or even punk-rock musicians. Really, it shouldn’t matter what they do, or what they smell like, or whether they can still take a toke without keeling over. It’s the music, and not the parking lot, that’s got them by the throat.
No two shows were the same, although many were similar. Even on good nights, they might stink it up for a stretch, and on bad ones they could suddenly catch fire—a trapdoor springs open. Then, there were the weird inimitable gigs, the yellow lobsters. Variation was built into the music. They played their parts as if they were inventing them on the spot, and sometimes they were. The music, even in the standard verse-chorus stretches, often had a limber, wobbly feel to it that struck many listeners as slovenly but others as sinuous and alive, open to possibility and surprise. It came across as music being made, rather than executed. “These guys have evolved a thing where each guy is playing a running line all the time,” David Crosby once said. “That’s electronic Dixieland.” The music critic Brent Wood has ascribed the sound of it to “the band’s emphasis on true polyphony, a texture heard only rarely in contemporary popular music. Seldom do rhythm guitar, keyboard or drum parts vary at the same time as the bass and lead guitar. . . . Still more infrequently are all six parts being improvised.” So you could attribute an aversion to the Dead to a failure of polyphonic appreciation. Or you could chalk it up to taste. “Our audience is like people who like licorice,” Jerry Garcia said. “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
The musicians were not virtuosos, in the sense of technical skill. But each was unique, peerless, sui generis. Garcia’s guitar style and sound are immediately recognizable, even when they show up in the recordings of others. (His best-known piece of work is probably his pedal-steel-guitar riffing in “Teach Your Children,” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.) His was the tone that launched a thousand vans. Garcia was the band’s most accomplished songwriter, most soulful singer, most charismatic figure, most eloquent interviewee, most recognizable icon, most splendid thaumaturge. He was also the Dead’s most inconsistent performer and its doom-shrouded core—his deterioration did them in. You could argue that his decline infused the lyrics with Appalachian gloom and added to his allure, at least until it became depressing. For an avid performer, he exhibited very little artifice or pretense, except when he and the others continued to talk about the band as an improvisational experiment when they’d long ago become something else. The guys always maintained that the band was leaderless, but that was bull. Garcia was the touchstone and alpha—“a reluctant emperor,” as the Dead chronicler David Gans put it. He was also the only one who really did much outside the band. Other musicians loved hanging out with him and having him sit in. He recorded jazz, fusion, gospel, soul, Motown, bluegrass, funk, and folk. He was also probably the most prolific and assured interpreter of Bob Dylan. “Jerry Garcia could hear the song in all my bad recordings, the song that was buried there,” Dylan said several years ago. He wrote, when Garcia died, “There’s a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly, and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school.”
Phil Lesh told me, “Jerry had one of the most beautiful minds I’ve ever known. He would make connections between disparate thoughts and make them fit in harmonious ways. And his music was a lot like that also. It was paradoxical. He had that shit-between-the-toes, barnyard, down-home funkiness, and at the same time he could play the farthest-out spacey shit. He was always a source of wonder. When he played, it would be this endless stream of glorious melody.”
Still, what makes the Dead’s sound so distinct from any other kind of rock and roll may be Lesh’s bass. He did not like to repeat things, which is rare for an instrument usually charged with keeping time. He played around the root and the beat, often skewing the pocket, skipping the one, holding off on the changes, bubbling up around it, or playing a melodic counterpoint. Growing up, he listened more to Elliot Carter and Charles Ives than to Lead Belly or Hank Williams. He studied composition with Luciano Berio (Steve Reich was a friend and classmate), wrote avant-garde polyorchestral compositions, and played trumpet in a jazz band inspired by Count Basie.
Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist, has a sense of melody and harmony that can seem slightly unhinged. He strives, as he has said, to sound like the jazz pianist McCoy Tyner’s left hand. Weir has had little success playing with anyone else, but he found a home in the harmonic space between Lesh and Garcia. He often astonished them, and ameliorated their tendency toward prettiness. “He’s a stealth machine,” Lesh told me.
As for the drummers, they had their work cut out, given the extemporizing, not to mention the drugs. The need to stay loose occasionally left them slack. One could write a treatise, meanwhile, on the relative merits of the Dead’s keyboardists. Four died, over the years; playing keys in the Dead was a little like playing drums in Spinal Tap. The tenure of each delineates a period in the band’s sound and approach.
The Grateful Dead, more than most, is a band of eras. Each year has a distinct sound to it. An educated Head can usually, within a couple of bars, identify what year a concert recording was made. Some might love every era, but in different ways, as a polygamist might his wives; others dismiss entire decades. In the beginning, in 1965, they were essentially a blues-dance band, fronted by Ron McKernan, known as Pigpen, for his general state of dishevelment. A bunch of beatniks who’d met through a music shop where Garcia gave guitar and banjo lessons, they’d formed a jug band, but at Pigpen’s suggestion they picked up electric instruments. Pigpen, the son of a blues d.j., had a handful of covers that opened into extended jams that became a prototype for later explorations. But in the meantime they were also Ken Kesey’s house band at the Acid Tests, where they could fiddle around, make crazy noise, play dance music, or just quit, if they were too high on LSD. Pigpen was a boozer (he died in 1973, at the age of twenty-seven, of cirrhosis) and steered clear of LSD, but for the rest of the band acid was the crucible in which their peculiar approach to group improvisation took shape, and the agent that enabled their first fans, and many later ones, to catch on.
Most of the band’s life span was postlapsarian. Their best years—as performers, innovators, and songwriters—were 1968-74. This took them from their Eden, the psychedelic excursions of 1968-69, through the raunchy garage rock of their leanest incarnation, in 1970-71, and a concurrent turn into stripped-down folk and country—outlaw ballads, miner’s blues. And then their experimental jams turned jazzier, and their songwriting more assured. By that time, they’d produced so many songs, so quickly, that many of the best of them never made it onto a studio album. The verses of Robert Hunter, their chief lyricist, who did not perform with the band, were elliptical, by turns vivid and gnomic. Garcia did not like to sing anything that was too on the nose. He and Hunter composed phantasmagoric reworkings of folk songs, recasting American mythologies in a way that often seemed to suggest that Garcia was singing about himself and his mates, or about our experience of following along.
In 1974, the band took a year-and-a-half-long hiatus from touring, owing to the crushing expense of their tour operation and a bit of burnout, and returned in 1976 with some new prog-rock material and a gentler sound. The balance of the seventies is widely beloved, but it marked a turn away from experiment, and toward grander, more conventional rock gestures. While many prefer the nerve, exploration, and impudence of the first half of the decade, to say nothing of the crisper tempos, some regard May of 1977—the month of Cornell—as the band’s pinnacle. By this time, their cultural presence had waned. Still, the carnival travelled on, a marginal anachronism shuffling in the shadow of punk and New Wave.
The early and mid-eighties are problematic. Garcia’s health fell to pieces. Some nights, he was a mess. Others, he was a better player and singer than he had ever been. The Dead had a set routine; the music put on muscle; the audience grew. This is where I came aboard. People say that the music you liked when you hit puberty is the stuff that sticks with you. I love this period. Others cringe at it. Weir once told me, when I asked him about those days, “I was carrying Garcia like a rented mule!” That’s not how it sounded to me.
In the summer of 1986, Garcia fell into a diabetic coma and nearly died. When he came to, he had to relearn the guitar. For a while, he gave up heroin and cocaine, lost weight, and became a more vital and generous performer, and the Dead became newly popular, on the heels of their one Top Ten hit, “Touch of Gray.” There were long stands on Broadway and at the Garden, summer stadium tours, and glowing features on the news. But what Garcia had gained in poise and gravitas he’d given up in speed and imagination. Some people, including some of his bandmates, seem to prefer this period to the pre-coma years. Lesh admitted, though, that Garcia’s guitar playing had changed. “I could say that somehow it was less fluent,” he told me. “It was like he had to take a little time to make a decision every so often, whereas before there was no conscious thought or decision involved. It just came out.” By the time he died, he was a frail presence in the mix. He’d forget what song they were playing. He didn’t seem to want to be there. But they kept touring, to support the corporation they’d become.
It is one of the central ironies of the Grateful Dead that this group of virtual anarchists, playing their ragged, improvisational amalgam of old-timey American music, fronted what may have been the most technically sophisticated sound operation in the music business. They amplified their loosey-goosey music with determined particularity. The Dead’s sound system, as it evolved in the early seventies, delivered more clarity and purity of sound, at higher volumes, than any that had come before, and most that came after. The sound quality greatly enhanced the recording product, both for the devotees in the audience who started, in greater and greater numbers, to tape the gigs on smuggled reel-to-reel recorders and for the band’s official recorders themselves, who patched into the soundboard feed and mixed the music directly to tape, in real time—essentially mixing albums on the fly.
The Dead’s first great benefactor, Owsley (Bear) Stanley, the scion of a Kentucky political family, was a pioneering manufacturer of LSD. He also had an idiosyncratic but fierce interest in sound quality, and, while his technical contributions were not always practicable, his early financial support, near-evangelical dedication to sonic fidelity, and steady supply of acid created an atmosphere of experimentation and advancement that culminated, first, in the creation of a groundbreaking company called Alembic and, later, in the so-called Wall of Sound. The Wall of Sound, which has nothing to do with Phil Spector’s, consisted of six hundred and four speakers, channelling twenty-six thousand watts of power. It has been called the greatest vessel for the amplification of sound in history. Every modern P.A. system is based on it; it employed a so-called line-array system that is now the industry standard. It was also so cumbersome, and took so long to unload and assemble, that it nearly bankrupted the band. It was Stanley, too, who began recording the band’s performances, in 1966, so that they could listen later, to check the sound or mine ideas. (Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had also inculcated them with the ethos of taping and filming everything.) When Owsley went to prison, for making LSD, others, among them Betty Cantor, stepped in for months at a stretch. A taping regimen took root, even as the band members stopped paying attention.
The other irony is that the very sharpness of live sound and variety in performance that led people to begin compulsively taping the band created a brisk and far-reaching trade in tapes, which, as they were copied, often came to sound like mud. So a drug-addled, rehearsal-averse, error-prone band of non-virtuosos perfected a state-of-the-art sound system that created a taping community that distributed a gigantic body of work that often came to sound as sloppy as some of the performances. Each had a character and odor of its own, a terroir. Some combination of the era, the lineup, the set list, the sound system, the recording apparatus, its positioning in the hall, the recorder’s sonic bias, the chain of custody, and, yes, the actual performance would render up a sonic aura that could be unique. Jerry Garcia claimed to be a synesthete—he said that he perceived sound as color. Somehow, I and others came to perceive various recordings, if not as colors, as having distinct odors or auras.
To initiates, the Grateful Dead’s vault has the mythical lure of the Amber Room. In the nineties, the band moved its collection from San Rafael to a state-of-the-art strongroom in Novato, with five-layered walls, various alarms, and a system that would suck all the oxygen from the room in the event of fire. It housed more than ten thousand tapes.
Their keeper was Dick Latvala, a self-described “flaming Deadhead” and “crazy tape pervert”—the avid congregant who one day finds himself in the role of high priest. Latvala was a young gospel and R. & B. buff when he first encountered the Dead, in 1966. He was an instant convert and thenceforth an avid attendee, a member of the earliest cadre of Dead freaks who bore witness to the band’s metamorphosis from a mere blues-and-dance band into a full-bore improvisational psychedelic experiment—what he called “primal Dead.”
Latvala discovered concert tapes in 1974, in the early days of the taping scene, when the invention of portable tape decks made it possible to get passable audience recordings. He wasn’t a taper himself. He worked at a zoo in Hawaii and grew marijuana, which he often sent, along with boxes of blank reels, to the established tapers and collectors on the mainland. Gradually, he amassed a collection of eight hundred reel-to-reel tapes and worked his way into the upper echelons of the taper hierarchy. As Mickey Hart, one of the Dead’s drummers, once said, “Dick listened to more Grateful Dead music than anybody in the Grateful Dead has heard.”
In 1979, at a Dead show in Colorado, he met Bill (Kidd) Candelario, a crew member who often recorded the band, and soon found himself hanging around the band’s headquarters in San Rafael, as a kind of errand boy. He took out the garbage, fetched coffee, and plied the crew with a steady supply of Maui Wowie. Theirs was a tough scene to crack, and he endured a fair amount of abuse. But one day in 1985, as he was pressing a tape of some primal Dead on the office manager, Phil Lesh appeared, and Latvala somehow got Lesh to sit down and listen. Lesh liked it, and Latvala asked him whether anyone was taking care of the tapes. Latvala got the job. During the next couple of years, he organized the tapes and catalogued them. After a while, the Dead began paying him.
For years, there’d been clamor from fans, and talk in the band, about liberating some vault contents. The idea had always foundered on concerns about quality control and economics. But in 1991 they released “One from the Vault,” a concert from 1975. The next year brought “Two from the Vault,” from 1968. Then Lesh, chiefly, scuttled further releases, because he and the band, to their credit, perhaps, were pickier than most of their fans. As Garcia once told Latvala, “I don’t ever want to hear any of that shit. All it does is remind me of what I was trying to do.”
Instead, Latvala, with a couple of others in the organization, began selecting two-track concert recordings in the vault and releasing them, at a rate of about three a year, as “Dick’s Picks.” The first one, a show from 1973, sold well. Early on, everyone agreed that band members would stay out of the process. To the extent that Latvala was the Deadheads’ infiltrator and proxy, it became a kind of enthusiasts’ enterprise. The Dead don’t usually even listen to the choices, before or after they’re released. Eventually, they released thirty-six Dick’s Picks multi-CD sets. Out of sheer enthusiasm, Latvala surreptitiously slipped digital copies of other vault recordings to his taper friends. He died, of a heart attack, in 1999, and after that his friends felt free to pass the copies around. Before long, almost everything in the vault was in circulation. And then came the Internet.
“Screw this–I’m going to work for the tabloids.”
The Internet Archive (which is also known by its Web address, Archive.org) is a nonprofit digital library founded by Brewster Kahle, in 1996. You can find old speeches, comedy routines, TV ads, government documents, academic treatises, entire books. Nearly seven hundred thousand people have downloaded “Beeton’s Book of Needlework.” Its live-music archive is home to 8,976 Grateful Dead recordings—over six thousand more than any other band. You can browse the recordings by year, so if you click on, say, 1973 you will see links to two hundred and ninety-four recordings, beginning with four versions of a February 9th concert at Stanford and ending with several versions of December 19th in Tampa. Most users merely stream the music; it’s a hundred cassette trays, in the Cloud. But you can download some of it, too. Some have been downloaded so often they’d be gold albums, were someone paying for them. (Anything the Dead release commercially gets removed from the Archive.) A mediocre recording of an unremarkable 1979 gig at Madison Square Garden has been downloaded almost seven hundred thousand times.
Suddenly, a fan who may have once had a degraded and haphazard collection had access to thousands of gigs. You could spend a week listening to a year. You could begin to delineate eras and tours and get to know the tapers’ quirks, in the company of a virtual community of anonymous cranks who contribute reviews of each show. (You could say there are two kinds of Deadheads: those who discriminate and those who think it is sacrilegious to do so.) You will generally see three kinds of comments. One is an evaluation of the performance. Another is an assessment of the recording. The third is a personal firsthand recollection of the night itself. Such chronicles are as tedious as recounted dreams. One starts to seek out certain commenters. There’s capn doubledose, a connoisseur of “Let It Grow”; clementinescaboose, who has detected, in Bill Kreutzmann’s drum work on Santa Rosa 6/27/69, the roots of hip-hop; and then there’s Crazycatpeekin, whose gushing five-star review of one oft-neglected favorite of mine—“a six-headed Beethoven . . . unbelievable energy, synchronicity, groupmind, sheer genius in the transition”—had me giddy with the thought that the universe might contain another listener who held it in the same high regard. It turned out that Crazycatpeekin was one of my closest old friends, just repeating our youthful effusions.
In 2006, Rhino Entertainment, a division of Warner Music Group, bought the licensing rights to the Grateful Dead catalogue. Soon afterward, Rhino moved the vault, in four tractor-trailers, to Warner’s giant warehouse, near Burbank. Several months ago, I paid a visit, in the company of the Dead’s current archivist, David Lemieux.
Reared in Ottawa, Lemieux didn’t see the Dead perform until 1987—post-coma, as they say. Lemieux was sixteen, and he attended the show in Hartford. (His mother drove him there.) He became a taper for a while, but later moved on to other music (he likes Pearl Jam, Wilco, David Bowie, and Blur) and an academic career as a film archivist. In 1998, while working for the British Columbia provincial archives, he wrote the Dead offices a letter requesting a photograph, and Latvala asked him to help catalogue their video and film holdings. He spent a summer in the vault, and when Latvala died the band invited Lemieux to take his place. “They hadn’t realized I was a Deadhead,” he told me. Now he works both for Rhino, as a producer of the vault releases, and for Grateful Dead Productions, as the “legacy manager.” (G.D.P. is a lean operation these days, consisting of the surviving band members, a business manager, a lawyer, and Lemieux.) He is not a creature of the vault, as Latvala was. He lives on Vancouver Island but travels to Burbank every few months. “I still pinch myself,” he told me. “I still keep my pay stubs.”
On one occasion a few years ago, the Edge, the U2 guitarist, came to visit the vault, because, as Lemieux told me, “the Dead are famous in the business for surviving and thriving.” Lemieux showed them around. “Man, we’ve got a shitload of tape,” the Edge said. “We could really use you.” Bob Weir, who’d just walked in, said, “He’s ours. Get one of your own.”
Earlier this year, Lemieux flew down to retrieve some video in preparation for a theatrical concert screening. He wanted to pull some audiotape as well, to cull candidates for his new vault series, called “Dave’s Picks” (he’s released four so far). He invited me to tag along.
I met him at the Tangerine Hotel. Lemieux, who had on jeans, a fleece, and a ball cap that read “Vermont Public Television,” is a trim and clean-cut Canadian. He says that he doesn’t smoke pot: “I find that it clouds my judgment about the music.” We drove out to an industrial park by the Burbank airport and were greeted at the loading dock by one of six archivists overseeing the combined assets of Warner Music Group, of which the Dead are a tiny part. The archivist, with an Abbey Road coffee mug and a David Crosby physique, led us into the warehouse, where we came upon another building, made of reinforced concrete. It is the size of a city block and has a rubber-covered roof, to repel leaking water.
“Are you ready to enter the holy portal?” he asked. We passed through a door into a vast climate-controlled hangar of shelves loaded with boxes containing the reel-to-reel multitrack recordings of studio sessions and concerts of hundreds of artists. There was a smell of vinegar—the disintegration of old magnetic audiotape. We wandered the aisles, tunnelling through music. Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Gene Autry, Yes, Coolio, Jean-Luc Ponty, Teddy Pendergrass, Winger. “Three-quarters of this place is unissued,” he said. He pointed to a rack of reel-to-reels: Otis Redding, live, 1967, never circulated. Another set of shelves contained hours and hours of Aretha Franklin songs that have never been released.
“Drool,” Lemieux said.
The Dead’s section was toward the back, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It was a vault within a vault—a Holy of Holies. The funny thing was that the Dead’s stash, sealed off from the rest, had long been by far the most porous of all. Every year, new old music gushes forth. “That’s what makes the Grateful Dead unique within this building,” the archivist said. “David is using it all.”
He opened a padlock. We stepped inside. There were two long aisles, with a line of bays on either side. There were fifty-four bays. Each bay was about four feet wide and nine shelves high, with as many as a hundred tapes per shelf. There were big reels and small ones, cassettes and digital audiotapes. The arrangement wasn’t strictly chronological. The system was arcane. Certain dates summoned sounds, configurations, set lists. 5/25/77: that sick solo before “Wharf Rat.” Others provoked curiosity, such as a tape labelled “Phil Lesh at College of San Mateo 1956-1960.” “Historically significant,” Lemieux said. (Lemieux estimates that of the five thousand or so e-mails he’s received in his role as archivist, only five have been from women.)
Lemieux pointed out the so-called houseboat tapes: five concerts from the summer of 1971 that were salvaged a few years ago from a houseboat belonging to one of the band’s dead keyboardists’ parents. A whole section of the vault housed the sixteen-track fourteen-inch reels from the Dead’s tour of Europe in 1972. Last year, the Dead released the entire tour: a seventy-three-disk boxed set containing all twenty-two concerts and more than seventy hours of music. It came in a small steamer trunk and cost four hundred and fifty dollars. A run of twelve thousand two hundred sold out in four days. It is a pinnacle of completism, by the standards of any genre, and even a diehard might find it a test of patience to work through twenty-one versions of “Sugar Magnolia.” I got bogged down somewhere around Luxembourg.
But one can luxuriate in a library of new liner notes, which are full of revelations about the difficulty of capturing it all on tape. Sometimes things get a little technical. Here’s the crewman Dennis (Wiz) Leonard, recalling a mechanical epiphany: “We drove a McIntosh 275 vacuum-tube amplifier and picked off a tap on the output transformer, which would give us 120 volts with enough current to run the capstan motor at our precise 60Hz/15ips, also now immune to line-frequency fluctuation.” This may well have been as ingenious as the music itself. We’d not have one without the other.
On one shelf, I found a bunch of hand-labelled cassettes arrayed chronologically on a Stroh’s beer flat, as in the back seat of a Deadhead’s Datsun. One of them was dated November 30, 1980, from the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Among my school cohort, a tape of the second set of this show, recorded from the audience, had been a sacred object. Everyone had copies, but a master got handed down, every year, to an ordained devotee, who became the keeper of what was known as the Fox’s Den. In the Den, you had to follow the Four Commandments, which were inscribed on a board. One read, “Thou shalt not press pause, stop, fast-forward, or rewind during the transition”—the transition being an improvisation stitching together two songs, in this case “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” (Scar->Fire, in the vulgate). None of us had attended the concert, but the performance, to our ears, was an idiosyncratic marvel. Through repeated listenings, in various states of mind, we imbued the Fox with the eminence and the depth of nuance that others reserve for the “Goldberg Variations” or “Kind of Blue.” You’d think we’d scoff now at our younger selves—our wives do—but I’m afraid I still know every note of the Fox, and each time I listen, even now, I find myself thinking, or even saying aloud, “Sorry, this is a masterpiece.” We like what we like.
“Oh, what those are for!”
In the wider world of tape collectors, the Fox had no profile at all and remains, for the most part, just one among multitudes. The Scar->Fire in particular doesn’t seem to rate with the experts. Two years ago, on the Fox’s thirtieth anniversary, a couple of dozen adherents gathered in a Manhattan apartment for a kind of symposium. Over roast beef, attendees took turns delivering prepared remarks on such topics as the Fox Theatre’s beginnings as a Shriners’ mosque, the possible effect of the hall’s acoustics on tempo, and, to quote from the program notes, “the little spirally, zippery, escaping-worm synth sound in the Playin’ Jam that signals the end of the meltdown madness and the beginning of the dreamier, noodley bit.” None of us were musicologists.
The Fox in the vault was not ours, exactly. It was a soundboard recording. I knew this version, too. Many of us had found it sterile. Without the reverberations of the hall, the music lost its grandeur and chime. A guy I know had produced what’s called a matrix, a hybrid of a board recording and an aud, and had posted it on the Archive.
The prized aud was made by a taper named Bob Wagner. Wagner is now a doctor who specializes in occupational medicine. When I called him, at his home in the East Bay, to ask about the Fox, he stepped out for a long walk, so as not to subject his wife to Dead talk. “Of the hundreds or up to a thousand tapes that I’ve made, this one is clearly dearest to me,” he told me. “It’s the best-sounding audience tape I’ve made, and if there’s a better tape out there I’d love to hear it.”
Wagner estimates that he attended four hundred Dead shows. He started taping in 1977, in order to listen back to what he’d experienced live.
“Taping is a creative art,” Wagner told me. “It’s analogous to writing nonfiction. It appealed to me in the way it gave me some participation in the music. The decisions you make: the microphone, the tape deck, your levels, the editing, where you position your microphones, how high. It’s a science as well as an art.”
In November, 1980, the Dead did a swing though Florida and Georgia. Wagner, then a medical student at Chapel Hill, packed up his taping gear and drove down to Lakeland, Florida, in his 1969 Mercury Cougar. He did not have especially long hair. He wasn’t into drugs. He liked to be alert while taping, to keep an eye on his levels. The night of the concert at the Fox, he discovered that he had just about the worst seat in the house—the second-to-last row of the balcony, in the corner. He recorded the first set there, but afterward made his way down to the third row of the balcony, just right of center, and set up his deck in the aisle. He sat throughout the set, holding a microphone in his hand. “I remember it being quite a pain. I can see the band and the house in my mind’s eye, from that spot,” he said. “The sound was so unique and wonderful. There was such wide stereo range on the P.A. It translated to the tape. You don’t usually get that on audience tapes. It’s Dan Healy who deserves the credit. Healy just went for it.” He was referring to the Dead’s soundman, and it occurred to me that his admiration for the Fox had more to do with the quality of sound than with the performance. Tapers listen differently.
“Do you like 1974?” Lemieux asked me. We were driving north on I-5, through the parched wastes of the San Emigdio Mountains, en route from Burbank to the Bay Area. In the trunk were some reels from 1977 and video masters of a few concerts in 1989, which he had pulled from the vault. (When we stopped for gas, Lemieux made sure one of us stayed in the car, to guard the tapes.) During the ride, Lemieux put on 7/29/74, Landover, Maryland—“Weather Report Suite,” a three-part extravaganza written by Bob Weir. This version, nearly twenty minutes long, was a candidate for inclusion on a bonus disk that would accompany the next Dave’s Picks, and he wanted my vote. I’d be honored. Crank it up. Hello, Wall of Sound. I’d probably heard this one before, on the Archive, but the clarity of the vault recording, the distinctive character of each instrument, and maybe the sight, out the window, of raw California fault land made the music seem unique, fresh, and unrepeatable. The Garcia solo in the middle of “Let It Grow,” the suite’s up-tempo finale, had an urgent and purposeful architecture—no spaghetti here. Lemieux and I bobbed our heads in unison, like Wayne and Garth. The jam finished with a piano flourish, and I gave Lemieux a look of holy smokes, which he returned with one of that’s my girl, as though the choice flattered him.
“Our philosophy used to be to find things that people haven’t heard, uncirculated things. Now that, what, ninety per cent of the vault has been circulated, it’s just about releasing good music.” He went on, “Obviously, this will end someday. There’s enough good material in the vault to go at this rate for another twenty or thirty years, or, at a slower rate, for fifty years. Whether I’m involved or not, who knows? But it’s a hard thing to walk away from!”
We sped through orange groves and then the reeking feedlots of Fresno. I’d brought along a few obscure favorites to play for Lemieux. I wanted to try the Fox on him. Knowing him to be picky about audience recordings, I’d brought the matrix. Right away, the recording sounded odd and the performance flawed. Hearing it through his ears, I tensed up. It starts slowly, I muttered. He noted an absence of Weir in the mix (a Healy tendency) and also what he called phase problems. As we were getting to the good parts, Lemieux got distracted and started talking about some old guitars that were bound for a Grateful Dead exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland. I turned up the volume a bit. “I think transparency is a good thing,” he was saying, about the band’s affairs. He talked through the transition. Even in the company of the keeper of the vault, being a freak for the Fox was a lonely business.
Perhaps because of his musical education and his exacting mind, Phil Lesh has been the band member most concerned about how the Dead come across on their live releases. He blocked early attempts to put out old concerts in the vault. So a fan might assume he’s the one to talk to about the Dead’s transformation, over time, from living thing to library.
Last spring, while he was in town for a week’s worth of concerts at the Beacon Theatre, Lesh met me for a late lunch at the Mercer Hotel. A few years ago, Lesh and his wife, Jill, bought an apartment nearby, in part to be near the younger of their two sons, who just graduated from Princeton. Lesh walked in alone. He’s a spry seventy-two, thin as a branch of manzanita, with fierce, appraising eyes, a quiet speaking voice, and the poor hearing of a guy who’s spent half his life standing in front of a stack of amps. He got a liver transplant in 1998. He was wearing jeans and an untucked button-down. He ordered beets.
When he’s not touring or in New York, he lives in Marin County, where he has recently opened a club in an old seafood restaurant on the Bay, in San Rafael. He named it Terrapin Crossroads, after the Dead’s album and song suite “Terrapin Station,” and said it was inspired by Levon Helm’s Woodstock barn, where Helm, the drummer for the Band, held jam sessions, open to the public, called Midnight Rambles. Lesh has in recent months been hosting West Coast Rambles, with a rotating cast. “I want to bring musicians who maybe have not had a lot of contact with the Grateful Dead into a band setting and work with them and engage them. It’s not necessarily to teach, but to pull out of them that way of looking at music. So that they can then play this music not the same way but with the same spirit, with the same perspective and goals that we did.”
I said I was interested in talking to him about the Dead’s vast archive of live concert recordings, about how something intended to be spontaneous and ephemeral became a curated body of work.
“It’s interesting that that’s become the focus, because we never felt that recording was suited to what it is that we do,” he said. “Because it’s so much in the moment. Because it’s different every time. If you freeze a song in a recording, it’s obviously going to be that way every time you listen to it. I remember classical recordings from my youth: there would be a slight bobble in our version of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony every time I listened to it. And when I think about that piece, when I listen back to it in my mind, that bobble is there. So recordings have always seemed to me, personally, to be kind of a fly in amber, which was contrary to the spirit of the Grateful Dead.”
What happens, though, if one has dozens upon dozens of versions of a song?
“Like fairy tales or folk songs, all versions are true,” he said. “The more versions there are, the truer it is. But we never thought about that in the beginning. There was never a plan. We just ass-backwardsed into everything.” He went on, “If I thought about it, I would want to see the music just sort of osmose into the great cloud of music that’s been created, that people just sing back and forth to one another. I don’t care if it’s rated highly. If in a hundred years people are still singing these songs back and forth to one another on the back porch, in a night club, a bar or the living room, that would be great.”
After Garcia died, Lesh was briefly involved in vetting the live releases from the vault. He also spent a great deal of time listening to the output of the final years, hoping to find material worth releasing, but came across little that made the grade. “It’s tremendously time-consuming, and often really boring, to listen back to what you did years ago,” he said. “What bores me the most is listening to show after show, and it’s just average. You’re just going through the motions. Everything seemed better at the time than it turns out to be on tape.” When he listens to music today, it tends to be Bach. “I also listen to a lot of country music, you know, like the new country music. Brad Paisley.”
When I asked him about last year’s giant Europe ’72 release, he said, “I have to admit, I have not listened to it.” It should surprise no one that Lesh can recall little or nothing of many Heads’ cherished nights. “Sometimes I remember what they looked like, what they felt like,” he said. I ran a few dates by Lesh, mentioning the venue, the context, the set list, the high points—such as a certain transition in Scar->Fire. “Scar-Fire?” he repeated, unfamiliar with the shorthand. I may as well have been a Ukrainian Trekkie accosting Leonard Nimoy on the street. “The Fox in Atlanta? I don’t remember,” Lesh said, with a look that seemed to combine apology and condescension. The eighties dates in particular provoked a curdled look. “I may have consciously blocked out some of this stuff,” he said. “It was very distressing to see Jerry fall apart. It seemed like the negation of everything we’d ever worked for. It wasn’t a tribe or a cult or a boys’ club, or anything like that. It was a living organism of several people. It was Homo gestalt. Did you ever read Theodore Sturgeon? ‘More Than Human.’ Check it out. That’s the conceptual matrix.”
“More Than Human” is a sci-fi novel, published in 1953, in which a band of exceptional people “blesh” (that is, blend and mesh) their consciousness to create a kind of super-being. “I turned everyone on to that book in, like, 1965,” Lesh said. “ ‘This is what we can do; this is what we can be.’ ”
So what un-bleshed them? Fame? Money? Drugs? Or just that there’s nothing you can hold for very long?
“I think that’s maybe the main thing about it,” Lesh said. “Like everything else, it was too good to last.”
His phone rang. It was his wife. After a moment, Lesh put his hand over the phone and asked me if I knew how to get to Sloan-Kettering. A friend of his had just been taken off life support, after a long battle with cancer. It was Levon Helm. Lesh rushed out and strode unnoticed through the throngs on Prince Street, looking for a cab.
For the past twelve years, Rob Eaton, the sound engineer who cleaned up the Betty Boards, has been the rhythm guitarist in the Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead tribute band. “Tribute” doesn’t quite convey the exactitude; “Orchestra” perhaps overstates it. D.S.O., as they are known, perform specific concerts from the Grateful Dead’s vast library of past gigs. They reproduce the set list, with the particular song arrangements and sonic configurations that the Dead employed that night.
There are legions of bands that faithfully replicate the work of their heroes. I’ve seen, and guiltily enjoyed, expert facsimiles of Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, and the Beatles. But these groups generally play the songs as they appeared on the albums, often note for note, as the bands they’re imitating tended to when they themselves performed live.
The Dark Star Orchestra does Dead shows. That means they have thousands of units of existing material to choose from, and they have yet to repeat one. D.S.O. does not, as some mistakenly assume, replicate the concerts note for note; instead, in the spirit of their progenitors, and in the interest of their own enjoyment, and of performative plausibility, they improvise, within the context of the era they are drawing from. It is a peculiar form of repertory. Eaton, who onstage has some of Weir’s preening-mantis mannerisms, insists that he and the others make no effort to look like the Dead. “If we did, we’d be a freak show,” he told me. They may in fact be a freak show. (Such is the verisimilitude that their first keyboardist, a founding member, died suddenly, seven years ago.) But they are also excellent musicians, with a wide variety of credits and tastes.
I saw D.S.O. for the first time eight years ago, around the time I discovered the Archive. That night, they played something from 1973. It was astonishing how well they replicated the era’s sound, which I knew only from those old cassettes. They didn’t seem to have the imagination or the gall to stretch out the way the Dead did, but they played the songs and the solos with a proficiency and a verve that was startling, and a tone that sounded true. It was exhilarating to hear live a kind of music I’d previously heard only on tape and assumed, with the death of Garcia, I’d never hear again. In many respects it was better than any of the Dead I’d seen in the few years before Garcia’s death, when I spent most concerts standing stone-still, with my arms crossed. It was embarrassing and pathetic, perhaps, to be going to see a tribute band unironically—my wife calls them the Dork Star Orchestra—yet it was a thrill to hear the music played well in a small room.
Three years ago, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh decided to go out on the road together. Lesh had been performing in various configurations under the rubric Phil Lesh and Friends; Weir had a group called Ratdog. Though their repertoire was in large part the Grateful Dead’s, they’d opened it up to reinterpretation, which may have pleased them more than it did their fans, a great number of whom really only wanted to hear Jerry Garcia, or some facsimile of him.
Weir and Lesh named their new incarnation Furthur, after the bus Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters drove cross-country in 1964. They intended to play a more faithful rendition of the music they’d played together when Jerry Garcia was still alive. They needed a guy who could hold down the Garcia role, so, after years of resisting the idea of a Garcia clone, they poached the Garcia clone in the Dark Star Orchestra. His name was John Kadlecik. He knew the licks. He had the tone and the phrasing. He could sing the parts. He had a big head of black hair.
The addition of Kadlecik to the aging outfit created a stir; fans who’d cooled on other legacy ensembles returned in droves. Furthur booked bigger venues. Meanwhile, the Dark Star Orchestra’s audience dwindled. The imitators suddenly found themselves being bigfooted by the remnants of the originals, as augmented by one of their own. “I think one of the reasons Phil and Bob took John is that they wanted to get rid of us—their nemesis, this little gnat they can’t catch,” Eaton told me. “But we’re not going to go away.” (Last month, as it happens, Lesh sat in with D.S.O. for a set in San Francisco.)
So D.S.O. replaced Kadlecik with a guitar player named Jeff Mattson. Mattson, with his potbelly, lank hair, and black beard, certainly looked the part, and quickly demonstrated that he sounded it, too. As it happens, Mattson was my first fake Jerry. In 1986, when Garcia was in his coma and there was no live Dead to see, I began going to see a Dead tribute band called the Volunteers, who performed a regular Saturday night gig at a dive bar called the Right Track Inn, in the Long Island town of Freeport. Mattson was the Garcia guy. He played the old stuff, with an indulgence that the Dead had at that time forsworn.
It was funny to have Mattson back, delivering the methadone once more. D.S.O. has been drawing crowds again. It may be because many Deadheads prefer the ersatz version of the real thing to the degraded mutation, or that they prefer Mattson to Kadlecik, who, now that he’s playing the Garcia role with Lesh and Weir, sounds less like Garcia than he did when he was playing with the fake Lesh and Weir.
Lesh told me, “It’s interesting now, because now that we’re at some distance from Jerry’s death, and we’ve been playing this music without him, for, oh, geez, almost seventeen years now, I get to the point sometimes where we’re playing his songs, and somebody’s playing something that Jerry used to play, it’s kind of jarring. It doesn’t quite sit right.”
Eaton and the others in D.S.O., though professedly happier playing with Mattson, are also bitter over Kadlecik’s departure. “I haven’t gone to see Furthur,” Eaton said. “It’s like going to see your ex-girlfriend fucking your best friend.” Eaton, who is fifty-one and grew up in Vermont, treats the band (or its remnants) that has given him a living, a body of work, a style, and some measure of transcendence as a kind of adversary. “If you want to get off, you come see us,” he said. “We have a bigger repertoire than the Dead ever had, at any one time.” They have the whole career in rotation. “We’re showing the kids what it was like.”
As a teen-ager, on an ill-fated maiden trip to California to see the Dead (the coma intervened), I imagined that the Bay Area would be one big Grateful Dead parking lot, a shrine to the Acid Tests, and was surprised to discover a modern city as indifferent to Captain Trips as it was to Jack London or Natalie Wood. But in Marin County, in those days, you might find yourself babysitting Bob Weir’s kids, or catch sight of Garcia standing on the side of Highway 101, next to his fender-bent BMW. Most of the surviving band members still live there, but the presence of the Dead, as a commercial enterprise and cultural force, has diminished.
The morning after our drive up from Burbank, David Lemieux gave me a tour of the Dead’s Marin. It was a dismal rainy day. He drove by the band’s longtime offices, in a house on a corner in San Rafael. “It’s a law firm now,” he said. “They’re Deadheads.” Then we drove by the Dead’s old recording studio and hangout in a warehouse on Front Street, a seedy strip of warehouses and cut-rate motels. Next, we headed up to Novato, where the band’s offices moved in the nineties, when they were the biggest-grossing touring act in the world. This is where Latvala had his vault. It is now a mountain-bike company. Finally, we went by the Dead’s warehouse, where the detritus of their touring days moldered in a series of storage garages. Lemieux and the band were hoping to clear it all out and give up the space. Nicholas Meriwether, the curator of a new Grateful Dead archive, which the band had donated to U.C. Santa Cruz, had already been through the place to mine it for worthy artifacts and memorabilia. Some of it had appeared in exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But there was still a ton of loot: dozens of old amps and road cases, a grand piano, a Hammond organ, a drum riser from their 1978 performances in the dunes near the Great Pyramid, in Egypt, branding irons of the band members’ initials, back issues of the fanzine Dupree’s Diamond News. In one box, I found a file containing the band’s contract for my maiden gigs, at Merriweather, in 1984. The contract said that the band expected to gross $222,620.95 and demanded, for its dressing room, “1 pound of M&M’s, 6 cases of Beck’s, 1 quart Remy Martin, 3 quarts Stolichnaya, 2 quarts Mt Gay Eclipse, 2 qts. Bacardi light, 1 qt. Myers’s dark rum, 1 qt. Bombay Gin, 48 clean towels.”
I dropped off Lemieux and drove down to San Francisco to see Betty Cantor-Jackson. These days, she is the sound and recording engineer at Glide Memorial, a progressive Methodist church downtown that is known for its gospel choir. Outside the church, sodden homeless men and women stood in line, waiting their turn in the soup kitchen. Cantor-Jackson greeted me and led me up through a passageway into the sanctuary, where, just offstage, she has a little room for all her sound equipment.
She had on a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, and a pair of reading glasses propped on her head. She has long brown hair parted in the middle, a warm melancholic smile, and an air of broad-mindedness tinged with resentment. She had been living at a friend’s house in Marin County, not far from the Skywalker Ranch. She grew up in the East Bay as a math and science whiz. Her high school, she says, ran out of things for her to do, so she took courses at a community college. When she was sixteen, she took LSD for the first time and wound up at 710 Ashbury Street, the house in San Francisco where the members of the Grateful Dead lived, and met Garcia and Weir. She got work helping around at the Family Dog, the hippie collective that put on happenings at the Avalon Ballroom, and then joined the sound crew at the Carousel Ballroom, alongside a crewman named Bob Matthews. After Matthews went to work for the Dead, he brought Betty along. “It was my way of getting her to be my old lady,” he once said.
Bob and Betty, as they were known, became the Dead’s recording team. She worked on most of their live and studio albums. She claims to have been the first female recording engineer in rock and roll. “The Grateful Dead scene was very chauvinistic,” she said. “It still is. Although Jerry never was, really.” Garcia, she said, sometimes stopped by her place the day after a gig to listen to her tape of it. “I’d make him a cappuccino and cut his hair.” She’d eventually marry another member of the crew, the tour manager, Rex Jackson, who died in a car crash in 1976. In the eighties, she lived with Brent Mydland, the Dead’s keyboardist at the time. They broke up (he died in 1990, of a morphine-and-cocaine overdose), and once she became an “ex-old lady” she no longer felt welcome, and the dispute over money led to a long estrangement. She wasn’t on salary. She’d bought her own tape and all the gear. So she held on to her recordings, which is how they wound up rotting in a storage locker.
She was happy when her tapes began to circulate. “I’d like everyone to get it for free, unless someone is getting money for it, and then I want money, too,” she said. “I can always tell when a recording is mine.” She mixed to her own taste. “It has my tonalities. My sound is beefy. My recordings are very stereo, very open, with a lot of air in them. You feel like you’re standing in the middle of the music. My feeling is everyone wants to play in the band.”
These days, she listens mainly to country music, soul, and gospel. Every now and then, she talks to some of the band members, but she said, “I never talk to Lemieux. He wasn’t there.”
When she started taping every Dead show, she intended, like Owsley Stanley before her, to make a kind of instant snapshot. But as time went by, and as the band stopped listening back, she began to have posterity in mind. “I did it because I love the music and felt it needed to be captured. It’s so beautiful that it needs to be captured,” she said. “Eventually, we’re going to be gone, and this is our legacy to leave behind.”
We parted in the church’s parking lot. I thanked her for the music, and she gave me a hug. In the car, I sat a moment, wondering what to play next. ♦
Nick Paumgarten has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2005.Read m
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