Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Goodbye to My Cassettes
by Blair Jackson
If you see me wandering around Berkeley and Oakland wearing a black arm band and weeping uncontrollably, it may be because I have finally decided it is time for me to part with my large collection of Grateful Dead cassette tapes. This is not a decision I have arrived at lightly. These cassettes provided me with thousands of hours of pleasure (and occasional pain and puzzlement) since I started collecting Dead tapes around 1977. (Before that, I owned only a handful—can’t even recall how I obtained them—as well as a number of live bootleg LPs.) But it’s time to face facts: I never listen to tapes anymore, my Sony dubbing deck was put out to pasture many years ago, and the cassettes are just taking up space in my already cluttered storage room. Most are still sitting, collecting dust, on the mounted shelves I bought long ago through an ad in The Golden Road. One of the wall units crashed to the floor recently, sending cassettes flying on top of the other junk and keepsakes that sit in chaotic piles below them. I took that as an omen. Other cassettes fill unmarked bags and boxes, the sorting significance of each long since forgotten.
I was never a truly serious tape collector—maybe a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. In the early years of amassing tapes, I relied completely on the kindness of friends, and my friends’ friends, to hip me to shows I “should” have and to make me copies. Honestly, until I started The Golden Road in 1984, I did not follow the Dead’s tours night to night, so I would never know whether the 5/9/79 Binghamton show was better than the one in Amherst three nights later. In fact, I might not have even known the Dead were on the East Coast at that time. But tapes would sort of dribble down to me from a variety of friends and acquaintances who were serious tape collectors, and the more I listened to them, the more I wanted. (“Must … get … more!”) For many years I had considered myself a Dead Head, but I quickly learned there were vast gaps in my knowledge of the group’s musical evolution, and collecting tapes brought me up to speed.
It was always exciting to get a new batch of tapes, and I’d pray that the quality was OK. Each year seemed to bring more and better soundboard recordings (“How do those get out of the Vault?” I wondered), but much of what came my way were audience tapes of varying audio fidelity, and that was fine, too. There were a few that sounded really, really bad—as if they were recorded from the inside of a garbage can in the alley behind the venue. But in some cases I kept them because the show was so good or it had some particular historical or sentimental value (like the hideous tape of the Gaelic Park ’71 show I’d attended). I rarely played tapes around my non-Dead Head friends, but when I did I was careful to limit it to soundboard copies. “Regular” people could not abide a hissy, distant audience tape.
Ah, yes—remember that first second when you put on a new tape for the first time and discovered whether it had a lot of hiss or some other audio flaw? Although I did have a few fairly well-connected friends making me tapes, I was still down the chain a few links, so I rarely got pristine copies in my early days of collecting. It’s when I started looking for “upgrades” that I knew my little hobby had gone to another level.
After I started The Golden Road in the winter of 1984, passing myself off as some kind of authority on the band (the nerve!), I decided that if I was going to write intelligently about the scene, I should probably make an attempt to hear every show the band played. This proved to be more daunting than I’d expected, as it required reaching out to many different tapers (or friends who knew who had taped which shows), and the first year there were several shows I just couldn’t find. By the end of ’85, however, a steady stream of soundboard and audience tapes—some arriving many weeks after the shows—found their way to the Golden Road mailbox. “Oh, goody! New stuff to listen to!”
I dutifully listened to each one, kept the ones I liked and recorded over the rest. Really, there was no reason to hear that Boreal show again. Being there was bad enough. Occasionally there would be a bonanza that would get everyone excited: “Have you gotten the ‘Betty Boards’ yet?”
As my collection grew, I joined the legions of folks who used custom J-cards. Mine had a discreet “Stealie” (without the lightning bolt) on the left-hand side of the spine, and I developed a color-coding system based on the band’s different eras, using fine-tipped felt markers: ’65-’70 tapes had a red Stealie and writing; ’71-’75 were dark blue; ’76-early ’79 (when Keith and Donna left) were purple; the Brent era from April ’79 until Jerry’s meltdown in ’86 were green; post-coma until Brent’s death were turquoise; and the Bruce and Vince era had a red Stealie but blue writing. When I started my J-card system, I didn’t know that within 10 years the purple on the spine of the late ’70s shows would almost completely disappear, for some reason, and a few years later the green ones started heading towards invisibility.
I organized my shelves chronologically (by color; I was never anal enough to do it by date within each color). Unfortunately, though, my unpredictable listening habits meant that tapes might disappear under the seat of one of our cars, or in the living room or office in my house, or get loaned out to a friend who might or might not remember to give it back to me. I wasn’t real good at keeping track. Over the months, I’d get lazy about returning tapes to their proper region on my shelves, and instead just plunk them wherever; often on top of what was once a neat row of organized tapes. Cases would break or vanish (like socks in the laundry), and suddenly I had some cassettes with labels but no cases piling up in odd places, and cases with no cassettes. Every couple of years I’d try to marry the errant cassettes with the empty cases, but it never worked out completely right, one-to-one.
As usual with all things technological, I was way behind the curve when people started converting their tapes to digital and putting shows on CDs. I never had a setup of my own to do that and I found it incredibly daunting to try to replace all my tapes with CDs by once again begging from friends. Where do I start? Nevertheless, I much preferred the CD format to tapes (“Hey, it’s easy to skip ‘Little Red Rooster’ or zip right to that ‘Morning Dew’!”) and I did manage to acquire a few choice nuggets on CD. But I never pursued it with the zeal of my tape quests, so to this day I don’t have very many shows on CD.
If I had been savvy or determined enough, I could have joined the many thousands of Heads who downloaded hundreds of SBDs from Archive.org while that practice was permitted (now SBDs can only be streamed), but I wasn’t and I didn’t. Still, that website has allowed me to hear any Dead show I care to, and has been an invaluable aid to the research I’ve had to do for books, stories or liner notes I’ve written though the years. The quality is better than on my old cassettes, and it’s right there at my fingertips! Of course, the cool fools now have everything on hard drives; CDs are passé. I’d do that, too, if someone would just hand me an already filled one; too much work otherwise. Still lazy after all these years.
And so, the ol’ cassettes have no value to me anymore. Do I toss ’em and let them become more landfill? That’s seems kind of wasteful and un-green. Try to find a home for them with someone who still collects and plays cassettes? I don’t want to box ’em up and send them somewhere; too hard. It’s a quandary. I’ve taken some off the shelves and put them in bags and boxes, and others are still up on the wall. Sometimes I’ll look over and see the date on the spine and think, “Oh, I love the ‘Scarlet-Fire’ from that show!” I’m getting wistful in my old age.
But I know I’m never gonna listen to that tape again. Its time has passed. Its gotta go.
I know a very nice home for your cassette collection, Blair - my 2001 Subaru Legacy. It only has 21,000 miles, so the listening enjoyment coming from the dashboard ought to last me another 30 years...
Thank you for your consideration,
I think you have a good excuse for not getting rid of your cassettes!
My first couple of tapes were reel-to-reel's that I had taped off of KSAN or KMPX...Allman Brothers live at Winterland and GD @ GAMH... After that no tapes until 1977 when I got a couple from my fellow BASS Tickets employee, David Gans...He gave me an excellent audience of The Last Waltz and an extremely poor quality audience of 6/9/77 (the show where I "got it.") From then almost nothing until I started working for Grateful Dead Productions dba GDTS. I had the balls to ask Phil if I could get copies of shows out of "The Vault." And he said "yes, as long as you don't go over board." I didn't...I asked for one show only...6/9/77. A few weeks later there was a little box in my cubby at the GD office with a note, "I couldn't remember which show from that weekend, so here are all three." signed Phil (no, I don't still have the note!)
Well that spoiled me for good. Short of Europe 72 or Live/Dead I had never heard anything so crisp and clear. From that point (mid 1983) until 1998 I ended up collecting over 1,000 soundboard cassettes...most 1st or 2nd generation off the masters and over 100 cassette masters of my own on my WM-D6 and D6C (thank you Dan Healy!) I still have them all and do not plan on getting rid of them anytime soon! (I also still have over 1,000 LP's!)
I'm not doing anything that requires actual work (i.e. shipping)... I have a surprisingly weak '77 collection on tape, anyway. There's an area where I do have more CDs than tapes...
I used to have quite a bit of them in the 80's & 90's, but in early 1998, I caught the CD-R bug and transfered many of them to CD-R. It depended on the quality of the recording and the performance to which I decided which tapes to transfer, high quality soundboards and audience recordings first. I quickly noticed that I preferred disc to tapes, and in December of 1999, I was able to get rid of all the old cassettes. When a show was officially released on CD, I would get review the CD-R if it was a soundboard recording or an audience recording of fair quality or if the official release was incomplete, I'd get rid the discs. If the official release was incomplete, I save the missing tracks if I would have them.
Cassettes were fun, but I like CD's & CD-R's better.
I still Listen to cassettes and love the Sound, I would be honored if you would want to share some with me from '77. I would pay postage and shipping.
This past March I went and mounted all of my tapes starting on the wall of the laundry /junk room downstairs and using the entire stairwell leading to the upstairs living room...
60 cases and many not in cases / stacked vertically etc.
including Phil, Furthur, Panic, Allmans and a couple others I counted 1,855 casettes
Approx. 2,782 hours of analog... most of it pretty decent which is why I initiated the project... Some of the crappier shows I upgraded when the Dead channel played that show.
I decorated it with various stickers, posters, stuffed bears etc.
Probably worked on it for the better part of a weekend...
I also purchased a new TASCAM 202 MK-V as I had worn out both wells of my MK-IV.
Then there's the CD's that's another part of another wall...
I don't think I'll ever let these go, I put W A Y too much time and energy into obtaining, listening and taking notes...
love that story. Imagining the look on those Heads' faces when they got back to their cars.
The estimable SirMick just posted on Eurotraders the following link to a fascinating thesis on Dead Taping and Trading. I thought it would be of interest in the discussion.
'Enbalming the Dead. Taping Trading and Collecting the Aura of the Grateful Dead' by Katie A Harvey
(the spelling mistake in the link is how it is... deduct one mark I would say)
I am with you Blair. I have some friends who have hard drives full of dead shows, replacing the massive tape collections from years past. I got rid of nearly all of my tapes a few years ago, and like you, I go to archive.org for my live Dead. There is something a little lame about it though. It's great to have any show imaginable at my fingertips, but I feel like it takes away the fun. Waiting for tapes to come in the mail for a couple of weeks after a tour was exciting. It also made the community tighter. Over the years I made lots of friends by way of tape trading, and had it not been for that I probably wouldn't know these people. There is a lack of comradery in the post Jerry GD scene, and I wonder if we had to rely on each other other to get the music, things would be different.