Boots In Transit: An Appreciation of the Dead on Cassette

Author’s note: this article originally appeared in 2012 on a now-defunct website called Dead Journalist. It has been salvaged, edited and updated for Aquarium Drunkard. – j jackson toth

I was 16 when Jerry Garcia died, and I didn’t give a fuck. In fact, being the heartless hesher brat that I was, I taunted my Deadhead cousins about their loss with crude jokes – mostly obvious puns on the name Grateful Dead. I was into Suicidal Tendencies, Exodus, and Kreator. Though I didn’t have any of the negative connotations of the tie-dyed, hackysack-kicking, patchouli-stinking zeros that make up a good portion of the modern Grateful Dead fanbase (I’m a product of the NYC public school system – we had guidos and gangstas, not hippies), I still intuited that the entire enterprise reeked of lameness. It was not for me. Up until this point, I also hadn’t yet forgiven the Dead for having awesome, evil looking album covers and wimpy music.

When I fell for the Dead, I fell hard. I was tricked – twice – into liking the band. Eric McCarthy was my boss at the record store where I worked during college, and he would casually throw on killer Dead jams in the store. When I’d ask him what it was we were listening to, he’d lie. Long story short, I quickly became a very big fan.

Having never been to a Dead show, I started collecting tapes in an attempt to get as close as I could to an experience I missed out on. Not CDRs or MP3s, because those really didn’t exist yet, at least not in any capacity to which I had access. There are Dead bootlegs on vinyl, but they’re scarce (even now), and rarely sound very good due to renegade pressings and cheap materials. You had to get the tapes. And getting them was difficult because no one who had any wanted to trade with you if you didn’t have something to trade in return. Such was my introduction to the harsh, competitive world of tape hoarders.

Eventually I found some benevolent souls who would send me tapes in exchange for “b&p” – tape-trading shorthand for “blanks and postage.” I also started dubbing off the few tapes my boss had hanging around the record store to use as capital. Soon, I’d amassed a small collection.

It’s perhaps hard to appreciate in 2019, but before 1984, when the Dead officially sanctioned a ‘taper’s section’ (more on this later), trying to record a Grateful Dead concert was like trying to smuggle heroin onto an airplane, and about as involved. Early bootleggers had highly strategic, meticulously plotted and almost unbelievably complicated means of smuggling in recording decks to capture the Dead live experience. Tapers would assemble crews of people to each carry in a different item – one ticketholder would transport the mics, one the batteries, one the cables, and one the recorder. I’ve heard stories of guerilla recordists dropping rope through bathroom windows and pulling gear up from parking lots. Some resourceful Deadheads would stash equipment beneath the plywood floors of venues days before the show and then literally dig it up later. Places like the Greek Theater in Berkeley were known for remaining open all week long prior to a concert, so crafty tapers would find the janitor’s closet and leave their expensive microphones in empty cleaning material bottles. Microphones were hidden in cartoonishly large sub sandwiches. The obsession, patience, and ingenuity of these early tapers was nothing short of remarkable.

Some tapers were not content with basic, off-the-shelf consumer electronics. The Nakamichi 550 was a preferred recorder for the serious taper in that it offered a highly desirable third mic blend option that enabled recordists to get a better-than-stereo aural image, and many classic shows were recorded with this machine. But the machine was large enough to require a backpack, and so false-bottom backpacks and even fake leg casts and wheelchairs all became commonly employed tricks of the trade. The more well-connected tapers would find an “equipment mule,” usually a member of staff or crew who had a laminate and did not have to submit to a bag check and could thus smuggle recorders inside through the back entrance. Many tapers arrived to venues days early, casing the joint for the ideal spot to record.

Taping was a stealth operation from the time you entered the building until the time you left. Merely getting past security didn’t mean you were home free. Tapers had to remain discreet even within the venue, at least until the band took the stage. When the lights went down, stands went up, mics were hoisted, and recording lights flickered. During intermission, everything would go down as fast as it went up. This must have been almost as entertaining to behold from a distance as what was going on onstage.

The more passionate recordists would also customize and modify tape decks, sending them to audio technicians for post-production tweaks. Removing the erase head was an old trick that decreased tape hiss. I’ve heard of people screwing down the record button to make tape-flipping as seamless as possible. Sure, it probably only takes three-millionths of a second to push the record button, but this is the Dead, people, and anything can happen in that fraction of a second! Even during “Drums!” Or, err, “Victim Or The Crime!”

In 1974, the Dead went on a lengthy hiatus, during which time tape trading enthusiasts had time to catch up. This is the period in which the trading of Dead tapes really caught on, moving beyond the strange hobby of a handful of crazies into a full-blown, bonafide phenomenon. A magazine called Dead Relics (now Relix) began publishing, and openly endorsed tape-trading, most notably in their Personals section, through which many Deadheads found each other and traded openly. When the band finally returned to touring on June 3rd, 1976, tapers seemed to multiply by a hundred. From this point on, almost every single Grateful Dead performance was documented.

But by the late seventies, even taper-tolerant Dead soundman Dan Healy had had enough. The trend was getting out of control and tapers were beginning to affect his ability to mix the band, so he started cutting the cables of intrepid tapers who were trying to patch into his board. His frustration led to the advent of the Taper’s Section, an officially sanctioned, specifically located area behind the mixing board in which concertgoers holding a special ‘taper’s ticket’ were allowed to record the show. But everyone knew that the ‘sweet spot’ was as close to Healy as possible – in front of the soundboard, not behind it. So FOB (‘front of board’) taping became the new popular criminal activity among those dedicated Deadheads who still believed that the risks were worth it.

Tape collections became a source of social power, with their own local hierarchies. I’ve heard stories of people purposely sabotaging parts of a master tape by doing things like randomly hitting the pause button to create minor momentary drop-outs, recording dubs at lower levels, adding additional generations of tape hiss, or omitting an encore, just so that they themselves would have the only perfect copy in circulation. This meant that there are to this day perhaps thousands of tapes being circulated with intentional tape flubs, some with purposefully mislabeled track lists. This made for more questions than answers, and this persisted until the 1987 uncovering of the legendary “Betty Boards,” a series of hundreds of hours of soundboard tapes made by Dead recordist Betty Cantor-Jackson, the details of which are too long to go into here but alone could (and should!) warrant a book-length piece.

Soundboards are great. The Betty Boards and the series of Dick’s Picks CDs (handpicked Dead shows from the vault of the late and legendary archivist Dick Latvala) and Dave’s Picks (the current subscription series curated by David Lemieux) are crucial listening. But for me, it’s all about the audience tapes. (A matrix provides the best of both worlds, of course, but that’s an essay for another time).

Sonically speaking, the tapes are the true analog representations of the shows as the audience experienced them, without any post-production or weird digital compression. The audience tapes also feature crowd reactions, which, if you’re in the right state of mind, put you, as they say, right there. When you hear the crowd recognize that the band is about to go into “St Stephen” for the first time in five years, the excitement is palpable. Similarly, from a soundboard recording, a Dead newbie would have no context as to why the return of “Dark Star” on 10/09/89 was such a tremendous event. If you don’t hear the reaction of the crowd, it’s just another track on the CD. On tape, it’s as if 14,000 people simultaneously found out they just won the lottery.

Digital recordings can also sound sterile, even when dealing with a band as exciting as The Dead. Tapes feel, to me, much closer to the source. I even love the word ‘tape,’ as in “Man, if I lay this tape on ya, you can’t share it with anyone, because it came from the guy who cuts Bobby’s hair, and it can’t get out…”

Every time you hear these tapes could be the last – they’re old. Tapes get fucked up. They melt, get demagnetized, start flanging out. The ephemeral nature of these tapes, then, makes each listen valuable. This music is not replaceable, nor is it permanent, so every note is a gift.

Tape recorders are also imperfect machines, and don’t all work at the same speed. For instance, my copy of the second set of Rochester 9/27/76 was either taped a bit slow or has been played so much that it gets tired and slows down. It sounds like a Grateful Dead DJ Screw remix. When the crowd yells out for songs, it sounds like a gallery of monsters crying out for blood. I don’t need to tell you what this sounds like when you’re baked. This tape is special to me because, although this is a widely circulated show in many formats, no one else in the word has this version of this show, and it’s one of my favorites. You should hear the “Wharf Rat” on here. It isn’t like yours.

A lot of my tapes also feature handmade artwork. For instance, I have a small collection of different Maxell XLII inlay cards depicting Jerry Garcia caricatures drawn by various Deadheads, varying wildly in quality. The many amateur attempts at the Steal Your Face skull logo on these cassettes, too, are plentiful and uproarious. Authentic outsider art! Some traders used colorful boilerplate cover art and merely filled in the dates and tracklists, others were content to just write the information on the provided j-card, but more than half of my tapes have hand-drawn, elaborately designed covers – I even have one that was painted in watercolor! These are relics from a time when the tape was important. Now they are all but valueless, even as cultural artifact. But I love to hold these tapes and I like wondering about who owned them. I love pretending they are still tantamount to contraband, and I treat them with respect.

Best of all, there really is no ‘completing’ a collection of Dead tapes. Even if you somehow collected every show the Dead ever played (good luck), you’d still only have specific recordings of those shows. Someone taping in the balcony will have a much different tape than someone in the second row. The good news is that live Dead cassettes are no longer stockpiled by greedy gatekeepers, and are nowhere near as rare as they were thirty years ago. You can practically get them for free. I’ve found that most collectors no longer have any use for these tapes and some even—gasp!—throw them away after digitizing them. For media mail postage costs, I recently added 25 tapes to my collection of cassettes (previously numbering about 250). I logged on to a few message boards and asked if anyone was getting rid of their tapes. Responders were confused (“why the hell do you want these?”) but accommodating. Boxes started showing up quicker than I could listen.

Even if you can’t find someone to trade with, you can hit eBay. While paying for live Grateful Dead music is a notorious no-no in collector circles, you can pick up entire ‘lots’ of Dead tapes on eBay for less than a buck a tape. (Search tips: you have to search for ‘blank’ Dead tapes – which is the only way resourceful eBay sellers can legally sell bootlegs. They’ll stipulate that the auction is for ‘used’ blank tapes, and those tapes just so happen to have Dead shows on them. Clever loophole for a buncha boomer acid casualties!)

In a post-Spotify, post-filesharing world where even CDs are suddenly passé and old-fashioned, I suddenly find myself doing things I haven’t done in years, like cleaning tape heads with 91% isopropyl alcohol, taking care to keep cassettes away from speakers (there are magnets in there, you know!), high speed dubbing ‘spare’ copies, and making sure every tape is rewound so the spools stay tight. The effort is more than worth it. After all, I have CDs from the nineties that have oxidized beyond hope. All of my Kreator tapes still play.

Further: Aquarium Drunkard’s Dead Notes Archive: Volumes I – XV

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