Wow, what a great piece on the afterlife of the Grateful Dead at the New Yorker... by Nick Paumgarten... and particularly interesting from a retromaniacal point of view because of its focus "on the Dead’s transformation, over time, from living thing to library", all the paradoxes entailed in "something intended to be spontaneous and ephemeral" becoming "a curated body of work"
In one of the best passages in this long, long feature, Paumgarten gets escorted by the Dead's official archivist Dave Lemieux to visit the Dead's tape vault, now in the custody of Rhino and just one zone within the vast cenotaph of sound maintained by Warner Bros up in Burbank:
“Are you ready to enter the holy portal?” [the Warner Bros archivist/guide] 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."
C.f. the previous post on Lee Gamble's 'ardkore 'auntology using his old
pirate radio tapes (or that Tape Crackers doc). c.f. also Ariel P's
Worn Copy... howzabout this then on the oh-so-particular flava of Deadhead taper's recordings that then get copied and re-copied as they circulate among the community of fans...
"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....
"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."
Despite being very much not-a-Deadhead, that certainly resonated with me as a pirate tape nut... There's shows i've had for years recorded with dodgy signals onto poor quality album-advance tape, then heard again as a better quality recording that's someone's uploaded onto the internet.... and all the flavour, the aura, that I'd become attached to, it's gone...
In the Retromania section on the Deadheads and the inherent paradoxes of fetishising, decades after the fact, dodgy recordings of something meant to be experienced purely in-the-now, I speculate that the tapers are in some way missing the very thing they're so obsessed with capturing... they are not really fully present, because preoccupied with recording levels, microphone placement.... that sense is strengthened by the bit in Paumgarten's piece where he meets the taper responsible for a particular concert recording [nicknamed the Fox after the Georgia venue in question] that he and his boarding school buddies were obsessed with in the Eighties...
"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."
Certainly the surviving members of the Dead do not understand the phenomenon at all, think the tapers and the tape-collectors (it's all on the Internet now, of course) have missed the point...
Phil Lesh, for instance, says, "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". Of the recent limited edition/sold out instantly box set of every single date on the Europe 72 tour (22 concerts, 73 discs, over 70 hours of music), Lesh says, "I have to admit, I have not listened to it"
Sensible fellow! He lived it, why would he want to relive it?
Also Retromania-resonant is the section on all the tribute bands that the Dead have spawned. One of them, the Dark Star Orchestra, "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... 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."
In a delicious, vicious twist of irony, the D.S.O. finds itself effectively in competition with a post-Dead band formed by Lesh and Bob Weir, a battle that gets pretty nasty. Paumgarten drily, mordantly notes that the D.S.O.'s rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton "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,” [Eaton] 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."