Test of the Boomerang: Reliving “Relix” — A Chat With Toni Brown

Written by Music, Test of the Boomerang

Relix editor Toni Brown discusses her long history with the Grateful Dead — as well as her own musical career — in an interview with Ben Wiser.

In 1974, the first issue of Dead Relix rolled off a mimeograph machine.  It was started by Grateful Dead fan and “taper” Les Kippel as a way for other “tapers” — folks who would smuggle tape decks into Grateful Dead concerts to record the show — to get in touch, trade tapes, and share tricks of the trade.

In 1979, musician and longtime Dead fan, Toni Brown took over the editor’s chair at Relix (they dropped the “Dead” after the first few issues). Over the years, it became the premier source of coverage not only for the Grateful Dead, but it also helped launched the “jam band” scene that would flourish in the ’90s.

Toni Brown and her husband and co-editor Ed Munson have compiled 20 years of Relix interviews, features, artwork and photographs into Relix: The Book.  It’s the next best thing to having the whole Relix archive for your perusal.

Toni is also an accomplished singer and songwriter, and she and Ed have just released State of Mind, the latest entry in her discography. State of Mind is the first recorded document of their musical partnership. It’s an acoustic Sunday morning coffee and reefer kind of record that features a couple Garcia/Hunter tunes along with her own well-crafted originals.

Toni was kind enough to answer a few questions about her days as Queen of the Deadheads and den mother to the burgeoning jam band scene.

Relix Magazine began as “Dead Relix” and it began as a way for the taping community to get together and trade music. The tapers are a huge part of the Grateful Dead’s legacy, as well as the “ritual” of sharing the music. Now that we have immediate access to just about every concert the Grateful Dead ever performed, does being a Deadhead feel less communal than it used to?

It feels MORE communal now, by far. The “ritual” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Taping wasn’t allowed in the early years, and people had to sneak in archaic technology, fighting their way the whole time, and then the batteries would die…

Social network sites such as Facebook put everyone in instant communication, something we could never have dreamed possible. With the Internet, our entire community is linked on every level. To get out the word about a show, share a setlist or even pass on the whole show, find a ride, or an extra ticket…it is now possible. It’s very exciting, and actually energizes the scene tremendously.

When did you become the editor of Relix?

I met the founder of Relix, Les Kippel, in the mid-1970s. We were around the same music scene, and eventually gravitated together for some divine purpose. Editor Jeff Tamarkin took leave of his editorial position, and Les handed the magazine over to me in 1979.

When you assembled the book did you find anything that maybe resonated with you on a different level now than when you first published it?

Everything resonated with me differently. It was like having seen a movie before–I knew the ending, and now I got the story. Being IN Relix was overwhelming, a constant influx of everything. I worked with over a hundred freelance contributors–editorial, photos, art, handled advertising, directed layout, proofread…had an autistic kid, a touring band, an independent publicity company, co-owned a record label and a merchandising company. I don’t think I knew what was happening even when it was happening.

While developing the book project, I had to come up with a direction. I sat down with Vol. 1 #1, and started reading. I swear, Ed (co-editor, husband, and musical partner Ed Munson) and I used thousands of post-its in the process of putting the book together. While reading 27 years of Relix, every word published (which took me weeks, by the way), it occurred to me that this book had to be about the Grateful Dead and their extended family, and not just about music. That’s what the magazine was to me, and that’s what its roots were steeped in. And though we included all genres of music in our pages, it always came back to the heart of it, and that was the Deadheads. Even above the band, it was about us.

How receptive were the Dead to Relix?

In the beginning, The Dead did not allow the taping of their shows. It was the road crew’s job to stop it, and Relix came under fire for causing the ripple effect of taper growth. I personally don’t think the band would have reached as large a fan base had it not been for the tapers, and subsequently, the early days of Relix. By the time I came on the scene, the Dead had already gotten over it, going so far as to set up a taper section.

In the years before Jerry Garcia passed on, there were some very dark days for the band and the fans alike. Onstage there was Jerry’s declining health, but out in the crowds you also had gate crashers and DEA agents working undercover at shows. A lot of heads were subjected to “Mandatory Minimums” which meant severe penalties for minor and first time drug offenses. What it like when you had to start reporting more and more bad news within the scene?

I was criticized over the years for keeping Relix in a happy place. I didn’t like to include negative criticism of anything. To write a bad review of a band took away from space where we could write a good review of another band. Bad reviews could also hurt a band, and I just couldn’t be part of that.

I did share news from the Grateful Dead about keeping the scene clean, got the word out about safety concerns and such. But when letters started multiplying from Deadheads in prison, I was overwhelmed. There was a very sudden increase in the obvious targeting of Deadheads by the DEA. Mandatory Minimums became the darkest problem to cross my desk, and I had no choice but to deal with it aggressively. I gave a lot of space to this matter, and also took it on personally by appearing all over the media with the story of the DEA’s programs that went after the easiest busts…Deadheads. Instead of working on street crime, it was so much easier for them to go after a bunch of hippies. I answered every letter I got from an incarcerated Deadhead, provided a forum for their letters and encouraged correspondence between readers and their downed brothers and sisters. I wrote many letters of recommendation in an effort to get folks shorter sentences, I worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and tried to fight “the man.”

This all came around following the release and subsequent success of the Grateful Dead’s In the Dark. All parking lot activity eventually had to be shut down as the number of people showing up at shows without tickets increased. The Deadhead family shifted, lots of older heads were fed up with not being able to get tickets, and a lot of the newer “heads” weren’t necessarily there to be good scouts, or even for the music. In the Dark…Dark days, indeed. I’d like to say it got better, but it didn’t…

Garcia cover drawn by George "Commander Cody" Frayne

I came on the scene late in the game – 1991 was my first show. I remember hearing about bad scenes in the parking lot and always feeling like “Well, I’m not part of the problem” but it was everyone’s problem and a lot of the younger kids didn’t know quite how to “police” themselves. But with so many new and young fans, do you think that inspired the band in a way? There were all sorts of song break-outs and new songs that came up in the latter days of the band.

I don’t think the band was as inspired as they were tired. Bringing out new and retired material was likely a way for them to refresh their musical approaches. The scene in the parking lot was very draining on everyone–the band and crew, the fans, the towns visited. The band had outgrown the largest venues, and with the problems surrounding the scene, more and more places were closing their doors to us. The Dead wrote letters of concern to the Deadheads, which they asked us to include in Relix. It was a significant way for them to correspond with the fans.

Long before we had Facebook or MySpace, we had the classifieds in the back of Relix magazine!

Relix was a wonderful resource, and I recognized the importance of the classifieds back before the Internet, even before personal computers. What started as a way for tapers to connect evolved into a forum for people to link on many levels. Readers wrote me about meeting and marrying people they met in the classifieds. Pictures of their kids can be found throughout the “We Are Everywhere” photos I’d run each year. It became a place to find traveling companions, friends in isolated locations, places to connect all over the world. I had to expand the classifieds to a second column just to accommodate the incarcerated Deadheads’ listings, which became a story in itself. Many happy endings, some heartaches, I read every letter that came in, and typed out every classified. It was one way to get an intimate glimpse into who was reading the magazine.

Relix has always been a big part of the whole “culture” of live music, and it has always tried to shine a light on all kinds of musical corners, and even now, I find myself always learning about new bands from Relix. Were there any young bands that you really wanted to try and help give exposure to through Relix?

There were hundreds of bands that I recognized as special. My reviewer, Mick Skidmore, did a fantastic job of helping me sort through it all. In fact, that’s what gave way to what became the jamband scene, the recognition of bands that were somehow inspired by the previous generation of exploratory/improvisational music. As I gave more and more space over to new and unknown bands, the scene emerged and bands would tell me they were developing fan bases due to their exposure in Relix. That was encouraging. A great club opened in New York, Wetlands Preserve. The owner had intended to keep it low key, but I put it in his ear to bring in live music in my never-ending effort to get the bands I worked with into the scheme…New Riders, Hot Tuna, David LaFlamme, Merl Saunders, Steve Kimock…and it became an amazing spot for people to go. I met and started working with Blues Traveler, Phish, Widespread Panic, Spin Doctors, Warren Haynes, Joan Osborne…so many artists that went on to spectacular careers. But there were so many other bands.

I had the privilege to really work with Max Creek, Zen Tricksters, Solar Circus, Juggling Suns, Tiberius, Living Earth, Oroboros, Sandoz, Stackabones, on and on…all the while creating a niche for a music scene that grew tendrils, and which is now a bigger-than-life force known as the jamband scene—including every Dead cover band, because although they’re recreating music that was done before, but they’re putting their own spin on it. So it evolves, and the sound is ever-changing. Even my own covers of the Dead’s music are very far from the originals, and I’ve been there since the early days-1969, in fact. I just hear it my own way. And so it grows…

Relix also had a sidearm record label and released great albums by everyone from (former Grateful Dead keyboardist) Tom Constanten to guys like Steve “Muruga” Booker (who played drums for Parliament Funkadelic among others), what became of the Relix Records label?

Relix Records was part of the sale of Relix Magazine. The current Relix folks include a CD with every issue, a nice way to taste much of the music they write about. Having a record label in this day and age is difficult, everything is available through downloads, and there isn’t enough money to make it worth the effort. It was a tough go even back when we started up in 1980 at the urging of Robert Hunter.

The fact that Relix was the gateway to taping didn’t help us sell records. But in the days of vinyl, there were some gimmicks we could use to tantalize the die-hards. Picture discs with an artist’s signature were pretty cool. Good cover art helped. When we transferred over to CD (one of the first indie labels to do so), it was a little better, and easier to ship. But it was always a struggle to make money. It was a weird cycle of the magazine supporting the artists on the label, and the artists on the label making the news we’d find fit to print.

When you stepped down from the editorial helm, what did you do afterward?

Relix was my life, and it was also tied into my identity as a performer. Selling it and being closed out really hit hard. I sat on the couch for a couple of years, wondering what hit me. I’d moved to Orlando for a variety of reasons, and it took me awhile to get into the swing of life-after-Relix. A fan recognized me at the gym and introduced me to the jamband scene here in Florida. It got me back out, and I became a regular, playing solo between sets for the best bands in town. I picked up a bunch of shows at Hard Rock Live and started rebuilding a life. Life after Relix…It’s been ten years already, and the Relix book helped provide amazing closure for me. It made me take a good look at what the magazine was, what it provided to the community, and what I did personally to keep the scene evolving.

Toni Brown live

What would you say is your proudest Relix accomplishment?

Getting out alive…laughs…Seriously, I feel like I’ve played an important part in linking a family in music, love and light. I probably couldn’t have said that a year ago, but after absorbing all that I put into Relix, it’s clear that it was bigger than me or a band or a handful of fans. It was and is a community that thrives, connected in thought, lifestyle, spirit, politics and, of course, music.

I am very proud of a few things I was able to accomplish through the magazine. We featured a column called “Eyes of the World” which provided readers with important environmental information, inspired by the Grateful Dead who stepped up to fight the destruction of the Rainforests. I saw a much bigger picture, and used our platform to share ways we could each make a difference…leave only footprints. I am also proud of my efforts in the fight on the unjust War on Drugs. And most of all, we supported a significant number of musicians over the years, and I’m still actively doing so.

Tell me about your own musical career.

I started singing when I was 12. Got a guitar, which I didn’t learn how to play until my sister learned first. Ah, sibling rivalry. Actually, it was Robert Hunter who kicked me into gear. We got pretty friendly while working on his tours and promotion, and he knew I was a wannabe songwriter. He came to play at Town Hall in New York with a Takamine guitar that Garcia had given him. The pickup had stopped working, and he had to get a new guitar to finish his tour. He gave the Takamine to me, and told me to learn how to play it so I could put music to my lyrics. I did and I did.

I sang with some of the bands I knew–New Riders, Merl Saunders, Zen Tricksters, Juggling Suns, Living Earth, Stackabones–just nice and easy. Then I saw Joan Osborne starting out, and she blew me away. I realized I really wanted to do this music thing. In the 1995, the David Nelson Band was touring on the east coast, and had a few open nights. They suggested we go into the studio to track some of my songs! I hired a porta-studio, and brought in my pal, Michael Falzarano (Hot Tuna, New Riders of the Purple Sage), to produce some tracks. We did some of my songs, and it went into limbo while the Dave Nelson Band went back on the road. Then Jerry Garcia died. Big reality check for us all. Everyone got busy at that point, trying to pack some smiles into the devastated community. We finished my first CD, Blue Morning. By then, I’d decided to add some Dead covers to heal my inner pain. “Box of Rain,” “The Wheel” (“if the thunder don’t getcha…”) and “Morning Dew” made it onto the release. Jorma Kaukonen added some guitar to “Morning Dew.” I put a band together, and we hit the road. In the wake of Garcia’s death, the growth in the live music scene blossomed. The money that had been going to the Dead over their many years was now loosened up, and the festival scene flourished. It’s been growing ever since.

When I sold Relix, I put my life on hold for a couple of years, needed to catch my breath. I moved to Orlando, and met up with the jamband scene. I got out solo, did some tours with Tom Constanten, and found myself playing with some good Florida musicians.

I met Ed Munson in 2005, and here we are, a happily married musical partnership. We’re connecting with Deadheads internationally, and we play regularly in the southeast. We’re booked through the summer on the east coast, and we’ll be heading out west sooner or later. We’re very connected to the energy that comes our way, something I believe comes with age and experience. We pay attention, and when the right doors open, we know which way to go.

Toni Brown and Ed Munson – “Mountains of the Moon”

Phil Lesh is turning 70 years old in March. In 1969 when you saw the Dead, did you ever imagine that these cats would be still rocking and rolling over 40 years later?

They were immediately timeless to me…what I didn’t imagine was that I would still be rocking over 40 years later. I have been inspired so deeply that I can still dance old age away!

In closing, this long process called life has taught me one valuable lesson…don’t take anything for granted. “Live each day, could be your last, and keep your foot pressed on the gas!” Toni Brown – Live Dead Dance

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You can purchase copies of Relix The Book and State of Mind from www.tonibrownband.com.

http://tonibrownband.com/main.html