Noah Weiner has been the force behind The Grateful Dead Listening Guide for the past year. A longtime collector and fan of the Grateful Dead’s music, Noah digs deep into the deepest and darkest recesses of the cosmic realm of live Grateful Dead recordings and posts reviews of the shows. Best of all, Noah has a great gift of explaining what makes this music great. Like Matt Kramer or Robert Parker disassembling a bottle of Petrus into prose, Noah writes at length about this music with a passionate and descriptive voice –
“From here the music taps into quintessential Dead imagery for me, drawing forth familiar interlocking and pinwheeling galaxies of light and color -hundreds of wheels with crisscrossing orbits in infinite dimensions. There is a lurking dissonance to the jam, mostly at the hand of Vince on keyboards, and just as it seems to be infusing the entire pallette of color, Jerry returns to his acoustic tone and a veil of beauty and grace settles over everything. From here there is then a wonderful ebb and flow between this graceful state and the more chaos-born energy as the music finds itself firmly hinting its way into Uncle John’s Band. In quite fine fashion, the song appears…”
When the plug was pulled on downloadable soundboard (SBD) recordings from the Live Music Archive, the audience (AUD) recordings (recorded at the shows by fans) remained free and clear. Heads scrambled to find which audience recordings were worth downloading. Sure, that 3/3/68 show on Haight Street was an old hissy favorite, but what else was out there? That’s when I found the Grateful Dead Listening Guide. Noah makes a point of reviewing quality audience recordings as well as the ‘boards.
I had a chat with Noah via email about the Grateful Dead, the listening guide, and what makes this crazy psychedelic/folk/bluegrass/rock/jazz/face-melting music so constantly engaging.
What was your first introduction to the music of the Dead?
Well, I won’t credit growing up through the ’70s and only being exposed to the Dead on FM radio as an introduction. Introduction assumes some instructive hand in the matter. The radio was hardly that. It left me feeling no affinity whatsoever for this band that played Sugar Magnolia, Friend Of The Devil, and Casey Jones – Country Rock drivel, as far as I could tell back then. I walked through my high school halls in the early ’80s not understanding what on earth these otherwise stoner, partying types were possible getting into when I saw them all hanging around in their Dead concert shirts (fresh off of the Uptown Theater ’81 and then Alpine ’82 runs).
Fast forward a few years into college and I was taking a photography class. There was a little boom box in the darkroom, and one day I was in there alone, not having any tapes with me. There was an unlabeled cassette in the player, and I just hit play. What streamed out picked up at the very start of the solo section from Friend Of The Devil off of Dead Set, the live LP from 1980. I had no clue what was playing, but I was stopped in my tracks, memorized by this light and wickedly drippy music. After Jerry’s solo, when he started singing again, I was flabbergasted. The Dead? That ridiculous Friend Of The Devil song? Oh My God. Slowed down, it became perfection. Then there was that Space>Fire On The Mountain a little later on the tape. It was all over for me then. Where had this music been all my life? It fit my musical lifestyle like a gigantic missing puzzle piece. I took the tape home to dub a copy. It was months before I figured out what record it was. I was just overjoyed with this unmarked tape of great music I had found.
So removed from my world were the Dead prior to this, that for the first year or so, when I heard Jerry singing (even after buying the American Beauty record), I visualized his voice as being attached to Bobby’s persona, and vice versa. So, Friend Of The Devil was a Bob song to me. I can’t recall how exactly I got all that straightened out.
What was your first introduction to trading and collecting live music?
After college I joined a band. Through that circle of friends I became exposed to a Deadhead fellow named Fritz. Fritz had tapes, but I wasn’t all that interested in them. Fritz, and a few others, got me to my first Dead show in April, 1989 up in Milwaukee. We drove up from Chicago in my car. Fritz brought a couple tapes for the ride. I distinctly remember voicing my disagreement that we should spend the hour or so in the car listening to the music of the band we were about to spend an entire evening with. I lost the argument.
Dancin’ In The Streets from the classic 05/08/77 tape poured though my car stereo. I was done for. That music hit me deep and hard. After getting home, that tape, and the other he brought (set one from 06/23/74) somehow managed to be left in my car. I quickly made copies of both. It was still a while before I’d start actually bugging Fritz for more tapes, but not too long. By 1990-91 I was hitting Fritz up for more tapes pretty regularly.
Trading wouldn’t start for a few more years, after I met a girl in a Morning Dew t-shirt who came into my retail work space.
Wait, was it one of those great shirts where it uses the logo for ‘Mountain Dew’?
Yeah. It was the mountain dew logo on the bright green shirt.
Long before I heard the term “Culture Jamming” used in the past few years by places like Adbusters and such, Deadheads were doing exactly that – manipulating familiar symbols and commercial logos into part of the lore of the band. Things like that became one more “secret handshake” in the community.
We got to talking and she mentioned that her little brother had lots of tapes. They lived nearby. I got his phone number, and did my first real trades with him. Amazingly, I scored some fantastic stuff from him which would later serve as wonderful trade bait online.
The concept of “sharing and trading music” has changed drastically since the old days of Maxells and B&Ps. What has been lost and what has been gained in live music trading in the internet age?
Despite a fair amount of negativity related to the way many folks flaunted their amazing tape collections over others, there was an entire related layer to our community that was rendered nearly meaningless with the coming of the “everything at our fingertips” age. That would be the profound excitement and joy in finding people with lists of shows that you wanted, striking up a conversation with them, and finding a way to barter one’s way to the tapes you wanted. This lead to very mutually satisfying partnerships, some of which could go on for years. And the pure friendships that came of this (having nothing to do with the tapes) was the most precious gift of all.
That process consumed a lot of time. Finding lists. Reading lists. Decoding tape grading systems. Prioritizing tapes from one list against another. The actual conversations via e-mail and/or phone. That hunt, and the experience of it, are most certainly dwindled to a crawl now. It still goes on to some degree in the higher levels of tape trading, but it used to be a rite of passage for getting yourself a tape collection at all.
Now, everyone has the tape collection going in. And that’s probably the gain we have in the Internet age. I would never have ventured into creating the blog I did if it weren’t for the fact that 1) everything is now online and people might need help weeding through shows, and 2) all of it can be heard with the click of a mouse. Without that technology, the blog would be missing the most critical ingredient – the music.
It’s a different landscape now, and while a lot of the practices and activities of tape trading are gone, it seems that the relationships still develop to certain degrees. There is at least still a sense of community for those of us doing the tape thing online, which is good. It’s just missing nearly all of the activities we did in order to get there. Buying blanks, studying lists, making tapes (or CDs), setting recording levels, mailing tapes at the post office, waiting for them, seeing them in the mail box – these were all personal activities we somehow shared as a community.
I find so many people who were Deadheads once upon a time and perhaps after Garcia’s passing they left the music behind only to come back to it via Archive.org or the new Rhino releases. In your opinion, what is it about the Dead’s music that is so enduring?
Whew. I think the Dead’s music strikes a special chord in the fabric of popular music. It possesses so many facets, ranging from bluegrass, to psychedelic, folk, jazz, etc.. and layering on top of that the fact that this band is the music it played live, not the records it released, makes for a certain resonance in the subculture of it all. The “real” Grateful Dead could never be purchased at a store (though now the Dead have released a fair amount of live material, of course). The “real” Grateful Dead was this under current of Americana-Folkgrass-Pyschedelic music that is much larger than any one bit of music you hear. It all vibrates over the course of the Dead’s 30 year run. That, and all the bootleg tapes of all the shows, is like a story passed down from parents to children. It won’t disappear if the music industry crumbles. It’s woven into the fabric of our society.
But why? I think the members of the Dead were lucky enough to find themselves brought together as a pure catalyst for the creative energy force of the music they created. In a real sense, the music played the band. There are many passages of shows where one can’t deny that a higher level of creativity was taking over, that the Dead were merely a conduit for an expression of creative energy that found an easy outlet into the universe through the physical pieces that made up this band. It was just that strong, and that’s what drove the band along at a certain level.
That creative energy, or musical muse, lives on today in the tape recorded music of the band. And it is clearly still potent enough to draw people in for the first time, and back for more. Enduring is a well chosen word for it…
Suggested reading and listening;
on the web – http://www.deadlistening.com
Thanks to Noah Weiner for this interview. Noah and I are both fans of Dub Reggae and Boards of Canada as well as The Grateful Dead.
The photos in this article are from my collection and I don’t know who to properly credit. Any info would be helpful so that I may give credit where credit is due. Also, big thanks to Fred, Huntr, and P.J. Phreak for the photos of their collections.