Volume #17, Issue #4 -- August 1990

The History of Taping
Through the Eyes of One Deadhead
By Les Kippel

It's a night on tour in 1990. The tapers are setting up in Taper's City. The mike stands are permitted to rise to six feet, and the music is about to begin.

Almost the last thing any taper is thinking about is, "Why am I doing this?" And what about the history of taping? When did it start, who were the first, and how did it become what it is today? With literally every deadhead admitting to owning at least one live tape, there must be one heck of a good story!

As the person who started Dead Relix, which became Relix magazine as we currently know it, I can offer my own version of the story. Back in 1969, I was attending Pace College, in my final year, and living in Staten Island. The set of events happening then is important. Nixon was in office, and the Viet Nam war was in full swing. Americans were getting killed for reasons a lot of people didn't understand. Riots between construction workers and "hippies" were happening on a daily basis. Marches on Wall Street and on Whitehall Street where the major induction center for the draft was, were a daily happening.

And here I was, in Pace College, taking a course called "Rock in Contemporary Society." Sounded easy for a senior only taking three classes, the other two being Spanish (repeated for the third time) and English.

The professor had us play rock music and talk about it. My term assignment was the Doors' Soft Parade. Explain it and talk about it. No written papers, please. One of the extra credit assignments was a field trip to the Fillmore East to see a band called the Grateful Dead. Extra credit. Well, there was much more happening in Staten Island at the time (or so I thought), and it was a big trip, so I passed it up.

A few brief months later, my friend Steve Kraye came up with a pair of tickets to see the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore. Even though the tickets were in Row F, upper balcony, why not check them out this time? Our friend Bob Terrella said, "Hey man, this is the most different group around. Ya gotta see 'em."

So, Steve and I prepared for the all-night event that these Dead shows were rumored to be. When we got to the Fillmore, we sat down to check out the scene; all the folks around seemed friendly. The first act came on stage. They played a kind of country, with a bearded guy on pedal steel, and the lead singer, this Marmaduke guy, made this joke about the stage being painted purple in their honor. He said something like "The New Riders of the Purple Stage." Couldn't figure that one out no how.

The New Riders ended their set and everyone piled into the lobby to hang out. Then, all of the sudden, like magic, we started meeting people we knew. Before we could count, we must have met over 50 friends. The weirdest thing was, no one had any idea that any of these other people would be at this show! A gathering of the tribes.

A group of people had seats in the 18th row (Row R) that they brought from a Fillmore ticket outlet in the local clothing store. (This was before Ticketron and computers and that stuff, of course.) They gave me a ticket stub, and I made my way to Row R.

Boy, did things look different now. What were all those tie-dye boxes onstage? What were all those boxes with guitars plugged in with lights on them, and what was that long line of gongs going from very small to gigantic doing there?

As the lights dimmed, some guy came out, and announced something like, "Ladies and gentleman, the Grateful Dead, Scene Two, Act Two."

They played a lot of country kind of songs, nothing that was really amazing to me, but I was having a thrill being in the 18th row with my friends. Unfortunately, poor Steve was upstairs.

After the next intermission, there was another introduction, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead, Scene Three, Act Three." Then it hit me: this band all of the sudden got serious. Whatever they did for the first two "scenes" in no way prepared anyone for what was now taking place. All those guitars and lights--who was that guy with the flame thrower onstage? The volume and intensity of the music made me realize that something special was happening here, something that I had never seen before.

I remember the anticipation of the audience for every song, as though there was some sort of non-verbal communication between the band and the audience. I remember that bearded guy, looking at the audience, playing one note, and the entire audience screaming, "Yes," in approval. I think the band then played "Dark Star."

The audience and the band seemed as one, there seemed no separation. The next few songs went by, with the two drummers smashing away, and that Pigpen guy blew me away! Then they started playing a song called "Morning Dew." I wondered, "Are they telling us that morning is approaching, and it is time to go?" And then, the drummer, hitting those gongs.

The next thing I remember were the exit doors being opened, and it was light outside, but no one was leaving. Finally, the band came back and stood around one mike and sang a song that said, "And we bid you goodnight." It seemed like the perfect thank you from them to us, for coming and sharing this perfect evening with them.

But it didn't end there. I was living in Staten Island, which meant getting from the East Village, where the Fillmore was, down to the Staten Island Ferry. Don't ask me how I did it, I don't remember. Waiting for the ferry, there must have been about 50 or so of the very same people who I had shared that special evening with. Whether they remember now, who knows. Along with the others on that ferry ride, with the sun rising from the east, I saw a cruise ship entering the harbor, and passengers on the deck taking in the sight of arriving at the break of dawn in New York harbor, with the sun shining on the Statue of Liberty and this ferry boat treading its way across the water from New York City to Staten Island.

I knew that the energy that I experienced that night had to be caught, and that I had to become part of the energy.

The next time the Grateful Dead played at the Fillmore, I got my own 18th row seat. Also, at about the same time, the Japanese were coming out with these portable tape machines that were small enough to be brought into a concert hall without raising much suspicion. I smuggled one n and gave it to my old Row R friends, who had now moved up to the first row, and asked them to record the show for me. I was thrilled: I was going to get a Grateful Dead tape so that I could remember the experience.

Much to my surprise, these people really didn't think about pointing the microphone at the stage: all that was heard on the tape were things like "Hey, man, pass the wine sack!"

I realized that the only way to do it was to do it myself, and I started to record shows. Responsibilities for smuggling in extra batteries, extra microphones, and extra tapes were split between my friends and me. Soon, my friend R.T. joined me in taping, and then a short while later, at a Garcia show, I ran into Jim from New Jersey.

Jim had about the same number of shows on tape that we had, and we decided we should trade and get a club together for the purpose of collecting and trading tapes. Naturally, all the same questions that are still here today were the ones that we had to deal with first: should there be a charge to copy a tape, who should get a tape, why should one person get a tape and another person not?

We finally decided that all exchanges should be FREE, and that we should call ourselves "THE FIRST FREE UNDERGROUND GRATEFUL DEAD TAPE EXCHANGE." We also decided to promote the idea, and get other people to start their own exchanges. Within months, there must have been 30 or so exchanges, with business cards to boot!

Naturally, some members of the Grateful Dead family really got a kick out of this phenomenon, while others freaked beyond compare.

One of the funnier stories concerned the Grateful Dead's Woodstock tapes! It seemed that at Woodstock, the Grateful Dead were scheduled to go on hours later, and were really laying back enjoying the scene, when they were given five minutes' notice to play! They were not ready! Not only that, but people in those days forgot about things like grounding microphones and keeping them out of water. All the Grateful Dead gear was not grounded, and in the ensuing downpour, whenever one of them tried to sing into a microphone or touch his guitar, he got a major jolt of electricity! These Woodstock tapes found their way out of the Warner Brothers archives and into the hands of the First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange around the time the Grateful Dead headed to Florida in 1974. Word got to Phil Lesh that this tape was around, and he made a bee-line to the room of the person who had the tape. He sat there transfixed, not moving, and then became animated and couldn't control his excitement. He turned to the people in the room and said, "I must have a copy of this tape." Naturally, everyone was thrilled. "But," he continued, "don't bother recording the music. I only want the talking!"

I started recording in earnest in 1971, but until 1974, when Sony came out with the 152 and the ECM-99 stereo microphones, the quality didn't shape up. I feel that the '74 shows from Roosevelt Stadium, New Jersey, the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the Miami, Florida, shows, and Providence, Rhode Island, were he premium ones made. Some of those might have already been replaced by soundboards, but even if not, look for them.

I believed in trading with everyone, and tried to maintain an open door policy, whether people had tapes or not. Eventually, I found that people didn't want to bother recording shows themselves, but just wanted to copy tapes. I came to realize that recording took away the enjoyment of the shows, and I wanted others to get involved.

During 1973, I took a break from recording in an attempt to get tape collectors to realize that they had to share the responsibility of getting tapes for people to collect. It was in 1973 that I was hanging out with some friends and came up with an idea to let myself step aside and let people get together without my involvement to collect and trade tapes. I decided to start some form of newsletter, sort of like a fanzine, where articles about taping could be printed, and people could advertise tape trading for free. (After all, the entire point of the Free Underground Tape Exchange was the key word: FREE). Jim McGurn, an old friend, said, "Well Les, what are you going to call this thing?" We thought, they are DEAD tapes, sort of like relics, so why not DEAD RELICS? So, the name was created. From that point, we started to get the first issue out, naturally, dedicated to the trickiest taper of all times--Richard Nixon!

At one time, we had a meeting with the Grateful Dead and made a proposal to them for a "Connoisseurs Club" of tape collectors, a proposal which said that they should open up their vaults and make copies of all their shows available to their fans at a reasonable fee.

Ron Rakow, then their record company president, reviewed our 93-page proposal and turned it down. The latest we hear is that the Grateful Dead have now decided to cull their tapes and start to issue their old shows in CD format, 18 years after we proposed the idea!

It's definitely been a long strange trip for taping. From small Panasonic machines and batteries that lasted 15 minutes to DAT machines, tapes and nicad batteries that last for hours. And through it all, one thing has remained the same, Deadheads are still recording the shows, trying to catch that magic that the Grateful Dead having been putting out for 25 years.

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