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What’s Become of the Bettys? The Fate of the Long-Lost Grateful Dead Soundboards

by Dean Budnick on March 11, 2014

The Barton Hall boards

The majority of the 1,000-plus reels that have come to be known as the Betty Boards were acquired by three principals, none of whom were fervid Deadheads at the time. The first of these individuals set his tapes aside in a storage locker where they remain to this day. A second, who was more interested in the road cases that held the tapes, left them to rot in his barn for a decade. The final party was a couple with a particular interest in progressive rock, who nonetheless held an appreciation for the performances captured on tape.

Looking back on that day, the couple, who prefer to remain anonymous, set the scene: “The contents of several storage lockers were being auctioned off at the same time, not just Betty’s. So there were a few dozen people—the usual gang that frequents these sorts of things—milling around and bidding on lots that weren’t exclusive to Betty’s locker. There were probably three main players bidding for Betty’s stuff, plus a lot of other people occasionally bidding on Betty’s stuff and all the other stuff on display. Tapes were just a small part of what was being auctioned. There was a lot of clothing and household items set up in piles that sometimes also included some tapes. People bidding on clothing often got a couple of tapes thrown into the mix with their purchase.”

So while some tapes unquestionably were scattered to the wind, following the four- hour event and a second auction for a final lot of tapes held a few weeks later, the three prime bidders each held hundreds of reels. While two of the winning bidders had no plans for the tapes, within a few months the couple decided that they would place the music in circulation.

“Being avid collectors of bootleg recordings by numerous groups, it only seemed natural to share in the wealth,” they explain via email. “Our Grateful Dead collection consisted of many of the common shows that were out there at the time. These new tapes dramatically expanded that collection and it wouldn’t have been right not to share them. This was our way of getting new material into circulation and also breaking the hierarchy of those collectors who held on to prime shows for themselves. Initially, we started transferring the tapes to VHS Hi-Fi on our own, but soon realized what a daunting task this was going to be. So we reached out to one of our trading buddies who we knew had connections in the Dead trading community. From there, he gathered together what was later to become known as the ‘Unindicted Co-conspirators,’ who put in a massive archiving effort to back up the tapes and distribute them.”

The individual they selected as their point person was Ken Genetti, a friend and longtime Deadhead. “I went into their house, and I opened up this closet and they had all the stuff arranged on a shelf in order,” Genetti reflects. “For me, it was like King Tut’s tomb. I knew immediately what they had when I looked in there. The first thing I saw was Port Chester, N.Y., Feb. 18, 1971, an incredible show which was Mickey [Hart]’s last concert for many years and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Then I saw Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, Calif., ‘73, my favorite concert I ever went to. I pulled it out and I went, ‘Holy shit!’”

Genetti shared the couple’s intention to spread the musical wealth, although initially he advocated for an aggressive, populist twist. “I told them: ‘You know what? It would be really great if you look in Relix and Golden Road, where there are these ads for people saying, ‘Just starting my collection; please help.’’ I was thinking: If only we could send out these to those people. Then, all of a sudden, those people, the newbies, would have all these tapes that nobody had. It would flip the whole scales upside down because I was so sick of these hoarders who had a whole closet of stuff that nobody could find and they would never show you what it was.”

While this didn’t quite happen, with the couple’s support, Genetti took the lead on distribution with the intent of bringing the music to the masses. So he enlisted three fellow tapers who lent him their decks. Then Genetti borrowed a new batch of shows from the couple (starting with the Kezar and the Port Chester reels), dubbed them and handed them off in a brief weekly tape exchange that took place in the parking lot of San Rafael’s Whole Earth Access store.

At the time, Genetti had just moved onto a 120-acre plot of land north of Marin with his wife and two young children and started building a house, which added its own series of complications. “I would get up in the morning, gas up the generator because we didn’t have enough electricity to run all these things, fire it up and start recording,” he recalls. “We did three shows a day. It was pretty overwhelming. Then at the end of the week, we would meet and I’d say, ‘OK, this is what I’ve got for you,’ and they would go from there and do whatever they wanted to with them.”

The exchange had the feel of a covert operation because the couple did not want their identities breached, and Genetti had his reservations as well.

“I wasn’t trying to keep myself anonymous, but I did tell those guys, ‘Look, once you have these, I want you to put them out.’ I didn’t want all these people calling me up saying, ‘Hey, I just flew in from New York and I’ve got a six-pack and some pot and I’m coming over.’”

As the project neared completion, the couple’s anonymity was broken, at least at the highest levels of Grateful Dead management.

They explain: “We had sought to keep the operation as low key as possible because of the potential for a backlash. It wasn’t until someone contacted the Grateful Dead office and offered them a copy of the tapes that we knew it was only a matter of time before we would be hearing from their lawyers. When we did hear from them, there was a bit of back and forth between their lawyers and our lawyer, but the bottom line was we had purchased the tapes legally and owned them but didn’t own the rights to the music contained on them. Therefore, we could not sell the music on them, which was never our intent anyway. That pretty much left us at a stalemate and, not wanting to stir up any more issues with the Grateful Dead office, is also why we avoided re-digitizing the tapes.”

So the reels that Genetti and his team copied were the lone public clones from the masters. However, these tapes made it far and wide. The Bettys were tangible, compelling artifacts of eras in which the Grateful Dead were at improvisational apogees, including the Capitol Theatre run in 1971, the Academy of Music dates a year later and the group’s fabled May 1977 tour. Beyond the performances themselves, the quality of the tapes held sway, as crisp Grateful Dead soundboard mixes were not easy to come by before 1986. Indeed there are some Deadheads who contend that the reputation of certain shows, such as the Dead’s performance on May 8, 1977 at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, have been augmented by the sheer number of high quality copies in circulation (culminating in the Library of Congress’ selection of 5/8/77 for the National Recording Registry in 2012, even if the masters were unavailable). A case also can be made that the launch of the Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks series in 1993 was a product of Deadheads manifesting an insatiable yen for the high-quality archival recordings after they had acquired copies of the Bettys.

And here, the story might have ended, with quality tapes all around—all the more so in the age of the Internet—if not for the efforts of Rob Eaton.

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