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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

DSO monitor mixer Will Popp examining moldly tapes with Rob Eaton

Rob Eaton may be best known these days as a member of Dark Star Orchestra—where he has taken on the Bob Weir role since 2001—but for many years prior to that, he served as an engineer at Manhattan’s Power Station Studios, working with Pat Metheny, David Crosby and Kronos Quartet among many others. His studio skill set served him in good stead when the person who had acquired the second batch of Betty Boards contacted him.

In late 1995, Eaton received a call from a high-school teacher who had purchased one of the lots predominantly for the road cases that held the tapes. The teacher now hoped to sell the reels and wanted Eaton to assess them. In a cluttered barn, Eaton discovered a grimy, mold-infested collection.

“Out of 200 tapes,” he remembers, “only six boxes were legible and 75 to 80 tapes had no boxes at all—they had completely disintegrated from rot.” Still, Eaton believed he could resuscitate the reels, which he soon confirmed were part of Cantor-Jackson’s original collection. Eaton was staying with his friend Dick Latvala, the Grateful Dead archivist until his passing in 1999. “I spent all night long with some tools and cleaned up a portion of one of the reels. It was a reel from 9/6/73—a Garcia-Saunders show from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic that no one had ever seen before. So we knew this was a legitimate stash of tapes.” The teacher eventually hired Eaton to restore his collection, exchanging 40 tapes at a time via the mail.

This might have been the end of the story, but the Betty Boards have proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. The teacher never found a buyer for the tapes—his asking price was a million dollars—and two years ago, facing monetary struggles and fearing that that the bank might foreclose on his home, he contacted Eaton once again to see if he would be willing to take custody of the tapes. The teacher also explained that he had discovered another 50 reels while cleaning out the barn.

Eaton assented and on a day off during a Dark Star Orchestra tour, “I went to meet him at a parking lot of a Denny’s. He had a pickup truck and a trailer full of excrement and hay and the boxes I’d originally sent him back plus a wooden crate with 50 seven-inch reels thrown in it—no boxes, all tangled up. It was a complete mess. But most of those tapes turned out to be amazing. I would say 22 of those were from the June ‘76 tour—stuff that I had not seen before.

“If you had looked in the box, you would say there was no way they can be recovered but they could, if you took the time to do it. The challenge is that you can’t play them until you bake them at a low temperature for an extended period of time. That reformulates the back coding, which is what the oxide is on, and the oxide is what the music is recorded on magnetically. The seven-inch reels were on plastic hubs but I couldn’t transfer those to metal reels because it would ruin the tapes. So I modified a food dehydrator that I use to dehydrate mushrooms I collect here in the mountains of Colorado in the summer time.”

Eaton also went so far as to have a friend refurbish Betty’s Nagra IV-S Reel to Reel on which she recorded these shows, so that he could digitize the sounds of the tapes played back on the original machine that produced them.

Emboldened by success with this latest batch, Eaton set a new goal for himself: “I had this dream to try to reclaim all of this music and archive it properly so that it’s there for generations to come in the best possible form.” So through a chain of contacts, he eventually located Ken Genetti, who agreed to pass along a letter to the couple.

“Two months later, I got an email out of the blue,” Eaton remembers. “They said they’d be interested in restoring their tapes and archiving them properly. They also said there were a lot of tapes that hadn’t been touched. So the next time I was in San Francisco, I loaded up their tapes onto the semi tractor- trailer that DSO owns and brought them back East.”

But it didn’t end there.

While completing his work on the couple’s reels, Eaton began researching the original auction, hoping to identify the third individual who had purchased the Bettys. He eventually found him, and in January 2014, the pair entered into discussions about this final batch of tapes, which Eaton hopes to restore.

What then? Eaton has a plan that he already has set in motion. “What I’d love to see done—in a perfect world—is I think all the tapes need to go back to the vault,” he says. “I think the people that have purchased these tapes should be compensated. I don’t think we’re talking huge sums of money but enough to make them relinquish the tapes back to the Grateful Dead. They should be part of the collection. Another thing that’s important is if these tapes do get back to the vault, Betty should get her production royalty on anything that gets released, which is completely reasonable. Those were her tapes; those weren’t the Dead’s tapes. I’d love to see Betty get her due.”

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