Dick Latvala and The Story of the Grateful Dead Vault
New Year’s Eve is an evening that traditionally blends reflection with a fair share of raging. Both of these elements were embodied in Dick Latvala, the Grateful Dead’s tape archivist who passed way in August 1999. In this conversation from May 1996 with former Relix editor Toni Brown, Latvala discusses the development of the Grateful Dead vault and his own relationship with the band.
When did you first get into the Grateful Dead?
The Trips Festival would be the first show I can remember absolutely. I went to Longshoreman’s Hall in January 21, 22, 23, 1966, which was right after I took LSD legally in a research project in Menlo Park. It turned me around. I barely graduated from college and found out finally what I was supposed to do. In that era, it was an inner revolution to me, not a political one. So I was wondering who I was, what am I doing here, and I didn’t know why I was in college. I was a good student but I didn’t know it. [I graduated with a degree in] psychology. Who are you and what are you doing? That was the question, and LSD and the music became the answer for me.
I was born and raised in Berkeley, but I lived in New York actually, when I was a kid, from ages six, seven and eight in the ’50s.
Were you were an early tape trader?
Not as early as some of my heroes. I became aware of blank tapes in 1974. I had already taped some New Year’s shows out here.
I wanted to hear this new music. It wasn’t just the Dead, it was the Airplane and Big Brother and Quicksilver but soon became only the Dead to me. Before the ’68 era, that’s the heaviest it was for me, and when I discovered live tapes, man that was the whole motivation to get back and find some tapes of those shows, to see if it confirmed my memory of these events being so monumental. And of course, I eventually got to find some of these things, and I knew they were right because I remember “Hey Jude” as an encore at the Fillmore West on 3/1/69. That show killed me when I heard it. There’s so many of ‘em and now I’m like a kid in a candy store.
Because of my indulgence in Hedonism, which I’m really good at by the way, I can go a long time doing one thing. Chewing Doublemint even. Taping, listening and taping is just something I’m compulsive about
What led to your becoming the Grateful Dead tape archivist?
I just went to shows as a consumer from the beginning—until Red Rocks 8/12/79, when I came from Hawaii with a friend that knew Nicki Scully [then wife of Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully]. I got dropped off at a hotel, and my buddy Robert Emory went upstairs and saw some things he didn’t like and took off and went back to Hawaii and left me sitting there. I asked for a ride to backstage at Red Rocks, and I had my mind blown by this place. It is the most magical place on earth. And I was just in shock. I went backstage and the first person I saw was Kidd [Candelario, longtime Dead crew member], and we started a relationship that forever affected my life from then on. That started everything. In fact, he’s the one that came up with Dick’s Picks.
There are a lot of tapers out there who would love to be in your position. Like you said, “A kid in a candy store.” Why do you think it fell on you?
There were a lot of factors, but to try and simplify it, it would be my own natural, already well-established collection—I already had 900 reels, by the time I got to the inside, so I was all ready, and I’m very anal and organized I have a compulsion for it, and can do it, like I say, for a long time, make tapes. I don’t think anyone on earth has made more cassettes than me. That was my motivation. Now I’m being hired, and in that capacity it’s a little more professional, so I am subject to a lot more than I thought, as far as what’s good and what isn’t.
Everyone should know that there’s a lot of factors at work that go into play in making a decision on what to release, and Dick’s Picks is sort of a misnomer. I take responsibility for setting the table, but there’s a lot of people eating. I never know how it’s gonna work out. I could say what I think I want to do right now, but believe me, it wouldn’t be that by the time it became real. I’m not holding on to any preconceived ideas about what’s good and what’s bad. That’s why all the survey input I get, I assimilate this information, and it is very, very, very useful. So I’m the person who’s in the position to interpret all the best. I take that responsibility, and I’m doing the best I can. It’s just a lot, so how can anyone expect me to know everything about every year. I don’t think there’s any human that can know everything about one tour. I mean, one year at least, comprehensively. ‘Cause no one’s heard every show, for one thing, there’s new discoveries to be made all the time.
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