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Dick Latvala and The Story of the Grateful Dead Vault

Toni Brown | January 03, 2013

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.

Do Deadhead requests have an impact on what you listen to for potential Dick’s Picks?

Absolutely. With every Dick’s Picks order sent out, there is a little card sent, and I get ‘em back and I type the data in the program. It’s really fun. I remember almost every date instantly, the more I do it. And then there’s the Internet level of it, where the people can email me the ten shows they want. I have a private conference with people on the WELL who give me information. I know that any one man’s opinion is - “one man gathers what another man spills,” - and I’ve been to shows that I thought were great and then heard them on tape and they weren’t, and vice versa. So it’s a very elusive subject, judging shows, and it’s not as easy I used to think it would be. Everyone has an opinion and everyone’s right.

It’s all subjective.

And it’s really hard, even among so-called hard core addict tapers, to agree on something. You could have a total disagreement with someone that you know, and gone to a lot of shows with, so it’s elusive. Maybe you didn’t burp before the set started or whatever. It seems that this experience is not something that you can nail down and say, “This is it.” And so if anything, I want to say to people that this Dick’s Picks thing is a vehicle to get at stuff that formerly wasn’t being approached. I didn’t come up with that idea and I don’t like the attention, but my goal is just to get at the music that I know I’ve already heard.

Are there many shows that can’t be made because of poor quality, ones that you can’t even consider.

Absolutely. At the present time, I have to learn a whole lot of things about that because I never paid attention to the technical aspects of sound. I was more into the information being communicated. I could adjust to the form it came in, like the hiss or whatever. I could see through that and get to where the goods were. Once I was hired, it became more in the capacity of helping to make decisions of what’s good and what isn’t or what should be listened to and decided upon. I had to start paying attention to a lot more than I ever thought I’d pay attention to before—like is it stereo or mono. (laughs)

Who cares, actually? Harpur College, for example, it’s disgusting, but one of the reasons I’ve been pushing for this one as long as I have for 2/13-14/70, and being rejected for a long, long time is because of the fact that the electric sets are in mono. There is a big problem with that. (laughs)

Does modern technology lend itself to making a tape more listenable?

Absolutely, as Dick’s Picks is concerned with the two-track final tape as opposed to multi-tracks. There’s still a lot that can be done in the digital realm, with the sonic solution system, and I am not the one that you would talk to. Jeffrey Norman, my other half who is the most important person to me there is, he is the one that makes whatever I pick sound good. He knows how to push the buttons and is a technical wizard. And John Cutler, of course, is overseeing all this. His name is never on any of the Dick’s Picks, but he’s definitely in there giving his input. So all this is summing up to say I take input. I am not coming at this with a pre-determined agenda of releases like I used to think I knew everything about a long time ago.

Who makes the final decisions with you about what will be released?

It depends on what stage of the final decisions. (laughs) It could be flexible at all times. This is a slippery area and nothing is really final. There is no absolute. For example, if some band member heard what was being released, he could probably say, “I don’t want that released.” I think we have it together now where the band members are staying out of involvement of Dick’s Picks.

I don’t have to submit things for Phil’s approval anymore, but there are other people. John Cutler and Jeffrey Norman — their feedback is crucial for the first level of a successful product. They are coming at it mainly from a technical point of view, and Jeffrey is also coming at it from — if it doesn’t sound good to him, he’s not a Grateful Dead head. He’s more into Steely Dan for example, so he’s much more objective about this. So if it escapes past him and me, then it’s gotta be pretty damn good, because I’m learning a lot as to what’s more acceptable. At least initially you gotta try and do the best product you can technically but also have some substantial product that’s being fed, and not just have it be technically nice.

That’s a lot of [the] reasons why I was going for esoteric shows at the beginning, instead of the obvious choices of 2/13-14/70 or Harpur College, and on and on and on. If I’m gonna have some influence, I’d wanna hear something I haven’t heard that’s pretty good. Part of the thrill for me is finding stuff, and I still find stuff. You know, it’s fun to discover stuff, and there’s so much, everyone should just relax. It’s all gonna happen at the right time. I want input all the time, give me input and I will make decisions. This is my work, and there’s no one who’s ever gonna get as close as I did to these tapes. Nobody, no taper mentality will ever get this close. It’s pretty shocking that they let someone with my compulsion this close to the treasure.

What was the condition of the tape archive when you stepped in?

People have done their best to try to keep some order over the years. It’s a very complex subject that takes me back to when Bear left [Owsley “Bear” Stanley who recorded the Fillmore 7/13-14/70 shows represented on Dick’s Picks Volume 4 ]. The story is long but I don’t think much overall high priority was given to the tapes after Bear left. I mean, they really took care of them pretty much for a long period when the vaults were first built. Then I was hired in 1985 to expressly go through the tapes and listen and see what’s on the boxes and see what’s in there. And to me it’s like, talk about getting tapes. (laughs) I have had my hands full and continue [to] more than I ever dreamed possible. I am a tape addict and I’m probably the best person to do what I’m doing. I am not saying this as an egotist, I’m just saying it as a fact. I’m trusted to do it by all parties so far. I’m embracing this as this is destiny here. I’m doing the best job I can, and taking in all suggestions and they all affect me. A lot of things come into play to affect what is the next release. You want to skip around man. Every show is an event unto itself, from sacred to unique experience.

All the individual shows are of value, in my opinion. Everyone’s desire to hear the whole show is valid, but it’s not practical in our vault release program, as yet. There’s a heavy emphasis placed on the quality being as perfect as possible. When it gets to be trying to control content, like what is a good show, they [the Dead] can’t judge themselves properly. Only Deadheads can know what that is.
What was your favorite era musically?

Every year has been unique and has different characteristics. It has good and bad shows, and great moments on different levels. Everyone else says they like the era they first heard the band, and if they first went to a show in ‘77, they want to hear that kind of stuff. Or the Brent era people—a lot of pressure I’m getting is to come up with something from the ‘80s. I resist it terribly because I think it should sit on itself for 15 years and let’s get to the goods in the ’60s and early ’70s.

As for my favorite era? Without a question, the fall and winter of ’68 and the spring of ’69 up to near the end of ’69, that was the most powerful time on earth to experience a Grateful Dead concert. On the other hand, there are a few exceptions—9/19/70 at the Fillmore East being one of them and 2/13-14/70.

Even though a tape is widely circulated, it seems the market will still buy the Dick’s Picks version.

Well, it’s also their knowing that it’s gonna be the best quality possible because it’s being produced by the people that are best at it—that’s Jeffrey Norman and John Cutler. They know how to make it sound as good as possible, and I’m good at absorbing where the energy is in the show. I’m into that part, and the combination makes an effective product. I don’t know how Dick’s Picks seems to people, but I think they’re great. I still can listen to them and get turned on by them, so I think it’s successful and everyone else seems to think it is. I really expected more than a million of Dicks Picks Volume 2 to sell as soon as it came out [This DP presents set two from 10/31/71 at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, Ohio]. I thought it was the most unbelievable thing.

Well, it’s available only through mail-order.

Yeah, it’s good the way it’s being done, too. This is sort of a club, in a sense. It’s a big family of people and we’re all in it and it’s for all of us that these are being released.

You were asking about my favorite period, but there’s so many. I can live in the winter of ‘73 for _Dick’s Picks_ for the next ten releases for example. There’s so many great things that happened in that period. And the ‘72 stuff is phenomenal, but we gotta move around, so [right now] I’m learning a lot about the ‘80s. I didn’t keep such good records as the ‘80s came on. I started doing different things. And then I got hired and I didn’t do the analysis I used to do about tapes. I had a different function. Anyway, I missed out on a lot of probably really great shows that I’m now discovering through the feedback others have given me. A lot of people don’t think 1980 was such a great year, but there are some phenomenal things in there that people have missed, and I have missed. There are discoveries to be made in each year, all the way up to the current time.

There’s a lot that goes into what a good show is, and that includes all the mistakes too. That’s the tough part. Where do you draw the line? You know the band. The people that performed it certainly want to make it sound perfect so they tend to sanitize things. So if you keep them out of the picture, we Deadheads can just grab the stuff that’s really good, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

There are times that people walk away from shows thinking they were incredible. They seek out the tape and the reality seeps in…

That happens in a lot of cases on tapes. What is represented didn’t seem to capture what you remember from being there, but sometimes they do. There’s examples that do for me and they keep hitting me, and they have lasting power. That’s the essence of it. All shows have their aspects of greatness in them, and it’s an elusive thing to judge which one to choose.

Have you been listening to the 1972 tour?

Oh boy, yeah, especially October and November.

Have you considered doing excerpts from all the New Year’s shows?

My ego resists concept releases, other than bits and pieces, or jams unto themselves.

The “Wall Of Sound” shows in 1974—did they come out well on tape? The technology was huge.

Yeah, but the tapes just reflected the same board feed as before. I wasn’t on the tour, I was in Hawaii, so I didn’t experience one of the shows, except in the formative stages at the end of ‘73. It made a premiere at the Cow Palace basically, which is a great show (3/23/74). I can’t wait to release that someday.

What material are looking to release now?

Like I said, taking public pressure to heart (laughs), I am reluctantly clawing and crying into the ‘80s, listening to a lot of the ’83-’84 period stuff, seeing what’s most appealing.

Is there a Jerry Garcia Band archive?

Yes. In the vault, each band member has an area.

Will any of that see the light of day?

Well, it’s already seen the light of day in taper’s circles. I certainly have a lot of feeling behind releasing old stuff from Merl [Saunders] and Jerry in the ‘73-’74 period—some great, unique stuff. But that’s not the emphasis at the moment. It’s not my province even. It’s John Cutler’s and Steve Parish’s (Garcia’s road manager) province.

How far back in time does the archive date?

You can get as esoteric as you wanna go, back to trombone stuff by Phil in 1959. A lot of bluegrass stuff in the ‘60-’63 era. Not a lot of individual shows maybe, but there’s examples of stuff that should be gone through at some point.

Any Warlocks?
Not really. Warlock era—the earliest example I think of is that Tom Donahue thing from 11/3/65. It has those renditions of “Caution” and “Mind Bender,” “The Only Time Is Now,” “Early Morning Rain” and some others. There’s not a lot of stuff in the vault. There’s a lot of parts missing. It’s amazing anything was recorded at all in the beginning, in the heaviest of the days. I’m amazed anything survived in good shape.

Do you listen to any other music besides the Grateful Dead?

Tons. In fact, I’ve always told my friends to turn me on to something I don’t know about, ‘cause I don’t listen to the radio at all. I never did, except in the ‘60s when it was creative programming, and I’m not really up on modern stuff – that’s why I turned to tape trading.

I put on a lot of stuff like Henry Kaiser and David Lindley in Madagascar, volumes 1 and 2. Or the best album of all time percussion- wise, the most mind boggling LSD inspiring [album] is The Other Side of This by Airto Moreira. He’s magic, and with that album he was given free rein to do whatever he wanted.

I listen to a lot of Henry Kaiser’s influences ‘cause he’s more adept at knowing the world music scene, and he turns me on to different things. I’m from the R&B era of the ‘50s and Fats Domino and Little Richard are my kings. I’m into the blues and especially country. Not Muddy Waters style, particularly more Lead Belly, Robert Johnson stuff. Then it was gospel and then I learned that white people played music in the ’60s when LSD came in—when all that happened.

The archive is a very important historical resource. What does it all mean to you in the intense sense of it all, what do you think this all means?

If I took it all seriously, I would probably freeze of a heart attack. (laughs) So by necessity, obviously, you can’t function from there. I think it’s very important. It’s sort of like a Dead concert. You can wish you were gonna go to the right one, and maybe all things point to it being the right one, but somehow it is or isn’t. I don’t know how to answer that question really.

I think that destiny leads the way, so whatever happens, happens. It’s all for a reason.

Yeah, I think everything is happening as it should, but it’s just a very unusual time, and I don’t know how to predict things. I’m not a manipulative type, so I’m not gonna maneuver things for my self enhancement. I have a role to play it appears, and I’m doing that with gusto, and I can’t not do it. It’s not even a question. I’d be doing this without ever being hired. But a lot of what I do isn’t just that. A lot of other things go into my daily experience, so it sounds advantageous to all these people that want to hear all the tapes. I could tell you some drawbacks that would boggle one’s mind. So there’s good and bad in everything.

Everyone has got to understand that their lives are just perfect the way they are. The Grateful Dead was just a great thing to experience, and we all have that experience in common.

What impact has Garcia’s death had on you personally?

I was relieved initially, because it seemed like that would clear up a whole lot of the difficulties I was experiencing over the last few years. Difficulties meaning for me, personally, not enjoying the shows sometimes because of Garcia not paying attention—easily noticeably not paying attention, or blowing the lyrics. So I was relieved that finally this was a clear change. And then shock, and I think I, basically, am in denial.

Because of the subculture that exists, which is now bigger than the Grateful Dead itself, it does still endure. It’s critical that people like yourself are passing something on for us to pass on…

Yeah, that’s right, and not get to carried away, like when you asked that question about the importance of archiving, and I’d go into shock thinking about it. We’ve got to do our thing with ease and steadiness and not get all worked up and crazy about it.

What do you think the future holds for us Deadheads?

I don’t know. The way I see it is, when I discovered live tapes, I was compelled to go in this direction. My future was this destiny. If you weren’t at the show, the next best way to receive what happened was hearing the tape. It’s the next level, so tapes right away were inherently important. As far as having the music become more accessible through our vault release program, I feel optimistic that’s gonna increase more than ever, not only because of demand, but because of our need to survive.