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Early Tapers, the United Dead Freaks of America, and the Dawn of Relix

Jesse Jarnow | April 15, 2014

Sam Cutler sweeps out of the backstage area in a purposeful huff. The Grateful Dead’s mustachioed road manager is under direct orders from the band and makes a beeline for the front of the venue. It’s a pleasant late-summer Thursday and 20,000 concertgoers are starting to file into what passes for public space in the Bronx in 1971, a long expanse of ill-kept grass bound on one side by a train yard and called Gaelic Park. Neighborhood kids are staking claims on the parked cars along 240th Street where they might watch the show, scattering during the last notes as attendees return to freshly dented roofs and hoods. Locals know not to park there.

By the time Cutler gets to the front of the venue, he’s got a phalanx of security guards with him. The Grateful Dead hate busting people, but enough is enough. Cutler knows it, Jerry knows it, and almost everybody probably knows it. Everybody, that is, except the dudes standing out front selling bootleg records.

Cutler and the goon squad descend on the LP slinging longhairs and Cutler—in the crisp British accent of a classic rock road manager—informs them that Garcia told him personally, “We want you guys to go outside and liberate those bootlegs.” Which is exactly what happens. Cutler grabs two dozen LPs from the nearest seller and starts passing them to the assembled crowd. They surround three other dealers and confiscate 120 more copies of various live Dead pressings, though they will return many before the night is over.

“GRATEFUL DEAD PIG BACKLASH” pops the headline in the East Village Other the next week, the pseudonymous Basho Katzenjammer calling out the band in a full- page hastily-typed screed accompanied by an ominous caricature of Garcia, Phil Lesh glaring with dark, dark eyes behind him. Katzenjammer accuses the Dead of being part of “the same old reactionary establishment that we’re all ripping off. It is only recently that the Dead have even become successful enough to rip off, Katzenjammer reasons in a bit of circular logic increasingly indicative of the radical Yippie faction using the Other as a platform. The proof, of course, is that Dead bootleg LPs are selling like goddamn hot cakes in New York, moving around 500 copies a month.

Until 1971, Katzenjammer suggests, the Dead needed the money too badly themselves. But “that was last year that they needed the bread,” he writes, allowing “and most of the year preceding as well.” Even he recognizes that there’s something different about the Dead this year. They’re big business now. There are 20,000 people at Gaelic Park, after all. The bootleggers, meanwhile, simply “give the eager little music freak what he wants.” It’s the People’s Music, they feel, and—as the People—they should be entitled to a few bucks from it.

The live Dead records have been showing up in a serious way this season, supplementing the late-1969 release Live/Dead. Hot on the heels of the twin best-sellers of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, there’s a self-titled disc from an FM broadcast of a not-that-interesting night at Winterland the previous October, and one called Ain’t It Crazy recorded at the Manhattan Center in the spring. The week after Gaelic Park, Rolling Stone will report on the availability of bootlegs outside of the Dead’s August show at the Hollywood Palladium, itself soon appearing on illegal wax via the infamous Trade Mark of Quality label.

Bootlegs have been a hot trend in the boiling cauldron of the hippie underground since TMQ’s 1969 liberation of Bob Dylan’s basement-recorded demos in a plain, unmarked sleeve and known as the Great White Wonder. In some quarters, they’re simply known as “undergrounds”—the name for the broad subterranean network of interconnected heads reapplied from a vague place to a specific object filled with music.

The Dead have good reason to worry, too. Lately, there’s even some unauthorized Jerry getting heavy air on New York’s heppest radio stations, including repeated play on WBAI’s Radio Unnameable, the underground FM switchboard where Bob Dylan sometimes took calls and the Yippies first gathered.

One night, host Bob Fass reports that Wavy Gravy is lying on the floor, listening to the live Dead, feeling the vibes.

But while it’s pressed on vinyl, available for sale outside Gaelic Park, and sure looks like an underground, what Bob Fass has is different. It’s better, cooler, and far, far more dangerous.

If the Dead stare out into the crowd from the Gaelic Park stage, then they probably don’t see Marty Weinberg. He doesn’t get caught. That’s not his style. The Bronx native holds his microphone level to his chest, reel- to-reel slung over his shoulder, sucking in every precious note. Though he just turned 19 a few days before, Marty’s been taping the Dead since Central Park back in ‘68, when he was a 15-year-old junior at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Since then, he’s accumulated hours and hours and hours of Dead music, taped in very high fidelity on gear recommended to him by senior members of the Audio Engineering Society, of which Marty was already a student member and active volunteer in good standing.

Boy genius Marty Weinberg, in fact, is the first person to figure out how to properly record the Grateful Dead from the audience: where to stand, how to avoid detection and how to make bitchin’ sounding reels. Marty is a head, part of the Manhattan area mind-matrix reading the East Village Other and Rat Subterranean News and tuned into WBAI’s Radio Unnameable, the new freeform radio station WFMU out of New Jersey, or some frequency from the deeper cosmos.