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

by Jesse Jarnow on April 15, 2014

“Our audience is almost always heads,” Garcia notes in a 1970 interview. This is the seething culture from which the band grows and, at first, their fans are indistinguishable from the countercultural population at large. The Grateful Dead court the Gothamite iteration of this crowd, returning to Manhattan again and again and again following their first visit in June 1967. In 1970, it is possible for a committed NYC Dead freak to see the band perform some 50 times in the vicinity and still crash at home afterward, and some do almost exactly that. By the end of the year, the Dead’s East Coast listenership starts to exceed their native California following and almost unquestionably eclipses it in intensity, with many camping out on Second Avenue for Fillmore East tickets.

While the Dead might not spot Marty Weinberg at Gaelic Park, they might pick out four or five or six other people with tape recorders, each possessing some variation on Marty’s initial realization that hey, this doesn’t sound like the album. At the Fillmore East, Marty eventually starts to see other tapers getting hauled out repeatedly by Bill Graham’s staff. Amateurs.

Marty is picky about his Dead tapes, and isn’t really interested in hearing other people’s recordings, but he does want to share. The only problem is that none of his friends own reel-to-reels. Marty is pretty do-it-yourself, though. He built his own sound system, complete with parametric equalizer. So he comes up with a solution. He picks his four favorite recordings, including the “Morning Dew” to end all “Morning Dew”s, played in November at Marty’s own request (by way of a cryptic note to Jerry) at the gilded heads’ palace of the Capitol Theatre up in Port Chester, N.Y. Then Marty Weinberg finds a little record pressing plant and makes 500 copies.

It’s nothing fancy. There is no art, no track listing even, just a record in a blank sleeve with a white label and Marty’s initials etched in the run-off grooves. Marty gives half away to his friends and sells the rest at $3 apiece to make up his costs. This is what Bob Fass is playing on Radio Unnameable. Fass invites Marty on the air one night and Marty bikes down from the Bronx. And this is what Marty is selling outside Gaelic Park—his last two- dozen copies—when, as usual, he doesn’t get caught. He misses the bust entirely. Amateurs.

Over the summer, a copy makes its way to the Dead themselves, and word makes it back to Marty that they like it. Marty doesn’t quite believe it, but when the Dead come to the Felt Forum for four nights in December, Marty introduces himself to Phil Lesh at the lip of the stage before one of the shows while Phil is fiddling with gear. Marty tells Phil that he was responsible for the LP.

“Man,” Lesh says, kneeling down to talk to Marty, “that was really good. I’d love to talk to you about that. Give me your name. Come early [tomorrow] and come backstage and we’ll talk.”

And, of course, Marty does, and there’s Phil, ready to rap about the record. He compliments Marty on both the recording quality and his specific song selections. He knows Marty’s not making a profit. In fact, he’s more than cool about it. “We’ve dreamed about being able to play and have people get it the next day,” Lesh tells him.

Jerry Moore is from the Bronx, too, and to call him a serious Grateful Dead freak is to leave insufficient headroom for what he is about to become. In mid-‘71, a friend brings home a copy of the Ain’t It Crazy bootleg and Moore wants one for himself. He heads for the West Village, where his friend purchased the LP from a guy in Sheridan Square. When Moore arrives, the dealer is nowhere to be found, and Jerry Moore is pissed, soon landing on the idea of making his own damn recordings.

DEAD FREAKS UNITE says the sleeve of the new, official Grateful Dead live album that fall, inviting all interested Dead freaks to write in. “Since we can’t provide any way for you people to get together and since we haven’t got any money to do that, everybody ought to think of ways to get together with other Dead freaks,” Garcia says in the band’s debut newsletter, sent to the first 350 respondents.

That’s exactly what Jerry Moore is doing anyway. He answers an ad on a bulletin board at Lehman College in the Bronx and connects with the Hell’s Honkies, a fledgling tape club located right there in the Bronx. Not long thereafter, he connects with Les Kippel, another taper from the far reaches of Brooklyn with his own tape club, called Dead Relics.

Everywhere, the Dead freaks are uniting. Out of Chapel Hill, N.C., in early ’73 comes the very first Grateful Dead fanzine, Dead in Words, where people can trade tapes or purchase undergrounds. In California, a taper crew called the Midnight Recording Co. has their own radio show on a local station, broadcasting their recordings on a powerful FM zap. Soon there are tape clubs in Seattle, DeKalb, Ill., and beyond. In New York, Jerry Moore and Les Kippel and the Hell’s Honkies and everyone network furiously, trading business cards and reels.

They hear tell of Marty Weinberg, and he soon earns a nickname among them, The Legendary Marty. Marty is pretty much gone from the Dead scene by now. After Mickey Hart leaves the band in ‘71, the music grows less wild, less psychedelic, less experimental, less interesting to Marty. And these new tapers? They’re kind of annoying. Someone gets Marty’s phone number and they won’t leave him alone. Marty is still a resident of the counterculture, but he finds new trips, only copying his tapes for a select few.

Les Kippel and Jerry Moore are positively feral collectors. They are no mere underground Dead freaks. They are something new. They are what the band’s newsletter has started calling them: Dead Heads. They build on Marty’s promise of something dangerous: an entirely new way to distribute music, from one head directly to the next without the mediation of money or the Man. No more undergrounds. Les lands in Rolling Stone in an October 1973 article titled “Mr. ‘Tapes’ of Brooklyn.” He pays tribute to The Legendary Marty, but it’s Les that starts getting all the mail.

An enterprising sort, Kippel had once traded 20 hits of Orange Sunshine for his first stereo. When the mail gets too heavy, Les comes up with a solution—one that will both help with the mail and land him more Dead tapes. He ropes in Jerry Moore. They make flyers and hand them out at shows. By the middle of 1974, they are hard at work in Les’s kitchen, and by the end of the year, out comes the product, the very first, mimeographed, hand-laid issue of their brand new magazine: Dead Relix. That was 253 issues ago.


Based on material from Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow (@bourgwick), coming in 2015 via Da Capo.

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