Hopefully, everyone has been following Darryl Norsen’s totally great Dead Notes column on Aquarium Drunkard (as well as its tumblr annex). Suffice to say, Darryl knows the Dead. Here he tells us of tapes, trading and Buffalo 1990.
You know you are in deep when you are ordering Maxell XLIIs in batches of hundreds not just a brick here or there. As fast as they drop on your parents doorstep they are back out the door to the owners of the endless stacks of xeroxed trade lists that have made their way into your sweaty palms. They say the Grateful Dead is the gateway to countless other bands and styles of music - but it should be amended with ‘The Grateful Dead might also lead to excessive tape trading and trips to the post office’.
The first tape was two incomplete sets from 1966 - 7/16 & 7/17 respectively - live from the Fillmore and unfortunately the pusher’s name is lost to the years in between. But I remember they reeked of Nag Champa and neatly written in blue ball point pen was something new — something unknown beyond the copy of Skeletons from the Closet lifted from my mother’s collection. “Big Boss Man”? “Cardboard Cowboy”? “Next Time You See Me”? “He was a Friend of Mine”??? These were not the Grateful Dead songs I was familiar with. Where was “St. Stephen”? “Friend of the Devil”? WHERE IS “TRUCKIN’”??? Who is this guy belting out the blues with husky and gruff voice resonating a bit of danger. He might cut you but just as a warning while he walks off with your old lady - leaving you playing pocket pool the rest of your life. Hey hands outta your pocket son!
It just took a little taste to open the flood gates and it didn’t help that the soundboards of the historic late February and early March 1969 run appeared in the mailbox next. Twenty-six year old acid jams were reigning technicolor sound waves over my bedroom speakers! Hundreds of miles and decades separated me between then and now but it was here and now! (Mom! Dad! Don’t open the door I am busy in here!) Any prior listening habits didn’t matter anymore — I was losing my mind my new hippie friends: Pigpen, Jerry, Phil, Tom, Mickey, Billy, & Bobby! What did matter was when the next tapes would be coming! (Mom - can I borrow your credit card? I am ordering new tapes from Terrapin. Yes, Terrapin like the tortoise. Long story … ok, thanks!) The years started to flush out as bedroom drawers began to overflow while blank and postage deals were replaced with trades. The better the connection the less generations between you and the original reel. The better the connection the more opportunities to snag something not many others had that you could flex for more of those other rarities! Hours were poured over each date while memorizing the j-cards that were filled with wild drawings and cryptic short hand codes of >, //, and f:.
Going to a liberal patchwork and tie dye college in upstate New York only deepened the waters. As soon as I got on campus the levee exploded and new friends were made via tape exchanges and geeked out conversations occurred in circles on the common (You know when Jerry hits that note and its like - OH MAN I KNOW, I KNOW but what about the one from this show? DUDE!). Half way into freshman year we got wind an older head who was ditching his tapes. Fifty cents a piece and you pay the shipping! Beer and smoke money was quickly pinched and pooled together for a money order. A couple weeks later we got an insane box bursting at the seams full of dates, venues, and reels of tape! What else are you going to do but skip classes, gather up your buds, lock the door and cue the decks?
Folks this is where I admit my follies. Ten years ago I had nearly a couple thousand tapes - not to mention just as many CDrs. That is a lot of media and hours hanging over your head when your looking at moving out of state with just enough room in your car for the bare essentials. I loaded up several friends with my choice picks and the rest went into several boxes labeled FREE that were perched on the shelf at the record store I was working at in Rochester, NY. In the end I kept four tapes that I received from one of my best concerts buds, Mira, who had wrapped them lovingly in the brightest tie-dyed j-cards with the setlist beautifully written on the front. Those four tapes were my everywhere-I-go-you-are-coming-too tapes. They were my partners in crime for middle of night road dog sessions as friends slept in the backseat while on tour with Phish. They accompanied me for late night sessions in the art studio with my hands caked in gouache or my eyes going crossed-eyed from staring at the computer screen trying to finish a design. Always a fixture in the front flap of my backpack or front seat of the car — I can rattle you off the set lists without thinking twice!
Of those 360 minutes 180 of those were 7/16/1990 at Buffalo, NY. This show often gets lost amongst the countless other great shows of 1990 (the supposed last great year) and maybe I have an affinity for it because it takes place at the stadium where I saw so many great football games. But if you blocked out the year and the few 1980s songs you would think its a gig from the 1970’s! “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” “Mama Tried” > “Mexicali Blues,” “Loose Lucy,” “High Time” and “Don’t Ease Me In” are bundled together in a summer sun scorched first set! The real gem within that set is Brent Mydland’s masterpiece “Blow Away” — it is heartbreak at it’s rawest and sadly he passed away not long after this gig. The second set is a series of >’s as “Sugar Magnolia” opens it up and meanders into a great “Scarlet Begonias” and “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” sandwich. “Truckin’” gets the loudest cheer of the day for the Buffalo line as it plows into the jam and slips into Drums then Space. The band then turns on the afterburners for 45 minutes of relentless jamming as “The Wheel” rolls into “Gimme Some Lovin’”, “Wharf Rat,” “Around & Around” and “Sunshine Daydream.” The night is capped with a beautiful rendition of “Brokedown Palace.”
Soundboards exist of this show but when it comes to the 1990s I love Front of the Board (FOB) audience tapes. Besides being able to feel like your standing amongst a endless sea of fans - the band also sounds more open and alive. Jerry, Bobby and Phil’s strings all breathe a little more freely as Brent’s keyboards fill in the gaps nicely. Mickey and Billy’s drums have that extra oomph of bass and snap of snare too. My choice for this gig is Alabama Bob’s pull from the 18th row so make a little extra wiggle room in your perimeter, grab a beer and block off the next 3 hours!
D. Norsen is an artist and Deadhead living in the suburban limits of Boston, Massachusetts. He writes the Dead Notes column on Aquarium Drunkard along with curating the Grateful Dead Notes tumblr. He is also currently helping the Jerry Garcia Estate dig deep into the visual archive for future shirts and other merchandise. While he still regrets ditching his tape collection he is in the process of inheriting a large collection from an old taper. Karma works in funny ways folks!