Tim Randall thoughtfully surveyed the hundreds of hours of plastic concert cassette tapes neatly stacked before him in old, slightly idealized wooden crates, the kind apparently used to ship citrus back in the day. To him the tapes were nearly as valuable as gold — or at least magical gold pixie dust for their transportive musical qualities — as he doted over them in an almost obsessive-compulsive effort to keep them in chronological order. In the background, the melodious tones of delicate fret work, and lilting guitar riffs playfully dancing across the upper musical register, emanated from the tinny speakers working overtime on the 5-in-1 tape/CD/radio/record/Wi-Fi player. Spying a misfiled second-set concert tape, Randall clicked his tongue sternly, plucked it out and dutifully restacked the collection to make room for its misplaced fraternal twin; its rightful place directly under the first-set tape.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at him, but Randall has been a Grateful Dead fan, or Deadhead, most of his adult life. He grew up in the conservative inland valley of Southern California, and had the misfortune of attending a church-centered school where ministers preached the evils of rock music, even imploring them to burn their records. And his dress as a lawyer these days — pressed slacks, starched blue button-down, but rebellious Doc Martens dress shoes – belie his more counter-cultural musical inclinations. He’s no hippie. But scratch deeper as he’s beatified by a Dead tape he’s playing, and he might as well be a swirling, twirling dervish, like the spinning dancers, or “spinners” as they are called, often found on the periphery of Dead concert halls, blissed out on the grooves, vibes (and, maybe, drugs) of a show.
Each cassette holder is wildly adorned in colorful, stylized block letters in blue, red or black ink, depending on the creator’s artistic whimsy. For two-set concerts, the norm for Grateful Dead shows, the first-set cassette tab contains the upper-half of the names of the towns or concert halls of each live show. The second-set cassette tabs contain the lower portion of those legendary venues. Only when the two cassettes are stacked atop one another, as one complete, two-set show, do the cryptic squiggles and curves reveal their full identity: names like “Madison Square Garden,” “Greek Theater” or even “Cornell ’77,” the Holy Grail of any Dead tape collection.
Though middle-aged, Randall’s relatively young for a Dead tape collector. Considering the band has been around in various iterations for 52 years, the leading edge of Dead fans are now in their 70s. He probably falls somewhere in the meaty center of the Deadhead age spectrum: too young to have seen the Dead in their LSD-fueled psychedelic heyday of the 60s and 70s, but old enough to sneer at the soused, young hoodlums who crashed the scene in the ‘90s merely in search of a good party and easy access to mind-expanding psychedelics. You know, as Randall admonishes in a condescending teenage squeal, “The ones screaming out, ‘Play ‘Touch of Gray’!, Play ‘Touch of Gray’!,’” the Dead’s only late career Top Ten hit from their “In The Dark” album, much to the consternation of disapproving concert veterans like him.
Randall’s concert library started small and humble; a single cassette capturing the second-set of a concert held at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater on May 6, 1989. It was flipped to him by “somebody who knew somebody” marooned on a conked-out scuba diving boat off the coast of Hawaii with a-one Jerome Jerry Garcia, none other than the guitar-god in Randall’s favorite band. His tape stories all seem to have this same sort of slightly picaresque angle accompanying them too, which only adds to their value. This special tape was sacred too, not only because it was his first, like a child, but also for its sparkling sound quality for an analog tape, an outdated medium which loses fidelity and develops annoying “hiss” with each successive duplication generation. From this lone Stanford show, the collection grew in fits and spurts over the decades.
Randall saw his first show while in college. He commuted trough two hours of freeway traffic with fraternity buddies to what was then known as Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, in southern Orange County, CA, and watched the April 18, 1987 show for free from high above the stage, while perched on the undeveloped hills behind. That he experienced it while high on magic mushrooms is only part of his memory’s allure. He’s self-aware enough that the irony does not escape him that he probably could be considered one of those shallow, gate-crashing partiers, pejoratively labeled “In the Darkies”; the ones demanding to hear “Touch Of Grey” that he himself ridicules and bemoans. His first show as a paying customer was about a year later, on April 22, 1988, during the Dead’s annual residency at Irvine Meadows. (Deadheads, like baseball fanatics who know player stats, have an enclopedic knowledge of their show attendance.) It wasn’t until about a year after that that he was finally struck by a worshipful epiphany where he just suddenly “got” the music. What was once a mere excuse for a party before, became an almost religious experience.
From that point onward, he had to obtain every taped concert from wherever and whenever he could. The tapes flowed from the tapers on-the-ground at the shows, with their tell-tale giraffe-like microphone stands, shotgun boom mics and Nakamichi tape decks, and filtered through the scene by simple word-of-mouth glad-handing. In those years too, his career stagnated under “you’re-only-young-once” pressure to attend every concert “within an eight-hour drive or three-hour flight” from his L.A. home. He fondly remembers a bootleg t-shirt from the era riffing on an old Fed Ex commercial of the day that captured the Deadhead ethos on concert attendance: “When you absolutely, positively have to be there, every night.” For years of his obsession, Randall dutifully sacrificed some of the date nights and raucous bar calls of his young adulthood to stay home and record the crystal clear concert soundboards that KPFK radio broadcast during prime time hours on Fridays, 8 PM to 11 PM.
Randall’s tape library then burst into museum-like bloom when a fellow Deadhead sold his kaleidoscopically-kolored tape collection to him for a paltry fifty bucks, just enough to cover the blank tape stock (mostly Maxell XL IIs, the Deadhead brand of choice). Soon, Randall was trading with others online thanks to the advent of the internet in the 90s, his collection soon branching out into musical off-shots Phish (Jerry DID die in 1995, after all, and Randall just HAD to move on), and other Deadly-similar jambands with equally psychedelically juxtopositional band names like The String Cheese Incident, moe., and Leftover Salmon. Even as Randall’s work responsibilities got weightier; and his musical interests were pulled in other directions, he loyally dragged his tape collection around with him for some thirty years. His girlfriends demanded playfully that he just get rid of them rather than lug the heavy boxes, crates and cartons with him everywhere. But he couldn’t part with them.
Until that day finally came recently. Paying heed to a new girlfriend who waxes enthusiastic on downsizing and simplifying life, Randall finally agreed to part with his cherished library after so many years. These days there’s really no reason to go analog anymore anyway, what, with all that’s available on internet archives and shared bit torrent websites, unless you’re an analog snob, that is. Indeed, nowadays, digital downloads are immediately available after a concert, or even sometimes streamed live in-the-moment via audience streaming applications like Mixlr and Periscope.
So Randall posted an ad on Craigslist:
“Dead Tape Collection Free To A Good Home.”
He quickly received three serious offers. Oddly, two of them came from different people with the same name, “Paul,” a seeming synchronicity characteristic of Dead subculture trippiness, Randall mused. He opted for the first Paul to respond, without swapping much more than an address, phone number and appointment. When it came time to part ways with his bounty, it took Randall three dolly trips to wheel his library out to Paul’s white panel van. Along the way they traded war stories of shows, their favorite bands, and of irascible Garcia’s enraptured hold on Deadheads. But Randall could quickly tell that Paul wasn’t as knowledgeable and experienced as he was, at least on matters involving either the Dead music or the scene. That’s good, Randall thought. These tapes can help turn Paul onto a whole new musical world, like it did him. And Paul, in turn, seemed sincerely touched by the huge donation, even offering a token payment for the tape stock, which Randall politely declined, muttering something corny about “paying it forward.”
As Paul drove off into the night with some 700 hours of new Dead tapes, Randall knew his library had found a good home. As he headed back to his apartment, he didn’t seem prone to wistful longing or weepy nostalgia over the loss of his tape library. In fact, he had a little jaunt in his “giddy-up” and uttered a meaningful stanza or two from one of his favorite Dead tunes that aptly fit the occasion:
“When you get confused
Just listen to the music play.”