Dick Latvala

Interview by David Gans
at Truth and Fun, Oakland CA

October 5, 1993



DG: My guest here in the Truth and Fun studios today is Grateful Dead vault archivist Dick Latvala. How are you doing, Dick?

DL: I'm a little nervous and excited.

DG: Well, at long last, Dick's Picks is about to hit the streets.

DL: Yes, and wow. I mean, we've known each other a long time, so you know I've had this kind of a sentiment or fantasy going since I first discovered live tapes in 1974. And now it's a reality ... it seems like the pinnacle. You know, I can't go any higher. I finally got to do what I've been wanting to do for so long.

DG: I first heard from you in 1977. I was writing a Grateful Dead column for BAM magazine and you were living in Hawaii, and you sent me a letter.

DL: Yes. And it probably had to do with wanting information about the Grateful Dead or wanting tapes or wanting contact, because I discovered that live tapes existed around 1974 when I was living in Hawaii, so once that happened, the only thing that became important to me was getting the tapes and finding people who made them, and collecting them. That's all I did from '74 through the present time, really, is collect and listen to Grateful Dead tapes. So when we met in '77 - I can't remember the specifics, but it must have been I wanted tapes.

DG: We did start trading tapes then. But let's go back a little farther. You have been listening to Grateful Dead music a lot longer than that.

DL: Yes, my start in this whole situation was at the Trips Festival, Longshoremen's Hall, which I remember very, very vividly. There were three nights, and I went to the first and third and the Grateful Dead weren't even called that then. They were called the Warlocks, I guess. I can't even remember. But there was so much else going on there, it wasn't like I noticed the Grateful Dead as being an entity separate from any of the other things going on.

DG: What was going on in your life at that point?

DL: A major turning point occurred on June 28, 1965. I took LSD in a research project in 1965 in Menlo Park, in which I actually paid $500 to go through this experience, which was, perhaps, the most powerful single experience I ever went through. I was in my fifth year at San Francisco State College, and not wanting to be there, but I wanted to know who I was and this LSD deal seemed to be very appealing. So I studied it and then decided to take it, and something happened that changed me forever.

DG: What were the circumstances of the test? How did you happen to pay to be given LSD?

DL: Well, one of my professors at San Francisco State was a psychology associate, psychology professor, Bob Mogar [?]. He did MMPI write-ups on research done in this LSD project down in Menlo Park.

DG: That's the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory?

DL: That is it. Very famous old inventory used to evaluate people in the old days. Anyway, I talked to him about wanting to take it, and he was connected with James Watt who was the psychiatrist who was the head of the project. I got interviewed and decided that I wanted to do this. It became like the most important thing for me to do, because going to college wasn't where I wanted to be. I wanted to know who I was. That's it. Major thing. I wanted to know what am I, who am I, and what am I doing here?

I took this LSD - well, it was actually mescaline by this time, but it was a major dose therapy and it transformed me fundamentally. Then I took it again six months later, in January of '66, and this was just before the Trips Festival, which was my first experience with the music scene that started in the Bay Area at that time. And that was January of '66. And then I knew where I was supposed to be. I really remember this. I wasn't supposed to be in college. I was supposed to take acid and go see the Grateful Dead. My mom didn't want to hear that, but that was really the facts.

And so I did manage to graduate, but barely, and my main focus became going to concerts. And it wasn't just the Grateful Dead, mind you. There were Quicksilver, Big Brother, and Airplane and slews of others eventually, but the Dead became the sole focus by around '68. So that's how I started it all. That's how I began. My passion - compulsion, I should say - with the Grateful Dead started in January of '66.

DG: What was your degree in?

DL: Psychology and sociology. So, you know, I was trying to find a subject matter that sort of asked and answered the questions "who am I?" They never wanted to give you answers. They just tried to give you formulas to fix others by yourself.

DG: So what did you do from that point on?

DL: Go to shows. In '66 that's all I did was go to shows at the old Fillmore and all that stuff.

DG: How did you support yourself?

DL: I don't remember. Let's see. I was in my sixth year of college. I was a mailman! I worked in the Berkeley Post Office for a year, from '66 through '67, and then at that point I quit and went to Hawaii for the first time and that started my Hawaii passion.

DG: That would seem inconsistent with being a Grateful Dead, going to Hawaii where the band never played.

DL: I know. It was terrible when I realized the draw of Hawaii and missing the Dead. So I came back a lot. The '68 and '69 era was just too tremendous.

DG: Do you want to talk a little bit about what it was that made the Grateful Dead a little more special than the other bands that were happening back then?

DL: Oh, gosh, that's a great question. Because all of it at the beginning seemed equally exciting and, you know, exploratory, brand new. I guess that's the key, exploration. Experimentation. The other bands seemed to get solidified into styles or easily seen conceptualized approaches, like the Airplane had a lot of political slant to it. And Big Brother, well they dissolved pretty quickly and then ... [Janis Joplin] took up another band. That never jelled. Quicksilver was wailing for me in '68, but then they dissipated right soon thereafter. But throughout all that the Dead just kept growing, and by late '67 it became for me like the band. Then I was a Grateful Dead fan, or freak. There was no question. There was no other band doing this anymore. And it became more and more exciting and compelling, as it's gone on up to this very second. It's still and exploration for me. So, yeah, it's the experimental nature of the sound, or the willingness to take chances instead of, you know, come at the audience with an idea already preset in their minds, you know. It was like jazz. It was meant to be fun and see what happens. So, you know, it was really a real experience. It wasn't contrived. Tremendous excitement.

DG: How did you get turned on to taping?

DL: I taped a couple of New Year's shows, like in '71 and '72 at Winterland, and '72 and '73 I had someone tape for me because I went. But I didn't realize that live tapes existed until around 1974, which was just around the time that the good equipment started - the Sony 152 portable decks - and then people started having pretty good quality tapes. So late '74 I discovered that actual tapes existed, and I started writing people from Hawaii, you know, collecting a few tapes and then writing someone else and getting to know a few more people and just trying to get to the real core, the hardcore tapers that existed at the time.

DG: What was the value of having all those different tapes?

DL: For me, hearing a record come out, one version of Casey Jones - I remember when some bootleg record came out around 1970, it had another version of Casey Jones, you know. I remember thinking, gosh, I want every version. I want to hear them all. You never know when you're going to have an unreal version of any song, so from the very beginning it became like "I want every show. I want to be at every show." Of course, that became very unrealistic the older I got. I didn't go on tour ever, like many of the people out there, but I wanted tapes of every show, so that's what I pursued.

DG: It seems to me in those days that there would be concerts that you'd get on tape and you'd go "not much happening on that one" and maybe you'd record over that one - what do you suppose the Dead's batting average was in the early to mid-'70s?

DL: For me, when I was collecting, I kept them all. I wanted every one and saw a value in each. You know, I have books - outlines of each date with stars by each song and all that - but the more I got into it, I became a little more discriminating and realized that some shows weren't so good. I was, as I said, pretty naive. I just thought every show was the greatest thing I ever experienced for a very long time. It's only been in the last ten years or so I've not been screaming after a show with excitement. You know, I mean there are some terrible shows, and the more I've listened and the more I've educated myself through the help of some brilliant people I work with - I mean educated myself sonically, being able to understand sonically the music, not just the emotional message, but I've realized there aren't so many great shows. It's not as vast a quantity of great material as I thought. So what I have done is erase most of my tapes at home. I have my own collection, you know.

DG: So how did you start getting connected to the Grateful Dead?

DL: It started on August 12, 1979, at Red Rocks. And I remember it very distinctly, it being the second most powerful day of my life - the first being the closing of Winterland, of course. Then I went out with a friend from Hawaii who knew someone in the scene, and they got us tickets, so we flew from Hawaii to Denver and I was in the lobby of the hotel, sitting there with my suitcase while he went upstairs and somehow freaked out and left me all alone there. I didn't know anyone. I fortunately got a ride from Nicki Scully, who got me backstage, and I met Kidd. He was the first person I met.

DG: Who was Kidd?

DL: Bill Candalario. He's one of the roadies and one of the prime players at Grateful Dead Merchandising. And from that moment on - well, he offered me a backstage pass and I ended up taking him up on it. That's a real long story. It's fun, but I'm not going to get into it here, but I ended up on that rock behind there for my first time backstage and it was a powerful moment, you know. It changed me forever.

From then on, I started meeting people. Every time I'd come back from Hawaii I would pass through and bring treats from Hawaii and see everyone in the office. Gradually, over the next five years, I got to know a lot of people, was always able to go backstage and get passes or things like that, and then one day I was up in Eileen's office - Eileen Law, who is the head secretary of the Deadheads organization - and I was telling her I had these tapes. I called it "primal Dead." I was telling Eileen, "Now you sit down, I want you to hear this," and I was explaining what primal Dead is, you know, and that's where it's as good as it gets. This is some great stuff.

I didn't know that Phil was standing behind me in the doorway listening to me tell Eileen this, and he popped in and I had the nerve - I don't know how I summoned it up, but I said, "Hey, Phil, sit down here, I want you to listen to this stuff." I put on something like 10/12/68 Avalon Ballroom, just an incredible Anthem jam. He ended up taking me up on it and was so enthralled with it, he ended up listening to over three hours of the primal Dead tapes I had put together for someone else. Even Eileen had to close the office and Phil sat there, and I kept telling Phil, "Is someone taking care of these tapes? You know, I mean, this is really important stuff. I just really hope someone's taking care of these tapes." I wasn't saying it as though I wanted a job doing it. I was just really hoping -concerned - that someone was, you know.

And the next day I found out I had a job. So I have always interpreted it that he felt that I really cared about the tapes, and they needed someone that really cared about them to make sure that they stayed in their proper places and were retrieved and organized and all that. So that's how I got hired, and that was in 1985.

My first chore, or goal, or job was to go through the tapes and write in logbooks what was actually on the tapes. A lot of the boxes weren't labeled properly, and in many cases even the years were wrong.

DG: So your job was to listen to every tape in the Grateful Dead vault?

DL: Not listen to every tape, but to go through and see which ones had anything on the box and then also check the ones that didn't and find out what was on the boxes and label the boxes and put them in a logbooks. So it was in a sense to start going through them all, but, you know, that's a never-ending job so it was just something I was doing for many years at my leisure, besides doing other things at the studio.

DG: So you had your own annotated list of what was on your own tapes as a great starting place for going into the main collection.

DL: Right, right. I assumed that the powers that be - the band members - knew that I was a tape collector and, you know, a hardcore tape collector. I had like 900 reels at home that I have that are probably just erased because they're all old audience tapes and hard to listen to. I took it as I was to listen to the tapes and see what was on them and I was told, I remember, not to listen to the whole tape, because you'd be spending all your life in there, but just see what songs are on them. But of course, I being a freak about it, certainly perused shows as I had the inclination. It's like a kid in a candy store to the max.

DG: So let's move forward in time. In the last couple years, the Grateful Dead have released a couple of things from multitracks in the vault, but at long last they've decided to start looking at the material on the two-tracks.

DL: Right, right.

DG: This is obviously the highest moment of your calling.

DL: Yes, and it's very special because that's the material I really like the most, the stuff that's on two-track, because that was in the era from '69 through '78 or '9, you know, before digital, and I like that era the best.

The way this Dick's Picks thing started was in the beginning of this year Kidd asked me to come up with the best three shows on two-track in case he can float this idea by the band at a board meeting, which was to have Dick pick three shows off two-track and we'll call them "Dick's Picks" and start releasing two-track material album. And so that's how this started. It was Kidd's idea, and I put together some shows, and then there was a long period of waiting. You can't be too impatient.

DG: What were the first three dates that you chose?

DL: As a Deadhead and a tape freak, it would seem like that would be no problem, you know, being asked, oh come up with the top three shows. I mean, I know hundreds of great shows. But when it came to really having to pick them for the band to listen to and judge, boy oh boy, did I become extra special and critical then. Then it knocked out a whole bunch of choices. So it was under what I felt like was extreme pressure that I chose three shows and I did a lot of work listening and making sure they were okay before I made the tapes to give to Kidd to give to the band to listen to. So the ones I chose were 12/19/73 and 2/13/70 and 10/11/77 Norman, Oklahoma.

It wasn't ever like we were going to release all three at once or anything. It was just to get some rough idea of some good shows. And then as it became closer to a reality, we settled on 12/19/73 because it was right in the middle of the other two releases and it was a real creative era. The late '73 period for me, I'm discovering more and more, had some just magnificent shows.

DG: So we've got - let's see, there's one drummer in the band. Mickey's not in the band at this point. Keith Godchaux is playing grand piano a lot. There's also some electric piano in there at times, right?

DL: I don't recall that, but it could be. I just remember hearing piano.

DG: I remember that being a really jazzy and spacy period where the jams were really long and rangy.

DL: Yeah, where just weird things with that come out of nowhere, you know. The jams would take shape of themes sometimes, you know, like the Spanish theme, of course, or the "mind-left-body" jam. I don't like the wording for that, but you know, that feeling that they used to do. And they would spring songs like Nobody's Fault but Mine out and then play tunes like "The Other One," the actual length of the time was only a few minutes on this show, whereas the jam that precedes before and after is like about 25 minutes, so it's - you're right, it was real jazzy and experimental and boy, did they have some meltdowns, you know, when they turn their back to the audience and go up to their rack and just do these sounds that would terrify you in the audience. Well, that's real exciting stuff.

DG: So, December 19, 1973, at Tampa, Florida. What is it about this particular show from that period that makes it the one you started with?

DL: Well, that's hard to say, because I could have easily, you know, say five other shows right from that late '73 period that were great. But 12/19 had this version of Here Comes Sunshine that just kills me. So I was really swayed for that show just to have that in there because when you folks hear it, I'm telling you, it will raise the hair on your arms. And then throughout the show, I mean everything was really well-played. I don't know if that answers the question fully. There might be more.

DG: Let's just take at the list here. The first set shows Here Comes Sunshine, Big River, Mississippi Half-Step, Weather Report Suite, Big Railroad Blues and Playing in the Band. Is that the entire first set?

DL: Well, no. These shows are going to always be edited. This is something we probably should talk about here, because I was of the feeling, like whole shows, always try to release the whole show. I'm a tape collector, too. But when it came to these two-track tapes, it became - when it became a reality to do them, actually sit down and listen, there are so many inherent problems dealing with two-tracks that you have to edit it.

For example, when these shows were recorded, they weren't recorded for the purpose of someday releasing them live, as live shows. They were recorded so the band could hear them afterward and hear how they performed, and Kidd's job was to not only mix that, the recording, but take care of Keith's equipment, so we have lots of responsibility on him to do both jobs and in that time see - you know, he'd be busy with Keith, a reel would run out, and you'd miss ten minutes of something or a couple songs, or there's millions of technical problems in that era and it's important just to understand that these tapes weren't made with the purpose of releasing them. So editing them becomes a necessity, even - well, I became aware that it had to be done. And it's - sorry, folks, but that's the way it's going to be. They're not going to release material that has got glitches in it or doesn't have one of the mics turned up high enough or something. So we're going to have some shows that have a lot of really good things in them, but the recording might have been screwed up so we can't release them.

Why 12/19/73? It was as good as any. You name another date and, you know, I could tell you why maybe I didn't choose that one. But 12/19 particularly had a lot going for it.

DG: Among the missing items from the set list, according to Deadbase, is the song Sugar Shack.

DL: Yes, that is missing on the master itself. It is not there. I was looking for it. It's even written on the tape box, but it wasn't recorded.

DG: That's a shame.

DL: I have no idea what happened there.

DG: So unless somebody's got an audience tape out there, we'll never know.

DL: Yes, we'd love to hear what that was like. I'm sure it was only a second or two.

But anyway, like this first set you were mentioning. It is edited. And it became apparent to me and others - me and John and Cutler and Jeffrey Norman, who were working on this - that each CD should have a life of its own. This isn't an attempt to recapture the total picture or the whole show. It's a picture of the show, or the best of the show idea, and so it has an entity of its own so we tried to make that disc one be sort of have the feel of a first set, but you'll notice that Weather Report is thrown in there and that is actually from the second set.

DG: And so is Mississippi Half-Step, actually.

DL: Yes, right, right, right.

DG: So you rearranged a few things to give it sort of the contour of a first set even though it's not, strictly speaking -

DL: Right. And, yeah, it's not going to ever be literal just like it happened on the show itself. You can check Deadbase or your audience tapes for those things.

DG: Well, I've maintained all along that it was going to have to be edited. I can't recall ever hearing a Grateful Dead show that was perfect from start to finish. In fact, One from the Vault is one of the few shows that every moment really is there.

DL: It was. Yeah, yeah, that's amazing.

DG: So it doesn't surprise me, and it doesn't particularly annoy me that the Grateful Dead have decided to present an edited version of this. I think it's in their own interests, and if I were the musician responsible, I would certainly want the right to hold back things that I thought weren't excellent and worthwhile.

DL: And believe me, there are. Each musician has those feelings and can make decisions about this at any point, which is another one of the obstacles I faced in getting this one out. To me, this is a coup. This is a real coup to get this material out of the vault. We shall see what happens but, depending on the response to this, you know, more shall follow, I'm sure. But when it becomes real personal - like imagine if you are the one doing this music, how would you feel if you have embarrassing pictures out in the world of yourself. You know, I mean there has to be some editing. So this editing thing--as reluctant as I was in the beginning, it became a reality, so now we have what is as good as it can be of a single show and that's what we'll follow with, you know, from now on I'm planning.

DG: What do you suppose is next?

DL: That is a question I thought you'd ask. If I had an answer, I probably wouldn't say, of course, but I realized when this first one - even if I knew what I think I want to do, when it comes time to doing it, I'm going to listen to a bunch of things. You know, you just can't say in advance, it's never going to be for sure one thing. You have to experiment and put your new ears to the tape and listen to a bunch of things. I'm focusing on a '72 show. I would like something from '72, but who knows. Anything can happen. That's what I've learned, to be patient. There's a whole a bunch of possibilities, you know.

DG: Are there any constraints on what eras you're willing to look at or able to look at?

DL: Yes, the two-track material is the focus, and that starts the beginning of '69 and basically comes to a halt in '78, '79. Most of the tapes in '78 and '79 aren't in the vault.

DG: How come?

DL: Well, I wonder myself. A lot of them are Betty Cantor tapes that were auctioned off. Many of you folks have them, I'm sure. I can't remember- that was right in a transition period between analog and digital, and they also were doing those huge recording sessions at Radio City and the Warfield for those records. But outside - that record project seemed to be the only thing in the vault from those three years, you know, three years, '79, '80, '81. It's where two-track died, I think.

DG: Well, I remember my first time backstage was in 1978, and I saw Betty off to one side making a separate mix. She had a third split from the stage microphones and she was making a separate mix just for tapes. And I assume that somewhere around 1979 she stopped doing that, and therefore the only tapes that were being made were being made out in the sound booth. In my own poking around the vault, I've noticed that '79, '80 and '81 are pretty much only represented on cassette.

DL: That's right. And I don't know what happened to those tapes, if they were recorded or not, or were lost, or what's happened to them. That period is missing, yes.

DG: And then Dan Healy started recording everything on PCM digital in -

DL: '82. From late '82 on, things are relatively intact.

DG: Are you ever going to be looking at that stuff for possible release?

DL: I don't know. For myself, I'm not, but at some point later on - I think there is a problem with that in terms of the contract with Arista Records. We can't release anything after our contract started with them which was in late '77 or early '78, something like that. So that's another reason why we can't use stuff after that.

DG: When the subject of vault releases is discussed out on the computer networks, there are of course 100,000 potential producers out there who have their own idea of what ought to be released. There are people choosing, you know, 5/8/77 and things from later on. There are people who think there are certain Red Rock shows, Greek Theater shows and stuff. Eventually it would be nice to see a lot of stuff released.

DL: I think everyone's getting a lot of that stuff, David, on your Grateful Dead Hour, aren't they?

DG: Yeah, but I don't play whole shows. I mean, I manage to get 45 minutes of the best of a certain thing out there in a given - I mean, I see the radio show as more of a magazine. It's certainly not a satisfactory downloading service for tapers, and Lord knows my irate mail proves that.

DL: Yeah. Well, who knows what can happen? I just sort of incline towards the year '69 or '68 through '78 because I'm more familiar with that material, but who knows what's possible.

DG: Well, you'll get no complaints from me. I'm certainly a fan of that period, too. I'm delighted with your first choice here.

DL: Yeah, and and and my goal is to find stuff that's not obvious choices. We all have, as tapers, many of the great shows that occurred in that period, so it seems superfluous to go towards that as a choice, so, you know, the goal would be to try to find something that's a little unknown.

DG: Well, you did great for starters.

DL: Yeah, let's see what happens. I love it.

DG: Do you have a sense of how often these releases will be coming out?

DL: At this point, no. This is really an experiment, this first one, to see how it does, because no one has a clue as to how much interest there is out there to get at this material. This is only mail order, you see. It's not going to be in record stores. So this will be like a little private club, so to speak, you know, that is willing to go that extra mile for the really good stuff.

DG: So if this first one does well, obviously the Grateful Dead will see the interest and be willing to put out some more?

DL: Absolutely. That's what I hope.

DG: Right. You know what that means, listeners!

How does this affect Dan Healy's plans for additional from the vault releases off of multitrack?

DL: That doesn't affect it at all as far as I can tell. At his whim he can go in and attack those multitracks any time. There aren't that many, though, see. That's one of the problems we ran into with it last year: There's only a limited amount of multitracks. So that's why I think the two-tracks is very exciting, you know. It's just that you have to wade through it. Every show isn't a killer.

DG: Well, they picked the right guy for the job.

DL: Well, thanks, David. I feel like I'm just the luckiest person on earth. I know there could be any number of you out there doing this just as well, but I happen to be here, the one doing it, so that's my goal, to get the great stuff out.

DG: Well, I feel kind of the same way about my gig, you know, but you've been a great associate. It's been great fun. You're the guy that I work with when I go into the vault to get out tapes, and it's always been really fun to go in there with you and to compare notes. I think our knowledge and our tastes are complementary enough that we always have a good time when we're poking around in there.

DL: Yeah, well we have the same goal - let's get this stuff out to the public, to everyone who wants it and needs it. These rushes are what it's about.

DG: You got that right.

DL: Oh boy, is it exciting. So yay David and Dick. Let's go with it.

DG: I'm there, babe. And as I was saying, I'm only ever able to play fragments of things on an interrupted hour on the radio, which is kind of limiting in a certain sense... So I'm glad that you now have an expanded format that may not be entire shows, but it's certainly all the good stuff from a given show. So it ties in nicely. As long as I've been putting the Grateful Dead Hour on the radio, I've been wanting to say "and if you like what you hear tonight, you can call this number and get that". So here we go.

DL: Right on.

DG: I'm jazzed.

DL: Yeah.

DG: Well, thanks for being here--

DL: It's my honor and privilege.

DG: And I hope you'll come back when you have Dick's Picks #2 and talk about it some more.

DL: I'd love to.