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Grateful Dead Archivist Discusses "Dick's Picks" Series

December 8, 1998 12:00 AM ET

Only the untimely death of Jerry Garcia could impede the otherwise impregnable Deadhead convoy that joined the Grateful Dead for their thirty-year-long strange trip, but it seems nothing can destroy the band's legend -- an almost spiritual foundation that band archivist Dick Latvala works overtime to help preserve.

Beginning in 1993, two years before Garcia died and the group disbanded, Latvala released the first of now twelve Dick's Picks albums -- digitally re-mastered versions of hard-to-find, classic concerts the group performed throughout their career. The shows, including those from the Providence Civic Center and Boston Garden on June 26 and 28, 1974, that were recently released as Dick's Picks Volume 12, represent the Dead at some of their most musically lucid moments.

Latvala's "career" with the Dead started in the mid-Sixties, but the archivist didn't step into the vault, so to speak, until 1985, when he more or less strong-armed Dead bassist Phil Lesh into listening to tapes from some older shows.

What happened on that day?

I was in Eileen Law's [secretary who handles all communication with Deadheads] office and I had some cassettes I'd made up from '68 and '69. I didn't know Phil was standing in the doorway behind me. He said, "What are you talking about Dick?" And I said, "Phil, sit down." I sort of manhandled him . . . I can't believe I did that really . . . I said, "sit down, you have to listen to this." He ended up staying for three hours. Throughout the afternoon, I kept asking if someone was taking care of the tapes, and [saying] that it was really important. The next day I was hired.

Before you came onboard in 1985, where were the tapes and what was being done with them?

There was no formal thing. There were three vaults when I started at the old place in San Rafael, [Calif.] -- small rooms that were added as tapes proliferated over the years. It was all in chaos, in a general sense. When we moved to the new place [in Novato, Calif.] -- right around when Jerry died -- [it] was a major thing for me. I had to estimate the shelf space, then the room was built. I had a team of six kids who helped me move all the tapes in about a month and a half. It was a mind-boggling thing. I never thought I'd have to work after that, but two days after moving all the tapes in, Jerry died and that threw everything into a whole new level of reality.

Speaking of Jerry's death, will there be a commemorative Dick's Picks in his honor?

I don't see that happening.

How about a Pick for a Jerry Garcia Band performance?

No, because Jerry Garcia Band is a province of [engineer, producer] John Cutler. There have been some Garcia Band releases. I just don't have any say in [releasing those shows], but I've been lobbying for it for a long time. I don't know when or how fast anything will come out. It surely won't be as quickly as we're releasing Grateful Dead material.

How many Picks do you think there will be? Will you just keep releasing shows?

Yeah, I don't see why not. We're only doing three a year, but I'm pushing to do four a year. With four a year, you can go quite a while. There's easily one hundred shows [from the last thirty years] that can be released.

What is the biggest difference between shows recorded in the early years and shows captured in the Nineties?

In the modern years, the Dead had already defined themselves by years of playing shows with a spontaneous improvisational type of an approach. I guess the big difference was things were taken more for granted in the modern years. In the beginning it was just a wild shoot 'em up show and no one had any real thought about the recordings being done by Bear [Owsley Stanley], who was the first one who really put any thought into taping and keeping any order. The tapes weren't made for getting an accurate picture of the night; they just wanted to get some semblance of what happened.

Once Dick's Picks started coming out, did you get any negative reaction from Deadheads in the taping community?

Oh yeah, always. But, at our web site (www.dead.net), there's ongoing chatter at all levels about shows from any year, and an ongoing analysis that's very helpful for me. I need that kind of feedback. Anyone can pick things, but I feel an obligation to listen to others and get information from other people. I represent Deadheads so to speak -- sometimes not so well, from others' points of view. I hear: "That old fart Latvala, he can't even get into the Eighties and Nineties." I've been using shows from the Seventies, and I will get into shows from the Eighties, I just drag my feet on that one. There are great shows from many years and our goal is to represent all the eras. It's gonna take about thirty or forty releases before we even get a basic foundation -- an introduction to Grateful Dead music. Then it can get refined. We're just beginning.

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