In this 1997 interview, Dick Latvala, Grateful Dead tapemaster and father of Dick’s Picks, reflects on how he turned his hobby into a job.
I conducted the interview below with Dick Latvala on the phone, in 1997. [NOTE: This intro was written in 2000.] We spoke for a long time and had a nice, somewhat rambling conversation. Not surprisingly, we hit it off, and I was truly fascinated by Dick and his passion. It amazed me that someone as spaced out as he obviously was could keep 1,000 versions of “Dark Star” straight in his mind.
This is something that has always fascinated me any time I speak of such things with compulsive tape or memorabilia collectors. It is a part of my personality that is completely absent. I have no idea how many Allman Brothers shows I’ve seen, for instance, though I am often asked. More than 20 and 100. I don’t keep ticket stubs, I don’t save my VIP passes, or file away my laminates (though anyone who ever peaks at Ebay knows I’m a fool).
I generally experience the show and move on. I almost always love “You Don’t Love Me” but I have no clue if I heard a better one at Jones Beach in ‘92. My brain just doesn’t function that way. I see advantages and disadvantages to each way of being, so I’m not bragging – just explaining why it fascinates me to talk to someone who could literally devote their life to seeking out the ultimate “St. Stephen’s.”
Dick and I hit it off and exchanged a series of emails over the next couple of years. Last March we finally met, at one of the Brothers’ Beacon shows. It was intermission and I had drifted down to the basement, directly under the stage, to procure a cup of coffee. There I saw a disheveled, middle-aged guy stumbling down the stairs from stage left heading directly toward me. I approached Dick, extended my hand and introduced myself. He shook it limply, his eyes far away. A little memo pad and pen sat in his shirt’s breast pocket.
“Enjoying the show, Dick?”
“It’s fucking great,” he said. “Unbelievable! But I’m flying way too high to really talk right now. Great to meet you, though.”
He then wandered away, towards the safety and security of his shepherd, my friend the tour mystic Kirk West.
After the show, we met up again backstage and he was now considerably more grounded. We chatted a while before walking out the backstage door together. As we approached the frigid New York air, he zipped up his way-too-thin windbreaker and pulled a hat down over his ears. He pulled a menthol cigarette out and lit it, standing smoking, hunched against the cold As he got ready to climb into a waiting van to go back to Kirk’s hotel couch, he asked if he’d see me the following night.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I have a one-year-old son so it’s kind of hard to get out too much.”
I was just being honest, but many snort at such sentiments; rock and roll isn’t about raising kids properly. But Dick’s answer surprised me.
“That’s great,” he said. “It’s a fucking blast raising kids. My son is 22. It never ceases to be fun and amazing. They can amaze you every day.”
“That’s true,” I replied. “And you know what? My boy really likes the Allmans already.”
I thought this was a pretty amazing fact, but Dick didn’t. “Of course he does,” he said. “Keep playing him great music, man. My kid had no choice but to love the Dead, because his old man was so crazy, playing it all the time. It’s a great trip, man. Enjoy it.”
And with that, he pulled his thin, shivering body into the van and gave me a wave. I told him I’d see him soon, and headed off towards my car. Five months later, I was taken aback to learn that he had a heart attack and had died at age 56.
It would be a stretch to say that we were friends, but Dick and I had our moments and I cherish them, because he was one of the all-time great characters, an American original.
“I’m the proverbial kid in the candy store,” Dick Latvala exclaims with a chuckle. “I’m a guy who is lucky enough to have been chosen to turn his compulsive hobby into a profession. If I didn’t have my job, I’d be doing almost the same thing for free.”
Latvala, a self-described “full-fledged Deadhead” since 1966, has for the last 15 years been on the band’s payroll, hired to archive, label and clean up the band’s huge tape vault. For years, he blissfully labored in obscurity. Then, in 1993, Grateful Dead Records launched Dick’s Picks, a series of sonically enhanced CD’s of the band’s greatest performances from every stage of their 30-year career—as chosen by Latvala. Suddenly, he was a celebrity in Deadland. And with Jerry Garcia’s 1995 passing and the band’s subsequent retirement, the series has gained even more prominence.
Dick’s Picks, which currently averages three volumes a year, has released nine sets (simply titled Volume One, Volume Two, etc.), plus a single-CD Allman Brothers album, all available mail order only. All of the material is culled from two-track recordings (reels, DATs, cassettes or videos) pulled from the tape archives Latvala has come to know so well. The sound achieves the sort of sonic grace previously unavailable on the myriad bootlegs and home tapes that Deadheads have long traded with the eager enthusiasm of 11-year-old boys swapping baseball cards. This has given the series a sterling reputation. But one nagging question remains:
ALAN PAUL: “Who the hell is this Dick we keep hearing about?”
DICK LATVALA: Dick is crazy tape pervert who just seems to have never gotten his fill of live tapes. He found out they existed in 1974 when he lived in Hawaii with a two-year-old son being raised in the green rather the gray concrete of the city. He
discovered live tapes and, boy, he was off and running. There was nothing more important to him. He had no money, but somehow within seven or eight years had acquired 800 7-inch Maxell reels–because he didn’t want to go the cassette route. He wanted the real deal.
AP: Okay, so how did you go from being a fanatical collector to the fanatical collector–the guy on the band’s payroll, sorting through tapes.
LATVALA: It all started when I met Kid [Cadelerio, Dead roadie] at Red Rocks on August 12 ‘79. I was just a consumer. I had just been another face in the crowd, since I had my first trip with the Grateful Dead, on January 21, 22 and 23 1966, at the Trips Festival in San Francisco. I had been a hardcore Deadhead since then, and everything started to change when I happened to meet Kid backstage.
Then I started meeting more and more people on the inside, one thing led to another and suddenly I had Phil Lesh’s attention and asked him, in a concerned way, as a fan, “Is anybody taking care of these tapes?” I wanted to play him what I call primal Dead–great old tapes–so I said, “Sit down Phil and listen to this.” He actually did, and we went through two or three cassettes in three hours. Man, he was real impressed and realized that maybe some care had to be taken of these things.
AP: What did you play him?
LATVALA: Just stuff from my tape collection.
AP: At that point, what was the status of the band’s official tape archives?
LATVALA: Well, it all started with our saint and legend Bear who had the impulse to do it all and record them. He took care of the tapes, then he went to jail in 1970 and things fell asunder. No one cared. It’s hard for people to understand that back then the only reason they kept recording after Bear left was because of the tradition he had to set up. It wasn’t because they wanted to accumulate accurate recordings they some day could release.
For a while, Bear wasn’t in jail but he couldn’t leave the Bay Area as part of his trip, so he would continue to record the band while they were home, but when they went on tour the shoes were either taped, or they weren’t. There was no order. From July of ‘70 to December of ‘70, there really weren’t any tapes except for Harpur College, which has always been around. All those tapes are missing, though I know they were recorded, and we are getting access to many of them, most importantly 9-19-70, which is one of the best “Dark Star” through “Lovelight” jams there ever was. That’s tremendous stuff, and we didn’t have it in the vaults.
AP: That is somethi
ng that blows my mind: that after listening to every performance the band’s ever done, it is still clear to you when you hear a great “Dark Star.” Doesn’t it all start to turn to mush?
LATVALA: No. It depends on how much of it you’re doing. It’s like any other drug. If you abuse it, it will abuse you. If you listened to 69 Dark Star/St. Stephen/Love light” jams back to back, you would get really desensitized to it. It would sound the same and you wouldn’t pick up the uniqueness. But when you listen to a whole, you will put one on that’s spectacular and say, “Wow, something went by. That’s the same jam, but it’s really, really good.” You can catch that, even in a numb state. Those things happen all the time and will continue to happen.
To me, there’s still a discovery stage, because I haven’t heard all these shows. I’m in a state of learning, and I don’t have any set-in-stone ideas about what shows or even what eras I want to pursue. We’re all just another one of those guys with an idea. We all have an opinion, and I’m interested in everyone else’s opinions, too. That’s Dick. I want everyone to be able to have the same experience through the music as me. It’s important to get it out. That’s who I am. That’s my compulsion. I can’t do anything about it. It’s like destiny.
AP: Well, you’re working in an area where a lot of people have very strong opinions. I assume you get a lot of input from fans.
LATVALA: I’m swamped with input. I want input, but I am so far behind on what I got here that I can’t keep up with what people are sending me.
AP: Last year, you worked on an Allman Brothers CD, which is the first and only Dick’s Pick for a band other than the Dead.
LATVALA: Yeah, to hook up with the Allmans was like a dream come true for me…the Allmans and the Dead to me are the only bands that ever said it the way I wanted to hear it. And they’re still doing it. They’ve been my favorite band since 92, when I first got wind of the regrouping and went to see them and was just blown away. They were–and are–the hottest band on the planet. Certainly hotter than the Dead was at that point.
AP: You know, around that time, I stopped going to Dead shows for that very reason, which I sort of regret now.
LATVALA: Oh, you didn’t miss anything. They were bad.
AP: It seemed that way to me, but…
LATVALA: Oh you were right. Try listening to it all on tape. It’s kind of hard to find something that will get your juices flowing if you’re somewhat critical, like most picky Deadheads. I have a hard time finding great things for myself in ‘94 and certainly in ‘95.
AP: When do you think was the last great period for the Dead?
LATVALA: That’s a real toughy. Everyone will agree that ‘89-’90 was cool stuff, all multi-tracked for consideration of the Without a Net CD, and several things from then have come out. Then Bruce [Hornsby] joined in ‘91 and that was pretty thrilling stuff. But in ‘92 and ‘93, I started losing my thrill with it. Going to shows became a habit or something.
I think maybe the end for me was just after [Bill] Graham died [in October, 1991]. Those shows they did in Oakland were really great. That memorial they did for him in the park sort of felt like the last time I remember experiencing something great. But I must say that even in the later years when most shows were so bad, I come across some spectacular evenings, like 3-23-95 or 3-18-95 at the Spectrum. Now those are really great shows. And, yeah, I saw a couple out here in 94 and 95, I guess, but it wasn’t as consistently there. Throughout history, there’s been great shows and bad ones–or numbing, not happening ones — and I can definitely say in my heart they seemed to not have as many winners as the years went on, from the beginning to the end. It sort of declined in the last 10 or 15 years. But that’s just my bias. A lot of people who lived through it had a great time and who’s to deny that? I’m just saying from my perspective it wasn’t happening as much as we left the 70’s. That’s pretty much where I ended on a nightly basis.
But let me say that I have favorites to the very end, so I’m not saying they died in 1977 or something. You have to be a real picky Deadhead and listen to everything. Then you’re defined as being crazy because you don’t do anything else. So I’m crazy. I’m just compulsively crazy.
AP: How did the Allmans release actually come about?
LATVALA: Well, we had this tape of the Brothers opening for the Dead, which Bear had recorded, just on a hunch. And then I met Kirk West, whose like my counterpart with the Allman Brothers and bam. We were like instant soulmates, karmic buddies and all that. So we decided to do this together and it was great fun, man.
AP: What is the process of something becomes a Dick’s Pick, from beginning to end.
LATVALA: It’s a complex question. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t have things I want to get to or something. I have like a broad, slim grasp of certain periods and certain shows within that period, an awareness of them, but they demand re-listening. I have a flimsy grasp of all the eras and ideas within each period of what would be a good show to think of, but what really determines it is where we are right now. We don’t have them stacked up on the shelves waiting to be mastered or something. I’m constantly listening and trying to figure it out, and a lot of it is determined by what the previous one was. We are always trying to create. I have to get the agreement of two other people: John Cutler and Jeffrey Norman. The three of us have total control and veto power.
AP: So the band has no input, which wasn’t always the case.
LATVALA: No, it wasn’t, and it took a long time to get here. Phil played a role, and it was a log-jam type role. He was an obstacle. I’m not bad-mouthing him, but his sense of good music is really refined as he says, so refined that we would never hear it out here in Deadland if he were left in charge. And I realized that a long time ago. It was hard to get things past his veto power and I didn’t think he gave things a fair listen and how could he want to: it’s not logically possible to be both the judge and the creator.
He tries hard and he really likes the music, but he’s very critical, like everyone on the inside. And they don’t know how it is being on the outside. The mindset of the people who put the shows on and those who go buy a ticket is so fundamentally different. The band themselves don’t have a sense of things, and I found this out after a lot of years of pain and frustration. I realized that I wasn’t wrong–they just don’t understand. Everyone has his own agenda, and it can overshadow the important thing, which is to capture a great performance. They listen to it and think, “Oh, I’m not mixed loud enough…I missed a note there…I’m a half-step off on the turnaround.”
A performer can drive themselves nuts with that type of close analysis. What they need to do is jus let it go and find someone they trust, then trust in them to do it right.
AP: And that’s you. Now that you three have full control, do you think the band listens to your work?
LATVALA: No, I don’t think they do. They’ve never commented on them. In my dreams. Or it used to be mine. Certainly Jerry isn’t listening. [laughs] I don’t think Weir would ever listen to them and Phil I seriously doubt ever has since he hasn’t had to any more. Billy would never listen, and I don’t think Mickey would. I would bet everything I have that not one of them has ever heard one of them.
AP: A friend of mine says they are like adult baseball cards. If you’re a collector, you’re a collector and you must have every one.
LATVALA: Oh, of course. I would think so, too. If I wasn’t who I was, but who I used to be, I’d be out there getting everything that the Grateful Dead released.
AP: Now that you’re on your own, you guys seem to be on a roll. What’s next.
LATVALA: Well, it’s gonna be great. That’s tooting my own horn, but I know that my team can deliver the goods, man. And it’s an organic process of discovery. It’s not preordained. The first seven were like giving birth and it was utter pain and frustration, almost to the point that I started feeling that I was never going to come up with something that was right with these people. But that frustration has dissipated and it’s a lot easier now, because I have a clue of what level of quality needs to be addressed. I give them good quality stuff to choose from, so then it’s only a matter of the quality of the performance. So if we all agree, it’s good stuff, and it will appeal to more than one segment of Deadheads
AP: Once you make the decision on what show to do, what happens next?
LATVALA: Then we go into the archives and bring out the master in whatever form it’s in, which could be seven-inch reel, DAT, or video, go through it and eq it as needed. And we do the reel flips–there are places where a tape ends in the middle of a song and you have to do something to cover up that reel flip. We keep EQing to a minimum because the idea is to get it as raw as the tape can be but to smooth over any imperfections in the tape. If there’s a problem in the tape, we’ll attempt to solve it some way and it all gets very creative. It’s done on a digital editing system called Sound Solutions. Dick’s Picks is, as you know, only concerned with two-track, so if there’s a problem, you can’t find it in the mix. There is no mix, so you have to be creative.
You can really do some clever editing even within that limited two-track format. I am amazed and thrilled and unbelievably proud about my team’s performance. I think we’ve always made it really beautiful, and some of the edits were enormously difficult; you have a tape flip in the middle of a jam and start on the other side in a verse, for example. Every tape is different, with one constant: there will never be studio-quality sound. These tapes weren’t recorded with the intention of being sold later. It’s a hit or miss deal and some of them are misses: the mixes are bad and we’ll never be able to use them. But the hits are great. I think what’s out there is great and there are going to be many, many, many more.
AP:S o you have had tapes where you really liked the performances, but the tapes were just not usable?
LATVALA: Oh yeah. Hundreds. I’ve been beat up and died over things. Harpur College was rejected every time I brought it up for years. From the first time I got involved, I was trying to bring Harpur College to people’s attention and it got beat down every time. It was like a nightmare to me.
AP: What finally led to the breakthrough which allowed you to release the show as number eight?
LATVALA: The slow and gradual success and credibility that came through the success of the first five or six releases. I started to be able to get at more of the stuff that I know everyone wants out there. It’s all working now, and there’s lots more. As the success of these releases keep going, it implies that people want to see more and there is more and more and more…there’s lots. We’ll certainly never use it up in our lifetime. Really, I think we could do more. We’re doing basically three a year, and I think we could five.
AP: When you do these CD’s do you feel that you are trying to recreate a concert experience for people to have in their home?
LATVALA: That’s a complex question. It’s not like we’re here to recreate the show itself, at all. That can’t be done. You need a lot of beautiful girls dancing around you, lots of flashing lights and swirling colors and real people up on stage and lots of flashing lights. You’re listening to a CD at home, alone in front of your speakers. There’s no ambiance. It’s just audio. So you have those limitations. You weren’t at the show? Well, too bad. You missed it. But you can hear a tape of it, which is the next best thing. And there’s a whole lot of Dead shows we as consumers want to hear because they weren’t at them all, though we would have liked to have been.
And it has to be a show. You can’t have it be the best of a tour compilation. That is the Without a Net concept and it doesn’t fly. This type of thing has to be expressed in terms of what happened in one night. When people listen to this 100 years from now, they should think, “This much winning sound happened in one night? Wow.” You got to have a limitation on how much time you’ll use on your fundamental baseline.
I’ve gone to the best of a run in one place, which is stretching things, but to me is sometimes necessary. The goal is to release the whole show, but that is easier said than done, because anything we release has to be right, and it’s hard to find a whole show, where everything is right. But the limitations are constantly loosening as time goes by. I’ve gotten away with more each time, from the master being on a cassette, to it being three CD’s instead of two, to it being a whole show. So now the foundations are laid, where we can get things done, whatever we dream up, almost.
AP: What is the Sonic Solutions?
LATVALA: I am not technically inclined, but it is a digital editing system and they groove on it from a little house in San Francisco. They make these state of the art digital editing systems. It’s the other side of taking razors to tape. You load analog to a hard disc on a digital editor, then you can manipulate things with all these remarkable techniques. It’s not a consumer type of thing yet. It costs a lot of money and it’s just really cool. iI you want to get the best product and best use of what’s on tape we have, that’s the way to go.
I’m blown away by its capabilities. We’re trying on each release to balance what has been done, and what songs haven’t been touched yet and what eras haven’t picked yet. We’re trying to spread it out and not ever get stuck in a rut. Then we have video releases and multi-track releases to contend with, and you don’t want to bump into each other.
When I figure out what the right era is and what year I should be looking for great stuff in, then I find it and that’s based on talking to people all the time and reading through everything on the net. Then I listen through the master and see what the problems are and I think, “How are they going to solve that? They are in a great instrumental passage at the end of China Cat there and when the reel flips they are in verses. How are they gonna solve that?” It always gets solved. Jeffrey is the main manipulator of the tools and he’s brilliant.
AP: On the more current shows, why does two-track even exist?
LATVALA: Two-track then is in the form of DAT or Beta or VHS tape. Theynever multi-tracked every show, except for limited periods which were financed by the record company to make a live release, from Live Dead to Without a Net. These opportunities for multi tracks were always within the context of material that’s gonna be used for an upcoming live release. For instance, the Fillmore releases on Arista were recorded for Live Dead. It’s like a rough draft of that album. They never thought they would release the whole shows, but that is exactly what I intend to do some day. Those were the classic four shows in history: 2-27, 2-28, 3-1 and 3-2 ’69, Fillmore West. That is enormous tuff.
I was there and those shows are the reason I got into live tape, because I wanted to hear something. It was the most intense thing in the history of my life and I went on a quest to hear it again. I finally heard those shows and they were as great as I thought it was. That is a perfect example of something that seemed huge and I listened to the tapes and it was.
AP: Have you had the opposite happen, where you thought a show was life-changing, then you hear the tape and it sort of sucks?
LATVALA: Sure. Then you go, “Well was it the drugs? It must have been, because this show sucks.” Then again, someone else might love it, because it’s all subjective. It’s just one man’s opinions
AP: You have managed to turn your passion into a profession.
LATVALA: Yeah, and that is really a miracle, isn’t it? I am so lucky that this happened. I just think I’m in a dream if I look at it straight on. There are enough painful experiences that go along with this trip that it keeps me in reality. It ain’t all gems and roses. At times, it’s been really horrible. Of course, a lot of other things in my life contributed to feeling terrible, like having my mouth fall apart and all my teeth fall out.
AP: Do you go back and listen to the CD’s once they come out?
LATVALA: No, I burn them out. I have heard them too much. They die for me to be set free to the public, although enough time has passed that I’m ready to go back. In fact, I’d really like to hear number two right now. Can we finish this up so I can go put it on, please? I need a dose of meditation.