ALL THE YEARS COMBINE

By David Gans

This is an excerpt from This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead by Blair Jackson and David Gans. Signed copies are available at perfectible.net

Jim Oade: I first started taping the Grateful Dead in 1980. In Birmingham, Alabama [4/28/80], I talked to a kid who was taping the show and found out that the Dead were totally cool with it. I thought, “I want to take some of this home with me.”

Doug, the technical wizard, helped me pick out a pair of microphones, and I believe he gave me his old JVC portable tape deck. I went to Boulder, Colorado, Folsom Field [6/7-8/80], snuck myself down in a good spot, and taped the show. Crappy recording by today’s standards, but it was a wonderful feeling to be able to share it with folks who couldn’t make it to the venue.

Doug started getting interested in recording. He redefined good recording by making equipment that was better than anything that was currently available. That gave us a feeling of satisfaction, capturing in as accurate a format as possible the incredible experiences I had had.

Doug Oade: It took me a while to believe you could squeeze that onto a piece of tape, hand it to somebody, they could extract the experience, and derive as much pleasure from it as if they were there. Once I got that idea, there was no stopping us.

Jim Oade: Some of the recordings would very easily transport you back to the venue where the magic was occurring, as opposed to getting a soundboard [recording] that sounds really clear but it doesn’t put you in that space and time. I remember one kid telling me that one of the recordings I made had completely changed his life.

Maybe that was an easy way to justify blowing all our cash on going to shows, but we saw that nobody else was making a recording that totally satisfied us.

The Oade Brothers also ran a retail audio shop in Thomasville, Georgia.

Doug Oade: What we wanted was a way of generating income with things that we enjoyed. Nobody was going to pay us to smoke pot and go see a Grateful Dead show, so what was left was to help people get the music experience in their lives. We wanted to be able to take off three to six months out of the year to experience such a potent thing.

Jim Oade: Once we got enough good gear in the right hands, we felt more laid back, didn’t have to go to as many shows, knowing that somebody else was there recording it with the same caliber of gear and the same level of passion that we were.

Doug Oade: We did it because we were following our hearts, following our passion, wanting to share a beautiful experience. It’s an old Christian notion: it’s more blessed to give than to receive. We got more than we gave; that’s a fact.

Jim Oade: We had a great place to stay in every town we traveled to, probably as a result of being so generous with the music.

Doug Oade: [Before taping was formally “legalized” by the Dead in 1984], you had to sneak your gear in and hide it before the show. As soon as the lights went down, the mic stands went up and the gear came out. You got good at dropping the thing quickly at the end of the set, before the lights came up, because we’d be hassled by venue security.

Jim Oade: Taping the gear under women’s dresses was one common way to get it in there — probably the funnest way to get it in there.

Doug Oade: It was often a group effort with eighty to ninety pounds’ worth of PCM gear — two pretty large boxes that comprise the recorders, the [video-cassette] tapes, the microphones, cables. It was very rare that an individual could do it by himself, although I did it a number of times with just two people.

Jim Oade: I’d carry in a backpack, and oftentimes just look at the crew that was taking tickets, etc., look at the person that seemed to be the happiest, and — the Jedi Mind Trick, just kinda walk right in.

At one show, a couple of friends had to create a diversion as they went in, acting like they were fighting while I cruised in with a backpack full of PCM gear. There were a lot of different ways you could get it in.

Doug Oade: The “bringing a birthday present to a friend at the show” trick. There was a whole host of ’em.

Jim Oade: I’ve seen people get it in with a twenty dollar bill, too, for that matter.

Doug Oade: And then there were those who you could tell by the look on their face, clearly knew what you were doing and approved. Those were the best.

Was there a notoriously bad room where it was really hard to get a good recording?

Jim Oade: As they gained in popularity, there were a number of notoriously bad rooms.

Doug Oade: The “Distortatorium” in Miami [Hollywood Sportatorium]

In those bad-sounding buildings, we always left with a recording that was substantially better than what you experienced at the show, because we were able to select microphone patterns, position the microphones, and set up the correct angle between the microphones to make the best compromise between rejecting building acoustics while still getting an impressive image that would transport you back through time to the venue.

The Frost [Amphitheater, Stanford, Calif.] was my favorite place to record, because of the sound. It’s just absolutely stunning. I don’t know whether it was the grass around it, the trees surrounding it, the gentle slope of the field that you set up in, but it had a level of detail, clarity and warmth that produced the most luscious recordings.

Jim Oade: At Red Rocks [Morrison, CO], when they hit the right frequency the rocks around you would resonate — an experience that’s beyond description.

The Greek Theater [Berkeley CA] also had its pluses. Not only did it sound wonderful, but the shape of the bowl was such that Phil could fill it up and then play around with it. You had the entire earth around you resonating, as well as Phil dropping the bombs.

Doug Oade: It was such an intimate experience. Even if you were separated by distance from your friends, who traveled from all over to see the show, you could see them. It was so small, and the depth of the bowl was such that it was easy to see friends’ faces smiling throughout that. It had an intimacy that was a beautiful thing to experience. That’s probably my second favorite, the third being the Starlight Amphitheater in Kansas City, 9/3/85. Absolutely gorgeous recording.

Jim Oade: The Dead made the venues sound as good as possible, and as the years went by, every venue, as they figured more stuff about it, they made it sound better and better. So the big gnarly-sounding halls, after going in there several times, you knew how to get a better recording. But part of the art form of this is that you’re always changing. What works in one venue won’t work in another venue.

Doug Oade: You have to use your ears. If you walk around and listen, you can actually find the spots where the PA sounds cohesive, and rather than hearing two separate speakers, what you hear is where the sound locks in, takes on a character of a cohesive wall of sound, and the distance between you and the PA disappears. I call that “image center,” the spot where you’re just bathing in the sound.

Jim Oade: That was part of the drive — to fine-tune the recordings, making them better and better: to allow somebody else to have that experience. It gave you a great feeling of satisfaction, without a doubt.

Doug Oade: Yeah! To be massaged by the sound of Jerry’s guitar — it doesn’t get much better.

David Gans is one of the best-known media guys in the Grateful Dead world as well as an exceptional solo interpreter of GD music; he has played with Phil Lesh, written songs with Robert Hunter and Bob Weir, and played with many of the best-known jam band musicians around. He started as a journalist with Bay Area Music (“BAM”). In the early ‘80s he helped KFOG’s legendary “M. Dung” morning DJ with a Grateful Dead show, and he’s been helming the Grateful Dead Hour ever since. He’s also co-host, with Gary Lambert, of the Dead Head program “Tales from the Golden Road” on SiriusXM satellite radio. He’s the author of Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead, and (with Blair Jackson) This Is All A Dream We Dreamed, An Oral History of the Grateful Dead. He will perform at Skull and Roses.