Grateful Dead Archivist David Lemieux discusses the road to the Complete Europe 72
A conversation with Doug Heselgrave
It’s been some time since the Grateful Dead have made front page news around the world or created a buzz online, but when the folks at Rhino records announced that the whole of The Grateful Dead’s legendary 1972 tour of Europe would be offered for sale in a deluxe 72 CD package and that package sold out its complete inventory in less than a week months before it was set to be released, people took notice. Not only did it indicate a shifting demographic of fans with $450 to spend on their favourite rock band, but it reminded the music community that followers of the San Francisco’s favourite sons’ long strange trip are still out there and are a force to be reckoned with.
I decided to contact fellow Canadian, David Lemieux who has held the enviable seat of the Grateful Dead’s archivist for many years now to ask him how the project came into being. During a long and fascinating conversation, we touched on many issues from the problems with digital archiving to the technical aspects of preserving performances as well as discussing how the Grateful Dead’s legacy will be regarded with the passage of time. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
DH: Hey David!
DL: Hi Doug. You’re calling from a 604 area code. That must mean you’re from Vancouver. I’ve got a 250 area code when I’m at home in Canada.
DH: Yeah, I’ve heard that you live in Victoria and work for the film festival there when you’re not archiving and producing for the Dead.
DL: That’s right absolutely. I’m actually on the board there. For the last eight or nine years I’ve been on the programming committee, but we’ve got such a great creative director that by the time I see any films and they’re filtered down to me, I’m pretty much guaranteed the cream of the crop. I’ve never met someone with such a singular vision as Kathy has. During the festival, I do a lot of introductions and Q and A’s after screenings.
DH: Do you have a background in film?
DL: I was a film major in college at Concordia in Montreal. Then, I went to England and did a Master’s degree in film archiving. Half of that degree was theoretical, while the other half was actual physical film archiving – splicing, copying and archiving as well as learning to catalogue in universally accepted formats.
DH: There’s been a lot in the press recently about the vast amount of vintage film stock that’s lost every year just through improper storage and preservation.
DL: That’s it exactly. The degree was about how to preserve films properly and if deterioration is already going on, learning how to copy. Digital is great, but film if stored properly should last 50 to 100 years, so whereas digital video hasn’t been around long enough for us to know.
DH: Yeah, I think the jury’s out on digital. Call me Orwellian, but I really think there’s so much room for loss due to natural disaster or political interference.
DL: That’s it. It’s constantly remastering things in the archiving world where you get up to a certain level of quality, ten years go by and all the work you went to is obsolete because there’s now something better.
DH: I still have 8 tracks and cassettes I can’t get rid of.
DL: Yeah, and you know we all have these little hard drives we back stuff up on and they’re really only designed to last for seven or eight years at the most.
DH: It’s crazy.
DL: Yeah, I have two hard drives that I carry my work around in. I plan once a year to spend $150 a year to back them up. I take the one I backed up, write the date on it, so if I ever needed to go back, there’s a chance it’d work, there’s a chance it wouldn’t.
DH: Does being an archivist make you paranoid then – with all this potential loss of crucial information that the general population isn’t aware of? I assume that really crucial social information, financial information is backed up with the same care you go to.
DL: It makes me aware. I take lots of pictures of things because I’ve had a computer crash. It’s a nightmare when you rely on this little thing that you keep in your briefcase to store not only your professional life, but crucial things from your personal life. Your memories. It can be a huge mistake not to preserve things – so I spend a couple of hours a week, maybe just in front of the TV watching a hockey game just dragging things into backup. At least I can sleep at night and know that all my work is safe or relatively safe.
DH: So, the Dead are lucky to have someone like you who goes to such lengths. You got involved with them through archiving film, is that right?
DL: I did. I was finishing up a Master’s Degree in late ’98 working at the Government Archives in Victoria and I wrote Dick (Latvala – the former archivist) an email sometime that year telling him that I was working on a thesis about Canadian film archiving but that I also wanted to do a little part of my thesis on private archives that have film stock, but where the film stock isn’t their primary focus or asset. That’s where the Dead was at. They had an audio archive, but also had a bit of film and video. I told Dick that I’d love to see the archives and that I was a huge Deadhead (though I didn’t tell him that at the time – I wanted it to be a professional request) I happened to be coming down to San Francisco the next week, so I visited and spent three or four hours with him.
DH: What kind of shape was everything in?
DL: It was in great shape. The audio collection had been organized on shelves by Dick and catalogued by Dick and a team of people. So, the audio was in great shape, but though the video was in pretty good physical shape, it was unorganized so they didn’t know what they had. This was in 99. Jerry had been gone for four years and they wanted to see what they had in terms of video in case they wanted to start releasing videos a little more frequently. At that time, they’d put out two performance videos and they wanted to get a little more frequent in terms of video releases because they knew they had a lot of film.
DH: Were the videos sourced from the big shows where they had video screens – the later shows?
DL: Exactly. Almost all of the video in there was taken from the screen feeds you saw in the audience. So, if there were trippy graphics dancing across the screen during the show, they made it to the videos. There’s not much we can do about that. I always take the glass half full approach and think sure, there’s things that during a certain jam you’d want to see them play, but for 90% of the film there’s no graphics and I think some of those graphics are a little dated, but the summer tour 89 had no graphics, so that’s one of the reasons why you’ve seen so much on video from that year. They were recording for the album ‘Without a Net’ so they requested no graphics. So, you’ve got ‘Crimson and Indigo’, ‘Trucking Up To Buffalo’ –
DH: I loved that one and I don’t always love watching concert films –
DL: Yeah, that one is terrific. That was such a high moment for the band. But, anything from 90-91 in the second sets there’s lots of graphics. Even then, I wasn’t too fond of seeing bears or whatever marching across the screen. But, it is what it is and we’ve got over a hundred shows in the vault shot in high quality multi camera film. I’d say we’ve got fifteen or twenty really good shows where the performance quality and sound quality are worth releasing that I can think of. In terms of video releases – at the rate we’re putting out stuff now – we’ve got a 30 or 40 year inventory. There are other special projects – like Grateful Dead movie outtakes that we might work on someday.
DH: I’d love to see that.
DL: Well, there are two hours of extras on the DVD and that’s one of the things I always recommend to people. You get to see the Dead in 74 doing the songs like China/Rider, Weather Report Suite, Dark Star, the Other One with Spanish jam. We just loaded it. The reality is that stuff is all on 16mm negative which is very expensive to transfer. It’s not the kind of thing where you just grab a videotape to see what’s on it. You have to book ahead and have the proper viewing machine because to pay someone to transfer 16mm negative to HD is extremely expensive, so you know in this day and age when DVDs don’t sell like they did a few years ago, the reality is that due to this expense it’s not surprising that the companies are a little cautious. As Deadheads, it’s a no brainer but it just means that you have to be selective and go through tape very carefully so you don’t waste a lot of money converting things you won’t use. So, it amazed me that Rhino, the record company made the leap of faith to get behind this Complete Europe 72 project.
DH: Yeah, let’s talk about that. You must have been taken aback by how quickly that sold out. I think a lot of people were surprised. For myself, I’d love to hear the music, but it’s not like I have $450 to drop. Your initial press releases were very cautious, so I guess you had trepidations as well about who would be in a position to spend this much money. I guess enough people were in such a position….
DL: Well, let’s go back about six years to when we did the Fillmore West 1969 box set. It was a ten CD box set that cost I think $80. We did a limited edition of ten thousand because it was a complete unknown type of product for us. We had no idea of how many people would buy something for that much money. Five or six years ago, it was a huge amount for us to ask because we were used to selling complete shows through the Dick’s Picks series for Twenty-twenty two dollars to a very good response. Nobody knew what the response to a complete run where you have four Dark Stars, four St. Stephen’s, and four ‘Love lights’ and ‘Other Ones’ and all of those tunes would be. We wanted to make it very special for collectors and we figured ten thousand was a good number and believe me I come out on the Deadhead side over the business side but I was a little worried that that may be too many. I believe we all felt that way and as we saw it quickly sold out in five maybe six weeks. But, then eighty dollars and four hundred and fifty dollars for Europe is quite a big difference. But, after Fillmore West, we decided clearly there was a market for complete run releases. So, a couple of years later in 2008 we did the Winterland 1973 complete run with three shows from November 1973 spread over nine CDs. A hundred dollars, but we didn’t limit it this time. We just figured we’d see what happens. You know the number was pretty similar I think as the Fillmore West, so we were pretty confident that the number of people who would be interested in a hundred dollar product was around ten thousand. Getting away from the business side, there was certainly a demand from the purists and I consider myself a purist. In talking to friends a lot in the last few or four years, I heard that they loved Dick’s Picks, they loved the compilations, but they really loved that once a year or every eighteen months, there was this big ticket item to look forward to. I’m forty and my friends are a little bit older or younger than me and we never got to see shows in 1972 or 1973. We didn’t get the feeling of what it would have been like to have seen three straight nights back then. So, it really gives that sense of a weekend of Dead shows. It really puts it together or gives the context of what it would have been like to have been there.
DH: If you don’t mind me asking, if you fix ten thousand as the number of people who will buy these deluxe sets, how many people typically buy the cheaper releases like Dick’s Picks or RoadTrips?
DL: Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t looked. Dick Pick’s have always done very well, but as the record industry slowed down by around the time we got to about the thirtieth pick, our numbers slowed down a little –
DH: In keeping with the industry?
DL: Yes, but as things started dipping, I decided not to check into sales because I don’t want to see that a 1977 show does better than one from 1971 for example. I don’t want future picks to be based on what era or year sells the best. That’s my job to represent the band’s history as well as possible. If a record company person told me ‘you can only do this year because that’s the year that sells’ – which they never have – that would be counterproductive to the history and the legacy….
DH: So, Rhino pretty much trusts you and gives you a free hand with the RoadTrips series….
DL: Yeah, absolutely. Honestly, from the minute this partnership started in 2006, it’s been apparent that the Grateful Dead couldn’t have a better partner than Rhino. They have faith in us and needless to say they’re doing well enough to continue the relationship. In 2007, just a few months after the partnership started, I was asked to put some serious thought into thinking about major projects I envisioned undertaking over the next ten years. If I’d been asked that question ten years ago, I would have said the Grateful Dead movie on DVD, The Closing of Winterland and the Fillmore 1969 box set and those things have happened. But, in 2007 it was a fun exercise to do this and think about what’s in the vault that would be nice to get out in the next eight to twelve years. Believe me, we’re not usually that organized. Record company people have to plan a little more than I do, so it was good to get inside of that and think in the way they have to for a bit. What happened was I said the Europe tour has many individual shows that could be releases. They could be single shows, compilations, Paris or whatever, but what I would suggest is doing is the complete tour. That was in 2007 when we were working on the Winterland box and I knew they had faith in complete runs because the Fillmore West had sold out. I said, I think if you’re going to start with one tour, you start with the best. That’s what I thought about Fillmore – there were plenty of three to four night runs in the Dead’s history, but I thought if we were going to try it, it was best to start with the best one. We had the multi-tracks and the performance quality was exceptional. So, in 2007 I started pitching the Complete Europe as a release – largely to laughter. I’d say this is a 70 CD box set and you’re probably going to have to sell it for more than five hundred dollars – based on what little I knew of record company economics. After a while, a couple of people from the record company came up to me and said ‘y’know it sounds interesting and we’ll keep it in our back pocket for later.’ And then, every time we got together for planning meetings, I’d pitch it and say to everyone that it would be an eighteen month project to put it together. So, I’d pitch for one year for the next year. In 2009, I got a call from one of the VPs at Rhino who’s very close to the Grateful Dead partnership and he said ‘we’re going to do this Europe thing’ and I was bowled over. I was in Marin county working on a couple of other projects and I got a call from him in my hotel room. I distinctly remember putting down the phone and calling Jeffrey Norman and telling him they’re going to do this and put it out in May 2011. So, we had enough time, but when the reality hit that we had to get budgets approved and that it was a huge financial commitment and time commitment. Jeffrey had to find and book a studio for eight months. The transfers alone because of the quality of the original source tape and some of the issues around the processes required to bring the analogue tapes back to life were huge in themselves. It’s the kind of thing where the engineers insisted on getting a commitment from us to do it right if we were going to do it. So, our deadlines got pushed back again because of the sheer technical nature of what we were proposing. We were given a green light, but it is a very long process to get a team of eight to twelve people together to take on different aspects of a project like this. So, we missed our deadline and the project was off again. There were some big changes at Rhino and with those changes and some shuffled personnel, the project was on again with a revised deadline. The approval process got fast tracked and the tapes were shipped to the east coast to get transferred. On the west coast, we put the shows together which had some challenges because a lot of the songs were physically cut out from the master reels and put onto another reel for consideration for Europe ’72….
DH: …the original three album set that came out of that tour?
DL: Exactly. They listened to the whole tour, pulled out the best four versions of each song off by physically cutting them from the master and putting them on another tape. That was the sub reel of the versions that were being considered for Europe ’72 and that’s where they stayed until a fellow by the name of Robert Gattley assembled them from September to November, so that by the time Jeffrey had set up and rented a studio for eight months at Prairie Sun Recording in Cotati in Sonoma county about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, the tapes were ready to go. It’s just a few minutes away from his house and he’s there all day long from the early morning just listening to these shows all day long.
DH: Just soaking in it.
DL: Yeah, as we’re mixing shows, what’s happening is Jeffrey finishes a show and he sends it to me for comments and my typical comment is to say something like ‘on that jam between China Cat and Rider, Bobby has a little solo and we need to bring it up.’ We know each other really well now and the changes or alterations are very minor. He tweaks the shows and then sends them off to be mastered by Dave Glasser in Boulder, Colorado. Glasser then masters the show – whether it is three or four CDS – and then he sends them to me for approval. Jeffrey and I spend a few days listening. Jeffrey usually listens while driving to and from the studio every day where he’s working on a different show. I listen to each show four, five, six times before approving it and then I’ll get back to Glasser and then maybe there’ll be a little boosting to the bottom end or something on a few songs. Very minor. Y’know Dave has won a couple of Grammys and he’s one of the best in the business. My input is minimal if any. Then, he takes that show that’s been approved and sends it to Rhino who send it off for pressing. So, by the time it’s done it mid-July, most of the pressing will have been done gradually show by show. We’re a well oiled machine by this point. By the time it hits the pressing plant, it’s hit many many sets of ears who listen to it from a different perspective. An engineer listens a little differently than a Deadhead does, for example.
DH: This might be a good time to go into that – Deadheads have a very sophisticated understanding of the different periods of the band’s creative life, but for the uninitiated or those only casually familiar with the Grateful Dead, what exactly is all the fuss about? What was so special about the Grateful Dead in 1972?
DL: Well, I think that the fuss is about several things. First, this was a new version of the band that had only been playing together for several months. By new version I mean before this tour Mickey Hart had left the band as the band’s second drummer. So, it had that and then Keith Godchaux joined the band on piano to complement Pigpen who was still on organ. And, then you also had Donna Jean, Keith’s wife, as background singer who had officially joined the band about a week before Europe. She sang on about four or five songs during that tour. So, you had this new version of the band and they looked at Europe as an opportunity to take this band on the road. Not only that, the band was hot off of some mainstream success with the country rock albums, ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty.’ These are albums with songs like ‘Dire Wolf’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and ‘Truckin.’ There was pedal steel guitar on a lot of the songs and you could really hear the country influence. They were largely acoustic albums. The drums were toned way down to the point where there was just percussion with no real big drum kit. There were all the new songs they played for the skull and roses album. In short, you’ve got a band that was writing an incredible amount of new music. You’ve got Bob Weir putting out the ‘Ace’ album with eight new songs – seven of which became staples in the live Grateful Dead repertoire. That album had the Grateful Dead as his backing band at exactly the same time that Garcia did his solo album with songs like ‘Bird Song’, ‘The Wheel’ and ‘To Lay Me Down.’ So, there was all this wonderful music coming out and Pigpen had worked out a bunch of new songs for him to sing in Europe. This was Pigpen’s last two so there were some show-stopping ‘Cautions’ and ‘China Town Shuffles’ that are just amazing to hear. Plus there were new unrecorded songs like ‘He’s Gone’ and ‘Ramble on Rose’ that they played in Europe. Add to that that every night on the tour had a monumental second set jam that featured ‘Dark Star’ one night and ‘The Other One’ the next night. You had this band that by 1972 was clearly showing its country influence, but they incorporated that kind of music into the psychedelic sound which really defined who they were for a lot of people. To me, 1972 was the perfect moment for the Grateful Dead because it embodied everything that they were so great at. Every song you’ll hear on this tour has something great from not just Jerry, Bobby, Billy and Phil, but Keith sounds great without any effort it seems. He fit in so perfectly. He played a full grand piano on every show of the tour. He showed up at exactly the right time for this band. Jerry’s last ever performance using the pedal steel until the Dylan and Dead tour in 1987 shows up on the Europe tour as well.
DH: Do you have a favourite show on the tour….y’know if you could have only one?
DL: Yeah……(major hesitation) It’s interesting you ask that. I was just thinking that the other day. You know what I’d do…I’d take the two Copenhagen shows – both are exceptional. The final ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Caution’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in the second Copenhagen show is just exceptional. Let me just think. I’ve been listening to so many back to back….
DH: I’m amazed you can keep it straight.
DL: Let’s think here. Shows I knew….hmmm…the show in Denmark has proven to be a very nice dark horse for me. It was played at a 700 seat university cafeteria. Not my favourite, but very very nice. Rotterdam was always a favourite show. It’s one of the big ones for me. I think every show is excellent, but some are more excellent than ever. On every Dead tour there were a few duds….
DH: Yep, we’ve all been there. The differences from night to night were very noticeable at times.
DL: Europe 72 – there’s nothing sub-par, but other than a few bum notes, I really can’t think of a bad show. A less than excellent show. I listen as critically and objectively as anyone.
DH: Probably more.
DL: I think so. Jeffrey is even more objective than I because he approaches with an engineer’s perspective. He’s really called me several times and said things like ‘Man, that was a really good show’ and he’s usually immune to those type of comments. He’s so wrapped up in the engineering sound, but he’s been blown away. He’s amazed by how loose the band was. Remember that part of the reason the band played so well on this tour is that the Dead took their entire scene – 53 people – to Europe with them. Family and friends, wives, girlfriends, kids – anyone who wanted to go was brought along. I think it brought a whole level of comfort to the tour – not that much different than playing at the Fillmore. Bands are human and if you’re in a situation where you’re uncomfortable because of language or food or something like that, it might be enough to bum you out. But, here they toured with their own scene and it was very comfortable for them. They integrated themselves into the European rock world very well with European media and fans, but the comfort of knowing that ‘your old lady was on the road with you’ really helped. This was part of the reason they had to record – and they’re grateful they did – to produce an album to pay for the tour. This was a 50 day tour with only 22 concerts. There wasn’t enough revenue to pay for it. This was a hugely expensive tour that didn’t make sense in strictly economic terms.
DH: So, this will help pay for that one. 2011 pays 1972!
DL: (big laugh) Oh, I think the original Europe 72 did well and took care of that. But, one of the benefits of having such a great archive is that these things can be released later. It was the same thing with Egypt – everyone went, it was expensive – but they didn’t release it for years and years.
DH: Everyone said the shows were really shitty. I kind of liked them when I finally had a chance to hear them.
DL: So, did I. The first night was pretty bad in terms of recording. The first reel was pretty bad, but if you listen and stick to it, by the middle of the first set in the second night there was some really good music there. Often people from the Dead just listen to the first reel, but I stick to it with the belief that there’s gold around the corner. By the third night, there was a lot of good music – enough to make a pretty good album out of it.
DH: I agree. Now, before you go – you’re a historian – and I don’t know if you can be objective, but let’s go a hundred years into the future. How are people going to remember the Grateful Dead? Will it be mainly or at least partly about the cultural phenomenon, or will that have receded so people can assess the music on its own terms?
DL: Phew. That’s a very good question. I think it will be about the music. I think there’s enough great music from all eras and I do think that concerts like the Buffalo show we mentioned earlier on that will rise up and be closely looked at. Who knows what music will be like in one hundred years, but I personally don’t think it will be quite as pure as it was when the Grateful Dead were making it. The Buffalo show will demonstrate that in 1989 the rock concert experience was mainly about gimmicks, but the Grateful Dead could still come on stage in front of sixty thousand people and play pure music. From ’72, I think that the music the Grateful Dead made that year will be regarded as some of the best American music of the second half of the twentieth century. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This was a band that was around for thirty years. Every other band that was around during the same period – really would be playing up to…nostalgia. I know these bands still make new music, but any huge band like the Rolling Stones it’s the older songs that people want to hear. You still hear a band playing songs from a four year period that ended decades ago. But, with the Dead virtually anything that was played well could be considered peak era Grateful Dead. I think that when played well, any of their music could be considered as exceptional music. Period. They never stopped moving forward and they never became the nostalgia band that so many bands have become. So, to answer your question, it’ll be about the music. The cultural phenomenon will be less important. I was a hardcore Deadhead and I loved the scene, but it was never about the scene. I liked the travelling and meeting people, but in the end, it was purely about the music.
DH: Thanks so much David.
DL: Thanks to you, too. Great questions.
A music only version of The Complete Europe ’72 – without the book and carrying case – is still available from www.Dead.net - http://www.dead.net/features/news/europe-72-complete-recordings-all...
Hear a version of 'He's Gone' from Copenhagen at -
This interview also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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