Grateful Dead Tape Collector Mark A. Rodriguez Talks Tape Trading, Conceptual Art, and His New Book
photo credit: Gillian Garcia
By Dustin Krcatovich
Sep. 13, 2022
There's a corny old arena rock trick we've all seen, wherein a performer throws red meat to their fans by informing them that they're "the most important members of the band", or some such. When it comes to the Grateful Dead and their offshoots, though, there may actually be something to it.
Whole cottage industries have grown around the Dead over the years, all created as a show of devotion, a means to spread the Good Word. These artisanal hordes descend upon the open-air "Shakedown Street" markets that pop up in every Dead-related show's parking lot to ply their wares: streetwear referencing the band, enamel pins, and "blotter art" (prints made on the perforated sheets of paper typically used to distribute LSD), among a great many other things, are offered for sale or trade. These folk, one could argue, are the true caretakers of the band's standing in the culture at large.
Most importantly, albeit less lucrative by design: over five-plus decades, the band's legacy has been largely secured by the countless hours of bootleg live tapes traded among rabid fans. This practice, long tolerated by the band as long as the tapers weren't cashing in on it, has perpetuated a popular notion that the Dead's exploratory live recordings are of greater value to listeners than any of their studio records. Many newer fans may forego the analog route in favor of streams on archive.org or the many apps dedicated to jam band live recordings, but the central impulse is more or less the same.
Around 2010, conceptual artist and sculptor Mark A. Rodriguez, himself a teenage Deadhead, started to accumulate bootleg tapes again, both to revisit his youthful obsession and to gather materials for an extensive art project. This resulted first in documenting the tapes' fan-designed tape covers ("j-cards", in cassette culture parlance) as Dead Tape Collector on Tumblr and Instagram; later, the tapes were compiled in a series of assemblage sculptures, made up of giant cassette racks containing thousands of the tapes. Said tapes ranged from pristine master copies to dubs in increasing stages of degradation (many dubbed by Rodriguez himself), thus the titles of the pieces in the series: 1st Gen, 2nd Gen, and so on.
Now, Rodriguez's ongoing project has yielded a coffee table book, After All is Said and Done: Taping the Grateful Dead, 1965-1995, out September 20 from Anthology Editions. Beyond compiling images from hundreds of custom j-cards, Rodriguez offers up a wealth of taper-centric information: contemporary interviews with the likes of Dave Lemieux (the band's audiovisual archivist and legacy manager) and David Gans (cohost of Tales from the Golden Road on Sirius XM's Grateful Dead channel), vintage interviews with Jerry Garcia and Dead tape archivist/uber-collector Dick Latvala (of "Dick's Picks" fame), even early meeting notes documenting the band and their organization discussing the taper phenomenon. Garcia's daughter Trixie even supplies a foreword, giving Rodriguez's project an implicit seal of band approval.
We sat down with Rodriguez recently via video chat to discuss the book, his history with the band and with taper culture, and how fellow Deadheads have reacted to the conceptual art aspect of his ongoing project. Here, edited for length and clarity, is that conversation.
AllMusic: How did you first come to the Grateful Dead? Were you drawn more to the iconography, the music, or something else?
Mark A. Rodriguez: I was drawn to the Dead as a tweenster, and according to my sometimes-faulty memory, I think it was more for the music. There was a bit of mystique with their visual references, but I don't have that common story of having an older sibling showing me the "steal your face" thing and getting me into what they were into.
I grew up in the midwest, which is the world of classic rock, and being the curious person I was, I spent a lot of time looking through my mom's records. She never collected Grateful Dead records, but she did go to see a bunch of bands at the Fillmore East and went to Woodstock. She had a story of talking to Phil Lesh at some show in Buffalo, but Jerry was asleep or something… she had a bunch of stories like that. So, when I was at an age to purchase music, I got curious and got the What's a Long Strange Trip It's Been set.
So, I kind of got into them on my own, without a guide. Bob Weir's voice was very weird to me at first, but I also found it compelling; Jerry's voice also seemed odd to me! There were just odd tension points, I'd never heard singers like this. There was a lot of back and forth on whether I liked it or not on that level, but I still felt like I could get into the music.
I was really young in the early 1990s, so I couldn't really go to concerts. Instead, I did a lot of research: I was always at the library, looking at books on the history of music. My aunt gave me a book about "favorite albums of your favorite musicians", and Phil Lesh contributed a bit about John Coltrane's Africa/Brass. It was sort of a long-term research project that expanded into all kinds of music, and digging in dollar bins at record stores.
AllMusic: Right, catch as catch can. I relate to that very strongly. I spent years crouched on my knees in the dollar bins at record stores.
Rodriguez: You're younger, you don't have as much disposable income. That impacted how I got into the Dead, too, though, because it was such a slow accumulation of data.
In the internet 1.0 era, though, all these things came along that sped up the process: message boards, Dead.net, all that stuff. From there, I got into tape trading.
AllMusic: Deadheads were very early adapters to web 1.0, as far as using it for discussion and tape trading, so it seems appropriate that that would pull you in deeper! After All is Said and Done is a pretty deep dive into that bootleg tape culture surrounding the Dead, which involves a lot of handmade, unique art. As an artist yourself, did that have anything to do with your getting into the tape trading facet of the band?
Rodriguez: Not when I first got into it as a kid, no. The tape trading was just an interesting thing to take part in, and I wasn't really associating it with art.
If we're talking about beginning the project that lead to developing the book, though, the answer is a little less clear. I was looking more at how to use these objects as a material. The tapes had seemingly lost their potency at that moment in time, around 2010. It'd been 15 years since Jerry died, and while there were different iterations of the band and the whole jam band scene was going forward, it was considered kind of laughable by a lot of people at that time, like third wave ska.
AllMusic: Yeah. Being in a jam band in 2010 wasn't going to make you the cool person at the party.
Rodriguez: No. The members of the Dead were still operating, too, but had kind of petered out for a few years between the early 2000s and their 50th anniversary shows. So, these tapes didn't have as much perceived cultural value as they once had, or as they would in the future, but I'd decided to start collecting them again.
It turned out there were a lot of people on Craigslist all across the country with 200 bootleg tapes or whatever, and they just wanted them to go to a good home. I would contact them and explain what I was doing, and over the years of collecting I'd find all these interesting new aspects to exploit as an artist.
AllMusic: What questions do you think you were trying to answer with the Gen series? What was the motivation?
Rodriguez: It took me 4-5 years to decide I was going to start something, because there's an inherent conflict in there: how far do you go with the collection? Do you get to where it's a complete collection? At that point in time, that wasn't really possible, and even now there are still around 160 tapes missing. I'm on year 12 in the collecting part of the project; I could conceive of it taking another 12-15 years to chip away at that list. So, when would I start the actual art part?
There was also a question of how I would fit this into my larger art practice. There are a lot of themes of repetition in my work, and replicating Americana in a way where my hand is ideally not that noticeable. That's how I developed this process of dubbing from one collection to the next.
The overall concept, though, was creating a collection and performing the sisyphean task of collecting every available Grateful Dead show on tape. Within that, there's a simultaneous effort on my part to degrade the information as it's being generated as a collection. That's sort of the main crux of the project. I just needed to figure out how to best present it to an audience visually.
From there, there were a lot of other questions: what about the art on the tapes? How do you present that? I ultimately chose to replicate Napa Valley cassette shelves and just make a really big version of that, and display everything in a deceptively mundane kind of way.
So, there were a lot of different questions going on. A lot to meander over!
AllMusic: That seems appropriate for a band as famously meandering as the Grateful Dead.
Rodriguez: Yes, but it ultimately wraps up into a neat package. Hopefully, I make it look easier than it was, but there were years of thought going into it before I even started the sculpture part of the project.
Even with the book, there were so many informational paths to choose. The Grateful Dead has so many different connections to different kinds of people all over the world; a lot of subject matter can find its way into it. I knew that people would expect a lot of tape covers, and there is a lot of that, but what was most interesting to me was to perform even more research, and to get to talk to people I've been reading about for years and ask them about minutiae that they didn't really remember.
AllMusic: As you've kind of implied, a lot of Deadheads who had really prized their tape collections at one point in time started surrendering them as CD-Rs, archive.org, and the like became available. Is there something that you're especially drawn to about cassette tapes, beyond their utility in your work?
Rodriguez: I've been grappling with that internally. Looking back at the project at this point, I wonder if it's partly me contending with my high school self. I don't know quite yet: there could be a comfort in revisiting that time in my life, when I was tape trading as a teenager. I'm not sure what I'm accessing there, but it was more of a carefree time for me.
When I started a Tumblr page in 2010 to get the word out about the collecting end of the project, it reinforced my excitement about it, because I was talking with Heads again. It was gratifying to be able to approach the subject as an adult, rather than as a spaced-out kid.
As far as how I feel about tapes now: they're an awesome medium. Some of the tapes in my collection are from the 1970s and still sound amazing, after probably going through all kinds of weather and storage environments. The technology itself is very robust, but its continued existence is dependent on this small group of people believing in the technology.
So, there's this personal narrative I have with tapes, but there's also this appreciation I have as someone working with the medium. Typical art stuff: "as I was working with the medium, I came to respect it as it subsumed me and took over my life".
AllMusic: Between the fact that the Gen pieces are made up of recordings of one band making their art, and the objects themselves are graced by designs by fans-turned-folk-artists, have you caught any flak for being appropriative in your work? If so, what would you say to such a charge?
When I first started this project, within the art world it was almost laughable that I was working with the subject matter of the Grateful Dead, but that changed with the resurgence of acknowledgment of the Dead within pop culture.
Rodriguez: I've gotten more flak for going against the unspoken agreement among Deadheads of not selling the tapes. I knew very well that I'd be stepping into that, though.
In the art world I occupy, that's not really an accusation that goes around at this point. You start with Duchamp and move on through Warhol, Koons, Kaws... it's just not really an argument. When I first started this project, within the art world it was almost laughable that I was working with the subject matter of the Grateful Dead, but that changed with the resurgence of acknowledgment of the Dead within pop culture. So, what had been a joke to some within that group turned into them trying to relate to me by talking about the Grateful Dead, but without their knowing many of the intricacies of the history around the band and the subcultures around that.
Meanwhile, after starting the Tumblr, I was also functioning within the Dead community as a fellow enthusiast. I was having more genuine conversations around the band in that context, the kind I'd been used to as a Deadhead teenager, but that community didn't really know about the art aspect of what I was doing.
What ended up happening that was controversial is this: I showed two of the Gen pieces, two tape racks, at the Frieze Art Fair in LA in 2019. I really wanted to do that, in order to show what was going on with the project conceptually. I actually wanted it to be three, the goal being that the viewer would see three tape racks, understand that they're separate entities, then start to question why there are three very similar things hanging at this prestigious art fair having to do with large quantities of Grateful Dead tapes.
The project started to get a lot of press, which was amazing, but also created some issues for me, because some Deadheads started questioning my motives. They thought that I was discounting the history of these things and being unfaithful to the unspoken agreement not to sell them, and they didn't really take the conceptual or sculptural element into consideration. They just saw it as using sacred objects for my own selfish purposes.
AllMusic: All art is made of sacred objects, though, right? If you made art out of a piece of wood, to somebody that tree was a sacred object.
Rodriguez: Heady! I like it. But yeah, it just depends on the audience and what line of communication they're using. In this case, I was getting flamed on Instagram because the price of one of the pieces was revealed on some blog, so it was kind of this classic cliche of "Hey maaan, the music is sacred and free! It can't be owned by anyone!".
I'm pretty jaded on that level, though: the Grateful Dead is a very commercial vehicle, and has been for a long time. They still do good things, and donate to righteous causes and individuals and the like, but there's a clear commercial aspect.
AllMusic: They're an extremely popular band that plays stadiums, and who had a line of expensive neckties in the 1980s. It's not an anarchist commune.
Rodriguez: Right. So, it was interesting, but stressful. Being public with it was not my favorite thing, even though it was a pinnacle I wanted to reach with the project. It's gotten better, but hopefully it doesn't happen again with the book. Hopefully, people appreciate my trying to make something that's really heady and informative.
AllMusic: I've got one more, extremely important question: favorite "Dark Star"?
Rodriguez: Oof. For me, I've never taken the trail of "I'm going to listen to EVERY "Dark Star", even though I can now. I'll hear moments I really love when I'm dubbing, but I'm not organized enough to do any of it from start to finish. Like, the John Oswald album Greyfolded (an album in which the "plunderphonics" artist took hours of live recordings of 'Dark Star' and edited them into an "ultimate" version) is an amazing project in that regard… I only hope the book can be something that weird and interesting!
That said, "Truckin'" on 11/6/77 at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton, NY, which was released as Dave's Picks Vol. 25 a couple years ago, is particularly amazing. The tape that I heard it on, though, was this great audience recording: the audience is going apeshit, the crescendos are so intense and elongated... they're clearly having an amazing time playing that night. Moments like that reinvigorate my faith in tapers capturing magic to be passed down to younger people.
Mark A. Rodriguez's coffee table book, After All is Said and Done: Taping the Grateful Dead, 1965-1995, will be available on September 20 from Anthology Editions.