I corresponded with Grateful Dead archivist Dick Latvala from early 1996 until sometime before his untimely death in 1999. This was approximately the period of “Dick’s Picks” volumes 4 through 11.
The first couple of years happened on 20th century terms, transacted in paper and cassettes and postage. I still have all those tangible artifacts. By the spring of 1997, we were both on e-mail – email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Very little of the resulting electronic exchange remains. I found a few dust motes in the deepest reaches of my HD, which sprang back to life with the application a droplet of .txt extension.
I was prompted to dig out my Latvala letters by the launch of the Latvala-tribute podcast, “36 from the Vault." I found a number of comments from Dick that shed light on his thinking at the time.
From Mailed Letters
2/11/96: “I, too, would stay in the 1971>1974 period for at least 20-30 releases! But, as you can imagine, variety will always be a variable to consider. So, it is almost an obligation to mix things up. Any help you might know about (for ex. shows from the 80s) would always be appreciated.”
3/6/96: Tombstone blurb – “Hi John, that was an amazingly accurate analysis of a whole bunch of things. I have never received such a knowledgeable & stimulating letter!”
3/6/96: “I really can’t answer your questions, since these very issues are playing such a large part of what I think about all the time, when it comes to the question of what to release. So far, I’ve backed off ‘the whole show’ (but may still do so when it feels right!) concept. And I’ve thought quite a lot about eventually getting to the idea of 2-3 CD’s of the best of a run of 2-3 shows at any particular venue. But it still feels like there are some more possible releases in the style we have established. I surely will never get into the idea of a CD consisting of the ‘best versions’ of various songs or would I ever consider (unless righteously coerced) the best of a whole tour. But I do see something like a box set of Pigpen, or other bits & oddities that exist. Anything is possible.”
4/2/96: “I don’t have a terrible problem with releasing shows that aren’t complete shows, or even releasing the best of 2 or 3 nights at one venue. (Which is what 2/13-14/70 was an example) If someone wants the whole show, with all the ‘dead-air’ included, then he can simply get into tape trading.”
4/2/96: “Your comments on the special-ness of hearing 2-3 conversations going on in the audience that is captured on tape, well I guess I will agree that it is ‘perverse,’ (no, a better work would be UNIQUE!). I, too, think that this is also cool and interesting & goes towards making each tape special in its own right…”
4/2/96: “What shows are you wanting to see released? I enjoy assimilating many opinions on this slippery subject.”
4/2/96: “P.S. I couldn’t simply break up the 2/14/70 jam, and insert the 2/13 version of “We Bid You Goodnight,” into the 2/14 jam. That is really going too far. Imagine what kind of precedent that would establish!”
4/2/97: “Your letter was a nice surprise. After digesting it, I have come to the conclusion that we should e-mail, or talk on the phone. I finally made the big jump into cyberspace, and I’ll bet you’re familiar with that territory. Anyway, I had a bunch of thoughts, but I’d rather get your attention in the ‘here & now” so to speak… I am 2 months into the computer, so I can barely get everything working properly, let alone start wandering around & learning stuff. My new e-mail address is: email@example.com. See you, Dick”
And there the paper trail ends. We never talked on the phone. On my deepest HD, I found several emails from Dick.
5/8/97: “I liked your selections for listening or should I say re-listening? 1985 isa year that I have forgotten a whole lot about. there are some great 80's shows, but I really think that you are better off focusing your attention of the earlier years! I think it is important to get all of the shows from 1972-74. There are still a number of shows that I have not heard yet, and it is more than likely time to review all of my past reviews and see if I feel the same way about everything…”
5/8/97: “The question about the particulars of the vault… Rest assured that there is no damage as such. There are quite a few tapes missing throughout the years, but other than that things are in good shape. And what do you mean about this elusive "Eyes of the World", that is not getting on any DP's??? We haven't even gotten to the era where most of the great ones were performed! Or maybe I should say that we are just now getting to the proper era.”
5/9/97: “… I really think that you have a good idea about releasing something from the 2/19/71 through 8/26/71. Obviously, we have the multi-tracks from the Fillmore East shows in April 1971. But I am beginning to think there might be something else the might happen that would be a great surprise. We shall see. Got to go.”
5/21/97: “Today the video crew is coming out from Boston to interview me about the next "Dick's Picks". The announcement of what this release will be, is going to be made on 6/14/97, on VH-1, and on the internet and at our tape playing party at the Fillmore that night. After the disaster of how DP #7 was analyzed and dissected even before the release was made, we have easily come to the conclusion that we shall tell nobody ever again, and maybe just maybe Deadheads that do find out, will be able to keep their mouths shut so as to not spoil the surprise for the rest of us. We shall see.”
6/8/97: “Anyway, we only have 6 days before the big announcement of what the next "Dick's Picks" is going to be. I kind of wish that I was one of those out there that will get to experience the surprise, when it is announced on VH-1, this coming Saturday night. I'll talk to you soon, I hope.”
7/13/97: “P.S. I can almost absolutely guarantee that 9/27/72-Stanley Theater, N.J. will be a "pick" as soon as I can get back to that era. It only seems fair to open things up a bit now." (I was actually urging Dick to release 9/28/72!)
7/13/97: “PPS- I have to say that I'm pretty embarassed about that "infomercial" onVH-1, June 14. It was not at all the way I wanted to announce the winner of the date for the next "Dick's Picks". (5/2/70 that is) And I'm even more emotionally out of control about how much time was devoted to the show from Ithaca, N.Y. (5/8/77) I really am puzzled about why people want this show to be "officially" released, when there are perfect copies available from almost any taper. I think there are better shows from that era, even that month!”
From notes included with cassettes Dick sent me
8/14-15/71 (Berkeley, CA): “These two shows just recently surfaced, and they have never been in our vaults. A relative of an ex-employee who died seems to have been the source. I put together the highlights for each show on cassette. I hope it gets you as powerfully as it blasted me. The jamming on the 8/14 ‘Other One’ is some of the most exciting & screamiest music I’ve ever heard.” (9/7/97)
2/19/73 (Chicago, IL): “Hi John, thanks for sending me that interchange w/Pig. I decided to record over it with something that is PRETTY NICE.” (7/98)
Dick was collecting combative exchanges between Pigpen and the engineers. He didn’t have a recording of the “cut your head off and shit in it” declaration from Pigpen – I don’t have any idea, now, when that was from (1971, maybe?) – but that’s the tape I sent Dick.
11/11/73 (Winterland, SF): “Well I thought that was a pretty clever way you got me to make you these tapes, so that you can make a good comparison. So, tell me what you think after analyzing the two types [sic?].” (4/27/98)
The interesting part of this conversation is lost. We’d had an argument about this show’s “Dark Star,” which I revered, but which Dick didn’t think was too special. In that exchange, he asserted that “The Other One,” not “Dark Star,” was the acid test across the years. (That’s the quote I wish I had.) I remember sitting in front of my Mac Classic, pondering that very plausible assertion, which was counter-intuitive to me at the time. Eventually, I said that maybe the ambience of my particular, shitty, 11/11 tape, combined with my extensive, happy listening to it, had affected my judgement of the performance itself. So, Dick sent me a dub of the whole show to help me decide.
Dick Latvala was an immensely loveable and generous person, who curated The Grateful Dead vault thoughtfully and enduringly. I barely knew him. All I have to offer regarding our correspondence, his comments on his mission, and my memories of the time, is in this post.
I can only add that the overall vibe he consistently communicated was that he felt the way any deep Deadhead would feel, if they were suddenly charged with piloting the curation of The Grateful Dead’s vaults. He took it very seriously, he had some stage fright, he was the kid in the candy shop – tripping – and he loved input.
Hello, again, Dick, and thanks.