Dick Latvala – He Was a Friend of Mine
On August 6th, 1999 Dick Latvala, the Grateful Dead’s tape vault archivist who helped liberate (so far) 14 official compact disc releases of Grateful Dead live concerts, passed away after a week in a coma. I am proud to say…
He was a friend of mine.
Dick was one of the oddest, sweetest, most delightful, most twisted people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. His obsessive, insecure, neurotic, paranoid, self-destructive, hyperidiosyncratic tendencies were only surpassed by his radiant love for the music of the Grateful Dead. In the face of this unconditional love all his shortcomings were easily forgotten. Despite the world of difference in our perspectives, habits and lifestyles we were able to find common ground in those heavenly moments we spent listening to and discussing music. The craft of Jerry Garcia and company brought us many hours of joy, and together we basked in the warm glow of the love of those sacred sounds.
Dick was one weird dude. Next to Jerry Garcia he was probably the most heavily self-medicated being on the planet. And I have no doubt he would’ve left Jerry in the dust had he the resources with which to do so. The first time I stayed at his house I marveled at the way he constantly altered his consciousness. After staying up with me till 4AM, playing me jewels from the band’s vault till my eyes could no longer stay open, he arose at 7AM – just like any other day that had ever been. He’d shuffle passed the guest room straight for the living room table. There he would start his day by working the bong for three or four phat loads (and the nugs he smoked were no ordinary ganja – they were the strongest indoor buds I’ve ever tasted). Then, he’d go to the coffee machine, load a big mug with joe and three heaping tablespoons of sugar, before heading outside to smoke a cigarette. On his way back to the coffee machine for a refill (with three more heaping spoonfuls of sugar), he’d stop at the living room table again, smoke a few more bong hits, and shove three sticks of juicy fruit gum in his mouth. This alone would’ve put me under the table. Six bong hits, two cups of coffee, six tablespoons of sugar, three sticks of gum later and it was only 7:15AM! But Dick’s day was only starting. Before running out at 10AM for some sort of Arby’s Big Boy meat sandwich for breakfast I witnessed him repeat this ritual until 10 cups of coffee had gone down his gullet. And all the while the bong saw action, tapes rolled, labels were filled out, phone calls were made, the cats were talked to as though they were humans, and a dozen or so outlandishly exaggerated points of contention were thrown my way about this or that version of Dark Star. This is how it went all day long (until the Heinekens starting flowing in the afternoon, at which point the pace picked up a bit). Unrelenting, awe-inspiring, even shocking consumption – and all the while not a glimmer of remorse. Damn! That Dickie sure was a superphreak! Neal Cassady would’ve loved Dick.
Dick was also obviously a man in deep pain. Like so many others I spent uncountable hours on the phone with him trying to boost his fragile soul, which was wounded from putting up with what he perceived as intentional psychological abuse all day long (this was back in the days when the Dick’s Picks project was just getting going and he had to struggle to help manifest the 14 incredible releases we now can buy so easily). But then, in the middle of marveling at how trapped this poor guy’s mind had become, thinking how lucky I was to be free of such overwhelming negative attachments, he’d throw out a shockingly clear zen observation on his whole dilemma, or the plight of humans in general, an observation that would make me wonder who was truly the more attached/trapped person. Part madman, part monk, Dick lived by the philosophy of Crazy Wisdom and for all his suffering there were moments of true brilliance, power, wisdom and freedom that came along the strange winding path of his life.
Only one balm truly soothed Dicks wounds – the music of the Grateful Dead (well, maybe two, counting Imus). Dick would be a total mess, intensely distraught over the hassles he’d endure at work, and then he’d put on a tape from 1968 or 69. All of a sudden that pain would melt. A magical look would come over his face – a look I’d seen before, when Ram Dass would sing Hindu devotional songs – it was the look of the inner child being liberated, soothed, fed, nurtured, loved. Experiencing how he could use music to transform such suffering into such joy in a mere instant was truly mindblowing. It was an important reminder for me, when along my own path I would encounter massive bullshit, powerplays, headtrips. Don’t ever forget people – THE MUSIC IS LOVE.
Heaven and hell were not far apart for Dick. He’d visit them both on a daily basis. And being in his presence as he careened back and forth between the two was a remarkable trip I am honored to have witnessed. The bottom line was that Dick wanted nothing more in life than to get high and help others get high. When all is said and done Dick did important work on the planet. He was a catalyst for a lot of other people’s joy – a joy that didn’t come at the expense of others. That’s the beauty of the music of the Grateful Dead. It feeds the soul without hurting others. And that is the beauty of Dick Latvala. He helped liberate the music which brings us joy.
Dick, I hope you’re finally at peace. If there’s a heaven, I hope you’re there at Garcia’s feet as he’s pickin’ away and laughin’ with Pig Pen, Janis, and Bill. That’s what you’d want and I wish it for you. Thanks, old friend, for the music and the good times.
John Dwork – firstname.lastname@example.org
John is the co-author of the Deadhead’s Taping Compendium – a guide to the music of the Grateful Dead on tape. Volume Two of this project (which covers the years 1975-1985) is now available at bookstores nationwide. Volume Three will be published in 2000.