David Lemieux: The Dead Archivist Abides – Part II
Last month, John Patrick Gatta began an extended conversation with Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux. The interview touched on many subjects, both familiar and new, including the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, which is referenced in the title above. This month, Lemieux talks a bit more about his relationship with Dick Latvala, outlines some of his own current endeavors and shares some thoughts on what’s in the works in terms of archival releases.
JPG: Let’s backtrack for a second here. I don’t think we talked about this last time. How did you get involved with Grateful Dead Productions?
DL: I did a masters in film archiving. That ended in late ’98. And while I was writing my thesis in the summer of ’ 98 I contacted them. I contacted Dick [Latvala] specifically, and said, ‘I’m going to be down in the Bay Area in a few months. I’m working on a masters thesis on film archiving in Canada, the history of Canadian film archives and I would love to see how GDP, which is primarily a commercial audio archive,’ — which is really what it was in ‘98/’99 – ‘how it holds its film and video.’ They released Downhill From Here and Ticket to New Year’s but they hadn’t really ventured into really using their video collection or even cataloging it to the extent that they could.
So, Dick called me two months after I sent that email and he said, ‘Oh, you’re coming down here.’ I said, ‘I’m coming down next week.’ He invited me to see the Vault. So I did. And we hit it off. And I hit it off with John Cutler who was the Dead’s sound guy and studio engineer. He produced In the Dark and all that stuff. Tremendous guy. That was summer of ’98. Then, in the fall of ’98 when I finished my masters I wrote both of those guys a thank you letter, an actual letter not an email but an actual printed out letter and said, ‘If you need a video archivist…’ because Dick was so busy with the audio stuff. It was more than a full-time job for him to keep that catalog organized and, of course, listening and picking the [Dick’s] Picks. It’s the kind of thing that I think anybody would throw that into a letter. I get letters like that all the time. A week later, Cutler called, ‘Yeah, we do need help with the video and you seem qualified. Come on down.’ I was down there doing the video work in the spring of ’99. I kept coming back through the Summer of ’99 on different contracts. And in August of ’99 while working on the initial cataloging of The Grateful Dead Movie outtakes Dick passed away. So, while I was down there for a one month contract he passed away and they just asked me to stay. So I did.
It was very sad more than anything, and it was the kind of thing where I was working with him pretty closely for four months in the spring and then a couple months in the summer and then he was gone. Dick was unlike anybody else. He was one of these guys where every exchange you have with him is completely memorable. He was larger than life, a good phrase for somebody like Dick.
LEARNING FROM DICK LATVALA, LISTENING OBJECTIVELY
JPG: What did you learn from him as far as an archivist and choosing shows?
DL: In the short time that I did work with him he taught me how to objectively listen to Grateful Dead music. And I say that because he listened to it academically. And, of course, he was the biggest Deadhead you’d ever meet so he did it certainly for pleasure. But he really knew how to listen to Grateful Dead music objectively, which is to say John you have your favorite era of Grateful Dead without a doubt. That could be the ‘80s with Brent or that could be…whatever it is that’s your favorite era. And I don’t know why, but you might not like at all the real out there “Other Ones” from ’72 and ’73. And that’s understandable. Somebody just might not like that. They like a different type of Grateful Dead but what Dick taught me is you have to step back from your personal preferences and recognize that even if you don’t like 1985, you can step back and not even in the context of 1985, see that this is good music period. And it’s different from the stuff that I, personally, Dick Latvala or John Gatta, like but this is just great Grateful Dead music and it’s outside of the context of what I would normally listen to. So, he really taught that. Dick is the kind of guy who you think this guy probably doesn’t listen to anything outside of ’69, he can listen to something like the Hartford ’83 show and not even say in the context of 1983 that this is good. He can just flat out say, ‘This is really good.’ Then, you listen to it with those objective ears, not because Dick told you to, and you say, ‘You know this is really good. It’s not Live Dead, it’s not Europe ’72, it’s something different. But for what it is, it is pretty interesting. And then when you look at it in the greater Grateful Dead context you’re like, ‘It’s just them taking another chance in a different direction, and it’s really good.’
That was the one key thing. I remember once when I was a teenager, a very similar thing happened to me where somebody had offered me, and I can’t remember what it was, it was a type of food. Let’s say that they offered me a Sprite and I said, ‘No, I only drink Pepsi.’ And it was a hippie, and he was like, ‘Hey man, variety is the spice of life.’ And I thought about it, ‘You know what? He’s right.’ Then, I drank that Sprite and said, ‘This is actually refreshing.’ It was not a soda conversation but it was something like that. And I was like, ‘You know what? You can’t be so close-minded and be, ‘Oh, no no no, I won’t buy that because I only listen to 1973.’ ‘I won’t pick something from 1978 because I only like ‘76.’ You can’t do it, especially when you get into a position where you have some modicum of influence on these kinds of things, you really got to check your subjectivity at the door because it’s not about what you like. If it was, every Dick’s Pick under Dick’s tenure would have been ’68 to ’72. And there is a certain faction that would not have complained about that, but that certainly would not have represented the Grateful Dead. I certainly do agree with people, I don’t defend it, when people say, ‘You really got to do a ’93 to ’95 Road Trips.’ And they’re right. We do. The thing is it’s just a lot more limiting to find…It’s good but we certainly do have a few things from that era we could release and probably will. Likewise, early to mid-‘80s, I’m sure you’ll see some of that stuff. There’s really good music from all the eras.
JPG: Like I said, I’m a Brent fan but I go through moods and with that hit on different years at different times.
DL: Exactly. You named it. You go through moods. I remember somebody saying to me, ‘How many versions of “Sugar Magnolia” can you listen to?’ (slight laugh) Quite honestly, all of them because they’re all so different. I could put on a ’72 or an ’81 or a ’93 and they’re all going to be so different that I can find something really interesting and enjoyable on all of them.
Checking your subjectivity at the door is really the key to this. It’s not about me and it’s not about one faction of Deadheads, it’s about representing the band and their entire legacy from 1966 all the way through 1995 which is why I really liked Fallout from the Phil Zone so much. He had tracks on it from ’67 right up to ’95. Dick had a huge role in that Fallout from the Phil Zone. Phil found good music. And you’re like, ‘Hey, this is really good music.’ The “Visions of Johanna” on there. Once you recognize that, it’s true. Certain eras, it might be a little difficult to find good music but once you find it it’s there and it’s good.
SPRING 2009 DEAD TOUR
JPG: You’re known within the Deadhead scene but you’ve been mostly in the background. On the Spring 2009 tour by The Dead you were more available, hanging out at the merch booth during shows. How did it feel to be in a more public setting?
DL: It was fine. And I think anybody who knows me, whether it’s people who have known me by the phone like you or friends, they know I’m a pretty laidback guy. If somebody thought that this was a good idea, which I think it was a good idea, to get out and meet people because people do have a lot of questions that they might not realize I have a very public email address at the website (firstname.lastname@example.org). People can ask me and I respond to everything through that. Likewise, people might have a lot questions that they have on the tip of their tongue and want to ask the guy who has some involvement, whatever that involvement is, but somebody whose favorite album might be Steppin’ Out with the Grateful Dead, the England ’72, and ask, ‘Why did you choose this version of “Good Lovin’” over that one?’ I love talking about that kind of stuff like that. I don’t know what other people thought of it but I loved it.
I communicate with dozens and dozens of people a day through that public email address, but to actually be able to meet a lot of people was a real ton of fun. And I’ve done a ton of those PBS [telethons] so I don’t mind at all.
JPG: Now, you were putting up the setlist on Twitter, right?
DL: I was doing it on the Dead’s website.
JPG: At Philadelphia you originally heard “Big River,” which I did as well, and posted that but it moved into “Cumberland Blues” instead. And, I guess, some people fried you for that.
DL: (slight laugh) Yeah, honestly I welcome that kind of discussion and I only say that because it really demonstrates that people, 14 years after the last Grateful Dead show, 30 years after they might have started listening are still this passionate about it. And I love that.
Now, I don’t think that there’s any place for mean-spiritedness but that’s very rare. I think that everybody’s point is valid. Anybody who has anything to say is certainly as valid as anything I do or you do. And I have the forums of the Taper’s Section at www.dead.net and the Sirius XM show (“Today in Grateful Dead History” at 7 a.m., 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. EST daily). Other people have website comment areas. That’s why there’s discussion forums on www.dead.net. That’s why my email address is so public. It’s completely welcome. It’s nothing without the passion of the fans, and I mean that.
You could say that they fried me, but I like to look at it a little more like they were passionate…and there are people who like to be the first one to point out that you made an error. They love it.
JPG: I just laughed about it because I still have the habit of writing down the setlist and I remember writing “Big River” then scratched it out in favor of “Cumberland.” After that it was posted “Sorry people but we do not tolerate verbal/text aggression. We are human and make mistakes. Relax…”
DL: See, those are the moderators who are sensitive about that stuff, and rightfully so because there is some mean-spiritedness attacks against other fans. You’ll see a lot of this. In the Tapers Section I’ll play something from 1987 and someone will post, ‘Oh man, get back to the good years.’ Someone will say, ‘What are you talking about? ’87 was a fine year.’ And then somebody throws something at the other one that’s not very nice and I just don’t understand. Again, it comes down to you’ve got to learn to appreciate all of this stuff. Yeah, ’87 is a lot different than ’72 but it’s pretty darn good. There’s some great stuff in there.