See y'all Friday night! (Anybody got an extra Ratdog ticket for
"He holds the power to raise the Dead "
By Rip Rense
FOR THE INQUIRER
Dick Latvala is the architect of what you might call the afterlife of
the Grateful Dead, the band's continuing "tour" via the
mail-order-only Dick's Picks series of concert CDs. Think of them as
Grateful Dead reruns.
"I'm lucky, man. I don't know how I deserve this," said the
gravel-voiced Latvala, at home in the Northern California town of
Petaluma, ground zero of GD territory. "Who in life can get the only
possible job he could do? There's nothing else I know how to do. I
can chew Doublemint and sit on a couch longer than anyone, but no
one's going to pay money for that."
Latvala, 54, is the keeper of the Grateful Dead vault, which in the
Deadhead world is roughly equivalent to guarding the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The group, which broke up following the 1995 death of lead guitarist
Jerry Garcia, was famous not only for allowing fans to tape concerts,
but for making its own tapes of its approximately 3,000 performances.
Most were simple, two-track "soundboard" affairs, meaning they exist
in the same warts-and-all mixes that the engineer chose during each
show. And it is from these vault tapes that Dick . . . picks.
"I have an insatiable, unquenchable compulsion to receive the thrills
that are inherent in listening to and experiencing Grateful Dead
music," declared Latvala. "That's how I got into tapes, and why it's
consumed my whole life. I want to hear every show, because they're
Since the first Dick's Picks in 1993 (Dec. 19, 1973, Tampa, Fla.),
the series has been essential among die-hard Deadheads. Now Latvala is
on the road to a handful of Dead-friendly cities for parties, light
shows, concerts and raves to celebrate his latest release, Dick's
Picks Vol. 10.
The self-described Deadhead ambassador will roll into the Electric
Factory on Friday and Saturday. Or maybe it's more accurate to say
that the Dead will play Dec. 29 and 30, 1977, at Winterland in San
Francisco -- at the Electric Factory. Those concert dates, held sacred
by fans as being among the band's all-time best performances, comprise
the three discs of DP Vol. 10.
On Friday, the Winterland performance will be pumped through a sound
system loud enough to raise the Dead, you might say, and Latvala
promises some surprise selections from the GD vault. And on Saturday,
entertainment will be provided by the Dead cover band Splintered
Sunlight, longtime Jerry Garcia keyboard sideman Merle Saunders,
former Grateful Dead members Donna Jean (Godchaux) MacKay and Tom
Constanten, and the band Another Planet.
David Gans, host of the syndicated Grateful Dead Hour (heard locally
on WXPN-FM Thursdays at 10 p.m.), will be ringmaster both evenings.
And the garrulous Latvala will be there, too, carrying on with anyone
who wants to talk Dead.
To explain Latvala (pronounced Lat-VAL-uh) is almost as hard as
explaining the appeal of the Dead's sometimes sloppy concerts, the
mysterious attraction of their songs, and the fascination with
Garcia's improvisations. Shortly after earning a bachelor's degree in
psychology from San Francisco State in 1966, Latvala decided to
dedicate his life to listening to and taping the Dead. "I'm a hippie.
I've never had a job, really, until now," said the Grateful Dead
employee whose first encounter with the group came at the legendary
1966 Trips Festival in San Francisco. "Well, I worked for my father as
an apprentice carpenter in '69 and washed some dishes in Hawaii, and I
drove a taxicab. You could write an article saying that the Grateful
Dead saved Dick from a life of crime."
Latvala has probably attended more shows than anyone outside of the
guys who played them. To hear him chat with other Dead connoisseurs is
to hear a conversation peppered with dates, exclamations of joy and
insider code. ("Scarlet/Fire," for example, is the frequently paired
"Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain.") And then there's the
frequent phrase. "But have you heard . . ?"
His commentary is like that of a stats-obsessed sports fan. To wit:
"Harpur College should become the standard-setter for what a live show
can do. That's as good as it ever will get for one show," Latvala
said, referring to the half-acoustic May 2, 1970, concert in
Binghamton, N.Y., that's captured on DP Vol. 8. "I have other periods,
of course. . . . 2/28/69 and 3/1/69 -- those two nights are killers.
11/7 and 11/8/69, when they first went back to the old Fillmore, they
nailed it. Those are pretty hard to ignore."
If pressed, Latvala can rattle off the particulars of no fewer than
200 favorite Dead shows, complete with set lists, recording quirks and
standout songs. After that, he needs to refer to notes.
Selecting the shows for a DP release is "torture central," he said --
a tussle between his own tastes and the avalanche of requests from
Deadheads. To explain his criteria, he returned to the gum analogy:
"Doublemint has a lot of chews in it. It'll last. Juicyfruit and
Wrigley's Spearmint will go out real fast, compared to Doublemint. I
mean, you can go twice as long on Doublemint! . . . Well, the goal is
to find shows that can stand up under repeated listenings and still
give you the goods.
"Look, how many movies have you bought? You may rent one, but do you
watch it twice? But we listen to musical events 200 times or more and
still find new things. That's the kind of show I'm looking for."
Latvala has one other requirement: secrecy. He seeks no publicity for
the releases, and the dates to be featured on a DP are known only to
him until the CD is released. "There aren't enough surprises in the
world," he explained.
How did Latvala get to pick? Well, in the world of the Grateful Dead,
happenstance is always a good explanation. He became friendly with
some of the infamously unfriendly Dead roadies, who were amused by the
depth of his knowledge. Eventually he was asked to perform odd jobs --
sweeping up, hauling trash, etc. -- before graduating to one of the
oddest jobs a person could seek: organizing and cataloging the work of
a group that thrived on chaos.
"I'm going to write a book, How I Buffaloed the Dead Into Believing
I Know Anything About Them," he said with a laugh. "My nature melded
well enough with everyone so that I was trusted enough over time to do
things -- being a runner, gopher, peon, whatever. It was pretty
humiliating. I paid some heavy dues to get where I am."
The remaining band members leave Latvala, and DP production team
Jeffrey Norman and John Cutler, to their own devices. (Latvala
oversees mono- and two-track concert tapes; bassist Phil Lesh
supervises multitrack Dead concert issues for Arista.) And the
archivist talked about the vault tapes with Garcia exactly once.
"I said something casual one day, when blowing into Front Street [
the Dead's studio in San Rafael, Calif. ] . Something about the old
tapes and how good they are. And he said, 'Well, you know,
someone might do that job [ of archiving them ] , but I certainly
won't participate. I don't ever want to hear any of that. . . . All it
does is remind me of what I was trying to do!' And I understood what
he meant. But, man, that doesn't mean we can't get what came down!"
With a new assemblage of ex-Dead members, The Other Ones, planning to
play the GD repertoire on tour this summer and Latvala still with
roughly 2,990 concerts to pick from, there seems to be a good deal of
life left in the old Dead.
"Dick Latvala is thoroughly authentic and utterly passionate," said
Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally. "He was the ultimate guy for
the job, no question about that. And there's lots of tape left.
This could go on for a lot of years."
There's a side article too:
March 25, 1998
Dick's primo picks
DP Vol. 2 (one disc): Columbus, Ohio, 10/31/71: ``Absolutely. This was
one of those dives deep down into stuff where I didn't know what to
expect, and came up with a jackpot. A pearl. It's a shocker.''
DP Vol. 3 (two discs): Pembroke Pines, Florida, 5/22/77: ``I was
there. I came out of that show saying the Dead have gone opera, man,
after hearing `Sunrise.' I didn't hear a thing that happened. I went
through about ten shows in May of 77, one of their more famous months,
half of which I had heard before. And 5/22 was the last one I heard.
And right away, I was blown away. The quality and performance was
better. And I think it tears apart Ithaca. I think it rips it to
DP Vol. 4 (three discs): Fillmore East, San Francisco, 2/13-14/70 -
Mostly a Valentine's Day ``breakfast'' show (introduced by horror film
host Zacherle) full of madcap hippie kids and supercharged
performance; one of the all-time most coveted Dead performances.
Latvala: ``That's just an obvious one.''
DP Vol. 8 (three discs): Binghamton, New York, 5/2/70 - Recorded
during the height of anti-Vietnam protests. Some of the electricity in
the crowd and band is obviously due to the ongoing the bombing of
Cambodia. Transitional Dead, debuting acoustic folk-influenced songs
to augment their ``psychedelic'' electric set. Latvala: ``That's as
good as it ever will get for one show.''
DP Vol. 10 (three discs): see story - Latvala: ``Just frenetic with
aggressive attack, regardless of what notes are hit. There's no
concern for `is everyone keeping up?' They're just flying. It's just
- Rip Rense