When the Grateful Dead went into the studio in early 1967 with nine tracks from its live show, anchored on Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s bluesy vocals and “96 Tears”-style organ, the band expanded just one song, “Viola Lee Blues,” beyond five or six minutes. While any Deadhead can tell the difference between a Jerry Garcia solo in 1966 and one from 1971, no one knows more about the group’s sonic evolution than longtime archivist David Lemieux, 46, who describes that era as “nascent Grateful Dead, before they became psychedelic warriors.”
The history and fine arts in film major from Ottawa, Ontario, compiled the new two-disc set documenting the band’s self-titled debut with Rhino Records, the first of a 50th-anniversary reissue series through 2039.
Lemieux oversees the Dead’s Los Angeles archive of thousands of tapes, arranged meticulously by year and format. “To me, as a Deadhead and as an archivist, every one of those tapes tells a story.” Speaking from his Ottawa home, he opens up about the new Grateful Dead reissue and the challenges of plotting a trajectory for the next 22 years.
How do you keep finding more and more material, like the live second disc in the debut LP reissue?
We didn’t have a lot in the way of outtakes, so what we decided to do was find a really great live show that represented the sound of the Grateful Dead on that first record. They were getting more experimental as they headed toward the end of ’67, with Robert Hunter writing more lyrics and things like “Dark Star” coming, and also [drummer] Mickey Hart joining.
David Browne’s So Many Roads describes the album as having a “brittle, jittery energy, as if the Dead were hurtling through their repertoire as quickly as possible.” Is that a fair assessment of the band’s 1966 live show as well?
They were focusing on how tight they could be. One song on the first album that really reflects the live Dead sound, as it would become later, would be “Viola Lee Blues.” It hit a couple of peaks that I call “the frenzy point.” They were a disciplined band in the early days.
How did you get into archiving Grateful Dead recordings in the first place?
When I was about 16 or 17, I started collecting [Dead] tapes. We were trading in batches of 10, so before you knew it, you’ve got 200, then 300, then 500, then you know a guy who’s got 1,000, and you go, “I want 1,000.” Around 1991 or so, I read a story about the Dead’s archive that mentioned archivist Dick Latvala. I remember thinking, “Wow, there’s a Grateful Dead archivist?”
What does the Dead’s vault look like? I imagine an endless, museum-like library.
Since 2006 it has been in the greater Los Angeles area. Visually, unless you’re a Deadhead, it’s not that exciting. It’s thousands and thousands of tapes on shelves. By no means is it a museum.
Where do the band members fit in with your job and the Grateful Dead reissue? How involved were they?
They don’t tend to be extremely involved, largely owing to how busy they are with current projects. To them, that is not only the past, but the ancient past. Phil Lesh is incredibly busy with Terrapin Crossroads, and Bob Weir, Mickey and Billy Kreutzmann are busy with Dead and Co. I still get emails quite often from the guys going, “Oh, my God, I’ve heard from so many people that Dave’s Picks was such a great show.”
Did the Fare Thee Well concerts create more public interest in the Dead that flows back to the archive?
We have a very loyal fan base. I don’t think it translated to a massive interest in the archival CD sales, but certainly those shows made the Dead once again a very mainstream story. People like my mom, she doesn’t pay too much attention to the Dead scene and what I do, but she’d say, “Wow, I hear the Dead sold out Chicago — 75,000 people a night.”
How nice is it to know there’s some security, or at least a solid plan, with an album release through 2039?
It gives us some rare structure. We know for sure that every year we’re going to release four Dave’s Picks, which are the three-CD complete live shows, quarterly. We know we’re going to do one big box set each year, whether that’s an eight-CD set or an 11-CD set, like the one we have coming up. This gives us one other big thing to focus on every year.