Grateful Dead Archivist David Lemieux Knows Where the Beauty is Buried

Nearly thirty years on from the death of Jerry Garcia, one of the biggest bands in the world is the good ol’ Grateful Dead. And not just by fuzzy vibes-based metrics like “cultural impact,” either—the GD offshoot Dead & Company, with Bob Weir and John Mayer on co-lead guitar, made more money on the road last year than the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and on February 5 the Dead scored their fifty-ninth Top 40 album, thereby surpassing Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, who have fifty-eight apiece. The record-breaker is a set of archival live recordings, Dave’s Picks Volume 49: Frost Amphitheatre, Stanford U., Palo Alto, CA (4/27/85 & 4/28/85), and the Dave in question is David Lemieux, who for the last quarter-century has looked after the live legacy of what is surely the most-recorded rock-n’-roll band in the history of the form.

Lemieux was born in Ottowa, Canada 53 years ago and saw his first Grateful Dead show at the Hartford Civic Center on March 26, 1987 (Dave’s Picks: Vol. 36; very dialled-in “Cold Rain and Snow.”) He got a master’s degree in film archiving from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. In January of 1999 he got himself hired to catalogue the band’s extensive film and video collection, and in August of that year, when original Dead archivist Dick Lavalta died of a heart attack at fifty-six, Lemieux became the keeper of the Dead vault.

The Dead played over 2,300 shows between the late ‘60s and the mid-’90s, and at every point in their career someone was usually in charge of documenting the proceedings on tape, beginning with the band’s original sound man, benefactor and acid plug Owsley “Bear” Stanley. In Bear’s wake, other recording angels stepped in to capture the music, from engineer Betty Cantor (legendary for her pristine 2-track Dead recordings, known to heads as “Betty Boards”) to crew members like Kidd Candelario to longtime soundman Dan Healy (not to mention countless fans with microphones under their hats.)

There are still holes in the archive, Lemieux says. They’re missing the second half of 1970, when Owsley went to the federal clink for possession of massive amounts of LSD. No one can find the first few months of ‘79, including the Dead’s first shows at Madison Square Garden. But new stuff still rolls in every so often—a box of tapes hung on to by a roadie’s widow, or a collection like the one that became known as the Houseboat Tapes, reels loaned by the band to Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux in 1971 and never returned until 2004. “It was a pretty loose scene,” Lemieux says.

I spoke to Lemieux in January, exactly twenty-five years from the week he started working for the Dead.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to live stuff from the Dead’s archive. As a fan, in theory, I want to hear everything, but in practice, I find it hard to get my head out of the ‘60s and ‘70s. These Stanford shows on Volume 59 were recorded in the mid-’80s, which is when you got on the bus. What have I been missing, by not really digging into the shows from that period?

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