Dead Notes #16: The Dead Tape Collector (Mark A. Rodriguez) Interview

You asked, we sort of listened. We’re pausing Dead Notes‘ hiatus, which began in early 2018 following our Mickey Hart interview. That conversation sent me down a different creative shakedown, resulting in a burgeoning career creating artwork for many of my heroes—The Grateful Dead included. As a result, Dead Notes was buried six feet under and I kind of personally vowed it would stay that way unless something came along that sparked the lovelight again. Enter longtime friend and visual confidant/bullshit detector, Mark A. Rodriguez aka Dead Tape Collector, known for the long running Generations project which has found a second life in his recently published Anthology book: After All is Said and Done: Taping the Grateful Dead 1965-1995. 

Mark and I come from similar backgrounds of fandom. We remember the last days of the original tape trading scene, any many years later found enough nostalgia tickling our bones to start collecting and archiving Dead tapes again with an increased interest in the artwork. You may remember the Tape Art Zine we did in 2017, which Mark also contributed to by providing several outstanding examples of fan art. His interest in that area of The Grateful Dead lore is truly all encompassing, and he’s studied both the process and resulting artwork with care. After All Is Said and Done tells the full story from all angles and I can say personally and confidently that it’s one of the most important books to come out on The Grateful Dead in years, and sets the barometer high for future work.

Please enjoy our chat, which ran for hours and got as nerdy as you might expect. To make things a little interesting I will send a box of Grateful Dead tapes from my personal stash to the first person who can dub me a copy of July 13, 1981 at McNichols Sports Arena AKA my birthdate show. XL2’s and wrap it in your finest hand done artwork. Reach out—you know where to find me! | d norsen

Aquarium Drunkard: We are cut from the same cloth when it comes to our Dead fandom and about the same age. Do you remember when you first found out about tape trading? 

Mark Rodriguez: For me, I think tape trading came through not the Dead, but through Phish. And at that point, I had some official Dead releases, I had What a Long Strange Trip. I think I got that probably around…it would have to be like ‘93 or ‘94, just before high school. But during high school, I remember that everyone who was into the Dead had the Skeletons From the Closet album I went to a prep school, where there was a dress code, but the heads found out that they could get away with wearing patchwork pants because they were made of corduroy. No one at the time knew what lot fashion was.

AD: That’s amazing. Peak ‘90s man! 

Mark Rodriguez: When I was a freshman, I thought those people were like, the “hippies.” Yeah, they had got this particular style. And I saw that Skeletons From the Closet cover art a lot, which is why I probably never wanted to listen to it. To me, I was like, “Oh, but I have this double disc thing.” [Laughs] Anyway, the “Jack Straw” recording on that album was from Europe 72. That’s what kind of hooked me into the Dead. 

Fast forward to, I don’t know, probably a year within high school. My friend was getting into Phish, and we were starting to learn about tape trading, I guess. It was like this whole weird, cartoon world. It’s not your typical band. But none of us had access to recordings of tapes. Anyways so we go to a show, and I just was like, “I’m going to go down to the tapers section.” [Laughs]

AD: Oh yeah? [Laughs] Is this your first Phish shows at this point?

Mark Rodriguez: No, my first Phish show is Alpine Valley 1998. This was the UIC shows in the Fall of 1998.

AD: Ok gotcha.

Mark Rodriguez: The clincher for me at those shows was they played “Frankenstein” as an encore. I needed to hear that again!

AD: Too funny! That’s what attracted me is when I saw them at Darien Lake in ‘97 when the Merry Pranksters showed up. It was Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. I was already a Deadhead at that point. I wouldn’t say I was a full-fledged Deadhead. I liked Phish. I liked The Dead. But that show was just like, “Oh my god!” And I had to have the tapes. “Frankenstein” was played because they were mimicking Frankenstein, but I too had to find out how I could hear it again.

Mark Rodriguez: Yes, basically.[Laughs] It’s kind of funny because they’re two different sounds. And for me, I like the Dead, and it fits in with most of the other classic rock that I liked. Phish was like, doing some Simpsons version of classic rock that I loved. It fit in that way, and then over time, I went in reverse and kind of, like, reprioritized the Dead more than Phish. 

Yeah, but that’s one big aside to the question. So, I went to the tapers tent, and this is just who I am, I’m just going to be here, hang out and see what happens. You can’t really get hurt. And I got a bunch of weird stares, and this one guy, Micah was like, “Oh, I don’t have the second set, but I have first set.” And so you’re talking about a 17 year old talking to, like, some 27, 28 year old. I don’t know how old he was. Over time, we developed this relationship where I’d go over to his house to hang out.

AD: So he ended up being local to you or did you have to travel to hang out?

Mark Rodriguez: No, he was in Chicago. He gave me Phish tapes, but he also gave me some Grateful Dead tapes. And that’s kind of how I started my collection. It’s so hazy. Yeah, because I’m a teenager and, like, doing a whole bunch of weird shit.

AD: We’ll put an asterisk on that weird shit quotation. [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: My aunts might be reading or something. [Laughs]

AD: Yeah, we’ll keep it clean. [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: I just don’t remember how, but I ended up accumulating, I want to say, like, over 200 tapes in a small period. Because when I revisited them after I was thinking about maybe starting this project…I was like, “Oh, I’ll grab all my tapes.” I was surprised at how many tapes there.

AD: Yeah. They can accumulate really quickly. I had 700 or so before switching to cd-r trading. 

Mark Rodriguez: I must have been doing some form of trading off the Internet and through people. I met a few people that I would tour with for the two Phish tours I went on in ’99 and ‘00 and that sort of thing.

AD: Do you remember participating in the early online tape trading forums? I was part of the AOL Phish Phorum. There was also a Dead version of it, too. Did you ever get into that? Because I kind of vaguely remember there was, like, the Internet side, but there was also still, like, the old school side where you’d find a listing in the back of Relix and you would ask for somebody’s tape list and they would send you their list.

Mark Rodriguez: I remember doing the mail listing a couple of times. But to me, and this is just how I am usually, I like kind of just introducing myself to people, or people being introduced to me and having it kind of like our relationship, Darryl, where it has been developed over the years. I mean we’ve only met once in the physical world. But a lot of our relationship is just like blabbering about our interests. Which is amazing. And I think I was the same way in high school. I really liked older heads.

AD: Yeah. Totally.

Mark Rodriguez: I kind of veered away from my friends when I indoctrinated myself into tape trading because they were not really interested in that.

AD: Yeah, that was the same here too. I became like head taper for my high school. There was one point I had a lot of Phish tapes. I was making Phish tapes and Dead tapes for various friends and it would trickle down to people that weren’t even in my friend group or circle of friends. It would be lunchtime and say like a 9th grader would come up and be like “Oh, I was at this Dave Matthew show like two weeks ago. Can you find me a tape of it?” And “I’m like, yeah, I’ll try. I mean, I’ll keep an eye out.” And it happened. It was almost like being a drug dealer. Yeah, a drug dealer for tapes. [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: [Laughs] That didn’t really happen to me. I feel like I veered into this other weird world, like being an artist. My friends weren’t really artists. I kind of just did my own thing. They weren’t really interested in that and so they never really asked for tapes. It’s strange that you became like tape dude. Interesting. I had an older sister, but she could care less about the Dead.

AD: I had friends with older brothers. They would play us like A Live One or Workingman’s Dead for us on a Tuesday afternoon in 8th grade when we were doing weird shit. [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: I didn’t have that. I forged my own path and did my own research and no one else I was close friends with was really that interested in it. But I continued to do it and I think a major part of that was kind of like the learning from your elders thing where I just found it fascinating talking to these people and I found it cool that they were willing to hang out with a 17-year old to talk about music.

AD: Do you remember the artwork on the tapes when you were getting them? Sometimes they would include unique handwriting or drawings, sometimes they would have pre-made tape covers.

Mark Rodriguez: Do you mean for me starting the project in 2010?

AD: No. I want to talk about Teenage Mark a little longer. [Laughs] Do you remember that at all? 

Mark Rodriguez: Strangely no, but I’m trying to think. The tape covers I received were mostly just plain handwriting. And if I made dubs from Micah, I tried to make them look like handwriting Rick Griffin would use. I think one time I saw a tape cover that had like emojis of the song, so, like, “Turn on Your Lovelight” was a heart light bulb and that sort of thing. I think the type of artwork that I’ve accumulated since within the collection as part of Adult Mark is way more profound. 

AD: I’m doing a hard fast forward here. When we first started talking, I think it was 2013 or 2014. 

Mark Rodriguez: There’s not a lot in between. [Laughs] To be honest, in terms of tapes and my interest in the Dead and jam band scene after I started going to college—I kind of dropped out.

AD: Yeah, I was the same way. When Phish went on hiatus in 2000, I went full jazzbo is the best way to put it. I just found the most insane shit I could listen to. And that was like being indoctrinated into the world of John Zorn and that whole weird downtown New York City scene via Medeski Martin & Wood. I remember listening to a lot of bluegrass because you could still see David Grisman and some of these people that played with Jerry and related.

Mark Rodriguez: I veered towards Peter Rowan. Definitely the David Grisman Quintet too. And jazz was already part of it, obviously I loved like A-Go-Go with John Scofield and Medeski, Martin & Wood. 

AD: What sparked the new interest in tapes?

Mark Rodriguez: Well, me and my friend Matt Siegle, who’s also an artist, we were working for another artist, Andrea Bowers. We were both her studio assistants. At the time I was floating around a bunch of art studios just trying to stay afloat as an art assistant in Los Angeles. She makes a lot of intense graphite drawings. We worked on them with her, and so Matt and I were sitting opposite from each other in her studio and spending hours together each day while rubbing a whole sheet of paper with graphite.

AD: Damn, that’s crazy.

Mark Rodriguez: That’s being an art assistant for you. Matt and I had a lot of time to spend together, and I think somehow, we figured out that we both were into Phish and The Grateful Dead and we both had been interested in tape trading. And he was just kind of, “Hey, have you been keeping up with the jam band scene?” And I was like, “No, not at all.” So he was like we should listen to Phish while we work. And I was like, “OK.” [Laughs] I think some crazy long “Tweezer” had just been played or something. I mean, were they even back together at that point?

AD: Kind of, yeah, about that time, sure.

Mark Rodriguez: So it was like a 45-minute “Tweezer”—long doesn’t mean good. [Laughs] Then we started talking about Grateful Dead and how you could work with them as a cultural entity, I guess. Through that conversation, we were like, “I wonder what you could do with bootleg tapes as the medium that you use.” And that’s when I started searching for tapes to see if I could actually even start collecting tapes again. I put an ad out on the Los Angeles Craigslist that I was looking for Grateful Dead bootleg tapes. Some guy responded to my Craigslist ad, and he gave me 100 tapes or something. 

AD: Was that part of his collection or was that basically everything?

Mark Rodriguez: Everything he had. So we’re talking about like 2010? Nobody cares at this point about them at all. No one could give two shits. It’s laughable how it’s changed within the time frame we’re talking about, in the last twelve years. 

AD: They were trash back then. It was a dead medium. And nobody cared as they were sitting in closets or people gave them away for free. That’s essentially what I did. In 2004, I dumped my collection because I was like, I have the CDs now. And then I just started dumping even the CDs I had. I didn’t care anymore. I think a lot of people maybe got to that point, too. It was like, well its on the Internet? Why do I have to have these physical pieces?

So you got the first set from this guy in Los Angeles, and were you immediately like, “I need to get more?”

Mark Rodriguez: I didn’t need it all. [Laughs] I think I’ve learned through the years as a 40-year-old human being living on this planet Earth, nothing needs to be rushed. Nothing needs to happen in general. With eating, shitting… etc. It was just like; I’ll sit with these for a second. I ordered them chronologically. I was like, “Wow, that was crazy. I got 100 tapes for nothing.” I was a little bit struck by how personal the tapes were to the owner of the tapes. I was taken back that they were willing to give me tapes. I remember one tape cover had a drawing noting their first show.

AD: Like when you find peoples tickets from their shows at the show tucked inside, that’s kind of surreal…

Mark Rodriguez: Yes. And not to discount that, it’s just I’ve run into it so many times. There are other things that I noticed that became more of a profound revelation for me.

AD: I remember one of the tapes you gave me. There was a note in that basically read “I didn’t go to the show because I got arrested while on the way.”

Mark Rodriguez: Oh, yeah. I have that original one. I sent you a copy. [Laughs]

AD: I was like, “Man, Mark, why are you giving me this one?” Because it’s, like, kind of insane. [Laughs] I didn’t realize there was a scan.

Mark Rodriguez: You might have gotten another one from that collection, but that guy is a person of mystery. I got that from some guy in Florida who bought a storage locker. But yeah, I sat with that [first collection] for a while. I got a tape player, I started listening to it, and then I was like, “Well, I could keep going?” Let’s see what else is going on in the broader United States. Let’s go on Craigslist and look around. And I started convincing people from all over the US to give me the tapes and I would just pay for shipping.

AD: Sure.

Mark Rodriguez: Then some guy in Vermont or New Hampshire, I think, gave me 500 and I was like, “Whoa.” That was a big haul.

AD: Did you ever pay for them early on?

Mark Rodriguez: The Florida guy, I think, was advertising on Craigslist and he was definitely charging money. And I was, like, trying to convince them they’re supposed to be free. I would enter into the monetary capitalist realm exchange shortly after. [Laughs]

AD: That’s the tricky thing. The code is tapes are supposed to be free and that is not the case anymore. In some instances, you can still find people, possibly, but if you look on Ebay, it’s fucking bananas how much people are paying for a single tape.

Mark Rodriguez: It is nuts. I think we talked about it before, but I took a part in destroying the market value of the tape, which I’ll address later. At that point in time, there weren’t a lot of people wanting to sell tapes unless they didn’t know what to do with them. Like, this person bought a storage locker. They’re not a Deadhead. Anyways, I just start scanning all the J cards. And then I was like how can I post them? Will posting them somehow get me more tapes? How can I make this system easier? 

AD: And that’s like, when this Tumblr starts, correct?

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah. Tumblr at the time. 

AD: It’s kind vague to me how we started interacting. I can’t remember if we started interacting on Tumblr or if we started interacting on Instagram, because I had both at the time. But I feel like I might have come across you on Tumblr because the Dead thing is bubbling up again, and started to write this Dead Notes column around 2012. 

Mark Rodriguez: I remember when we met at Fare Thee Well, because I remember your Tumblr avatar picture was not you, I was looking for this other guy.

AD: Were you looking for the guy with all the cigarettes in his mouth? [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: [Laughs] Like, a guy with a cap on, a dude with, like, long hair and he just looked like a California guy.

AD: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I use this other one with this guy with all these cigarettes in his mouth. And a lot of people think that’s me, but it’s actually a photo from a Jerry Rubin book.

Mark Rodriguez: I think Christine Boepple introduced us as she was starting to run Faces of Weir on Tumblr.

AD: Yes!

Mark Rodriguez: Amongst her other amazing Tumblrs. Tumblr was a way of getting more tapes. It showed that what dates I had collected. It was so much work uploading all that shit and keeping it all organized. And in between that, I was trolling through Tumblr, just seeing what remnants of Dead culture and head culture there was. And I think Christine and I were like, “Yah, there’s like this weird group of Deadheads on Tumblr, and its a fun little scene to participate in.” And I think she was like, “Oh, you should meet.” Or maybe you were trying to do the same thing. You were trying to collect the tapes too…

AD: Yeah, so the first collection I took in I found on Facebook. Basically, this guy, Charlie Carr, who lived at the time in New Jersey, posted on a Dead Facebook group and was like, I have this tape collection and I no longer want it because I’m moving and I’m trying to downsize. And a friend pointed it out and I was like, yeah, I want that. I didn’t even think twice about it. I was like, I want that. I’m going to get that because I haven’t had these things in a decade. And I would really love to see the artwork again.

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah.

AD: And it was like 700 tapes. It wasn’t like a little amount. It was me driving to Chatham, Massachusetts, out on the Cape, about an hour and a half, two-hour drive to meet this guy that I’ve never met before. And he basically just unloads the back of his Subaru into the back of my Subaru. And he’s like, “OK, here’s all my tapes. He had all the Napa racks, all this extra stuff too. Then he’s like, oh, here’s three Trader Joe bags full of Relix and Golden Roads and Duprees. Oh, here’s my Dead Base. It wasn’t just like a casual thing of taking in a collection, it was a serious handing over of the reigns. 

Mark Rodriguez: What a feeling that was like, though. It’s a nostalgic trip for us. And it brings back all these memories. And also, it’s this really cool stuff.

AD: Exactly. It was very heavy emotionally.

Mark Rodriguez: And I think every time I was getting a new collection for a long time, until the Ebay fiasco, it felt like a genuine passing down from a grandparent that I never knew.

AD: I mean, I got that collection and I was like, “Oh my god, the artwork is nuts. I need more of this immediately!” It wasn’t just like, oh, I have this, I’m happy. I was, like, “What else is there?” I think that’s when our connection happened. Christine was like, oh, you should meet Mark. 

Mark Rodriguez: The greatness of Tumblr. It was a great artistic space.

AD: I remember out of Charlie’s collection, I think I sent you about 20 tapes or whatever that you dubbed and returned along with some other tapes. We restarted the trading thing, I guess is the best way to put it. But you had all these collections. 

But I can’t remember a time where you’re like, “Oh, Darryl, I’m going to do this Generations art thing.” Because next thing I remember is a picture of all these tapes together on a wall. 

Mark Rodriguez: Well I was probably dubbing from 1st Gen to 2nd Gen when we met at Fare Thee Well. I think I started either late 2014 or early 2015. I had accumulated so many thousands of tapes. Yeah, I probably had like 5000 tapes at that point or something. 

I was working on my own art practice in terms of repetition and familiar objects that don’t necessarily look like they have a particular hand, but it’s like an understood lexicon that people notice. There is a phenomenology of seeing something that has a lot of spirit inherited in it, but you can’t quite put your finger on where the magic is coming from, that sort of thing. Those are the things and still are kind of the things that I like to think about. And I just was like, all right, well, it must be this process and it must go through this repetition, like how can I exploit the dub component of it. And then also from that came like this kind of interesting thought to me that it was like, well, I’m trying to collect this whole collection, but like, archives and documenting history are so weird, though. It’s such a futile pursuit. It’s never going to last forever. To be a completest in many ways is almost idiotic and foolish.

AD: I remember when you were first telling me your goal of getting all the tapes, like, my brain immediately went to all the shows that are not available. But as time has progressed, shows that people never knew about started showing up on archive.org and places like that. Did you ever have parameters? Like, I only want tapes, physical tapes. I never want to find the show from the web, whatever. I’m not going to dub a version off Archive…

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah, early on I made a decision not to do that because it’d be too easy. Like, I could just get it all. I got offered hard drives countless times and I was like, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I just want the tapes to come from someone. Even if that person dubbed it off their hard drive to a tape, that would be acceptable.

AD: Okay, interesting.

Mark Rodriguez: I wanted to get tapes through some form of that old process of someone taking the time to record something onto magnetic tape, going through the mail or whatever form of exchanges.

AD: Because when I was reading the book, there was like another thing that hadn’t occurred to me. And I don’t know why we never had before this conversation, but obviously you have duplicates of a lot of tapes because I have inherited some. Other friends that we have also inherited some of your duplicates too, but you still had so many of them that as you made the generations, you started inserting some of the duplicates into the sculptures, which I didn’t realize. I was like, “Oh my god – that’s brilliant!” 

It changed everything that I had in my brain because I was literally thinking about degradation of sound and quality from your first generation to your 10th generation or whenever you decide to stop. But I was like, “Oh, this breaks the algorithm in a way.” Because it’s like you’re taking that triplet, your quadruplet or whatever and inserting that into a date that possibly has a different generation. It’s almost like the DNA of everything gets tweaked again, which is, like, kind of amazing. 

Mark Rodriguez: I’m glad that I was able to put that in the book. The process is so convoluted in many respects. It’s really hard to explain casually, so it kind of helps you to understand implications of the gestures that I’m performing. But in regard to that, I think I had more altruistic aims, per se with 1st Gen and 2nd Gen. I wanted it to do that. I just wanted it to just degrade forever. And from 1st to 2nd Gen, there were, like 1700 dubs.

AD: Yeah, which is crazy. I remember you telling me your set up at one point where you had, like was it like, six dubbing decks running at one point? And I was just like, “Mark, that’s insane.” And you were doing it, like, 24 hours a day on top of it.

Mark Rodriguez: It was like seven months of dubbing because I was just learning what the process would be. I had like six dual tape cassette decks where I would wake up like at five in the morning and just start dubbing away. I think I tried to get like three tapes dubbed for each dual tape deck per day because that dubbed four and a half hours’ worth of music. In addition I was trying to listen to at least one tape every dub session.

AD: Were you ever concerned about quality of what you were getting? Because I know there were times like you were like, “Oh, this deck is not working.” Were you ever concerned that this tape could potentially just have a squeal across it because the wheels were giving out or something like that at that point? Because to me, I think that adds more character that’s getting more into the artist side of things where you embrace mistakes. I guess the best way to put it, say one generation is “ruined”, but it’s still interesting because say, whoever has this collection might pull that tape off and be like, “Oh, this is unlistenable.” But for us, we’re like, no, that’s a representation of art dying or evolving.

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah, I had a lot of these discussions with myself during the process.But it just is like, how allegiant to the archive or the collection do I want to be? How much do I want to preserve the integrity of sound or this thing that you can’t even listen to? I’m the only one that listened to it at that time.

In a conceptual sense, I’m telling you that’s what’s there. And you’re taking that at face value. It’s true, but you know what I’m talking about. But yeah, going from 1st to 2nd Gen, I was like trying to figure that out. And by the end of it, I was just like, “fuck, man”. And that’s when I started to realize I was like, you know what I’m going to further convolute it by putting my doubles and triples in there because I have it.

AD: Why not?When I read that, it was like, well, he has all this because it’s not like you had an expansive circle of people to give extras to. I know you were always using those as collateral to get more tapes from various people, but it wasn’t like you had somebody to dump all your extras on.

Mark Rodriguez: No. Not at all. 

AD: I do remember when the interest in tapes started again, like, after 2015 after the Fare Thee Well shows, and people started realizing that there’s this whole other side to the Dead, not just seeing them live. We also have bootleg culture come back, like, in the form of shirts and other things being sold at shows. 

Mark Rodriguez: In 2016, I debuted 1st Gen at an art exhibition. I think even before 2015, there were a few, like, Tumblr heads who are, like, obviously in college or something, 20 years old, and they’re just liked tapes because it looks cool, because I’d always be like, “Oh, do you have anything to trade?” Or whatever. And they’re like, I don’t even have a tape player, or like, I just got a car with a tape deck. Do you have any doubles? I always was, like, hesitant to give out doubles, and the main reason I kind of held onto them was because of the j-cards.

AD: Yeah.

Mark Rodriguez: I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with all this. But then after doing 1st and 2nd Gen, that was like 1700 dubs. I was like, “I don’t want to do that again.” [Laughs]

AD: Yeah, which you end up doing again and again and again.

Mark Rodriguez: I don’t think I’ve ever dubbed that many tapes again.

AD: Oh, really? You have that many doubles and triples that you’ve been able to fill out the other generations with less dubs?

Mark Rodriguez: Well, this goes into the Ebay fiasco.

AD: Yeah. I know about that. [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: Basically 8th to 9th Gen was like 1200 dubs because it’s getting into the space where it’s hard to accumulate tapes now.

AD: Yeah, it’s nonexistent what we were able to get a decade ago at volume.

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah, it’s not that present. But I think lately I’ve seen people who take on big collections but just don’t really understand the tape trade either. It’s a little bit depressing because I’m always like, “Oh, do you have anything for my list? And they’re like, you want me to go through this?”

2nd to 3rd Gen I don’t remember how many dubs there were, but it was like maybe I want to say it was like either 500 to 700. It’s significantly less.

AD: Okay, interesting.

Mark Rodriguez: So what happened was I did 3rd Gen and 4th Gen. Well, 2nd Gen went to Miami. But it’s during the same time period kind of. I got some coverage from Jerry Saltz and the art people, which was kind of funny. And then supposedly I pre-sold 3rd Gen. And so I quickly had to make another generation.

AD: What’s the one that John Mayer owns at this point? 

Mark Rodriguez: He’s 4th.

AD: Is that 4th Gen? Okay. I thought he was a little bit higher.

Mark Rodriguez: No. So, like, 3rd and 4th Gen sat around for a while because the sales had fallen through which became this weird thing that actually worked to my benefit because 3rd and 4th Gen got shown at Frieze in 2019. I think by 2018, I had 3rd and 4th Gen sitting in my small one-bedroom apartment.

AD: I remember seeing photos of that. I was like, “Oh, my God, you’re living with your chaos.”

Mark Rodriguez: I basically, at that time, also wanted to work in an art studio that was a domestic space. So, I turned my whole one-bedroom apartment into my studio, which I was like, this is great.

AD: Yeah, which is also not so great too. [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: I got, like, a more substantially industrialized studio space, probably around 2019. Later I was like, “Oh, what was it thinking? This is stupid.” I just wanted to try that out because I liked the idea of kind of just having a home space as a studio instead of an industrial space. So, I’m sitting on these things, and then this opportunity opened up to show two of them at Frieze. Originally, I wanted three racks, which would have been cool, but two did the trick. 

AD: So back to the tape art, though, because I remember when you started talking about the book around 2016-2017 and I had already done the tape art zine which you contributed to too. Because in reality it’s almost like two pieces, as you have your collection of J cards and then you have the collection of generations. Was there ever a point where it really clicked that you were like, I want to focus more on the J card history?

Mark Rodriguez: Well, I think now, after doing the book, I could have really gone down even further and explored all these old J card artists. I was only able to do this day in history for a year and a half or something, where I was accumulating so many tapes, I can’t scan everything. And as part of the process of the gen sculptures, after I was done dubbing, I had to scan all the tape covers from one gen in order to let it go. 1st Gen has 2976 tapes in it, 2nd Gen 3000 tapes in it. That’s over 5976 scans by the time I was at 4th Gen. Like thousands and thousands of scans. And I was like, I could do something with this. There’s something here where I can share this project and this work in a way other than sculpture and other than Tumblr, and maybe I can get a book published.

AD: Makes sense.

Mark Rodriguez: That’s kind of what led to trying to find a publisher that would do that. And Anthology was interested in it. And I think originally, yeah, it was proposed as a book of J cards. 

AD: I definitely thought that too as as I was reading the book, I thought it was fantastic as it holistically included so many facets of the Dead’s tape culture. The David Gans interview was fantastic. And in the depths of Dead culture, he’s like, one of the deepest historical heads that you can talk to, who’s lovely, is honest, and will tell you things that you had never heard. But I thought it was fascinating even to see notes from meetings where they’re talking about, like, “Oh, well, we have a taper issue. What are we going to do here? How does this evolve? How’s this to become part of the community? What are the rules?”

I thought it was very interesting. As I was reading the book, I was like, “Well, okay, you have your large chunk of visual, which for me, for you, as artists, were like, holy shit, this is amazing.” 

Mark Rodriguez: I think when I started the project, it was like, there’s thousands of Deadheads, over hundreds of thousands of Deadheads. Let’s say half of those people collected tapes, or maybe even a smaller percentage. It’s still, like, hundreds of thousands of people with hundreds of thousands of tapes. There’s just, like, so much folk art.

AD: Do you have a favorite J card?

Mark Rodriguez: As I go through them, I’m like, “oh, this one’s cool.” But the one that sticks out is a picture of Dan Healy and a fan. I don’t even know who the fan guy is. And they are, like, standing next to each other, and it’s like, the fuck this is so insider. [Laughs] 

AD: I like the ones that are like Dead caricatures. Like Phil drawn in a Doonesbury kind of way. In a very 90s way, obviously, there’s the Calvin and Hobbs ones, but when you see Phil is like Doonesbury. Oh, that’s weird. That’s like, very niche. That’s like taking two very 90s things and combining them together.

Mark Rodriguez: Or there’s the ones that you might see in there where the band members look like Dr. Seuss characters.

AD: Yeah. Those ones are so cool. I think one of the ones I got from you was, like, an 8-bit Rasta Jerry. Does that sound familiar? I think he’s smoking a joint. But it’s like colored Rastafarian. 

Mark Rodriguez: That’s also in the book, I think. I think that was put in 1st Gen.

AD: Has there ever been collections that have gotten away from you?

Mark Rodriguez: Remember that one in Massachusetts that I tried to get you to get for me?

AD: I only have a vague memory of that one. I don’t know why.

Mark Rodriguez: Well someone grabbed it on ebay and then the next day they actually turned it around and sold it again on Ebay.

AD: Right. Yes, I remember this one now. And they sold it for, like, crazy, if I remember correctly.

Mark Rodriguez: I had to talk them down, and then I also had to fuck with them, where I was like, all right, I’ll take what I need, and then you can keep the rest, which was basically 1987 and 1988.

AD: One of my favorite stories is where we involved our mutual friend Dave Keady to pick up a collection in New Jersey. If I remember correctly, that is the ebay fiasco collection. Correct?

Mark Rodriguez: But also before that, there was another guy, and the email exchange is probably really hilarious because it was early on, but someone got in contact with me and they were like, yeah, I got tapes. And I asked them, I was like, “could you look at my list?” And they were like, basically, the paraphrasing of their email retort back was like, you want me to check your list? How ungrateful of you. You should be taking all of them! Well, guess what? I’m taking them to the dump. Oh, you know what? Actually, I gave them to the neighborhood kid to throw them away! How about that? And I was like, “Nooo!” that was another one where I was thinking about it for days, just kicking myself. But the Ebay fiasco… [Laughs]

AD: That one existed on Ebay for years, correct?

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah. Basically, the context that I’ll set up here is that the process of making the gen sculptures was so demanding that I realized that it was actually cheaper to get whole collections, even from Ebay. I started to participate in monetary exchange for tapes, because I was paying for blank tapes and jewel cases for the tapes. And I was spending time dubbing them, and purchasing large collections cut all that time and cost out

AD: You didn’t have a rule of, like, I only use Maxells. Right? Maxell IIs, because they’re, like, non-existent. 

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah. They are like, top dollar, $10 just for one tape. I never was able to find huge lots of Maxell. So basically, I found out that it was more advantageous of me to start buying collections for, like, a dollar a tape than going through the whole process I had started with 1st and 2nd Gen. And so I kind of started to change kind of what the process was in terms of fucking with history, basically. So, there’s this collection that was, like, basically the barometer of the cost of Grateful Dead tapes.

AD: If I remember, he had crazy rules about acquiring the tapes from him, too. Wasn’t his asking price, like, insane?

Mark Rodriguez: I think it was $2.38 per tape. $5,000 total or something. 2400 tapes or more. At that time, I was like, I’m not paying $2.38 for a tape at that point. That’s probably a bargain now. But for me, too crazy. So, I contact him and ask “Hey, can you just give me what I need from my list?” His reaction was cryptic but basically “no” So I let it go. Then 2019 rolled around. I do that show at the Frieze Fair with 3rd and 4th Gen. It’s a success for me. I’m like, “fuck this guy. I’m going to buy this thing from him!” And I do. And he calls me. Like, somehow, he has my phone number. And he’s like, hey, I wasn’t expecting anyone to ever buy this thing. But I guess you did. So, then we figured out how to get it out to California. 

AD: Because if I remember correctly, he didn’t really want to send it across the states, right? He didn’t want to be responsible for the mailing portion of it.

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah local pick up only.

AD: Right, because you call me and ask if I would drive from Massachusetts to New Jersey to pick it up. [Laughs]

Mark Rodriguez: Exactly! So, you say I should talk to Dave Keady. He lives in New York and he’s a head. Plus, he’s a lawyer if needed. [Laughs] I think we found out he was maybe like an hour and a half away or something like that. He was like, totally game, which Dave is just as crazy as any of us. And he was like, I think if I remember correctly, “I’ll do it for you, but I want all the Jerry Garcia Band tapes.” Which I was like fine with because all I wanted was the Dead shows. 

Shortly after this purchase and the showing of 3rd and 4th Gen Mickey Hart shared them on Instagram and I had instant fame suddenly. Then I got the harangue for selling them.

AD: I remember. I felt like there was a point where you were kind of getting the old guard of Deadheads all up your ass.

Mark Rodriguez: It wasn’t even so much the old guard. People were like, the music is free, man. Come on, what are you doing? 

There was a lot of flak from that. And then what happened? I came to the slow realization that the ebay market got completely destroyed because that one sale posting was the barometer. No one was going to buy 2400 tapes for $5,000. And I did. And then now there was no structure. 

AD: Well, here’s a question for you now that the book has occurred as this thing has been a secret among friends for many years at this point. Does the project end now?

Mark Rodriguez: No, the project is still very much alive. 

AD: Do you see the generations evolving to something different than what it is right now? Is there a way to do that? 

Mark Rodriguez: Hologram or something? [Laughs] I plan on changing the type of wood I use after 10th. It’s just, like, part of the process of fucking around with this archive. Secrets out, I guess, as far as our discussion, I’m trying to preserve as best as possible, but I’m also trying to practice a little bit of self-consciousness about human culture and humanity’s current obsession with historical preservation, that sort of thing. So, for me, it’s like, well, how can I change it? And to what degree and is that okay? Yes, it is okay. The whole project is kind of like, just fucking around with a seemingly complete narrative, a historical narrative. 

AD: Have you ever thought about it being with a different band? Obviously, we talked about Jerry Garcia Band or Phil Lesh and post Dead bands like that. Maybe you can maybe do it with Phish or Pearl Jam or someone like them because they have a set of tape heads too. But do you think really, like, in order to get the most holistic picture of a band, like The Dead is probably the best example of it?

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah. I don’t plan on doing it with another band. I think that would make my whole art practice way too specific which I don’t think would be interesting. I think what’s interesting about The Dead they’re like this cultural entity is whereby the fanaticism around them created a subculture of people wanting to preserve the cultural entities that created their fanaticism. The subcultures that have blossomed from the Grateful Dead and Deadheads is an ouroboros. It’s very unique in terms of American musical history or just American history in general. What’s another cultural entity that is so heavily documented? Probably the American presidency.

AD: Yeah, I mean, they give the amount of wealth of different pieces or factual dates per se. Like, this is all detailed.

Mark Rodriguez: It’s like no band has their whole entire live performance career recorded for the most part on audio tape. I think there’s just something interesting about that. There’s something really interesting to play with as an artist by using the cultural entity as a muse. And I think in terms of just my own art practice, that’s the one place where I dip my toe in pop culture.

What I’ve learned from the whole thing is like, it’s really kind of intense to work with such a giant cultural entity because my own identity gets subsumed by the cultural entity. And kind of with the book, it’s almost like me fighting back, being like, no, I am me and I have my own personal narrative to tell.

AD: I wondered that when I was reading the book. And the first section gives context to the art side of it, which for me and you going back ten years at this point, or however long, we’ve always known that it’s like, been art based in context, but actually reading you gave examples of these artists that were an influence for this which was pretty interesting to read for me personally.

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah. Because that’s where I come from as well. A lot of Deadheads want to find interest in this project because it relates to them in terms of headedness and their interest in the Dead. And they might not be that invested in contemporary art or conceptual art or any kind of art that was made in the last 50 years by a certain group of artists. Which I must say it’s kind of cool to be able to point people in the direction of. 

AD: Definitely. Going back to people like what you were saying a couple of minutes ago, people know you as a Deadhead. Now, that this is part of my career at this point, is that people know me from Dead Notes which evolved into working with the Dead on visual things. And it’s like, “Oh, I know him because he does stuff for the Dead, he does stuff for the Phish…” But to me it seems that my interests are all encompassing.

Mark Rodriguez: Well You have, like, a Happy Mondays shirt on ….

AD: [Laughs] Right. Exactly. That’s like the thing. We’ve talked about this before, but the evolution of like, hippie culture and its legacy found within UK rave culture in the ’90s with acid house and all that kind of stuff. They started dabbling with what acid tests were in the ’60s, but they were doing it with molly and MDMA and all that kind of stuff. That’s like where my evolution of interest and art has gone now, where it’s like, oh, I love the Dead stuff. I will always love the Dead stuff because I’ve loved it for 30 years of my life at this point. 

Do you think nostalgia cripples your art by really establishing your art practice to a particular thing? 

Mark Rodriguez: Yeah, I think for me it happened with the whole project overall because there’s nostalgia as I’m making something that doesn’t look like it’s art. It looks like a large collection of tapes centered around one band on a wall and there’s like stamped rose plaques on the side. The presentation is bare bones and minimalist and to the detriment of what I’m dealing with, people are like, “I like tapes. It’s cool. Yeah, I like, Grateful Dead. It’s cool.” Sometimes it doesn’t go past that. 

AD: Yeah.

Mark Rodriguez: It’s not really about my fandom. I can claim myself as a Deadhead, but that’s kind of the funny part of communicating. In the beginning the art world thought it was comical that I was dealing with the Grateful Dead. They saw them as lesser. But the art world is more into muses that are higher brow like modern philosophers, state-of-the-art science, identity politics, and so on. Just because they’re musicians and they’re from the 1960s, hypothetically, doesn’t mean there’s not a whole lot more there to unpack than paisley swirls and Woodstock war stories. There are dramatic themes, developments, and advancements in human communication systems present throughout the 30 years the band played that they influenced in some small way, either directly or through the inspiration of their fanbase.

I remember at NADA, Miami in 2017, this art dealer came by, saw 2nd Gen on the wall and was like, “You’re doing that? How much is it?” And just laughed and walked away. Then fast forward to 2021. And now that guy decides to be an artist and is making paintings with Grateful Dead bears on them. That is so much more ridiculous than what I have been trying to do with this project.

AD: [Laughs] Of course.

Mark Rodriguez: To bring it back to the book, I am super glad that I was able to insert more than just J-cards because it’s important to me to say, “I am Mark, I am Deadhead. I do this thing.” Also, I’m interested in what this whole thing does when I exploit certain aspects of my process to harvest artistic meaning from it. The third part of the book, with the interviews is what I get into as an artist doing research. Now I’m going to give you something that no one probably would ever want to do or think to do, address just this very one specific thing instead of it being like this little, tiny paragraph in each of the books that I’ve read over the years that detail the history of the Grateful Dead.

AD: The thing that’s been fascinating me over the last couple of weeks as people are receiving the book is that people I didn’t anticipate having an interest in the book are posting about it and me being thinking “Wow, you too?” The book is the biggest tome of all the things that I like about the Dead. I’m not blowing smoke up your ass because we’ve known each other a long time at this point, but you know…I just wanted to say I’m glad that this thing finally exists because I’ve known about it for a while. You’ve told me about it, and I know the trials and tribulations of getting this thing produced. It’s fantastic that somebody beyond myself, beyond you, beyond our circle of friends, can see what the bigger picture is like on this side of the Dead. So, thank you. 

Mark Rodriguez: You are welcome! 

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