Article by Joy Rose
I’m not going to lie and say I’ve made it even halfway through Relix, the Book: The Grateful Dead Experience. Toni Brown, the magazine’s longest publisher, has packed it full of artifacts of Dead and jamband history, and I don’t want to miss one cartoon, one letter, one article, one cover. This is the kind of book that deserves a lengthy, leisurely read. And so it remains in my bathroom, where I can steal a few moments each day to feed my inner tour baby during these winter months. It will be slow going, but that’s just fine with me. I’ll relish.
However, I have skimmed ahead for you.
The book is a compilation of art and letters from the beginnings of Relix magazine, the jamband scene’s flagship publication. Brown was not around at the publication’s beginning when Les Kippel started it in 1974 as a communication tool for tapers. But she was involved in running the magazine and eventually took over as editor in 1980, after Jeff Tamarkin had led the charge for two years. Brown edited Relix for the next twenty years, and was responsible for its golden years as well as defining the genre that had become known as jambands by the time she sold the mag in 2000.
It’s a thorough, tie-dyed journey through selected pages from Relixes past, from the first issue’s promise for Dead information (despite the unfortunate timing of the band’s hiatus), to the cover of the 2000 Summer Special celebrating the 150th issue. Included are cartoons, editorials, fan letters, and delicious, evolving cover artwork by Gary Kroman, and photos by Herb Greene and Bob Minkin, among many others. Each member of the Dead is interviewed, including extended family members Dan Healy and lyricists John Barlow and Robert Hunter. I’ve already spent a few days each of the exquisitely intricate—and quite incestuous—musical family trees of the Grateful Dead (Hart Valley Drifters, anyone?), Jefferson Airplane/Starship, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Brown’s editorial voice guides along the journey sparsely but presently, giving notes on the larger social implications of the music and the scene that surrounded it.
Interesting twists and turns of the magazine’s history are revealed, including the late-’70s shift away from a focus on taping (apparently, the band wasn’t totally down with it) and toward mainstream reporting that resulted in covers being devoted to Blondie, the Blues Brothers, Joan Jett, and Ozzy Osbourne. When Brown became editor, she vowed to “Put the Dead back in Relix,” but fortunately in the next decade she didn’t exclude the new generation of jambands who were proliferating by the early ’90s. In fact, she encouraged them. It was 1989 when writer Mick Skidmore contributed the first review of an interesting young band called Phish in a column called “Too New to be Known.”
What other magazine has featured, on its cover, Jerry Garcia with a Raggedy Ann on his lap? Or tales from the Festival Express? “My Wife Was a Teenage Deadhead”? Great moments in Dead history are charted: the release of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia flavor, messages from Grateful Dead mail order ticketing, and reports on those newfangled online bulletin boards. Also included are notes on jam family bands Merl Saunders and the Dinosaurs, the traveling HORDE tour, and awareness of hemp, recycling, and mandatory minimums. The original “We Are Everywhere” montages are included, of Heads next to Dead-monikered businesses in locations across the country. Current Relix publisher Pete Shapiro even appears in its pages in a photo for his film A Conversation with Ken Kesey.
Everything that we associate with jambands today stems from this scene, and Brown did a great job of preserving the best of this history. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be savoring it page by page for the next little while! If you need me, I’ll be in the bathroom.