Jerry Garcia – Father of Open Source

Yesterday was the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death. I met him once, backstage at the Oakland Coliseum in 1988 during the Grateful Dead’s New Year’s Eve show, and we talked about banjo playing, Steve Martin, and his fondness for Forbes Magazine. A very nice man.

I was in a conference room at CompuServe’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio when I heard the news and I had to excuse myself from the meeting to collect my thoughts. It was also the day of Netscape’s IPO. Ironic that I was in the bastion of closed online systems and mourning the death of the Godfather of OpenSource.

I had been a Dead Head since a friend left me a copy of Mars Hotel he “borrowed” from an older brother. I was in my formative years in terms of music taste and one song on that album — Unbroken Chain — mystified me enough to propel me to start buying every Dead album I could get my hands on. This was in the very early 1970s, when the band was arguably at their zenith, and I was old enough to wish I was a hippie, but young enough to know I wasn’t. In August of 1976 — thirty years ago — I saw my first Dead show at Colt Park in Hartford. It was chaotic, amazing, and the beginning of a fondness that hasn’t passed yet.

In the mid-80s I found a BBS called the Brokedown Palace where Dead Heads posted ASCII files of the shows they owned and the shows they wanted. You could download other Dead Heads’ lists, see what they had, and propose a trade. It was strictly honor system. The preferred media were Maxell Gold 90 minute tapes. So I invested in a dual deck cassette recorder and started swapping, finding along the way one of my best friends, Ben Lipman, who was a senior at Milton Academy and thought it very funny he was swapping tapes with a writer at a business magazine with two babies in a Boston apartment.

The process was simple. You’d identify the ten tapes (two per show generally) from another trader’s list which were usually annotated in terms of their quality and “generation” or the degrees of separation away from the original recording. A first generation tape was one recorded either directly by a taper — who was a fan who purchased a ticket for a special section set aside by the band. There, in the company of other tapers, they would use a Sony D5 or D6 and stick a forest of microphones up in the air on telescoping poles. Very coveted were so-called Betty Boards, or tapes made by a woman who worked for the sound crew and were directly patched off of the band’s soundboard.

An email would be sent to the person you wanted to trade to, and they in turn would look at your catalogue. select ten they wanted, and off you went to the store to buy a box of Maxells. For a day or two you’d copy your tapes to the blanks, provide the set lists, stick everything back in the box, wrap it up, and snail mail it off. A few more days would go by and like a miracle a box of tapes would arrive in your mailbox. I never once was screwed in the transaction.
A compendium to all the Grateful Dead’s concerts, DeadBase, was compiled by some Dartmouth geeks. It became my bible, ranking every song, every concert, every set list.
I accumulated well over 500 cassettes which I still have today, slowly rotting in the attic, but the source of covetous fascination by my son’s friends, all of whom are Dead Heads in their own right. The band decided to release their own recordings under the Dick’s Picks label, and I think there are about 50 live shows now available on CD. Definitely not as fun as the old Brokedown Palace days, or trading on the W.E.L.L., but the quality can’t be argued with.

The Dead were the first band to encourage their fans to record shows and share them. As Garcia said, when the band was done with the music it was the fan’s to share. The only rule was no selling or profiteering and the fans were self-policing, criticizing anyone who tried to sell bootlegs.

Other bands followed suit — notably (and ironically because of their lead role in criticizing Napster) Metallica and Phish. The advent of digital recording technology and the ride of the Internet, specifically Brewster Kahle’s sparked a renaissance in the past decade, leading to the controversial decision to shut down the availability of shows through a year ago.

So, why is Jerry Garcia the god-father of OpenSouce? It’s pretty simple — Garcia’s support of profit-free trading marked a breakthrough in the music world in terms of intellectual property rights. The engineering-geek slant of many of the fans (the W.E.L.L. was dominated by it’s Dead conferences, many of the participants were Valley engineers) permeated the tape-trading culture.

This post was sparked by J.P. Rangaswami’s “about” page at Confused of Calcutta.

“…given that my thoughts on opensource were probably more driven by Jerry Garcia than by Raymond or Stallman or Torvalds et al.”

The sharing ethic that drove the development of the computing industry in the 60s and 70s (see John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said) evolved into the shareware movement of the late 80s and eventually was a driver behind the Free Software Foundation, the formation of the General Public License, and today is, it may be argued, the basis of the OpenSource movement. Stewart Brand, the founder of the W.E.L.L., uttered the famous quote at the first Hacker’s Conference:

“”Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

When launching in 1994, there was intense debate about whether or not to lock the content behind a subscription wall. I stuck to my guns that we needed to be free and big, not paid and small, and philosophically my instincts were driven by Captain Trips more than anything else.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Jerry Garcia – Father of Open Source”

  1. great blog entry on jerry garcia, and all the more interesting because i also went to milton academy (’78), which, then, was populated by a huge contingent of deadheads — and remains my favorite band to this day.

    ..and geez, lawrence eagle-trib; great paper to be covering politics in ’84 as gary hart was a huge, interesting story right on your doorstep.

    keep on keepin’ on.

  2. Open Source and JG… brilliant analogy! Lucky you to have met the man. OOOh the memories your post brought up; haven’t heard mention of tape trading and Betty Boards in years…(or the W.E.L.L. for that matter). I guess I wasn’t the only one around (here) thinking of JG yesterday… & listening to a stream from 🙂
    Thank you.

    “Too much of everything is just enough”

  3. “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Shakespeare…

    The sad thing is that as this was posted, the contents of the Dead’s vast archives are being moved to Warner Brother’s vault, one assumes for commercial release under the bands deal new with Rhino Records(see Rolling Stone this month).

    Gracia may have created open source, but the fights this has inevitable spawned ante-Garcia have put an end to tours by the remainder of the Dead as a unit. It remains to be seen whether whether Warner is able to sink free trading down into the Ganges to comingle with the great guitarist’s ashes.

    Notably, Clear Channel is now getting into live concert recording sales. One of their first two sign ups…Phil Lesh (you must hear him with John Scofeild and Joan Osbourne) and Bob Weir, both of whom have revived the dead repetoir and given it new and notworthy interpretation.

    Thus completes the circle, open source creates commercial opportunity then morphs into closed source.

  4. Chris Kobran emailed:

    Tried to post this to your blog, but it was having some server

    Anyway, loved the jerry post.

    Promised Land, Mississippi Half Step, Mama Tried, Deal, Cassidy,
    Tennessee Jed, Big River, Brown Eyed Women, Minglewood Blues, They Love
    Each Other, Looks Like Rain, Loser, Lazy Lightning-> Supplication Might
    As Well, Samson & Delilah, Candyman, Playin’ In The Band-> Wharf Rat->
    Drums-> Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad-> Playin’ In The Band-> Around &
    Around, E: U.S. Blues, E: Sugar Magnolia

    Not a bad first show!

    Great Jerry post, I will never forget where I was (Business School in
    Monterey CA) when I heard the news.

    The dead broke all the rules when it came to their assets (music,
    merchandise etc.), and by sharing them, everyone prospered.

    I leave you with two links:

    1. A download of that first show of yours (if you have problems
    downloading, I have it and can shoot it over).

    2. A YouTube stream of Jerry, Bobby and Vince singing the national
    anthem at “the stick”

    “When it seems like the night will last forever
    And there’s nothing left to do but count the years
    When the strings of my heart start to sever
    And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears”

  5. The day I heard the sad news I was to play that night at the Middle East club in Cambridge with a free jazz band I’d been playing with for a couple years. The guitar player, my best friend from grade school, was everything you would describe as a Deadhead: tapper, traveller, fanatic in a word. Obviously he was very upset. I had been a follower for years but not nearly as involved as he (I’ve seen about 20 or so shows and several of the Jerry Garcia Band–one where I swear Jerry was looking right at me, but that’s another story). I spent the afternoon writing an arrangement of Lucky Old Sun, a tune I’d seen the JGB perform a few times. The horns and the 3/4 time were modelled loosy on the gorgeous 6/8 version of I Only Have Eyes For You as performed by Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy (If you haven’t heard this you got to check it out.) Anyway, the arrangement was beautiful, the horns allowed to ramble a screech, the guitar a long wailing solo, and myself trying to keep soulful organ flowing behind it all.

    I have a great collection of tie-dyes that I wear only a couple of times a year to preserve them. It seemed that every year we went on “tour” to see shows I’d run into this same guy selling these beautiful star-burst shirts (an artful combination of silk screen and tye-die). I’ll have to take and post some pics of these. Because the band was somewhat modeled on the great Sun Ra bands, we wore these shirts to give our performances a more other-worldly aura.

    Thanks for the post David. You brought back a lot of great memories …


  6. An interesting take on the implications of Jerry Garcia’s openness. I often think of some of his live and published interviews I have seen/read. He was, by most accounts, an amazing auto-didact who voraciously read fiction and non-fiction of all kinds. He was also a “walking encyclopedia” of music history. I think he probably appreciated the widespread availability of information and would not be one to restrict someone from accessing the body of work created by his own efforts(even though he seemed to be self-deprecating about his own work). Thank God for even streaming Dead on the net-who knows how the corporations will try to market the body of recordings as we go forward.

  7. Jerry is it man. He did so much for this world and changed it for the better.

    Best i ever heard from him…

    “America is still mostly xenophobic and racist. That’s the nature of America, I think.”

    that pretty much sums it up… lol

  8. If Herry Garcia was the “Godfather of open source” thne why the hell were you not allowed to Tape at JGB shows/ You give this man too much moral credit.

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