HISTORY THROUGH JOURNALISM
THE HISTORY OF RELIX
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Music For The Mind
An Abbreviated History of Relix Magazine's Quarter Century of Rock 'n' Roll Journalism
by Lee Abraham
There are many ways to judge a music magazine. Bean counters measure profit margins and circulation trends. Music fans demand coverage of their favorite bands. Artists scour articles and reviews for accuracy, insight and a positive spin on their music. For journalists, it's the quality of a magazine's words and images that count. Everybody's got an angle. And all are valid.
One measure of success beyond debate is the test of time. In an industry where most music rags come and go as fast as the fads and trends they cover, publishing the 150th issue of Relix is an undeniable milestone-not only for the folks "at" Relix, but for the community of like-minded music freaks that Relix "belongs to."
Relix's role in the Grateful Dead's extended family of kindred bands and music fans has evolved dramatically over the past 25-plus years. From its homemade origins as a hand-stapled tape trader's newsletter published on an antique printing press, to the influential, internationally distributed music magazine it is today, Relix has always been a part of a larger scene.
Terms like, the "San Francisco-sound," "Bay Area rock," "psychedelic music," "acid rock," and most recently, "jamband scene," have all been used at different times to describe the musical demographic Relix covers.
Bottom line-times change, and so has Relix. It's been a wild ride. Writing about the music that has sparked the counter culture's continual transmutation since the '60s has brought hundreds of colorful personalities, legendary venues and historic events into the pages of Relix. And there are plenty of unforeseen twists and turns ahead. But before we fire up the bus for the long, strange trip into the future, here's a quick look in the rearview mirror at a few of the signposts marking the trail we leave behind…
The First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange
"I started the tape exchange around 1971," explained Les Kippel, who later founded Dead Relix magazine in 1974. "The concept for the magazine started coming together in 1973." Initially, the tape exchange was an attempt to mobilize taping activity at Grateful Dead shows, which in the early '70s, was just a small fraction of what it would later become. An avid taper himself, Kippel wanted to expand the network of active tapers and reliable traders to increase the flow of tape trades around the country.
The plan worked. Although it started from ground zero, the tape exchange gradually picked up momentum. Then, in early 1973, the scene Kippel helped create exploded, thanks to an article published in Rolling Stone magazine entitled "Mr. Tapes of Brooklyn: He Rules The Grateful Dead Tape Empire." Suddenly, Kippel was a tape trading celebrity. But fame was a dual-edged sword. Inundated with letters and phone calls from taping fanatics, some relentless enough to track him down at work, the demand for tapes was greater than Kippel could handle.
One solution was to work directly with the Dead. "The Grateful Dead were aware of it (starting a magazine) in 1973," revealed Kippel. "We did a huge proposal for the 'Connoisseur's Club,' which included the magazine, a newsletter and putting out tapes from an entire tour-limited edition-getting them out within 48 hours and all sorts of other things." Although Kippel has correspondence indicating the band was interested in pursuing the concept, the realities of dealing with the record company ended the talks. Disappointed but persistent, Kippel soon began to explore other options. "I figured there had to be a way of getting people together to tape in which I could get out of 'dead' center (no pun intended), and that was the beginning of Dead Relix," recalled Kippel. "The concept of Dead Relix was to get tapers together."
1974-78, The Early Years - Dead Relix Volumes 1-5
The timing was perfect. Not only had the "Mr. Tapes" article given Kippel a high profile and huge list of tapers from 48 states and several foreign countries, the Grateful Dead's announcement in 1974 that the band was taking a break from performing brought the demand for taped concerts to a premium. At a time when there was no Internet, Dead Relix was the only way for tape traders to find each other. And with no Grateful Dead tour to look forward to, even more people began collecting tapes.
The first issue of Dead Relix was published in late 1974. Featuring a hand-drawn, black and white cover and 15 or so typed pages of taping tips, opinions, rumors and news about the Grateful Dead, Dead Relix was off to a crude, but promising start. Soon, the "Want Page," a section for tape traders to advertise their "haves and wants" was introduced, quickly becoming the focal point of the magazine for many of its readers.
Jerry Moore, a Deadhead and avid tape trader with a flair for the written word, was the magazine's first editor. He wrote many of the articles. "I liked Jerry's style," said Sandy Troy, a Relix contributor and author of best-selling Grateful Dead books Captain Trips and One More Saturday Night. "He was sort of this gonzo journalist type. I think he fashioned himself after Hunter S. Thompson. Jerry was very articulate and insightful. Also, he had good taste in Grateful Dead music. I mean, if he said a show was good, it was good…It was nice to have this newsletter type of periodical, but in its early incarnations, it was pretty rudimentary, but it kept improving."
Volume One had only one issue. Volume Two began the six issues a year pace that Relix has maintained. Gary Kroman, the artist who created many of the most memorable images that have graced the pages of Relix throughout its history, including the famous "100 Grateful Dead Songs" poster, began drawing the magazine covers with Volume 2, Issue #5. It was a big improvement. The "Kroman covers" continued. Volume 4, Issue #4 featured a photo of Jerry Garcia. Some of the other early Dead Relix regular contributors included Monte Dym, Bob Alson, Steve Kraye and photographers Dave Patrick and Robert Minkin. Like Kroman, Minkin is still with Relix today, currently serving as the magazine's Senior Photographer.
Although Dead Relix started as a Grateful Dead tape trader's magazine, articles on other bands began popping up as quickly as the second issue, which featured a retrospective on "San Francisco music in the late 1960's." And as soon as the coverage veered even slightly away from the Grateful Dead, there was controversy. "We were originally 'Dead Relix,'" explained Kippel, "and then the magazine went from a tape trading magazine to writing about the Grateful Dead, because after all, we are talking about tapes, and tapes were relics of the Grateful Dead. And since the New Riders played with the Grateful Dead, it was cool to write about the New Riders. And Since Commander Cody played with the New Riders, it was cool to write about Commander Cody, and so on down the line."
Not everyone agreed. The first real debate on how much diversity Dead Relix should have came in the "Letters" section of Volume 2, Issue #5 in response to the prior issue, which featured articles on Merle Haggard, the New Riders, Emmylou Harris and The Who, among others. Some folks, a very vocal minority as it turned out, wanted Grateful Dead and nothing else. The fact that there was disagreement was less important than the fact that people were reading Dead Relix and felt strongly enough about it to write a letter.
As time went on, the "Letters" section took on a much greater significance, evolving into an open forum for people in the scene who previously had no voice. A letter from Volume 2, Issue #2, said it best-"It's good that someone is doing what you're doing…the mailings from San Rafael (the Grateful Dead offices) are infrequent, and not supported financially to the degree where they could consistently bring us news and print what we have to say and our drawings."
In addition to giving the Deadhead community a forum to comment on itself and the world around it, Dead Relix served as a viable way to disseminate information "to" the community. For example, the "First Annual Dead Convention," which was publicized in Volume 1, Issue #1, was originally planned by Dead In Words, another Dead-oriented publication, "to be a weekend of Deadheads from around the country getting together to trade tapes, watch Dead movies and slide shows, and partake in related activities. When Dead Relix later learned that Dead In Words was involved in the sale of bootleg records and tapes, Dead Relix went public and withdrew its support of the Dead Convention. As it turned out, the event was never held.
An unintended byproduct of reporting the news of the day was that Dead Relix was fast becoming the "written" chronicle of the scene's unfolding history. From announcing new bands like Kingfish in Volume 2, Issue #1 or Legion of Mary in the following issue, to running obituaries for the Dead's former soundman Rex Jackson in Volume 4, Issue #1 (1977), and Elvis at the end of that same year, Dead Relix was inadvertently maturing as an archive. Within the first couple of years, Dead Relix expanded its coverage to include concert and record reviews, road journals, essays and tour schedules, as well as more informal features such as family trees of various bands, puzzles, cartoons and artwork submitted by readers.
The Dead's trip to Egypt in 1978 went even further in establishing the magazine not only as a link to a scene very few could actually participate in, but in helping to capture its magic for generations to come. The cover of Volume 5, Issue #6 with a photo of a smiling Garcia walking with an Egyptian desert dweller and his camel, and also Volume 6, Issue #1 with a photo of Bob Weir in cut-off shorts standing in front the Great Pyramids, are "must haves" for any Deadhead's time capsule.
1979-80, Identity Crisis - Relix Volumes 6 & 7
The "Weir Pyramid" issue was not only the magazine's most striking cover to date, it marked the first editorial change. Jerry Moore left and Jeff Tamarkin, who had been contributing articles to Relix for about a year prior, became Senior Editor. Once again, the timing was right. The move reflected a combination of conflicting personalities, differing views on the magazine's direction and tough business decisions that had to be made for the magazine to survive.
The problems didn't start overnight. Part of the trouble was the music scene itself. By 1978, America was up to its pierced nose in New Wave. Then came Punk. Like everyone else, Relix was caught in a rapidly shifting music scene that was moving with increasing velocity away from the hippie culture of the 1960s. In an effort to keep up with the times, Relix expanded its coverage to include "…more types of music, that you, the music freak, might like," as Kippel wrote in an open letter from Volume 4, Issue #1 (1977).
In fact, the word "Dead" had already been dropped from the magazine's title as of the prior issue. In a letter addressed "Dear Subscriber and friend," Kippel explained. "Putting out any magazine can be a hassle, and at times, Dead Relix has been, is, and will be," he wrote. "We are constantly fighting quality standards, deadlines and financial burdens." In essence, the idea to cover a greater variety of music was seen as a way to increase circulation and advertising revenue, while at the same time, maintain the magazine's relevance amidst the post-flower power backlash and still continue to serve its original readership of Deadheads.
It was an overly optimistic plan. In Volume 6, Issue #1, Tamarkin, the newly appointed Senior Editor, bravely mapped out the magazine's future. "We can no longer justify putting out a magazine that is limited in its scope. We have many interests, and from the feedback we've gotten, so do you. And from now on, Relix is going to be looking at a wider variety of those interests. We feel that our new expansion will give us an honest reason for putting out this publication, and will justify our existence as rock journalists rather than us being unofficial fan club presidents."
Tamarkin seemed perfect for the job. An East Coast transplant attending college at San Francisco State in '76, Tamarkin became the school paper's Arts Editor. His music reviews were also published in BAM (Bay Area Music). In addition to his writing talents, Tamarkin had a broad range of musical interests. "I wasn't strictly a Deadhead. Never was," said Tamarkin. "I always looked into other music. I was into reggae and got very into punk for reasons that would take a whole book [to explain]. I just thought that was real exciting, and it kind of tied into my New York background in some odd way. So on one hand, I'd be going to the Dead and Cody and all the bands I'd been seeing all along, and on the other going to see Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Patty Smith."
In an effort to improve the quality of the magazine's articles, Tamarkin also brought in several professional music writers, including Howie Klein who had written for Creem and many others, and who would later become the president of Reprise Records.
The "Weir Pyramid" cover proved to be the calm before the storm. Subsequent cover photos featured the Blues Brothers, Blondie, The Who, Frank Zappa, Cheap Trick, Garcia (in an odd shot holding a Raggedy Ann doll), Pink Floyd, The Cars and Bruce Springsteen. Sales were booming. But as much as diversity succeeded at the newsstand, the fundamental shift in focus met with a hailstorm of protest from Relix's original readership. "We had more subscribers then than we have now," said Kippel. "The problem is that the Deadheads were flipping out! This was prior to the Internet…We were getting petitions, literally signed by hundreds of people. Put the Dead back in Relix!"
1981-87, The Toni Brown Era, Phase One - Relix Volumes 8-14
After approximately two emotionally charged years, Tamarkin's tenure as the editor of Relix ended in late 1980 with Volume 7, Issue #6. By this time, the ongoing debate arguing the pros and cons of the direction Relix was taking flooded the "Letters" section in most issues. Feeling the magazine needed a breath of fresh air, Tamarkin left Relix to take a similar position at Goldmine magazine. His replacement was a bright-eyed, young Deadhead named Toni Brown. It is no coincidence that Brown's first issue (Volume 8, Issue #1) carried a new subtitle-"Music For The Mind," which Relix still uses today.
Although Brown lacked experience as an editor, she had been helping out with the magazine since Volume 6, Issue #6 (1979). Thrown into the difficult position of trying to cover a broad enough range of music to sell magazines that did not alienate its core readership of Deadheads, Brown's impact was neither immediate nor absolute. Relix continued to cover a wide variety of music featuring decidedly "non-Dead" artists (The Police, Iggy Pop, the Pretenders, Eno, PIL, the Ramones, U2, the Clash, Devo, Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, among others), along with groups more in line with the traditional tastes of Deadheads, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Robert Hunter and Jimi Hendrix.
Even though the pages of Relix were still too much of a mixed bag for many Deadheads, Brown increased coverage of the Dead and its members whenever possible. As she became more confident in the role of editor, Brown gradually emerged as the visionary architect of Relix's future-a movement back to its roots, the Grateful Dead, and more importantly, its "community," while still exploring fresh, new music. "After Jeff left," recalled Brown, "Les asked me to run the magazine and I said, 'But I don't like heavy metal.' 'But we have to sell magazines,' he said. So I was like, 'OK, we'll try it, but we have to put more Grateful Dead back in.'"
Although tricky, Brown tried to make the often-incompatible juxtaposition of musical sensibilities work. At times she succeeded. Enlisting the talents of various musicians to contribute articles was one idea. Buddy Cage (New Riders), Greg Anton (Zero) and Barry "The Fish" Melton (Country Joe And The Fish), were among the better-known musicians to have articles published in Relix. Another noticeable difference was that cover photos were less inflammatory. Images of John and Yoko, Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen were a lot easier to take for Deadheads than Cheap Trick, Blondie or The Cars.
But that uneasy compromise was shattered with the Ozzy Osborne cover story by David Gans in Volume 9, Issue #2. "Here we had Ozzy on the cover with blood everywhere," Brown remembered. "I'm like, this is funny, ha ha, for one issue, but…Les took control for the next issue while I was having a baby, and he put Joan Jett on the cover, and we lost a lot of our Deadhead readers with that." And the loyal readers that stuck around made their feelings known. "We were getting letters, 'Put the Dead back in Relix.' We were getting signed petitions, and you know, I needed that readership support because I never stopped saying it."
Bolstered by the groundswell of community input, Brown gave an ultimatum. "I said to Les, 'If you really think the heavy metal thing is going to work, just bring someone in who can give that to the magazine. I can't do this.' I pretty much laid it out that I know about the Grateful Dead, that I think the magazine should go back to a more Deadhead-friendly approach, and if he felt differently, he needed to bring somebody in that understood what the heck was going on, because I didn't."
Kippel shared Brown's assessment of the direction Relix should take. He also agreed to a small, but symbolic demand. Brown recalled how she pitched the idea. "People want the Dead back in Relix, but they're never going to know it unless you give them something," she said. "Let's just put a variation of the 'Dead Relix' logo back. Let's make it small so it's not like we have to give them a full issue of Grateful Dead." We did that for about five years (starting with Volume 11, Issue #3,), and then I felt Relix was strong enough to stand without it."
1988-95, The Scene Is Too Big - Relix Volumes 15-22
By 1988, the hot topic in the "Letters" section had taken a turn away from what type of music Relix should cover, to the increasingly problematic scene surrounding the Grateful Dead and its community of fans. As the Dead's popularity mushroomed, so did the number of letters complaining to the editor.
"All of a sudden I'd get correspondence from people criticizing each other, like, 'People who go to shows without tickets are ruining it for the rest of us,'" Brown recollected. "I had to take a look at it from my own perspective and see what was going on. Yes, I saw the success of the Grateful Dead; I saw the success of their albums, but I saw the problems that were being created by those successes. I assumed that the Grateful Dead looked at those things and saw those things, but they were not an open forum as a magazine would be. It continued and took an even more distinctive, darker turn. Around 1987, I got flooded with letters from people who hated that the Dead's newest, most successful album to date, In The Dark, was successful and many long-time fans stopped going to see the band. It had become virtually impossible to get tickets, and the intimacy of the community was compromised by the presence of security and those wanting only to take advantage of our scene."
By this time, Relix had clearly established itself as a viable marketplace of the Deadhead community's ideas and opinions. But it wasn't until the breakthrough success of In The Dark that the mass media also began to recognize Relix as the voice of the Deadhead community. "I started to get phone calls for interviews from the media," said Brown. "It was very interesting because they really couldn't get a lot out of the Grateful Dead, unfortunately. The band was touring, they were busy, and I think the media demand surprised them as well. So when In The Dark hit, they came to the next source, which was Relix. We'd been around a long time, and our focus has always been steeped in that realm. So we got phone calls from anybody and everybody who thought, 'Wow, let's do a story on the Grateful Dead.' We never spoke 'for' the Grateful Dead, but I definitely felt as comfortable then as I do now speaking for the community. We are right in the middle of that community. We are a part of it; we are a voice for it. We are a sounding board for it, and we understand it."
As her experience grew, Brown began crafting a smoother editorial mix that allowed for variety without offending the musical tastes of its core readership. Relying on her instincts for what readers would and wouldn't be interested in, she learned with each issue, guiding Relix with an intuitive hand. A few of Relix's main contributors also joined the fold during this period. J.C. Juanis, then known as "Jimbo," established himself as Relix's primary San Francisco writer with the freewheeling "Bay Area Bits" column. A.R. Klosterman's Dead-related drawings became a favorite with readers, and Tierney Smith, a literature buff and freelance music writer, worked her way through the ranks to become Relix's book reviewer, a position she's held for over a decade.
The work of another noteworthy contributor, photographer Jay Blakesberg (who actually began shooting for Relix a couple years earlier only to go on to work for Rolling Stone magazine as well as shooting cover photos for a slew of Number One albums) was also featured regularly during this period.
Relix's "re-deadication" also opened its eyes and ears to covering new and emerging bands, in many cases before the national media. That was the case with Phish way back when the jam happy quartet from Burlington was still playing bar gigs. It was the same with reggae. The Relix cover photo of Bob Marley and the exclusive interview he did with Robert Santelli in the early 1980s were among the first of the national coverage Marley received. Santelli, who wrote numerous articles for Relix, later went on to become the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Educational Director.
Not only was Relix getting better, with a more clearly focused editorial slant, improved prose and a more professional layout, but Rockin' Relix (a merchandising company Kippel founded during the magazine's early, financially troubled period in the midst of the New Wave and Punk crazes) had come into its own and was critical in keeping Relix afloat. At this point, the magazine itself was a break-even proposition; the merchandising, on the other hand, was a moneymaker.
Comfortable that the magazine was now in capable hands (Brown eventually took over the role of Publisher with Volume 17, Issue #4 in 1990), Kippel pursued merchandising with a new twist-Relix Records. Signing Robert Hunter (the Dead's primary lyricist) as its first artist, Relix Records' early releases included recordings by Hot Tuna, Kingfish and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The roster of artists to record for Relix Records went on to read like a Who's Who of the psychedelic music scene-Savoy Brown, the New Riders Of The Purple Sage, Commander Cody, Wavy Gravy, Johnny Winter and Tom Constanten, to name a few. In later years, a new generation of bands such as Max Creek, Living Earth and Solar Circus also released albums on Relix Records.
Relix also began to venture into related, yet decidedly "non-musical" topics. From a regular column on environmental issues, to leading a campaign to raise awareness against the DEA specifically targeting Grateful Dead concerts for massive undercover drug busts, Relix provided a forum for the tie-dyed faithful on an array of "non-musical" issues that were otherwise overlooked by the national media.
The cover of Volume 21, Issue #1 (1994) "Drug Wars - Heads Behind Bars" broke the story of DEA stings and the unfairness of "mandatory minimum" drug laws. "I became aware of it because I was getting letters from people who were being arrested," maintained Brown. "It wasn't one every few months anymore; it was one every few weeks. And then it was one every week, and then it was one every day; then it was five a day. That's when an alarm went off in my head. I didn't really know what to do or how to start…so I made it a cover story. And that cover story led to Rolling Stone covering it, MTV, CNN. I went on TV up against the DEA who were denying everything I said, so I carefully and calmly argued with them. I'd always thought that covering the music was the most important thing I could do, but I have to say that doing that was the most important thing I've ever done. That and our coverage of environmental issues, which brought many other political injustices to light for our readers."
1996 - Present, The Post Garcia Era - Relix Volumes 23 - Today
Critics of Relix always posed the question of whether or not the magazine would survive the inevitable demise of the Grateful Dead. To be honest, nobody really knew the answer. Unfortunately, the point became moot when Jerry Garcia died in August of '95. And much to the surprise of its detractors, not only did Relix play a key role in helping the Deadhead community mourn Garcia's passing, it has subsequently flourished in the post Garcia era.
Wavy Gravy, Woodstock emcee and self-proclaimed clown prince of the counter-culture, put it this way-"Relix was one of the glues that was useful in keeping the community together and directing it toward music that had not been realized yet from the boys, or of those peripheral bands that also struck similar chords. And a way of keeping in touch, and of people being able to air their wounds for healing."
Not only were the pages of Relix used to celebrate Garcia's life and music in the difficult months after his passing, with the absence of the Dead's tours as the focal point for its community, the magazine's role in shining the light on new or lesser known bands came to the forefront. Way before the end of the Grateful Dead, Relix was covering a new generation of bands including Phish, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and the Spin Doctors, who shared the Dead's wide-open, jamming approach to their music.
"Relix has always been about intelligent change," said Mick Skidmore, longtime Relix writer and guru of evaluating up and coming bands. His columns have provided a valuable resource to the music community by giving readers alternative guidance. Skidmore's eclectic taste and open mind have made him an asset in introducing new artists to Relix readers. "We've always been on the wave of new things," declared Skidmore. "You know Phish? No one ever heard about Phish. We were the first ones to even talk about them. Back when they were playing clubs, who cared? Do you think Rolling Stone cared? We were the ones that picked up on the buzz from the grassroots thing."
And it's the "grassroots thing" that brings Relix full circle with the printing of its 150th issue. As a link to the past and a bridge to the musical future, Relix continues to play a vital role by serving the same community of music freaks it has chronicled for the past quarter century.
Author Lee Abraham is currently working on the official history of Relix. A portrait of the Deadhead community will unfold through his extensive interviews with musicians, writers, artists and readers.
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