Dr. Darren E. Mason, professor of math and computer science at Albion, carries out his daily activities as most professors do. ‘A Day in the Life’ of Mason – which was not written by The Beatles – includes making coffee, grading, lecturing, having meetings and completing research.
Mason said teaching math and computer science is important because he believes all students should learn basic quantitative literacy, especially for reading about statistics in the news. He said that in day-to-day life, math is involved in nearly everything – from phones to airbags in cars.
“People aren’t aware of it all the time, but so much of your life is governed by people who understood math and did it correctly,” Mason said.
Mason enjoys running a food club in Lansing, cooking and eating different types of food, going on hikes and doing trivia. His love of trivia caused him to memorize every flag in the world so his team could win flag-dependent trivia questions. Mason also said he loves traveling, feeling blessed to have been to many countries, like India, Slovakia, Poland, Spain and Brazil.
“Any time I have a chance to see more of the world and learn more about other cultures, that enriches my life,” Mason said. “I’m always fascinated about learning more about other parts of the world and just learning about other people’s lived experiences.”
If this were an article about someone who had never heard of the eclectic, ’65-’95 rock band called the Grateful Dead, it may be nearly complete. But at age 17, Mason’s life changed forever.
“I can remember the day that it happened,” Mason said. “My brother came home one day and he said, ‘Put these headphones on,’ he said. ‘Just listen to this.’”
Playing through the headphones, connected to a record player, was Grateful Dead’s album, Dead Set. Mason said it was the electric version of the band’s 1980 fall tour, played at Radio City Music Hall and the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. What distinguished these shows, however, was that the Grateful Dead played acoustically for the first time in ten years.
“That day my brother put those headphones on me, immediately a switch flipped,” Mason said.
This transformative first Grateful Dead listen occurred in 1985. A year later, he saw them live on June 26, 1986 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis when they performed with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. As far as concerts go, Mason said it wasn’t very good; the acoustics were bad, and his car got towed afterward.
Despite the towing, Mason went to see the Dead two days later in Wisconsin at Alpine Valley. It was an eight- or nine-hour drive, yet Mason said the experience was far better – Deadheads (the endearing nickname for Grateful Dead superfans) camped in the parking lots. He said it was essentially a party that lasted for two days straight.
“I saw them both nights; that changed my life,” Mason said. “I walked out of those shows a Deadhead. I saw them as often as I could until Jerry died.”
Ironically, the internet was just starting out as Mason was becoming a Deadhead. Because of this, cassette trading of Grateful Dead shows was growing increasingly popular in online forums.
“I came of age during the internet and while the Dead were still playing, which was only like a five-year window of time,” Mason said. “I was just lucky that that’s when I got into it.”
The first tape that Mason purchased was a popular Grateful Dead show.
“I bought a tape at a flea market of a very famous Dead show called Barton Hall May 8, 1977,” Mason said. “Which, I think it’s overrated, but a lot of people say it’s the best Dead show ever. I think that’s just because there were a lot of good quality tapes that were circulating.”
Mason continued to buy tapes, but he didn’t begin trading online until he started graduate school and had an email address and internet access.
“I found this community called rec.music.gdead which was this online community, and it was text-based,” Mason said. “People typed back and forth, and there were people trading tapes.”
Mason said traders typed up lists of all the cassette tapes they owned. Mason collected tapes rapidly and still has his list today which contains over 2,000 hours of cassette recordings. While he collected tapes, he listened to them often, memorizing the dates of many Grateful Dead shows.
Because every concert had a different setlist, Mason said if you knew the songs preceding and following certain songs, it was like a fingerprint of what night the concert was. He once pointed out a mislabeled tape online, saying that it was common for tapes to be mislabeled as people often copied and sent tapes immediately after receiving them from someone else.
“Somebody was saying that a concert was from 10/19/72, which was Vanderbilt; which there was no circulating copy at the time. But it was actually 11/19/72 from the Hofheinz Pavillion in Houston,” Mason said. “So I pointed it out online, and I got an email from somebody the next day, saying, ‘We’d like to invite you to join a secret group.’ And it was because I pointed out that that tape was wrong online, in public, that they made me a part of this group called The List.”
Mason said The List was essentially just another community of tape traders who had access to high-quality sources. A large portion of Mason’s collection came from this community. He also wrote a segment in the first volume of a book titled “The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium,” an in-depth, comprehensive guide to Grateful Dead tape collecting. His contribution involved a section called “Commonly Mislabeled Tapes.”
Learning about Grateful Dead shows is not the only way the band has impacted Mason’s life. He’s also named three pets after the band – a dog named Cassidy after a Dead song of the same name, a cat named Maggie, short for “Sugar Magnolia” and a cat named Phil after bassist Phil Lesh. Mason even reached out to a classic rock radio station in Lansing to be a guest DJ for them.
“You had to submit a list of songs you wanted them to play. I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna play the Dead for an hour,” Mason said. “‘No, you can’t do that.’ So, then I submitted songs that I liked, and I said, ‘Can I just play two Grateful Dead songs?’”
Mason then said that he wanted to play live versions of the songs, but radio stations don’t like to play ten-minute songs. He eventually negotiated with the station for a month via email. They allowed him to play ‘Hard to Handle’ from Aug. 6, 1971 at the Hollywood Bowl, and ‘Truckin’” from Dec. of 1973.
“The whole point of ‘Truckin’’ is not the singing,” Mason said. “It’s the jam that happens afterwards, which is equally as long as the singing goes,” Mason said.
Mason said he loves the Grateful Dead because they are different and adventurous. He said that these aspects made the band distinctive, and are why Deadheads would go to multiple shows on the same tour. While he was in graduate school, Mason said that he’d follow the band and considered this time away from school a vacation.
“Every night was different. There was a reason to go see them,” Mason said. “I mean, I remember I was in grad school, and I’d tell my PhD advisor, I said, ‘I’ve gotta go on tour.’ He would say, ‘Your thesis – you have to write it.’ But I’d leave for like a couple of weeks and go to every show I could fit into those two weeks.”
The Grateful Dead was known for blending many aspects of music together. Mason said they would cover country music stars like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. They integrated jazz with their performances, and Branford Marsalis from The Tonight Show played with them. Mason also said that great jazz saxophonists like David Murry and Ornette Coleman would sit in with the Dead.
“Really good musicians would appreciate what they did, and I always admired that. And I admire the fact that they took chances; some nights they sucked, and it wasn’t very good,” Mason said. “And some nights, because they allowed themselves to do badly, they allowed themselves to do great. So when you were there on a really good night, it was amazing.”
Today, Mason said that the desire to build his collection of Grateful Dead music is gone now that everything is online. In 2001, he sold his cassette tapes for one dollar each and replaced them with CDs. He didn’t enjoy many incarnations of the band after Jerry died, yet he likes what John Mayer has done with the present-day Grateful Dead, now called Dead and Company.
A few years ago, Mason took his stepson to see a reincarnation of the band for three shows in a row. His stepson said that he understands why people would see The Dead night after night because of how different each performance was.
Mason said that he can’t imagine ever throwing out his CDs and still considers himself a Deadhead today despite cassette trading ending and the original band no longer performing.
“It really meant a lot to me,” Mason said, “those days and those moments.”