Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Santa Cruz GD Archive Opening in Spring

By Blair Jackson

It was nearly four years ago—April 24, 2008, to be precise—that the Grateful Dead announced at a press conference at the Fillmore in SF that the group was donating its archives and assorted memorabilia to the University of California at Santa Cruz and would reside in that sylvan campus’ McHenry Library. There was chatter about making much of what was in the archives available on the Internet and also creating an exhibition space in the McHenry Library called Dead Central, where the band could show off some of the collectibles they accumulated over their 30-year history, much of it saved by Eileen Law, who was the group’s primary liaison with Dead Heads beginning in 1972.

At the time, UCSC’s head of special collections for the library, Christine Bunting, told the SF Chronicle, “I think it’s a perfect fit for Santa Cruz—the ethos of the band, the whole idea of community sharing, is really well matched with our campus. [UCSC] has a great music program, and we’re really interested in the study of American vernacular music and popular culture. We also have this whole side that’s concerned with social justice and tolerance and community spirit. And I think that fits so perfectly with what the band and what the Dead Heads have sustained over the years.”

Not long after that, the Dead’s archives—more than 500 boxes’ worth—were trucked down to Santa Cruz and loaded into a warren of rooms in the bowels of McHenry Library, and the arduous task of organizing and processing the incredible range of material—everything from press clippings to financial records to thousands of decorated envelopes sent in to GDTS (Grateful Dead Ticket Sales) to posters and much more—began. Meanwhile, McHenry Library underwent serious renovation that stretched over a couple of years and turned the modern building tucked amid the redwoods into a construction zone.

The next major step in the archive’s evolution occurred in the spring of 2010 when, after a nationwide search, Nicholas Meriwether was hired to be the Grateful Dead archivist at UCSC; a terrific choice! Nick’s academic CV was certainly impressive — a degree in history from Princeton, a sojourn at Cambridge, and a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of South Carolina (his home state). But his Dead Head credentials are every bit as strong. He contributed a definitive scholarly look at the Acid Tests for The Deadheads’ Taping Compendium, Vol. I, and was also editor of All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007), and four volumes of Dead Letters: Essays on the Grateful Dead Phenomenon (Dead Letters Press). This is a guy who has dug deep into many aspects of the Dead’s history and Dead Head culture, and he knows the players involved and understands how he can expand the Archive’s collection in year’s to come. Indeed, he has already landed several other important bequests of Grateful Dead-related materials for the Archive, including collections from Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally, photographer Susana Millman and former GD employee Steve Brown, with several more pending.

Archivist Nicholas Meriwether checks out
some Dead posters in McHenry Library.
Photo: Patrick Haywood, courtesy of the
Grateful Dead Archive ©2012

The big news, however, is that the Grateful Dead archive will have its formal opening this spring at McHenry. There will be a celebratory free party and also the debut exhibit in the Archive’s custom 1,400-square-foot space off the beautiful new atrium lobby. A couple of hundred people got a sneak preview of that then-unfinished space on Nov. 5 of last year, when the university hosted a fundraiser for the Archive in the psychedelically redecorated atrium. As a band consisting of members of a couple of Santa Cruz Dead cover bands played sparkling instrumental versions of GD favorites, guests noshed on a variety of fine food offerings from a central buffet and had the opportunity to mingle with the likes of Stanley Mouse, Rock Scully, Trixie Garcia, Dennis McNally and other “family” types. Best of all, though, was the fantastic one-night-only exhibit put together by Nick Meriwether for the occasion, called “The Attics of Our Lives: Posters and the Art of the Grateful Dead Archive.” As the title implies, it was filled with colorful art inspired by the Dead’s history, but also showcased handwritten lyrics by Robert Hunter (such as the original “He’s Gone,” complete with cross-outs), photos, fan envelopes and more. Nick also put together a gorgeous 223-page, full-color hardcover book that was given out to each attendee at the benefit. It contains dozens of reproductions of posters and artwork from the Archive, a detailed essay about the exhibit, interviews with Stanley Mouse (who designed the book cover and exhibit poster) and more. It was quite an evening and a bright foreshadowing of things to come from the GD Archive. Stay tuned for details about the grand opening celebrations!

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with Nick Meriwether about the Archive and the upcoming events.

I would guess that the Grateful Dead Archive was not your typical archive bequest, right?
Of course not! You’re dealing with an archive that was always a community undertaking. Normally, archival practice is focused on a records-management mentality, where everyone from Joe’s Hardware Store to Exxon Corporation would have had a record-keeping system that made sense and was useful to them for the course of that business, and then at the end of that business’ life or at the end of the records’ life, they would turn that over to an archive and the archive wouldn’t usually have to do that much work in order to make it accessible and comprehensible to researchers.

With the world of the Grateful Dead, that never happened. They were a working rock band and they didn’t organize their records like a regular corporation might, even though, of course, they were a corporation. They also never had a full-time records manager. Eileen Law and a bunch of the people in the office were very, very good archivists. But, for example, when Dennis McNally was working on his book [A Long Strange Trip], when Paul Grushkin was working on the Book of the Dead Heads, when any passing journalist—like you when you were editing The Golden Road—needed materials, those materials would be made available to you, and they might or might not get back to their original place in the archive. To compound all this, often when employees left, they sometimes took with them the records that they had been most responsible for, because often when they left, they had ongoing businesses they had to wrap up. It all made sense to work that way back then, but from my standpoint, what I have now is a fascinating skeleton of an incredible collection. So that’s why I’m going around and talking to everyone from [GD ticket czar] Steve Marcus to Steve Brown to Eileen Law to Cassidy Law [Eileen’s daughter, who worked in the office in the later days] to [late ’80s and ’90s manager] Cameron Sears, to find out who’s got what, who can fill which holes.

This makes my life, on the one hand, very complex and occasionally maddening and frustrating, on the other absolutely wonderful and marvelous—because isn’t this cool that everyone who was involved with this phenomenon and this organization realized that no matter what the difficulties, no matter what some of the more difficult personalities may have been, their involvement was such a luminous, magical thing that they all entertain very good will towards their involvement with that and have been incredibly supportive and generous whenever I’ve approached them.

There are many more pockets of records that we’re looking into, but it’s a difficult process because right now, because the Archive has no money for acquisitions, so all I can really offer people right now is: “Hey, don’t you want your place in this history to be enshrined? Well, this is the best way to do it.”

How will the public be able to participate in the Archive? There was talk about putting materials online, for instance…
There’s going to be a whole series of things that are going to happen, and the proper way to look at this is that like any big, complex archive, the work is going to continue for many, many years. It’s a huge job to even process that first bequest. We get additional collections every week, and we’re getting, I hope very soon, a substantial infusion of original materials that may end up being as large, or larger, than the first bequest.

The original gift was split into 10 separate sections. Each one of those sections—like photographs, like press—is being processed separately. As each is processed, it will be made available to researchers, and we’re digitizing as much of that as we can to make it available for everyone to look at on the Web. We anticipate the first couple of series being made available to researchers some time in April. We anticipate additional series coming online over the course of the summer and in the fall. But it’s going to take a few years, most likely, to get it all done. And that’s also true for a lot of supporting collections.

Cover for the exhibit catalog of Nov. 5, 2011
Archive fundraiser/party in Santa Cruz.
Illustration by Stanley Mouse ©2011

The “Attics of Our Lives” exhibit at the party was really impressive. What’s your plan for that space once it opens officially? The plan right now is to have probably two full-fledged exhibits per year. That will be determined in part by the funding we can engender. Our first exhibit will go up in April. We plan on having a big public party to inaugurate the Archive—that will be sometime in May and be free; probably with some live Dead music being played; no, not by any of the Dead. [Laughs] I’ll lead guided tours of the exhibit. The exhibit space is almost done in terms of the planning, and we’ve started construction on it. What you saw there on Nov. 5 was just a temporary shell for the space.

The first exhibit is going to be called “A Box of Rain: Archiving the Grateful Dead Phenomenon,” and that’s going to be an overview of the Archive itself, as a way of explaining what the Grateful Dead and the Grateful Dead phenomenon were and are. It’s going have a wonderful poster and, I hope, a catalog of the exhibit.

There are basically three different kinds of exhibits I want to have in that space. This kind of exhibit—and we’ll probably have to do one these every three or four years as new material keeps coming in—is sort of a smorgasbord, where you say, “Look at the cool stuff we’ve gotten,” and explain how it fleshes out the picture. A second category is going to be more historically themed exhibits. I think the one I’d like to do second—and it may not be second, but it will happen soon—would be the birth of the Grateful Dead from the Acid Tests through the Summer of Love. It fits the 1,400 square foot exhibit space beautifully, and it’s cool. So much of what made the Grateful Dead the Grateful Dead happened in those first three magical years. I think a third exhibit might be a specifically themed exhibit, and this could be everything from the sound systems and technological innovations of the Grateful Dead, to maybe something on the women in the Grateful Dead scene, to the parking lots … It’s almost endless on what we can do.

* * *

Want to learn more about the Grateful Dead Archive? Check out the website.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
oh yay!

hope to see you when you're out here in our part of the world, noonie!

noonie's picture
Joined: Jul 31 2007
Well kids

guess where we are going on our next vacation.....I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who made this happen

Joined: Dec 31 2008

Agreed, Blair. There is a lot of power in the "stuff." As noted earlier, I work in a museum and have visitors tell me all the time how powerful this artifact or another was to them. And while my museum's "stuff" is good, it isn't the stuff of legend like the R&R HOF. Two pieces left an indelible image on me there-- part of Otis Redding's plane that went down in Lake Monona and the Howlin' Wolf's old briefcase in which he would deposit his night's take for a gig.

Marye, agree with your various points on the other thread-- didn't mean to rake you too badly, but I must have misinterpreted the tone of your post on Cleveland v. Santa Cruz. Midwesterners can be a bit senstive about the coastal biases. Lots of good in flyover country, too. The more venues to see the Dead's material culture, the better for everyone.

Joined: Dec 25 2011
I intend to visit as I'm not

I intend to visit as I'm not too far north of Santa Cruz....

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

going back into the ancient past, BAM, where Blair and I first met, recently rose from the ashes and just posted an article about all this with some cool photos by Jay Blakesberg, which you may wish to check out...

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I would love... go the RNRHOF Museum! In the abstract, you might think, "Oh, do I really need to see Janis Joplin's rose-colored wire-rimmed glasses?" or Jim Morrison's hand-written lyrics for "The End" or whatever, but I've found when I've actually seen those sorts of things--like artifacts in the NY Historical Society GD exhibit two years ago, or Ted Williams' bat or other cool things I saw in the traveling exhibit of the Baseball HOF--they really DO have power...

Joined: Dec 31 2008
r&r hof

I saw another comment about the price of admission to the Rock HOF in Cleveland on the post about the exhibit there and just want to tell you all that it is worth your while. I know we all want museums to be free, but most cannot, especially a popular museum like that-- there is so much overhead to an operation like that, from frontline staff (security, etc...), expert curatorial staff and other administrators, probably hundreds of thousands spent on HVAC and then hundreds of thousands spent on archival storage supplies annually, plus costs of putting together an exhibit. If some of the richest rock stars like Mick Jagger would make a significant endowment to the institution, that would help, but that hasn't happened so far (from what I understand).

It is a big museum that you will easily spend all day in. $22 for a full day of entertainment is not outrageous. And you will see amazing treasures of rock history, no matter what your tastes beyond the Dead. With this exhibit to see, all the better. When I visited, a Springsteen exhibit was in that space and it is large-- there will A LOT of amazing Dead artifacts to see. And a night in Cleveland can be pretty fun-- it has changed since the dismal 70s and 80s.

Last comment: when you visit a free museum and they have a donation box, if you can afford it, always make a donation. Even one dollar per visitor adds up for those small institutions. I am sure UCSC will have a donation box, so leave them a little bit.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
No, no, cross-eyed...

Santa Cruz exhibits will be free, I believe... If they're smart they'll have a donation box on-hand...

Joined: Aug 27 2008
This coincides with...

This coincides with the opening of a Grateful Dead exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame & Museum in Cleveland Ohio in April, which runs to December 2012. The R'nRHOF has an admission fee that seems a bit high priced to me. I wonder if there is a similar priced admission fee here?
But I am very glad to see all this work come to fruition. Time to plan a visit.

Joined: Oct 1 2007

Such good news! I look forward to visiting, and conducting research there, as do a number of my Ph.D. students. Should be fun, and profitable (at least I estimate it to be profitable....) I love combining my work with my pleasure!


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.