Blair's Golden Road Blog—A Cool New Book:Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail
By Blair Jackson
Chances are you’ve encountered some of Paul Grushkin’s remarkable books through the years. His first, a collaboration with his photographer brother, Jonas, and designer Cynthia Bassett, was one of the best ever produced about our favorite group — Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads, published in 1983, and still a timeless document of the band and scene. With its hundreds of historical photos, copious examples of Dead-related artwork, revealing and often funny snippets of articles about the Dead and letters to the band, the book is a trip in itself. What a wondrous time machine it is!
Grushkin has produced several other exceptional books, too, including his beautiful, gargantuan, definitive volume on concert posters, The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk, and its striking and impressive sequel, The Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion (with Dennis King). Then there is the more specialized Treasures of the Hard Rock Cafe (with Joel Selvin), Rockin’ Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll and Art of Classic Rock: The Rob Roth Collection. Each is a sumptuous visual feast.
Photo: Mary Eisenhart ©2011
With his latest book, Grushkin returns to the Grateful Dead for a warm, witty and eye-popping companion to his Book of the Dead Heads. Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail (just out from Voyageur Press) serves up hundreds of examples of cool, weird, colorful, funny, deranged and highly psychedelic envelopes that were sent to the Dead’s ticket office—GDTS (Grateful Dead Ticket Sales) between 1983, when the group introduced its mail-order system, and 1995. (Additionally, there are splendid envelopes from the post-Garcia era incarnation of the company, GDTS TOO, which has continued the fine work of its predecessor.) The senders of these envelopes hoped that their sometimes very elaborate envelopes would capture the imagination of folks filling the ticket request orders and help them overcome daunting numerical odds for being granted the precious ducats. It occasionally worked. Maybe more than occasionally.
The author organizes the fan art into 10 main thematic categories, including Skulls & Skeletons, The Stealie, Bears & Terrapins, Dead Head Transportation, ’Shrooms, Tie Dye & Flying Eyeballs, plus a trippy catch-all chapter dubbed “The Second Set” and the aforementioned nod to GDTS TOO.
It’s more than just art, too. Grushkin and the author of the endearing and informative foreword, Bill Walton, engagingly lay out the history of the band’s relationship with its fans, from the earliest days to the famous “Dead Freaks Unite!” clarion call in the gatefold of their 1971 “Skull & Roses” album (which started the group’s mailing list) to the formation of GDTS and all that entailed. Grushkin offers a lively commentary on the fan art and also explains the occasionally obscure origins of all of the group’s major iconographic symbols. We also get to meet some of the colorful people behind the scenes. Some names you may know—such as the Dead organization’s main liaison with the fans, Eileen Law, and GDTS’ Calico and Steve Marcus—and others you probably don’t.
Grushkin had been trying for many years to do a follow-up to Book of the Dead Heads, but every time it seemed as if it might be on track, it became mired in one of the frustrating bureaucratic cul-de-sacs that have stymied many a well-intentioned project. A book of envelope art was an obvious and appealing way to go, as GDTS employees had taken it upon themselves to save thousands of their favorite envelopes through the years. Then, when Grateful Dead Productions closed down its offices a few years ago and the organization decided to partner with the University of California at Santa Cruz to house the band’s archives, some 15,000 envelopes saved by GDTS (out of who knows how many million) went down to Santa Cruz along with hundreds of other boxes of GD files, photos, memorabilia and assorted ephemera to be part of the Grateful Dead Archive. At last Grushkin had the raw material he’d need for Dead Letters all in one place!
Grushkin’s next task was to go through scores of boxes—each about three feet long and a bit more than the width of a good ol’ #10 envelope (as required by the mail-order rules). “They organized them by accession number in order of date postmarked,” Paul says as we sit at the dining room table in his Bay Area home on a hot late-September day. “You start flipping through them and there are no dividers that would indicate a particular concert or a particular run. And it couldn’t really be chronological anyway, because it wouldn’t hang together precisely. So my task became very self-created—the envelopes chosen for the book had to be on the basis of outstandingly rendered themes.
“UCSC Grateful Dead Archivist Nicholas Meriwether and Christine Bunting, head of Special Collections, let me go into the McHenry Library with my Canon G6 camera—which is pretty much a no-no in library situations, but they were really great about everything on this project. They sat me in the reading room and brought in the first big box they had, and I realized right then I was really going to have to look at every single envelope. There was no riffling through and just looking for the ‘highlights.’ Because sometimes it was the front of an envelope that was cool, and sometimes it was the back, and sometimes it might just be a corner or a little part of the artwork that caught my eye. So I was looking at the full envelope as a coherent artistic composition, and then I’d be looking for interesting details on the front or back, because you never know where they’re going turn up. Within that, I was doing a quick sort: ‘No. No. Yes. No. Yes, but I’m only going to photograph this part of this one.’ It was mind-numbing.”
Out of about 13,000 envelopes he personally examined, he photographed about 5,000, “and I ended up with all these giant thematic piles on this very table, and it turned into this supremely reductive exercise, because you know you’re not going to get 3,000 images in the book; you’re not going to get half that.” In the end he managed to squeeze in close to 500 in the 208-page book. Grushkin also tracked down other envelopes that had been saved by GDTS employees but held back from the UCSC donation (to remain in their personal collections until they were satisfied that UCSC Special Collections was as good as promised).
To better explain the arduous task of whittling down the thousands of photographed envelopes to just a few hundred, Grushkin drops a giant stack of images he rejected on the table in front of me. Every one is a gem. Why, I ask, would he reject this fantastically rendered drawing of a Chinese New Year’s dragon dancing across a particular envelope? “It’s great, isn’t it?” he says. “But the truth is I probably had 40 really good dragons to choose from, so I guess there was something about the one or two I chose that I thought were the most Grateful Dead-like.”
“Look at this envelope,” he says, showing me a totally charming reject that depicts smiling bears driving small race cars beneath the words “The Race Is On!” It had been created for the mail-in for a Dead show in Indianapolis, which also made it appealing, because Grushkin was always looking for geographic diversity within the themes. “This one would work for the ‘Transportation’ section, for ‘Bears,’ for ‘Songs,’ and being for Indianapolis. But would it trump another envelope in any of those categories? In this case it did not. But it was close!” he laughs. “In the end I had to use my intuition of what was ‘best in a Grateful Dead way’ and what served the overall.”
He notes that he wasn’t only drawn to the most skilled works, either. He opens up the book and points to a roughly drawn image in the hallucinatory “Second Set” chapter. “Why is this included?” he asks, pointing to a simple but evocative envelope with just “THE DEAD” scrawled messily in marker, a sun or star sketched hurriedly between the two words. “Because in some mysterious way, they got it! That’s Grateful Dead, that’s ‘second set’! It’s crude and it’s rude, but it was drawn by somebody who obviously understands ‘second set’ and what it does to your mind.”
Once Grushkin had chosen the images and they had been scanned (by UCSC), he had to get permission from the creators of the envelopes for them to appear in the book. Though the envelopes themselves no longer technically belonged to the artists — they became part of the GDTS collection once they were mailed—to publish them in a commercial product required the artists’ OK. Not surprisingly, everyone was happy to have their artwork displayed in Dead Letters — that is, the ones they could track down. “We solicited an approval from every person in that book, plus another thousand, because we weren’t sure how many of them we could find,” Grushkin says. “All we had in most cases were old addresses on the envelopes. Some of them could have moved 20 times! I moved. I don’t know if they could have tracked me down, and I didn’t move that far.” Several artists’ envelopes are showcased specially apart from the themes, accompanied by short profiles. But, alas, there are a few artists who could not be tracked down despite Grushkin’s and Voyageur’s best efforts.
“What’s that line from ‘High Time’? ‘Nothing’s for certain, it can always go wrong.’ It seemed like that every day!” Grushkin says with a chuckle. But in the end it all miraculously fell together, and the finished book is as special in its own way as Book of the Dead Heads is. No other group has ever inspired as much adventurous creativity from its fans as the Dead, and Dead Letters proves that irrefutable point once again.
“Could the decorated envelope phenomenon have happened for any other rock band?” Grushkin asks. “Dave Matthews? Tom Petty? The Rolling Stones? Possibly The Beatles? Probably not, because only the Dead gave their fans free rein to recast every icon there ever was, and shed their own light, decoratively speaking, on every aspect of their career—songs, concerts, venues, tours, you name it. It may be the only time in rock ’n’ roll history that one fandom’s artworks spoke as interpretively as the band’s music itself.”
Anyway, very cool book. You’ll dig it.
Copies are available here.
Yesterday being invited in to the Dead's old headquarters house and then poking around for a good hour, was just a sublime reliving-the-days experience. While I was not a GD employee, I was a trusted friend . . . trusted to sit with Mary Ann Mayer and read the Dead Head mail back in the early '70s, and then transition to do the same with Eileen Law. I've so many fond memories of the kitchen and the bulletin board where we pinned some of the best Dead Head correspondence . . . including the "Joan of Arc" telegram which is shown in DEAD LETTERS, and of course Eileen's lair on the second floor where brother Jonas, friend Cynthia, and I began some of the plotting for the original BOOK OF THE DEAD HEADS. Walking around the house--beautifully restored by the brothers Jaret--I really felt the connection between the two books. Also nice to see the two houses just across 5th Street where Jerry had his office and GDTS performed their miracles.
Most important tho, please try to swing by Barnes & Noble on November 3rd and say hi to Steven and as many of the GDTS gang we can bring along. And we'll all sign your copy of DEAD LETTERS!!
Not having been in the office since the Rex Relaunch party back in the day, I have to say it warms my heart to see the old house in good and loving hands... The tales that building could tell.
I was over at the B&N scoping out the scene yesterday. Bring your friends, this is going to be fun... (Also was talking to Sandy at Rex, who's looking forward to this too...)
Paul Grushkin, Carol Latvala and I were photographed in front of the original San Rafael home of Grateful Dead Productions for an article on Dead Letters that should be in print on October 28th (Friday)..
This was my first time back at the house since 1998, and I am very happy to say that the law firm that bought the house from the original owners are, in fact, stone cold Dead Heads! Long time tapers from the 1970's and kept much of the integrity of the house when it was inhabited by GDP...It was wonderful to see the place and be so welcomed! In fact the new owners used GDTS all the time and always got their orders filled! (no they didn't put artwork on their envelopes!)
Thanks again for doing this Paul!
Stay in touch!
Yes I WILL be there to answer questions and tell stories and even sign books too...I do believe that a number of other original GDTS employee's will be there too! I am really looking forward to this!
Stay in touch!
Really looking forward to swapping tales with many of you about Dead Head-decorated mail order envelopes at this event. Hope many of you can make it!
Btw, I thought's Blair's blog about DEAD LETTERS captured the flavor of what I'd intended the book to be--a companion and extension of the original BOOK OF THE DEAD HEADS.
Real cool man.....great reads and history here....thanx :)
and was in on it right from it's inception. I wish Furthur would take money orders (hint); some of us old school peeps don't do plastic (believe it or not). I use to decorate my #10 envelopes a little but nothing that would end up in a book; I was always afraid that the anal idiots that work for the NYC USPO would not be able to bend their minds enough to read them and send it back to me. Afterall, I'm almost ashamed to say I worked as an 89 day casual for The Dead Parcel section (of course); and I'm proud to say that I returned many a wayward roll of film to the folks who were smart enough to attach a mailing label on them. Haha, my supervisors name was Bertha Merriweather (post pavillion lol).
speaking with my Rex Foundation hat on, I would be really remiss if I did not point out this upcoming event on November 3 at the Barnes & Noble in Walnut Creek at which Paul will be signing books and telling stories, etc. I believe Steven Marcus has already said he'll be there too. And the Rex deal is that the B&N Bookfair charity thing is going on, so if you use the designated Rex code, a portion of all your purchases, including of course Dead Letters, goes to Rex. Details here... So if you're going to be in the area, come on down, this should really be fun.
I remember being really glad when GDTS came along! I don't think any of my friends who were the senders-in of the orders were insanely notable artists, though of course they will now all rise up to confound me.
Anybody remember sending a photo copy of your drivers license on your B-day to make sure you got in?