By Nicholas Meriwether
The Steve Brown Collection
On March 3, 1968, a young Navy midshipman showed up on Haight Street, one of several thousand people who had heard that the Grateful Dead were going to play a free concert that afternoon. He was the only one to bring a tape recorder, however: a big, heavy Uher reel-to-reel, with its own battery pack and microphone. The four songs that he recorded are a part of Grateful Dead history, along with a wonderful picture he snapped of Jerry, taken as Garcia was walking up the street with his guitar, surrounded by well-wishers and fans. When Garcia died, that picture was the one chosen for the cover of the band’s official newsletter, the Grateful Dead Almanac.
Fig. 1. Grateful Dead Almanac, 1995. Photo by Steve Brown.
Steve Brown was the name of the midshipman, and five years later he went to work with the band he recorded that afternoon. Brown’s story is fascinating, and his papers, donated to UC Santa Cruz in 2014, form an important supporting collection in the Grateful Dead Archive. His tenure with the band coincided with a critical time in their history, and Brown’s contributions were myriad, significant, and wonderfully representative. As a result, the collection he amassed provides a vital window on the Grateful Dead, both as a working band and as a business; and as an archive, his papers provide an illuminating snapshot of the issues that make the Grateful Dead Archive such a complex and compelling set of interlinked collections, on so many levels.
Brown’s archive comprises three boxes of papers, with a few photographs and pieces of ephemera. It documents the range of roles Brown played, from Deadhead to employee to alumnus, but always participant, from the young photographer and recording engineer who captured historic moments of the band in the 1960s to the indefatigable staffer of the 1970s who worked on Mars Hotel and The Grateful Dead Movie to the professional videographer who went on to produce seminal documentary films of the 1974 European tour, the 1995 Jerry Garcia Memorial, and more.
All of the collections in the Dead Archive speak to the community ethos that birthed the band and that they in turn promulgated, but Brown’s papers provide a particularly clear expression of that ideal: how the idea, and the reality, of community unifies the Archive, knitting together all of its collections across subject and object, eliding intellectual and theoretical boundaries the way the Dead did with the genres informing their music. At heart, Brown’s papers reveal the power as well as the many facets of community, demonstrating not just membership but also the more gossamer qualities of goodwill, stewardship, loyalty, and belief in legacy, the quality an archive manifests most strongly. As archivists continue to debate the theoretical implications of community archives, the ways that collections like Brown’s fit in with the broader Grateful Dead Archive provide an intriguing case study for how those theories play out in a real world setting.
For fans and scholars, however, it is Brown’s work with the Dead that commands attention. His papers tell us much about the Dead’s organization and how they worked, as artists and as a business. At heart, Brown’s story shows how porous the line between band and fan could be - - as so many discovered. He first approached the band in 1972, after hearing that they were considering starting their own record company, and went to work for them in 1973, staying for several years in a variety of capacities until he left in 1978.
Figs. 2, 3. Steve Brown, Recording Notes, Mars Hotel sessions, Apr. 29, 1974. CBS Records Session Data Sheet, Mars Hotel sessions, Apr. 20, 1974.
His positions gave him a bird’s-eye view of the band’s work. That is one of the greatest strengths of his collection: it provides a level of detail often missing from the band’s own papers. The Archive has no documentation of their work in the studio as granular as Brown’s, for example. His papers allow us to reconstruct the recording of Mars Hotel, with detailed notes on what was recorded and a paper trail that reveals how songs and tracks evolved over the sessions. All of these provide much-needed historical facts, but they also speak to the precision, focus, and discipline the band brought to bear on their studio work.
Likewise, Brown’s role in The Grateful Dead Movie casts considerable light on that project, from his outline of the film to his wonderfully evocative sketch of the concentric circles of its subject, from magic and music on out into culture, that persuaded Garcia to give Brown a central role in the project.
Figs. 4, 5. Steve Brown, Grateful Dead Movie Outline. Steve Brown, Grateful Dead Movie Concept.
What emerges from the welter of those details are deeper insights into the Dead’s extraordinary creative process, along with the crushing mundanities that surrounded it, from deadline pressures to studio costs, and all of the agonizing technicalities governing album recording and movie making. Scholars may wish for that kind of detail for every one of the band’s projects, but thanks to Brown, we have critical insights into how they worked on several high-profile projects, and the contexts that governed those efforts.
The Mars Hotel session work was one aspect of Brown’s responsibilities for Grateful Dead Records and Round Records, the band’s in-house companies headed by Ron Rakow. The record companies, and Rakow’s tenure with the band’s organization, are a pivotal era in the band’s history, and Brown’s perspective provides an important vantage on the turbulence, ambitiousness, and eventual demise of those ventures. Press releases, promotional efforts, even tracking sales were all tasks that Brown facilitated and shouldered. Years later, he wrote an account of those times, published in The Golden Road; a longer first draft is included in his papers.
Figs. 6, 7. Press release, Wake of the Flood, Oct. 15, 1973. Mars Hotel Sales, Sept. 30, 1974.
Brown’s papers also illuminate a number of aspects of the Dead’s touring operation, both before the hiatus and immediately after. Indeed, one of the important contributions of his collection is the way it shows how his work for Grateful Dead Records and Round Records fit into the band’s emerging sense of their business before their mid-seventies break, and how that sensibility was refined after their return to touring in 1976. Even during the hiatus, Brown played a critical role in one of the Dead’s few performances during that time: he was instrumental in setting up every aspect of the Bob Fried Memorial on June 17, 1975, including persuading the band to perform, having Bill Graham produce it, and handling all of the many details that made it a multi-artist success which raised desperately-needed funds for a fallen friend’s family.
That event also demonstrates another vital dimension of Brown’s archive. Like many in the Dead’s organization, Brown played several roles - - and was given considerable latitude as well, as his leadership and organization of the Bob Fried Memorial reveals. His notes provide even greater insights: his acumen with promotion produced vital outreach efforts that not only maintained the band’s human face with their fanbase as they played larger and larger venues, but also helped to foster the goodwill that sustained them during the hiatus. The letters from the band to Deadheads discussing their plans for the record companies attest to the closeness of that relationship, and the success of Brown’s efforts.
Figs. 8, 9. Steve Brown, “Things That Expand”( Promotional Ideas). Grateful Dead Records, “Fellow Dead Heads” newsletter.
The multiplicity of the roles Brown played also speaks to the fluidity of his position, which shows an organization that not only values its personnel but by doing so allows it to pivot to meet challenges creatively, constructively, and successfully - - usually. That is another aspect of Brown’s collection, for missteps and mistakes are a central part of the band’s story. But the Dead’s ability to rebound, to not allow those failures to destroy them artistically or commercially - - that is why the band has attracted the scrutiny of so many managers and business theorists. The band’s success in business terms is compelling in part because it happened despite the setbacks they weathered. And as Brown’s work for them shows, their ability to withstand failures that would have crippled most businesses - - or bands - - is in no small measure due to the thoughtful, committed collaborators they attracted, as well as to the open-minded porousness of the organization they built. Ultimately, the people the Dead attracted tell us much about what their organization valued: humor, intelligence, collegiality, commitment, creativity, and hard work.
At its broadest level, what the Steve Brown archive shows is the degree to which the band instilled a sense of historicity in those around them, from crew to staffers to family members to fans. So many of those understood that what they were experiencing was not only precious but significant: they felt the tug of history and collected as many bits and pieces of their time in the scene and with the band as they could. The collections they built reveal how a sense of shared legacy creates a very real kind of distributed archive: the intensely felt interest, the participatory emphasis, the long history - - these all combined to turn enthusiasts into collectors, and often into fine amateur historians as well. The value they recognized, and invested, in the artifacts of that experience - - and their urge to have that valuation, and participation, vindicated and legitimized - - are what will make it possible for us to eventually gather even the most esoteric and far-flung pieces of Grateful Dead history. As long as the history of the Grateful Dead phenomenon is valued, the bits and pieces of it will be preserved, and may find their way home to the Archive at last.
For many years, that valuation - - that sense of an honored, shared past - - was chiefly defined in the marketplace by poster collectors; now it extends to nearly every facet of Dead-related ephemera, from T-shirts to tickets to backstage passes to fan-made wares of every variety. But commercial value is another dimension of cultural heritage, and widespread interest is one of the basic bulwarks in preserving history, helping advocate for that coveted place in archives and museums, in classrooms and books. Brown understood that, and has participated in the collector’s market, ensuring that some of the more evocative and appealing artifacts he collected and stewarded found homes with other thoughtful, conscientious aficionados. That kind of sharing is no less important than his generosity in donating his papers to the Archive: for young and fragile cultural movements, only if artifacts circulate can awareness expand and appreciation grow. Most of the great collections in museums and archives began with far-sighted collectors.
That describes Brown. His papers are far more intimate than just a fine collection, though. In large archival collections human details can sometimes get buried: the personalities and passions, the travails and triumphs and trivialities of daily life. Those also define the Steve Brown papers, but what we see in his archive is more than just the intensely personal cast of the collection, built and preserved for many years before its donation to UC Santa Cruz. Most of all, Brown’s papers let us see the joyous participation that the Grateful Dead inspired in so many like-minded souls and fellow travelers who gravitated to this grand musical and organizational experiment and enterprise.