By Nicholas Meriwether
The Books of the Grateful Dead Archive
When the band's archive arrived at UC Santa Cruz, one of the most unusual sections was their library: an informal collection of more than 400 books, spanning a fascinating gamut from influences to interests, from documents of their history to assessments of its impact. Indeed, no other band has a more dynamic, complex, and intertwined literary history than the Grateful Dead. Few bands have generated more books; none have attracted the analyses of so great a range of writers, approaches, and perspectives. The library they assembled at Fifth and Lincoln traces that literary history from antecedents to contemporaries, from cultural dissemination to critical appraisal, highlighting the contexts that frame the broader intellectual geography of the Grateful Dead phenomenon.
Those contexts extend from high culture to popular, from academic thinkers to the Beat Generation, connecting the Dead to the deepest roots of American bohemianism-roots that continued to cast long shadows in the postwar culture that shaped the band. New forms of that inheritance also played out in the books that influenced and inspired the Dead, from science fiction to academic works, extremes whose assimilation defined the catholic elasticity and endlessly protean ethos of the band's broader milieu and the community of writers, musicians, and artists that gathered around them.
Like much of the Archive, the band's library evolved in ways that mirrored the music, volumes being added through serendipity as well as deliberately: books they sponsored and supported; books they found and that fans and friends gave them. One foundational volume is a copy of the Funk and Wagnalls dictionary containing the entry “grateful dead,” which Garcia found in November 1965. It was donated to the Archive by a fan, a gesture that also echoes the spirit informing the entry. Both band and fans would find the name and its origins to be a rich source for rumination; as Robert Hunter put it, “The evocative power of that strange, not at all comical name is considerable, for grace and ill. I know that my own input into the scene, my words, were heavily conditioned by that powerful name. It called down sheaves of spirits down on us all.” The band made their own contributions to the literature informing the entry, first with an article about the deeper roots of the name in their 1983/84 concert program, and in 1989 with a retelling of the folk motif, written by longtime band family member and staffer Alan Trist.
Those books illustrate one of the key points about the Dead's library: far more than just a passive collection, the library was an active expression of how the band participated in its literature. That participation began almost immediately, as journalists sought out the band and found them to be articulate and thoughtful narrators. One of the first was Tom Wolfe, whose The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test became a seminal text in the band's legend. Other journalists followed, several of whom would write accounts that became defining entries in the band's canon, from Michael Lydon and Ed McClanahan to Charles Reich, whose long interview with Garcia for Rolling Stone was later published as a book. A battered office copy of that book is one of the treasures of the band's library, on display now at McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz.
Copies of these books circulated at Fifth and Lincoln, helping staffers answer media inquiries and providing a powerful reminder of the history they were all building. The books the band sponsored made especially palpable expressions of that commitment: their publishing company Ice Nine-whose name they took from another favorite book, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle-produced beautiful books of their music, and Hulogosi Books, the publishing cooperative shepherded by Alan Trist, published a number of books by Hunter and other band family members, including memoirs by Tom Constanten and Prankster Paul Foster.
Fans contributed as well. As Deadheads published poetry, memoirs, novels, and reference works, they sent copies to the band, in thanks for the inspiration and the music, and often for permission to quote from lyrics. One Deadhead poet introduced his volume with the memorable phrase, “These are bits and pieces that I have written over the years as a Dead-Head. It was wonderful to be involved in such a positive thing in the latter half of the twentieth century, helping a little in the evolution of humankind.”
The books of the Dead are a window into the phenomenon they fostered, and the Archive they built is a window into those books. Just as those volumes encompass the gamut of ideas informing the Grateful Dead experience, the Archive offers a glimpse into the writers and creative processes that produced those books. Materials found throughout the Archive include evocative antecedents, notes and early drafts, the dress rehearsals for what would take center stage in subsequent articles and chapters, songs and books.
The current exhibition at the Archive focuses on this remarkable literary achievement. Called “All the Pages Are Our Days: The Books of the Dead,” the exhibition provides much more than a well-illustrated guide to the literary history and heritage of the Grateful Dead. It also shows how the books of the Dead are a skeleton key to the significance and achievement of the band, and the place of the Grateful Dead phenomenon in American culture. It runs through the end of this year, and is free to the public and open during normal library hours.
The books of the Dead continue to multiply. The band's fiftieth anniversary has precipitated number of new books: a cultural history of the band by scholar Peter Richardson, just published, with a number of others slated to appear, including a memoir by drummer Bill Kreutzmann and histories of the band and fans by journalists David Browne, Jesse Jarnow, and longtime chroniclers David Gans and Blair Jackson. A sign of the growing respect for, and respectability of, the Dead is the growing scholarly literature. The dynamism of the discourse makes Garcia's 1985 observation all the more prescient: “Because of the fact that it's ongoing and continually changing, there's no way that any amount of telling it is ever going to reveal it to the point of demystifying it. It's much too complex!” His words are a wonderful echo of British writer E. B. White's memorable phrase, “complexity-through-joy,” which is how he characterized his life-but it is an equally fitting description of the books of the Dead.