By Nicholas Meriwether
The Posters of the Grateful Dead Archive
There are so many levels of this stuff. A poster unlocks memories just like a record does. You know how the records you listened to were the background music of your life? Well, the posters are the front pages, the covers of your life. I just can’t help looking at these and going BOING! I don’t know why. It’s what art is.
—Jerry Garcia, 1987
For casual visitors, the most commonly requested part of the Grateful Dead Archive is the band’s poster collection. This is not surprising: after the music, posters were the first related artform to emerge from the Haight-Ashbury, and they not only chronicled the city’s vibrant music scene, they also documented the Dead’s early years. As Robert Hunter reflected, “I’ve come to realize that the art movement that accompanied the rise of the Dead is as much a part of what we became in the public eye as the songs and our playing of them.” Poster art is one of the most important aspects of the Grateful Dead phenomenon, and it forms a vital dimension of the rich visual culture of the Deadhead experience.
The Grateful Dead were only one of several hundred rock groups documented by the heyday of San Francisco rock posters, from 1965 to 1971, but as Hunter also pointed out, “The Grateful Dead and San Francisco ’60s art are well nigh indistinguishable, even when not specifically Dead related.” Part of that had to do with their name. Poster artist Alton Kelley enthused, “What a fantastic name that was! It was the name of names.” His opinion was widely shared, and his peers and successors would continue to explore and define a remarkable iconography and visual landscape first charted by Kelley, his partner Stanley Mouse, and the other artists who created the San Francisco poster scene. For thirty years, Grateful Dead concerts were occasions to continue the remarkable renaissance of poster art that first flourished in the Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties.
It means that posters are a powerful and intruiguing way of looking at the Grateful Dead phenomenon. After the music, posters are the primary artifacts prized by fans and collectors; an industry surrounds Grateful Dead poster art now, as collectors, dealers and cultural heritage institutions continue to develop the field. Part of that has to do with how the artform harnesses the power of compression: every poster represents a constellation of stories, from the event it advertises to the inspiration it reifies to the cultural reception it inspires and ultimately commemorates. The ways that so many layers of meaning inhere in this most malleable and disposable of mass-produced art has fascinated critics, historians, and curators in much the same way that understanding and appreciating the posters was a defining ritual of the Haight-Ashbury.
Stanley Mouse remembers with pleasure seeing people clustered around the latest poster, trying to decipher them. The posters bloomed in windows and sprouted on telephone poles around San Francisco, and often disappeared just as quickly. They were immediate collectibles, ephemera that became prized pieces of portable history, preserved and treasured over time until they emerged as highly valued works of art in their own right. In that, they are also examples of community: of the community that was the Haight-Ashbury, of the community that was the first Deadheads, and of the community that is now enshrined by the Archive.
The posters the band inspired also demonstrate the power of archives. The poster art of the Dead is more than just an enduring expression of the joy, energy, learning, and love that their music encapsulated; it is also a skeleton key to the Archive, unlocking its relationship to the Dead and to the broader phenomenon they engendered. Ultimately, the Poster Series shows how the artistic, historic, and cultural legacies of the Dead are intertwined, just as their musical, artistic, literary, and artifactual heritage are bound together in the Archive. Telling the story of the Posters of the Dead necessarily involves telling the story of the Dead, and of the Archive; indeed, the posters provide a fascinating way of explaining how those stories all fit together, inform each other, and define each other, in a complex calculus that is continuing to unfold today. Through the posters, we can see another side of the bohemian, creative spirit that the Dead represent, helping us define its place in American culture and history.
That challenge will take many years to answer. Patrons are surprised to know that the band’s original poster collection numbered only a few hundred items when it arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 2008. Since then, it has grown, augmented by the band and a number of donors. The way the Poster Series evolved makes it an interesting window into the challenges the Archive has embraced. Indeed, of all of the series in the Grateful Dead Archive, the poster series is the one most emblematic of the Archive as a whole, in that it is not a deliberate creation, nor is it complete: It represents what survived over the years, what was saved and sometimes collected by office staff, and most especially, what was sent in or dropped off by friends, artists, and fans. Serendipity and generosity were what created the band’s poster collection, not an archival mandate to preserve the band’s ephemera.
Some posters in the Archive were wall decorations for the office; some were saved for posterity, as employees—especially Eileen Law—would tuck one away after a show. One treasured example documents the band’s fabled “Oops” concerts in Amsterdam in 1981, seen here. More often artist friends would stop by to show off a recent commission, leaving a sample. The broader point is that the band was not sentimental. The Dead did not actively solicit or collect the relics of their career. Yet they managed to instill a sense of historicity in those around them, which is why so many good poster collections were assembled by band family members, employees, and fans.
The lack of a complete collection of such a high profile aspect of the Dead phenomenon surprises some researchers, who view the lacunae in the Poster Series as an oversight on the part of the band’s organization. But the office was charged with supporting a touring band, not documenting its history; it means that in order to build a complete collection of Dead posters, as with the rest of the Archive, the entire community must be engaged. Just as one of the largest sets of images in the Poster Series came from Randy Tuten, who simply dropped off his latest work to brighten the band’s office, so, too, do many of the best images come from the generosity of donors, such as the first Acid Test poster, seen here. Those gifts, along with the band’s original bequest, form the kernel of what will, in time, grow into a first-rate poster collection.
That sense of a distributed archive—a community archive, before the archival profession even had a term for it—is very much the essence of the Dead Archive. And this is why the band’s poster collection represents not just an extraordinary provenance but a seed that relies on the community to grow and reach maturity.
Posters do more than just outline the story of the Dead; they also encapsulate that story, and the effort to understand it in all its myriad contexts, implications, and complexities. Ultimately, the Poster Series of the Archive is a colorful reflection—and powerful refraction—of the essence of the Dead, a perfect distillation and expression of the awe and wonder animating the music that lies at its heart.
Opening pull quote, Blair Jackson, “Garcia on ‘The Art of Rock,’” The Golden Road 15 (Fall 1987): 42.
Robert Hunter quotes from his “Foreword,” The Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip, 8.
Alton Kelley quote from [Blair Jackson], “Art for Fun’s Sake: The Magical World of Alton Kelley,” The Golden Road 3 (Summer 1984): 9.