Grateful Dead

Documenting The Dead: The Terrapin Station Project

By Nicholas Meriwether

The Terrapin Station Project

This week's entry discusses another trace in the archive, the Terrapin Station project, a widely heralded endeavor that the band embarked on following their decision to retire the name in late 1995. First announced to fans in 1997 with a special issue of the Grateful Dead Almanac, Terrapin Station was heralded as “a real destination, where the remarkable partnership between the Grateful Dead and the Deadheads might continue to flourish and evolve, a place that is equal parts interactive museum, sensory playground and social/cultural laboratory.” The Almanac was short on details but made an enthusiastic pitch for what sounded like a Deadhead's dream: a fully immersive museum and performance space that would showcase the band's history, and complete recorded legacy, in an innovative set of environments that promised to evoke the sensory spectrum of a Dead concert, in all of its contexts.

Fig. 1. The “Terrapin Special” issue of the Grateful Dead Almanac.

Though not extensive, the array of materials in the Archive documenting Terrapin Station is revealing, showing how the Dead's organization was working hard to redefine itself after Garcia's death. It was an arduous and often wrenching process that strained relations between the surviving band members and placed their organization under tremendous pressure. The transition was especially difficult for a band whose entire history had been largely defined by its resistance to the norms and strictures of the recording industry. Yet the Dead also embraced, and helped to define, the modern touring industry, and many of the band's other innovations, in merchandising and archival music releases, have now become mainstream business practices. That innovative spirit, imbedded in a high-level professional setting, also describes the Terrapin Station project, making it a fascinating case study in the Dead's business practices, as well as a superb example of the kinds of insights their Archive can provide.

For the general public, the first inkling of the project was a splash of newspaper articles that appeared in January 1998. The San Francisco Chronicle put the plans on the front page of the January 6 paper under the headline “An S.F. Shrine for Deadheads,” with a full-length story that laid out the broad parameters of what would be a $60 million, 65,000-square foot “entertainment and performance complex” that would feature a museum, archive, store, and hotel. The story noted that several months of discussion had already taken place and confidently announced that a site would be revealed within six weeks. A projected 1.2 million visitors annually would make Terrapin Station one of the top tourist destinations in the Bay Area.

Fig. 2. Artist's rendering, Terrapin Station, interior exhibition.

The New York Times gave the project even more attention, with a much longer article featured on the first page of the Living Arts section. “There is a Grateful Dead master plan,” the article explained, quoting band publicist Dennis McNally as saying, “There's a way to keep this band going, even without Jerry, God bless him. Instead of dying, the Grateful Dead is morphing.” Lesh received the lion's share of the ink, framing the effort as the culmination of an idea the band first hatched in the 1960s. “We wanted to create a place that would be a presentation of what we did musically and culturally,” Lesh explained. Longime band attorney Hal Kant even pledged to donate his legal and business files to form the core of a research center. “The music industry is kind of new, and I was one of the first lawyers, so maybe my files can help teach people about the development of contracts and business practices from the beginning.”

The project shows the care with which the band approached the undertaking. It required enormous effort to prepare. They sought out experts, commissioning detailed studies of the demographics and economics of the venture and drafting a set of plans that had all the earmarks of success. They even solicited Deadhead support: long before the idea of crowd funding, the band came up with a creative way of financing the initial stages of the plan, commissioning a poster from their old friends Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse and releasing a fine show from their celebrated spring 1990 tour, one with a superb rendition of “Terrapin Station.”

Though the project failed to materialize, it left evocative and compelling traces in the Archive. In addition to the news clippings about the project in the Press Series, the Archive has samples of the materials used to raise funds to develop the project, including the poster and the compact disc.

Fig.3. Mouse and Kelley's poster commemorating Terrapin Station.

More compelling are the documents establishing the project and outlining its vision. A set of oversized project boards used for presentations provides a snapshot of the rationale for the project, now preserved as part of the band's business records. That vision was also condensed into two large format, professionally produced books, both handsomely illustrated and well designed. They provide bookends for the project, the first outlining the genesis of the project and the last, its final parameters.

The first book, subtitled “Concept Development and Financial Overview,” was produced by LA-based consultants Rick Abelson and Let It Shine Productions. Its 41 pages are divided into 25 sections, detailing the project concept and underlying themes and philosophy, drawing heavily on the market research provided by San Francisco-based Economics Research Associates. Created in 1996, the book laid out an ambitious agenda for fulfilling the project.

It also noted the inception of the project, which took shape at a two-day meeting of thirteen band insiders. For Lesh, the sole band member to participate in the meeting, the idea “was a great deal of fun while we were in the brainstorming stage,” but as he recalled in his memoir, “in typical Grateful Dead fashion it became inflated in scale beyond all practicality …”

Figs. 4 and 5. The covers of Terrapin Station: Concept Development and Financial Overview

(1996), and Terrapin Station: Business Plan, [1997].

Practicality is defined by context, however. The increase in scale was partly rooted in the band's history, as it struggled to redefine itself as an organization and a business in the wake of Garcia's death, but the plan's failure owed more to the dynamics of the time and place. The Dot Com boom had created a surplus of wealth and optimism in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area in the late 1990s, making the idea of a tourist venture like Terrapin Station an easy sell to investors. That confidence infused the second book, subtitled simply, “Business Plan.”

A 43-page follow-up to the Concept Development, the Business Plan filled in a host of details, including detailed architectural plans, colorful artist's renderings of the spaces, and a carefully thought-out narrative explaining the interpretive paradigms that would bring the exhibits and environment to life. What most impresses is the integrated nature of the vision: far from being a fetishistic fan museum, Terrapin Station planned to present the band's achievement and history as the nuclei for broader inquiries into American history and culture, and the music of the world. With performance spaces, a research library and archive, and a variety of museum environments, as well as shops and a hotel, Terrapin Station aimed to express the full range of the Dead, and the Deadhead experience.

Fig. 6. Architectural plan for Terrapin Station, exterior view.

According to the executive summary, Terrapin Station was defined by six goals:
1. To recreate the experience of what it was like to attend a Grateful Dead concert;
2. To continue the dialogue between the band, its fans and all newcomers;
3. To educate about the contributions of the Grateful Dead and the San Francisco Music Scene to the evolution of American popular culture;
4. To encourage new musicians and reinvigorate others to continue the band's traditions of innovation and excellence and provide a forum for their musical expression;
5. To preserve, display and put into historical context, artifacts, icons and memorabilia which capture the essential spirit, fervor, energy and idealism of popular music since the 1960's; and
6. To profitably capitalize on the expanding demand for Grateful Dead music and products and to perpetuate the value of the established Grateful Dead brand name.

The last goal would prove to be the challenge. That was not obvious at first: Aside from the deeper, conservative revenue projections from Economics Research Associates, Terrapin Station had a compelling financial model driven by a mix of traditional instruments and venture capital; even funding a project of this magnitude seemed well within reach. What planners could not anticipate was the boom in Bay Area real estate, which made sites prohibitively expensive-and despite an early pledge to remain open to other cities, San Francisco was always the most logical and appealing location, historically and practically. As the Mayor's office commented when the plans were first made public, the Dead “are part of our heritage and part of our culture.” Logistically, however, finding a location proved to be impossible, despite the support of the mayor and a groundswell of local enthusiasm. Part of that was mounting concern within the band's organization over funding details; with the Vault proposed as collateral, the stakes were ultimately too great for the surviving band members to come to an agreement.

Fig. 7. Architectural floorplan for Terrapin Station.

When the project was shelved, the loss was a blow, but in classic Grateful Dead fashion, the band rebounded. A creative and far-reaching agreement with Rhino Records let the remaining members focus on creating more music, both alone and in various combinations. Nor did the idea of a permanent place to make music and to let Deadheads gather die: both Bob Weir and Phil Lesh would go on to create successful venues, Weir as a co-owner of the Sweetwater nightclub in Mill Valley and Lesh with his Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael. Those ventures were much smaller than the grand idea of Terrapin Station, but they were also better suited to the economic and organizational realities of the times, as their success demonstrates.

Fig.8. Artist's rendering of the open air, top-story performance space of Terrapin Station.

The Grateful Dead Archive principally documents the band's work, and on the whole, it is a record of achievement, reflecting the trajectory of the Dead's career. But the business series of the Archive also documents missteps and failures as well: experiments tried and abandoned, ideas developed and dropped. Those projects may not have come to fruition, but they left fascinating evidence in the Archive, as tantalizing as archeological ruins, and often more revealing. Terrapin Station represents the pinnacle of those efforts, by far the most ambitious and potentially the most far-reaching, one that would have enshrined the band in a cutting-edge museum venue that offered the opportunity to reify the Grateful Dead experience and share it with millions. The traces of the project that survive in the Archive reveal the Dead's celebrated willingness to experiment and dream, as well as their professionalism and meticulousness; those traces also outline the tensions and pressures that defined the post-Garcia era. Most of all, the plans and fragments of Terrapin Station outline the power, centrality, and fragility of the band's legacy: not only what it meant to the band and its fans, but what it would mean for scholars, and to posterity. In that way, the work for Terrapin Station laid the foundation for the creation of the Grateful Dead Archive.

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marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
what did happen

to Hal Kant's papers? That would be quite a trove all by itself. Very interesting, smart guy.

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