By Nicholas Meriwether
Remembering the Dead, Part 2 - Letters to the Dead: The Correspondence Series of the Grateful Dead Archive
When the first part of the Grateful Dead Archive arrived at UC Santa Cruz in the summer of 2008, the two most extensive series, or sections, were Press (discussed in the first blog), and Correspondence. The care with which the Dead had stewarded those series was revealing, and it was an apt reflection of the band’s priorities, even in their early years. They were keenly conscious of their media footprint, and they already knew that their fans were the key to their survival, artistically and economically; it’s little surprise that this awareness would produce the earliest and most extensive parts of the Archive.
Even their earliest fans understood that. When a young fan named Craig Corwin wrote to Garcia in 1966, after the band’s show in Sacramento, Garcia sat down a few weeks later and wrote a three-page reply, answering his questions in detail. Later featured in an exhibition at the Archive, the letter is a testament to the sense of responsibility the band felt for their fans—something that early Dead freaks (as they were then known) already recognized and responded to. It was part of why the Dead were viewed as de facto community leaders in the Haight, not just the preeminent band to make its home there, as New York critic Richard Goldstein observed during his visit in the fall of 1966.
The Archive does not own Corwin’s letter, though he graciously shared a reading of it, immortalized on video by former Grateful Dead staffer and videographer Steve Brown. The earliest letters in the Archive date to 1970, after they had set up shop at what would become their longtime headquarters at Fifth and Lincoln in San Rafael. Only a few survive from then, but even those early efforts are revealing: the first is written from (then) West Germany, penciled on the back of a wonderful wood-block print and hopefully asking if the Dead would perform there. Brief as it is, the letter makes it clear that already, the band’s fame had spread to Europe—and already, fans intuited that the Dead expected them to be artists, not only of their own lives but of their shared experiences with the band. That artistic engagement and encouragement would be a defining theme of the Grateful Dead phenomenon, and the Correspondence series in the Archive is one of its most palpable and evocative expressions.
The real explosion of mail followed their creation of the Dead Heads mailing list the following year, with their famed announcement in their eponymous live album, nicknamed Skull and Roses for its spectacular re-envisioning of the image by Mouse and Kelley adapted from Edmund J. Sullivan’s illustration of the skeleton surrounded by roses for the iconic Family Dog poster. (Fans quickly nicknamed the album Skullfuck, honoring its aesthetic and emotional impact, as well as the band’s well-told tale of gleefully tormenting label executive Joe Smith and the Warner Bros. staff that this was the name they would use, promotional consequences be damned.)
They were kidding, of course, but they were very serious about the mailing list. Already, they knew that direct contact with fans was a key to survival. As postcards and letters from fans began to flood the office, the band decided to hire Eileen Law to manage it and to handle the mailing list. In time, the Dead Head correspondence files grew to encompass a range of communications; a surprising amount of business crept into them, simply because so many interested fans offered their expertise and ideas. The first whiffs of what would become Sunshine Daydream, the band’s long-postponed movie of the famed August 1972 show in Veneta, Oregon, appear in the Correspondence series, for example.
Other letters span a gamut, from poignant to comic. One of the most moving was written by Pigpen’s father, after his son passed away in 1973; he thanks the band and makes it clear that he attributes his renewed relationship with his son to the Dead’s positive influence. It is a foreshadowing of the hundreds of letters that the band received over the next 22 years, all attesting to how beneficial even non-fans—parents, physicians, social workers—understood the music and scene to be.
There were the inevitable cranks, of course, but the overwhelming majority of the letters in the Archive express affection, appreciation, and support. Even those that complain—such as when a promoter mishandled tickets in 1976, leaving dozens of fans irritated and out of pocket—usually prefaced their ire (or sadness) with praise: “I want to first thank you for all of the great music …” No wonder so many otherwise non-plussed reporters assigned to cover shows would remark, “Dead Heads are so polite.”
Indeed. The correspondence also reveals why: Eileen Law and the other office staff made it a point to treat fans—indeed, all correspondents—with courtesy and genuine care. It was an attitude that went far beyond professionalism: It was an expression of the values that imbued the band’s approach to their craft, and that everyone at Fifth and Lincoln sought to infuse into their work together. So many of the letters honor that deep sense of ethics: when a fan’s mail-order went astray and he simply received replacement tickets at the box office, no questions asked, or when a critically ill fan’s parents wrote to ask if their son might see a show and received special accommodation, along with a free ticket. Those letters can be heart-rending, like the ones from bereaved family and friends writing to thank the Dead for the joy they gave a cherished friend or daughter or brother.
There are wonderfully goofy notes of humor and whimsy as well, from poems and cartoons to anecdotes of life on the road and at shows, even a few from the band. One of the best of these is their hilarious letter to Richard Nixon, mired in the throes of Watergate, suggesting that his political difficulties would magically evaporate were he to chrome the White House.
Ultimately, the real value of the Archive’s correspondence is what it reveals of the bond the Dead forged with their fans. The art, the sentiments, the journeys those letters document and convey—these all provide a context that helps to frame the enduring achievement of the Grateful Dead. More than just fan mail, the letters in the Archive surround the music and limn it with the passion, ideas, and magic that those songs and performances brought to listeners.