Grateful Dead

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Documenting the Dead

In the world of rock music, fifty years is not just a milestone, it is an era, one far longer than most performers or bands ever survive. As we celebrate the Grateful Dead's fiftieth anniversary over the course of this year, this blog will explore one of the hidden sides of the band's story: the archive that the Dead built over a half-century, now housed in Special Collections at UC Santa Cruz's McHenry Library. It is an archive that reflects the band's history and career in unstinting and often colorful detail, at times surprising but always compelling, from the earliest newspaper clippings and handbills to band meeting minutes and gig contracts. Every two weeks I'll post a short article about the Archive, from individual items to entire sections to supporting materials. As one of the largest archival collections devoted to a single band, the Grateful Dead Archive not only represents one of the premier scholarly popular music collections in the country, it also provides a window into a host of subjects and issues that are increasingly being studied by scholars, students, and fans

- Nicholas Meriwether

  • Rock music journalism has a long and colorful history, but all too rare are those journalists whose work interrogates a subject for decades. Even more rare are journalists whose work on a band or musician also encompasses an active performing history as a musician, steeped in the songs and approach of their subject. This week’s essay focuses on the David Gans Papers, a vital supporting collection in the larger Grateful Dead Archive, and one of the most interesting.

  • Dozens of themes knit together the various sections and collections in the Grateful Dead Archive, but one of the most interesting and evocative is poetry. Although there are no collections exclusively devoted to poetry in the Archive -- the Robert M. Petersen Papers are mostly, but not exclusively, poetry -- poems can be found throughout. Robert Hunter's published poetry, and translations of poetry, are a prominent part of the band's library; they represent the best-known poetic voice in the Archive. Other published efforts from the band's inner circle include a recently issued collection of occasional lyricist Peter Monk's poems and lyrics, as well as volumes by Petersen.

  • So far, this blog has primarily focused on the major sections and supporting collections comprising the Grateful Dead Archive. This essay describes one of the traces in the Archive, a theme uniting documents and artifacts spanning several collections. How those themes emerge is often serendipitous—itself a defining theme in the band's music, and career. That colors the chance encounter that first connected the Grateful Dead to famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, making it more than just a wonderful happenstance but also an emblematic event. It was the start of an association that not only resonates with the spirit of the Grateful Dead, but also one that forged an important link in the scholarly reception of the Dead phenomenon.

  • In 1992, longtime New York Beat photographer Fred McDarrah published his Greenwich Village Guide. One of the entries described a former landmark, sacred to Deadheads:

    “The building shell at 105 Second Avenue was Bill Graham's Fillmore East, the quintessential New York rock 'n' roll palace of the 1960s. The entrance to the old Fillmore East is now sealed with cinder blocks and the marquee has disappeared, but anyone who ever went there will not easily forget the extraordinary music, the excitement, the scene, and the community spirit. Going to the Fillmore East was a political statement, a cultural event, an expression of brotherhood and togetherness.”

  • One theme that emerges from any time spent in the Press series of the Archive is that Deadheads have attracted almost as much attention as the Dead, though often for superficial reasons: strange dress, affinity for inebriants, and perceived deviation from a mainstream lifestyle. Missing from these dismissals are the constructive behaviors and positive norms that helped forge the Deadhead community and made the Dead experience for many Deadheads such a formative and enduring dimension of a rich, creative, and productive life. Some of the most active participants in the scene were tapers, a major theme in the history of the Grateful Dead phenomenon found in several of the collections comprising the broader Grateful Dead Archive.

  • One of the great pictures from the Dead's Europe '72 tour shows the band on stage in what looks like a symphony hall, with a massive pipe organ looming behind them. It's a striking image, one that the band used as the front cover of the liner note booklet included with the original Europe '72 LP release. If they were uncomfortable at the setting, it doesn't show: they look at home, recalling Phil Lesh's oft-quoted remark that what the Dead played was “electric chamber music.”

  • 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.

  • This week’s entry continues the exploration of the Dead’s business practices by focusing on an aspect that has generally escaped critical scrutiny but always been a prize for fans: the laminates and backstage passes that provided employees and lucky guests with backstage access.

Documenting the Dead