By Nicholas Meriwether
Remembering the Dead, Part 1: The Press Series of the Grateful Dead Archive
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.
That idea seemed like the most improbable of fantasies in the 1950s. In a 1993 interview, Jerry Garcia still remembered how he felt as an anxious, rebellious teenager with his first electric guitar: “I used to have these fantasies about ‘I want rock & roll to be like respectable music.’ I wanted it to be like art,” he commented. “Back then they didn’t even talk about popular culture—I mean, rock & roll was so not legit, you know.” When he was asked to sing the national anthem before a Giants game in 1993, a reporter asked him whether he was surprised at the request, prompting one of his typically self-effacing replies: “We’re like bad architecture—or an old whore. If you stick around long enough, everyone gets respect eventually.” Garcia’s modesty was legendary, but his self-deprecating remark masked a sophisticated understanding of how the media worked, and what translated well. What he didn’t say was that the Grateful Dead had indeed accomplished what he so desperately wanted as a teen: making rock respectable. Of course they should sing the national anthem to open a ballgame.
Garcia’s media savvy informs one of the most important sections—what archivists call series—of the Grateful Dead Archive. The earliest clipping in the press series dates to October 1966, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that part of the Archive is its extent and longevity: Even now, every two weeks the Archive receives another packet of clippings, from the same clipping service—Allen’s, still based in San Francisco—that the band subscribed to in the fall of 1966.
That fall witnessed one of the earliest extended interviews published with the band, in the mimeographed rock newsletter Mojo Navigator. It ran for two issues, and it is significant for what it reveals about the young band. At one point, Garcia cautioned a bandmate about repeating hearsay—making it clear that he understands, this is on the record. But the bigger point is what it shows of their sense of how their media footprint may one day appear: as a kind of extended archive, an image of the reality of working musicians, but one that could be shaped—hence Garcia’s admonition, advising his colleague not to traffic in rumor. That sophistication shaped how they approached reporters, and it makes the press devoted to the band a remarkable resource, not just because of its extent and detail but because of its democratic inclusiveness. Band members treated every encounter with seriousness, and it meant that even small-town newspapers could emerge with remarkable quotations and details that significantly add to our understanding of the Dead. And it meant that even hostile encounters could produce gems—and sometimes change minds, as documented by Garcia’s celebrated interview in 1981 with Paul Morley, an angry punk music aficionado and critic for England’s New Musical Express.
It’s all part of what makes the press series of the Archive such an important part of the band’s history. Scholars understand that: author Peter Richardson’s recent book, No Simple Highway, reflects the weeks of work he put in at the Archive; he quickly appreciated how central the press coverage is to any understanding of the band’s work and its cultural trajectory. That process is complex: for every insightful and ethical journalist there are the inevitable cranks, hacks, and ideologues, bent on dismissal or worse. Yet those accounts have a place as well, for they document the challenges the band and their fans faced for thirty years, and that those who study the phenomenon still confront today.
Archives are about accountability, though, and what emerges from any sustained time with the press series is the achievement of the Dead. Other insights are more nuanced: Garcia’s use of the press emerges as among the most sophisticated of any media figure. He tried to vary responses while sticking to the facts as best he knew them; when he repeated stories, he prefaced them by saying that he had told them before. It makes his press encounters read like installments in an extended oral history, making even minor encounters matter. Nor was this a self-serving attitude: the band had no real love of the media, as their early experiences had taught. Much of that early media was critical and uncomprehending, from the stories surrounding the UCLA Acid Test in early 1966 to the notoriety that Kesey and even their own Bobby Petersen, both arrested for marijuana, had endured. That was a harbinger of their own experience the following year, when the police kicked in the front door of their house at 710 Ashbury with a gaggle of reporters in tow, who produced front-page coverage of the bust.
What the press series really documents, however, is the band’s determination to deal with the machinery of publicity, to accept the media-driven nature of popular music and master the skills necessary to deal with it. When Dennis McNally was hired as publicist in 1984, Garcia told him, “Don’t suck up to the press. Be nice, of course, but we don’t suck up.” They didn’t ignore the press, and they acknowledged its power.
For good and ill, the Dead remain a lightning rod for commentary, both polemical and admiring, as the press clippings in the Archive reiterate, again and again. With one simple gesture, however—subscribing to a clipping service, at a time when that represented a major expense—they made plain the seriousness of their commitment to their craft. And that is writ large in their archive, and especially in the press series, making it that much more difficult to dismiss the Dead and their project—and why the Archive, like the band’s career, is helping to fulfill Garcia’s teenaged dream of making rock respectable.
As we reflect on the band’s fiftieth anniversary, we look back on not just a half-century of hard work, great art, and community, but also a struggle over identity, place, and memory. It is a struggle that can be mapped in the media coverage the Dead engendered. It forms the core of a broader narrative about the band’s path from counterculture avatars to mainstream success; and that is only one of many perspectives and stories in the Archive. I look forward to telling you more of those this year.