BAM Talks with Grateful Dead Photographer Jay Blakesberg and Archivist Nicholas MeriweatherKenny Wardell
Jay Blakesberg is a San Francisco based rock photographer, author, and film maker. He went to his first Grateful Dead concert when he was 17 years old and took his father’s camera with him. That was it for Jay. He has had an illustrious career shooting music for Rolling Stone Magazine, BAM Magazine and many other music publications. Jay’s credits for his photographs are on over sixty albums. He also has published five large coffee table books that have been best sellers.
For BAM’s tribute to Jerry Garcia we pulled out an earlier interview we did with Jay and also the Grateful Dead’s Archivist Nicholas Meriweather.
BAM: You are the author of “Between the Dark and Light- The Grateful Dead Photography of Jay Blakesberg“ and you have photographed the band since you were a teenager. What can you tell us about the Grateful Dead archives moving to UC Santa Cruz?
Jay Blakesberg: The Grateful Dead archives reside in scenic Santa Cruz, California now. Over the last year and a half or so they hired a full time archivist, a wonderful person named Nicholas Meriweather. Nick is a big Deadhead and an amazing scholar. He really gets what it is in the grand scheme of things. It is a Grateful Dead archive, but it really is almost the heart and soul of a sixties archive. The Grateful Dead were part of a much larger cultural shift that happened in the 1960’s and they are proud to have that archive. Now they are in the process of cataloging it all and making it available to the public, both on a viewing visual level, like a gallery/museum space which is what “Dead Central” is. And also for research and scholarly way for people to come in and research the Grateful Dead and the 1960’s pop culture history.
BAM: How’d you get involved with this project?
JB: I’m on a committee, we really don’t have a name or a title, but it’s a committee of professional Deadheads and people who are part of the scene that helped the Santa Cruz archives and kind of guide them in different directions of ways they can connect with Deadheads and connect with fans, connect with ways to make the archives more visible and also to raise the money that is necessisary to actually house and display and make available such an extensive archive. The State of California doesn’t want to pay the money that is required to properly catalog an archive like this so they are out to raise money and they do it through a variety of ways, fundraisers, foundation grants, matching grants, private grants, and the like.
The official launch of the Grateful Dead archives is going to be this coming Spring. Sometime in April, I think. There will be some kind of public event. “Dead Central” is a small gallery space in the new McHenry Library at U.C. Santa Cruz. Nick Meriweather handpicked a variety of items, posters, instruments, some hand written lyrics, different artifacts, and displayed them.
BAM: What is it about the Grateful Dead and their archives that people find so interesting?
JB: The archives is really not just about their music. The archives is really about the Grateful Dead’s place in the overall arc of pop culture history. There were bands back in the 1960’s that were more popular, one in San Francisco that comes to mind is Jefferson Airplane, but the Grateful Dead endured for a thirty year career, 65-95, give or take. The candle still burns bright with Bob Wehr and Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman and all the projects they have been doing, so here we are fifteen years after Jerry Garcia’s death, and we’re getting close to almost fifty years in the history of the Grateful Dead. In four more years they be celebrating their 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Grateful Dead. And, they are still selling tens of thousands of concert tickets. There is still an enormous amount of interest. There is still a lot of old fans and there’s still a lot of people who never saw the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia that are very interested in that aspect of music or the pop culture history. It’s a much bigger beast than just the music. It’s a phenonimon. In the rock and roll world, we all know how legendary the Grateful Dead were live, and they never played the same show exactly the same way twice- ever. There are other bands that now follow in that same path, but looking back on the Grateful Dead, they were trailblazers in many ways. Some of the things that they did like letting people tape their shows, most of the artists would be scared to death of that for a lot of reasons, but really that was the best way to spread the word. People freely traded their tapes and it still hasn’t affected the economic aspect of the Grateful Dead. It’s their intellectual property and they should be the one’s to reap the financial rewards from it.
BAM: In a way, you could call it early social networking.
JB: Absolutely. We didn’t have cell phones or text messaging when the Grateful Dead was around, but we all found our friends. No matter what city we were in, no matter what state we were in. (Laughs) We had a big network of people and we were always connected. There was a lot of social network similarities to what is happening with today’s technology.
BAM: When was the first time you saw the Grateful Dead?
JB: I saw the Grateful Dead on Labor Day, 1977. The very famous Englishtown Concert, one hundred thousand people, Grateful Dead, New Riders, Marshall Tucker Band. It was an epic, legendary show. It was broadcast live on the radio and it was probably one of my favorite live Grateful Dead concerts ever.
BAM: So, how old were you?
JB: I think I was fifteen.
BAM: And, your parents said fine, go see this band?
JB: My sister took me, and that’s her claim to fame. I don’t know if my parents realized what was going on. All of our parents were a little bit in the dark back then.
BAM: Why are the Grateful Dead of interest today and why should there be an archive in their honor at UC Santa Cruz?
JB: There’s a lot of interest in the Grateful Dead’s music. There is a lot of interest in the art that surrounded that band. There is a lot of interest in the photography of that band. There is obviously the poster art and then there’s the whole business side of things. For better of worse, they again waived a lot of their business practices, some of them successful and some were not. They were the first band to go up against TicketMaster with their own ticketing program and they succeeded. So, there’s just a lot of different aspects of what they did musically, commercially, artistically and historically that will be of interest to BAM fans.
BAM: I was trying to come up with the name for what kind of music the Grateful Dead performed and I didn’t want to go to Wikipedia and see what they had to say, I just wanted to figure out in my head, what it was? I came up with Psyhedellec/Americana music.
JB: Absolutely. Listen to “Working’s Man Dead” or “American’s Beauty” absolutely, because of those records and a lot cover songs that they have played over the years, and a lot of the Dylan that they have covered over the years, Psychedellic/Americana is a perfect example or Improvosational/Phsyced/Americana is a perfect name for what they were doing. Even though they played a lot of traditional songs, they didn’t come out the same way they played them the night before. That’s a good way to describe them.
There is are a lot of people that are afraid of the word Jam or Jam Band and my personal take on it is that I’d much rather go see a band play something new every night than play the same way night after night after night. I think the improv aspect of the jam band community is what makes it exciting and interesting. People then want to return over and over again.
BAM: After thirty years of being involved with the Grateful Dead as a fan and as an author and professional photographer you’ve become part of the Grateful Dead family. Besides the band I think of Rock Skully, David Gans, Blair Jackson, and Jay Blakesberg fits right in with them.
JB: We’re just a bunch of people that have mingled with the Grateful Dead as both fans and on a professional level for many, many years. Blair being one of the best documentary writers of the Grateful Dead experience. I think he’s the best writer that has written about the band. Gans does his syndicated Grateful Dead radio show that showcases the band’s music and his love for the Grateful Dead, and his radio show on Sirius as well. Gary Lambert is also a great historian and keeper of the flame. Rock, certainly from the beginning and Alan Trist and people that still work for the band. I just started off as a fan and created a body of work that did document this cultural ???. By default because of my archives and also because of the work I do for the Jim Marshall estate, I became part of that circle of people that have something to say about the Grateful Dead and continue to share that information.
BAM: When was the first time you met Jerry Garcia?
JB: The first time was in a hotel room in Boulder, Colorado. I walked into this hotel room where I was staying and there was a party going on. Jerry was sitting on the bed and I didn’t have any idea what to say to him. I didn’t have much interaction with Jerry until I did some portraits of him years later for Blaire Jackson’s magazine “Golden Road.” I met Jerry a handful of times. Jerry was a very nonchalant guy. Was I close to Jerry? No. Did he know who I was? No. Did he recognize my face? Maybe.
My first interaction with a band member was I actually took a photo of them backstage in 1979, Brent had joined the band. I met Brent backstage at a No Nukes Rally on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. This was May of 1979 so it was just before I graduated from high school. I was seventeen years old. I drove down to Virginia and Baltimore for a couple of Dead shows with this kind of creepy guy who was dating my sister and ended up at this free concert with hundreds of thousands of people on the Capitol Mall. Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash were playing. We hung out backstage and I got some photos of them.
BAM: What has your Grateful Dead experience meant to you?
JB: The Grateful Dead changed my life. They really did. It certainly was one of the most pivotal things in my life that put me in the direction of where I am today.
BAM: What was your first Grateful Dead experience?
Nicholas Meriweather- Grateful Dead Archivist: I guess my first Grateful Dead experience was I had a room mate from California in college and he put on Grateful Dead records Grateful Dead, Skull and Roses, and thought it was just mesmerizing. I was particularly impressed with Wharf Rat which I thought was one of the most sophisticated compositions. Just the whole album knocked my socks off. That was my first exposure. And then, in quite graphic succession, another friend of mine lent me Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-aid Acid Test” and that was fascinating. A short time after that I went to my first Grateful Dead show which was November 10, 1985 and I was hooked.
BAM: What is it about the Grateful Dead that archivists find so interesting and why is it that they go so in depth for this band?
NM: Number one, I don’t know if its archivists as a whole, I think that would pretty much be me, myself and I. What I would say, from a broader standpoint, the reason why this archive and this band belong in a special collection at a university or academic context is simply because, there’s two ways to answer that, one is to say that to extent that the 1960’s are an appropriate proper topic for historians and scholars to be examining, which it very quickly is these days, but what I would say is that you can’t tell the story of the 1960’s without not discussing the Counter Culture, you can’t discus the Counter Culture without discussing the Haight, and you can’t discus the Haight without discussing the Grateful Dead.
Another way of putting it would be to say that not only are the Dead central to an understanding of the 1960’s they are also just a really efficient way of telling aspects of that story. What I would say is even though the Dead are not the only way to tell the story of certain parts of the sixties, they are an indispensable way of doing so and in many ways they are one of the most if not the most efficient way of getting at those issues. I think its both they are central and they are Seminole, and they also are just really useful and really efficient, they are also really colorful, they’re interesting. It’s not like Big Brother who exploded very quickly, they are not like Quicksilver Messenger Service who exploded very quickly. There more than a certain amount of pain and difficulty and struggling in the story of the Grateful Dead, but ultimately they are story of tremendous cultural success and resonance and that’s another big part of the deal of studying them. That’s also another big part of why they merit an archive like this.
BAM: Can you describe some of the items that are in the archives and how available will everything be for the public?
NM: We are a publically supported institution. Anyone, any researcher can use our collection. What you’ll do is come into the library and register as a researcher and you agree to abide by our rules and then you can look at our materials. We ‘ve got a tremendous range of materials and special collections. Not everything is available yet. Processing a collection of this size is going to take many, many, many years. We will be open to the public starting in late Spring and we will be opening materials to the public researchers as quick as we can process them. We’ll have a collection of about a thousand posters that people can look at. We’ll have about 10,000 photographs that people can look at. We’ll have about thirty years of clippings that people can look at. We have about 15,000 fan envelopes and a fair amount of fan correspondence that people can look at. The business records are taking much more time and are much more difficult to process so those are not going to available any time real soon. We’ve got everything from band contracts to tickets to laminates to backstage passes to fan correspondence to sketches for the Wall of Sound. It’s an exciting collection of materials.
BAM: I interviewed Bob Wehr recently and asked him if he missed Jerry Garcia and he surprised me with the answer ‘no.’ He followed that up by saying that Jerry was with him all the time. What did Jerry Garcia mean to the band and how has it survived without him?
NM: What I would say is that if you’ve got a researcher who really wants to find the evidence that proves that Jerry Garcia was the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead that wouldn’t take much effort to do. There are a lot of scholars and historians who have that approach but I don’t think that’s accurate. I think what you have to say is that he is definitely the hub of that particular wheel and I think that its very clear that in the years following his death that the band members had to reinvent themselves and its taken many, many years to do so. I think that now the music that all four of the surviving original members of the Grateful Dead is doing is incredibly powerful in my mind. I’m actually not being political at all when I say that. I mean that very, very seriously. They are all enormously vibrant and continuing to be incredibly creative musicians. I’ve had wonderful experiences with all of them in the last year and a half but with any family, any company that loses a charismatic leader it is going to take a while to regain their footing. That process has definitely been a long and sometimes painful one.
BAM: Can you tell us some of your plans for the grand opening of Dead Central?
NM: The dedicated exhibit space, “Dead Central” is going to open this Spring and we’re planning on having a great big public celebration sometime in May. It will have a musical component, it will be free, and it should be a good time. I look forward to showing everyone the Grateful Dead Archives!