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Surf's Up for Grateful Dead in Santa Cruz

 

The extensive Grateful Dead archives have recently moved into the new McHenry Library on the campus of U.C. Santa Cruz. There will be a Grand Opening this spring with a free public event. For close to 50 years, the Grateful Dead

and their extended family have meticulously saved and cared for practically everything that this legendary Bay Area band has ever touched or been involved with. This vast collection will be available as part of the University Library's Special Collections, with rotating exhibits from the archives displayed in the section of the library that has been named "Dead Central." BAM's Kenny Wardell had the chance to talk about the project with San Francisco photographer Jay Blakesberg, who has a long history with the Grateful Dead; Nicholas Meriwether, curator of "Dead Central"; and Dennis McNally, former long-time publicist and well-known historian for the Grateful Dead.

 

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Jay Blakesberg -- photographer, author, producer

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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 U.C. Santa Cruz?

Jay: The Grateful Dead archives now reside in scenic Santa Cruz, California. Over the last year and a half or so, they hired a full-time archivist, a wonderful person named Nicholas Meriwether. 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 is really the heart and soul of a '60s archive. The Grateful Dead were part of a much larger cultural shift that happened in the 1960s, 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" will be; and also for research, a scholarly way for people to come in and research the Grateful Dead and the 1960s pop culture history.

BAM: How did you get involved with this project?

Jay: I'm on a committee who have varying connections to the band and are trying to help UCSC guide the Archives to connect it to Deadheads and fans, help to make the archives more visible on a large scale, and also to give direction for ways to raise the money that is necessary 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 the archives are out to raise money, and they do it through a variety of ways -- fundraisers, foundation grants, matching grants, private grants, and the like.

 

Click any thumbnail to view photos. Use your mouse or arrow keys to navigate.

The official launch of the Grateful Dead archives is going to be this coming spring. 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 Meriwether handpicked a variety of items - posters, instruments, some hand-written lyrics, different artifacts, and displayed them there recently as a "sort of preview" of things to come.

BAM: What is it about the Grateful Dead and their archives that people find so interesting?

Jay: The archive is really not just about the music. The archive is really about the Grateful Dead's place in the overall arc of pop culture history. There were bands back in the 1960s that were more popular -- one in San Francisco that comes to mind is Jefferson Airplane -- but the Grateful Dead endured for a 30-year career, 1965-95, give or take. The candle still burns bright with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and all the projects they have been doing. So here we are, 15 years after Jerry Garcia's death, and we're getting close to 50 years in the history of the Grateful Dead. In four more years, they'll be celebrating the 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 are 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 the music and or the pop culture history. It's a much bigger beast than just the music. It's a phenomenon. In the rock & 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 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.

BAM: In a way, you could call it early social networking.

Jay: 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 were 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?

Jay: I saw the Grateful Dead on Labor Day, 1977. The very famous Englishtown Concert: 100,000 people, Grateful Dead, New Riders of The Purple Sage and The 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?

Jay: I think I was 15.

BAM: And, your parents said, "Fine, go see this band"?

Jay: My sister took me, "she was the responsible party". 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? Why should there be an archive in their honor at U.C. Santa Cruz?

Jay: 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 blazed their own trail with a lot of their business practices. Some of them were 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 to what they did musically, commercially, artistically, and historically that will be of interest to BAM fans.

BAM: I was trying to come up with a name for the kind of music the Grateful Dead performed. I didn't want to go to Wikipedia and see what they had to say, I just wanted to figure it out in my head. I came up with "psychedelic/Americana music."

Jay: Absolutely. Listen to Workingman's Dead or American Beauty. Because of those records, and a lot of cover songs that they have played over the years, psychedelic/Americana is perfect. Or improvisational/psychedelic/Americana. 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 are a lot of people that are afraid of the word "jam" or "jamband." 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 30 years of being involved with the Grateful Dead as a fan and as an author and professional photographer, you've become part of the extended Grateful Dead family. Besides the band, I think Rock Scully, David Gans, Blair Jackson, and Jay Blakesberg fit right in with them.

Jay: We're just a bunch of people who have mingled with the Grateful Dead as both fans and on a professional level for many, many years. Blair is 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 as a manager, and Alan Trist starting very early as well. These are people that worked or still work for the band and are woven in to the fabric of their history. I just started off as a fan and created a body of work that documented this culture. 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?

Jay: The first time was in a hotel room in Boulder, Colorado. I walked into this hotel room, 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 Blair 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? Sort of. Did he recognize my face? Probably.

My first interaction with a band member was when I took a photo of Bob Weir and Brent Mydland backstage at a No Nukes Rally on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. in 1979. Brent Mydland had joined the band just a few months before. I was 17 years old and just short of graduating from High School. I drove down to Virginia and Baltimore for a couple of Dead shows with this stoner 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. I found a press pass on the ground so I went backstage, and I got some photos of them.

BAM: What has your Grateful Dead experience meant to you?

Jay: 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

 

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Nicholas Meriwether -- Grateful Dead Archivist

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BAM: What was your first Grateful Dead experience?

Nicholas: I had a roommate from California in college. He put on the record Grateful Dead/Grateful Dead, nicknamed Skull and Roses, and I 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 rapid 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? Why do they go so in depth for this band?

Nicholas: I don't know if I would say archivists as a whole -- I think that might be a pretty small pool of archivists -- maybe only me. What I would say, from a broader standpoint, the reason why this archives and this band belong in a university or academic context is simply because, to extent that the 1960s are an appropriate and proper topic for historians and scholars to be examining, which it very much is these days, you can't tell the story of the 1960s without discussing the counter culture, you can't discus the counter culture without discusing the Haight, and you can't discus the Haight without discusing the Grateful Dead.

Another way of putting it would be to say that, not only are the Dead central to an understanding of the 1960s, they are also just a really efficient way of telling aspects of that story. Even though the Dead are not the only way to tell the story of certain parts of the '60s, they are an indispensable way of doing so. I think it's both that they are central, and they are seminal. They are also just really useful and really efficient as narrative devices -- they're really colorful, and they're interesting. It's not like Big Brother [& the Holding Company], who exploded very quickly. They are not like Quicksilver Messenger Service, or so many other short-lived bands from that era who exploded very quickly. There is more than a certain amount of pain and difficulty and struggle in the story of the Grateful Dead, but ultimately, theirs is a story of tremendous cultural success and resonance, and that's another big part of why they are worthy of serious study. That's also another big part of why they merit an archives like this.

BAM: Can you describe some of the items that are in the archives? How available will everything be for the public?

Nicholas: We are a publicly 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 in our Special Collections department of the library. 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 quickly 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 30 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 Weir 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?

Nicholas: 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 fans and journalists who take that approach, but I don't think that's accurate. I think what you have to say is that he was definitely the hub of that particular wheel. I think that this is very clear when you look at the years following his death, and you see how the remaining band members had to reinvent themselves, a process that has taken many, many years to do. But I think that now the music that all four of the surviving original members of the Grateful Dead are doing is incredibly powerful, to my ears. I'm not being political at all when I say that -- I mean that very, very seriously. They are all enormously vital, vibrant, and they continue 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 awhile 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"?

Nicholas: 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!

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Dennis McNally -- former publicist and well-known historian for the Grateful Dead

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Dennis: I realize it must seem odd to some people that a serious university would want to have the archives of the Grateful Dead – but as somebody who spent close to 30 years deeply involved with the Dead (and as somebody who hung around the academic world long enough to get a doctorate), I know that the culture of the G.D., from the band down to the kid with his finger in the air begging for a ticket, was deep enough and rich enough to justify that interest. That's why I gave my work files to the Archives. That's why I support it, and why I urge people in the music world, Deadheads or not, to support it. Given the money crunch at the state level, it'll be up to us to keep it going – and it's eminently worth it.

 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

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