When the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz opens to the public Friday, it will reveal some things that even fans might not know about the band.
In the Grateful Dead’s three decade run from 1965 to 1995, the band recorded more than 100 albums, played over 2300 concerts, and cultivated a loyal following of countless fans with its eclectic music. And for some, the band developed a reputation. “That the dead were a bunch of hippy, undisciplined ne’er do wells,” said Nicholas Meriwether, “No. They were enormously disciplined group of musicians who wanted to make a living, did make a living and wanted to do it on their own terms.” Meriwether is one of those loyal fans, a scholar of 19th Century American History and the Archivist for the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz. The archive is an enormous collection of materials that includes everything from business records and photographs to rare recordings and stage props. Starting Friday, scholars and fans alike will be able to request to see the archive materials. Much came from the band itself. The Grateful Dead kept an archive to help support its work in the studio and on the road. For example the band subscribed to a press clipping service in part to keep an eye on how they were portrayed. “Because that would impact whether or not they could go back and play next year. So if you have a lot of bad press happening then that can affect your ability to rent a hall and that is going to directly affect your income. They were a band that made their money on the road,” said Meriwether. Since what the band saved had more of an eye toward business than posterity, contributions to the archive from fans and former Grateful Dead employees have been important.
In a tour of a new exhibit space called Dead Central on the first floor of UCSC’s Library, Meriwether points a piece of sheet music on display. “This is a wonderful gift from a pair that actually took guitar lessons from Jerry Garcia in 1963. The pair would ask Jerry to jot down the chords and fingerings to a favorite song, so this is a song that Jerry jotted for one of them called drunken sailor, a folk song,” said Meriwether. Dead Central is the most accessible part of the archive. This first exhibit chronicles the history of the band through pictures, fan artwork and other memorabilia. At its center fans can stand around the wooden conference table where the band held its meetings, or read the messages left on Jerry Garcia’s memorial altar. In a display case filled with awards, Meriwether points to one of his favorites. It’s the California State Compensation Fund Safety Award. The Grateful Dead received in the early 90s when they were among the top five grossing bands in the country. “That crew worked twenty hour days and they were on the road for a couple months at a time. To actually be able to pull off that type of hard physical labor to pull off stunning concerts with no injuries, no workman’s comp claims. That’s significant. So this is how an archive can help make plain what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Meriwether. Behind the scenes at the archive, items are being added every day. And it will be years before everything is cataloged. A online archive is also in the works.
The celebration to mark the opening of the Grateful Dead Archive is Friday, June 30th from 1:00pm to 4:00pm at UCSC’s McHenry Library.