On a rainy Saturday night at the McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz, several hundred Deadheads gathered to share their appreciation—and fundraising dollars—as The Grateful Dead Archives unveiled a special preview of the exhibit, entitled “The Attics of Our Lives.”
A wild buffet of gourmet cheese, oysters and mini-burgers was washed down with wine as the house band—a symbiotic hybrid of local Dead tribute bands Slugs and Roses and China Cats—ripped through an evening of instrumental classics. Larry Graff (lead guitar), Paul Garcia (drums), Scott Cooper (guitar), and Roger Sideman (bass) provided the soundtrack for the festivities, embedding songs like “Crazy Fingers” with noodling worthy of the missing maestro.
Like a psychedelic version of Vogue’s “Who’s Who,” legends within the Dead scene and regular Joe’s circulated and swirled around stunning works of art, both old and new. Dead roadie Rock Scully, scribes Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon, Dead photographer Jay Blakesberg, pot lawyers, cinematographers, UCSC alumni, and well-heeled fans mingled before entering what was deemed Dead Central: a special preview look at what the archives will eventually become.
Greeting attendees at the entrance was honored artist, Stanley Mouse’s latest work—a beautifully rendered Skull and Roses. Originally taken from the 1859 novel The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (on display at the archive), the large airbrushed piece rips the viewer forward into the near future, promising the covenant, eternal blooming, and a DayGlo rainbow of a dream not yet fully realized.
The exhibit is the work of many people, but the face of the project is Dead Archivist Nicholas Meriwether. Similar to Superman in his Fortress of Solitude, Meriwether has been sequestered in a white paneled room for several years, rummaging through endless boxes, and ruminating on what was worthy of being pulled out for the first preview. Handwritten notes on worn scrap paper by Phil Lesh, Robert Hunter, and Jerry Garcia, annotating the first glimpses of “Unbroken Chain,” “He’s Gone,” and “Fire on the Mountain,” gave fans an inside scoop at the “aha” moment in the creation of long loved songs.
The archivist’s insights are perceptive, and his comments on the need for a Dead archive define the parameters of a mystery, namely, what makes the Grateful Dead so special? “And how is it that that thing continues without the heart, core and soul of ‘it’, in our experience?” asks Meriwether. “I think the answer to that unfolds on several levels. Number one in general we lack a vocabulary, a common cultural vocabulary for describing the kind of x-factor or experience that we are really getting at. We don’t have that and we’re kind of groping—I tend to think that all the scholarship that I’ve been participating in is that each one of those disciplines is trying to get to that core from their own perspective—we all know that the other perspectives are valid and we hope that if we put enough of them together that we’ll be able to see what ‘it’ is.”
Fans come in all shapes and colors—you may be surprised to know that First District Supervisor John Leopold is a longtime Deadhead, who dedicated years of service to the band’s giving arm, The Rex Foundation, serving as president and carrying forth the vision of helping community-based organizations. “I went to my first Grateful dead show at 15-years-old at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and eventually saw them about 250 times. They were the reason I moved out to California. In 1984 the Dead were playing at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley and the Democratic National Convention was in San Francisco the next week and I thought, ‘OK, California has everything I need.’” Bringing it all full-circle, Leopold’s brother Dave created one of the fan art addressed envelopes on display within the archives.
Behind the scenes of this huge endeavor is the library staff at UCSC. Head of Library Development, Lettie Bennett was a three-dimensional social networker, making connections like a brain firing neurons, and introducing key players. Robin Chandler is the project manager for the Grateful Dead archive project, and oversees the website. “What we’re trying to do here is build a very unusual site,” she says. “The centerpiece will be the band’s archives that we will scan and put online. What we want to do is bring the fans into it to build something that really reflects their experience. The band’s music was a shared experience so our website needs to be a shared experience as well—it will feed on itself as people recognize their shirt they made, or poster they drew, and sold in the parking lot. At the moment, we have made over 50,000 scans and it’s been very visually heavy, but I envision fans being able to recreate their concert experience through ticket stubs, posters and photos.”
For more on the archive and to donate to the fund, visit gratefuldeadarchive.org
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