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A Legacy of Ecstasy and Transformation

AE_GratefulDeadarchive1UCSC Grateful Dead archivist reveals what’s behind locked doors and how he got there
Deep within an ultra-secret high-security room in UC Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library, Grateful Dead archivist Nicholas Meriwether patrols the inner sanctum of all things Dead—holding off the staggering collection from swallowing him whole.

So what’s behind closed doors?

One wall reveals the original artwork from the back of the band’s fourth studio album, Workingman’s Dead—beautiful charcoal drawings of the original Grateful Dead sextet. Endless boxes full of rare posters, concert tickets and laminates, hundreds of miles of business receipts, every book ever written on or mentioning the Grateful Dead, furniture from the headquarters of the band’s business office in San Rafael. Fans have contributed painted jackets, original blotter art and an army of dancing bears that bulge the seams of a jam-packed chamber that holds only 2 percent of the entire collection.

“In a hundred years I hope that this archive is able to give a future archeologist the stories of personal transformation that came out of the Dead scene,” beams Meriwether.

When America’s favorite newscaster, Jon Stewart, announced earlier this year that UCSC was looking for somebody with a background in archival education to oversee the massive collection of Grateful Dead memorabilia, it seemed almost like a joke. Grateful Dead archive? Why would Jerry Garcia’s cell phone bills be housed in a climate-controlled room for all eternity? And who, presumably with a long career of distinguished academic work, would sacrifice their reputation for such a questionable adventure? Enter Meriwether, whose congeniality and Southern grace belie the rebel that lives within the bespectacled oral historian with silver-streaked hair.

“One of the things that every scholar who studies the Dead phenomenon has to come to terms with is the stigma that attaches to you from studying that—sociologists are keenly aware of that because it’s happened in other areas,” Meriwether says. “There’s a famous sociologist who studied strippers. He did a fine conservative job on a very reasonable topic, but he was immediately labeled as ‘that guy.’”

With a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree in library science from the University of South Carolina, Meriwether’s passion for the seminal 1960s psychedelic aggregation and a background as a trained archivist seemed to point in the direction of Santa Cruz.

AE_GratefulDeadarchive2Standing at a crossroads, Meriwether saw his career diverging as he was offered a chance to continue his studies at the University of South Carolina in mid-19th century American Southern cultural and intellectual history, or—come to UCSC and pursue Grateful Dead studies. “There were compelling arguments on both sides,” Meriwether notes. Having carved out a bohemian lifestyle in the academy, he was drawn to follow the path of an archivist and librarian which would allow him time to continue his writing. Meriwether is the editor of “All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon,” as well as four volumes of “Dead Letters: Essays on the Grateful Dead Phenomenon.”

With both universities bidding on his fate, Meriwether had to give some thought to being known as “that Grateful Dead guy.” Luckily, he has a genealogical connection to blazing new paths. “I could take comfort in the fact that I might be getting beaten up for studying something like this now, but that is no different from what earlier generations of scholars had gone through,” he says. “My father was pilloried in the 1950s for wanting to study this obscure Southern writer, who at the time had all his books out of print and he was very weird and no one paid attention to him—and then he won a Nobel Prize and gave an incredible acceptance speech. At that point everyone said, ‘This guy William Faulkner has got something going on.’ And from then on, father looked pretty good.” So, on May 17 of this year, Meriwether joined the faculty at UCSC.

While Meriwether doesn’t call himself a fundraiser, every archive in the country has to do fundraising and development to sustain the arduous and expensive process—and on Friday, Oct. 15, Santa Cruz’s own Slugs and Roses band will be spinning their brand of Grateful Dead music at a fundraiser for the UCSC Grateful Dead archives at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. You can join in an evening of fun or make a contribution to UCSC, McHenry Library or directly to the Dead archive.

Besides leading the way with the archives, Meriwether works with UCSC interns, writes articles, edits collections of Dead essays, does interviews with the media, and conducts oral histories with members of the band, associated luminaries and fans. “I just had a fascinating interview with a UCSC student who never saw Jerry, but really gets ‘it,’” he says. “He’s interested in doing some oral histories with people even younger than he is—who also somehow get ‘it.’”

Meriwether’s notion of the “it” comes from firsthand experience: “When I walked into my first Dead show, my reaction was, ‘Wow, I am going to spend the rest of my life thinking about this and this is my generation’s Eleusinian mysteries, this is it.’ The Eleusinian mysteries ensured that when you left you were transformed—nobody could talk about it, but they would spend the rest of their lives thinking about it. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?”


Slugs and Roses will perform a benefit for the UCSC Grateful Dead archives at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $11 in advance and $13 at the door. For more information, call 427-2227 or go to thewheelcompany.com.
Comments (13)Add Comment
Kudos to Meriwether
written by sunshine daydreams, October 14, 2010
Great Article! Jerry and the rest of the GD family would be so proud. I'm glad Jerry and band had so many keepsakes to bring back so many thoughts and memories. I miss Jerry just like anyone but with the archive and the various bands and whatnot I hope to never stop seeing stuff like this.

I hope the music never stops!
Mountain Girl
written by DNA, October 14, 2010
Nice to see MG chime in on the comments. She will be appearing at a very unique
event in Petaluma....check it out at
http://www.visionarycongress.org/
harley davidson
written by Harley Davidson, October 13, 2010
I currently own the only Harley Davidson owned by the Grateful Dead. In addition I have all the paper work and cover of the Rolling Stone with the bike and the Dead. Is this something that the archive would be interested in?
Depths of the Dead
written by DNA, October 11, 2010
You can read the entire transcript at my blog
http://votedna.blogspot.com/

And yes, it was Bobby's guitar!

DEAD FOREVER!
Dont ask, dont tell...
written by thechef, October 10, 2010
Nice to see someone take on the beast and know, exactly, what he's getting into. I appreciate his willingness to speak about the unspeakable, the "mystery" that kept many of us coming back year after year and getting schooled along the way. Even now, admitting you are a "Dead Head" carry's a stigma from those who dont get "it". Maybe future generations can learn something from all this weird americana and passion that crossed generational lines and whose mystery persists to this day.
Presiding Female
written by MG Garcia, October 08, 2010
This collection is the detritus of subjective milennia of events and accidents, creative obsession and a unique way of business that still lives on in the hearts of so many. Thanks to everyone who gets this! We had a time, a weird and wonderful window of prosperity and meaningful effort. This is a thrilling testimony to all that effort and plain old sweat. The aptly named archivist Meriwether has found a calling he could not ignore, and UCSC has found an archivist who is "deadicated" enough to sort through the millions of bits to make beautiful sense (we hope) of the entire messy endless picture!
...
written by 2djinn, October 08, 2010
Reply to Ditka

Modulus...possibly one of Bobby's
Huh?
written by Steven Marcus, October 07, 2010
I had the pleasure of working for the Grateful Dead from February of 1983 until March of 1996 managing and co-managing GDTS (Grateful Dead Ticket Sales) and for the last few years being the "voice" of the Official Grateful Dead East and West Coast Hotline. During that time I saved almost 300,000 unused "mail order" tickets which are now, or should be in the UCSC archives along with tons of "artwork" envelopes and some oversized mock ups of New Years Eve tickets. This guy seems to be the right guy for the job!
Smart Minds, Warm Hearts, Good People, Great Idea
written by Drew Engman, October 07, 2010
The Grateful Dead have attracted intelligent, articulate, educated fans since their earliest days. Of course the communal festivities surrounding 'Dead shows were also perfect for getting loose and a little crazy (in mostly good ways) for people of all social types and levels of humanity. Their influence is unique and special. A archive of their memorabilia is a perfect scholarly pursuit and just plain fascinating. Documenting the social and historic phenomena that was the greater Grateful Dead family experience, the 'life and times' of the band and its fans, is a work of love, good for the head and heart of all of us who listened and love the 'Dead. I love the whole idea.
Dupree's Diamonds
written by Redwood Girl, October 07, 2010
This collection is pure gold! The Grateful Dead Family was a culture of its own and I was so lucky & so proud to be a part of it. Oh, how I miss Jerry!! I really enjoyed this article & can't wait to see what Nicholas can do!!!
...
written by armand, October 07, 2010
Many people ask me why I traveled so extensively to see some "band", and I have yet to find the words to explain the phenomenon which is the Grateful Dead esperience. Guess it was kinda an all good things in all good time thing. They were the perfect conduit for people to come together in a space of music, and they just had this way of speaking of the wonders, and shared human experience in this world, through folk like parables without ruining it. Kinda like trying to say now, by the time you say it, it's then. better to just enjoy the now without saying it lol, if that makes any sense. Anyway, it wasn't just the dead, it was the kids, the scene everything, and it definitly deserves to be memorialized. thanks to the people that take the time to do it.
...
written by Ditka, October 07, 2010
What guitar is he holding?
Built to Last
written by Green Girl Friday, October 06, 2010
Thanks, DNA--this is an excellent article on a fascinating subject! Hope to hear about further developments with the oral histories. In the meantime, I will support by going to the Slugs and Roses fundraiser.

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