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3:38 pm
Wed July 25, 2012

The Practical Side Of The Great American Jam Band

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 6:29 pm

The Grateful Dead's eponymous live album started it all for Nicholas Meriwether.

It was 1985. He was studying history at Princeton and got hooked by psychedelic jams like "Wharf Rat." After his first concert, he knew: "I will spend the rest of my life thinking and studying this."

Meriwether now heads the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which recently opened to the public. On the first floor of the school's library, he walks into a new exhibit space called Dead Central.

"One of the great things we have on display here is the band's conference table," he says. The table is where The Grateful Dead held meetings about matters such as upcoming tours or merchandising.

"So much of what's in the archive ... belies the myth that the Dead were a bunch of hippie, undisciplined ne'er-do-wells," he says. "No — they were an enormously disciplined group of musicians."

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart agrees. He says the band's discipline was born of necessity.

"When you are desperate to make a sound and after something with all of your heart and soul, you know you become skilled in some shape or form," Hart says.

As Hart tells it, the band was all about the music and connecting with fans. But the archive reveals this other side — the business of the band's success.

There are boxes of press clippings, band newsletters and business receipts. But Hart says that stuff isn't his, or his bandmates'. He says the archive exists only because The Grateful Dead surrounded itself with the right people.

"You know, I didn't realize it was being collected," he says. "If it wasn't for Eileen Law, one of our dear friends that collected all this stuff and put it in boxes and put it in a closet and moved when we moved, it wouldn't be there."

Today, those materials are of great interest to academics. Scholars in fields from business to anthropology have written and published material on the group, including San Francisco State University lecturer Peter Richardson.

"The Grateful Dead are kind of ripe for this kind of review," Richardson says. "We've sort of been going on with sort of a two-dimensional picture of what the band is all about."

Nearly 50 years after the band formed, and almost 20 years since it dissolved, Richardson is writing a book on the cultural history of The Grateful Dead.

"We are right about the right time where people can really view the band historically," he says.

While Richardson is not a Deadhead, many scholars are, including Nicholas Meriwether.

"I think Deadheads are enormously thoughtful and enormously intelligent, even if they don't necessarily choose to comport themselves in that fashion or express it all the time," Meriwether says.

As the archive reveals, that's how the band was, too. Back on the conference table in Dead Central, Meriwether points to a funny letter the Dead wrote to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

Nearby, there's a second letter written to the band after the death of its first frontman, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. It's from his dad, thanking the band for being a positive force in his son's life.

Meriwether says these stories underscore the band's humanity, revealing the little things that even the band's biggest fans didn't know.

"I just think it's an incredibly powerful expression of what an archive can do," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally, this hour, a new archive has opened to the public dedicated to all things Grateful Dead. Yes, you can find tie-dyed t-shirts and psychedelic posters, but the archive also includes more unexpected items - business documents, an award for on-the-job safety. From member station KAZU, Krista Almanzan has this story on some less familiar aspects of the Grateful Dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHARF RAT")

KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: The Grateful Dead's eponymous live album started it all for Nicholas Meriwether. It was 1985. He was studying history at Princeton and got hooked by songs like "Wharf Rat."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHARF RAT")

ALMANZAN: Then, after his first concert, he knew.

NICHOLAS MERIWETHER: I will spend the rest of my life thinking and studying this.

ALMANZAN: Now, Meriwether heads the Grateful Dead archive at University of California, Santa Cruz. It recently opened to the public. On the first floor of the school's library, he walks into a new exhibit space called Dead Central.

MERIWETHER: One of the great things that we have on display here is the band's conference table.

ALMANZAN: That's right, the Grateful Dead held meetings about things like upcoming tours or merchandising.

MERIWETHER: So much of what's in the archive truly also belies the myth that the Dead were a bunch of hippy, undisciplined, you know, ne'er do wells. No, they were an enormously disciplined group of musicians.

MICKEY HART: Disciplined, of course.

ALMANZAN: That's Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart.

HART: When you're desperate to make a sound and you're after something with all of your heart and soul, you become skilled in some shape or form.

ALMANZAN: As Hart tells it, the band was all about the music and connecting with fans, but the archive reveals this other side that exists because they surrounded themselves with the right people. There are boxes of press clippings, band newsletters and business receipts.

HART: You know, I didn't realize it was being collected. If it wasn't for Eileen Law, one of our dear friends that collected all this stuff and put it in boxes and put it in a closet, moved when we moved, it wouldn't be there.

ALMANZAN: Today, those materials are of great interest to academics. Scholars in fields from business to anthropology have written and published on the group, including San Francisco State University lecturer, Peter Richardson.

PETER RICHARDSON: The Grateful Dead are kind of ripe for this kind of review. We've sort of been going along with a sort of two-dimensional picture of what the band was all about.

ALMANZAN: Richardson is writing a book on the cultural history of the Grateful Dead, now nearly 50 years after the band formed and almost 20 since it dissolved.

RICHARDSON: You know, we're right about at the right time where people can go back and really view it, view the band historically.

ALMANZAN: And, while Richardson is not a Dead Head, many of the scholars are, including archivist, Nicholas Meriwether.

MERIWETHER: I think Dead Heads are enormously thoughtful and enormously intelligent, even if they don't necessarily choose to comport themselves in that fashion or express that all the time.

ALMANZAN: And, as the archive reveals, that's how the band was, too. Back on the conference table in Dead Central, Meriwether points to a funny letter the Dead wrote President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Nearby, there's a second letter written to the band after the death of their first frontman, Ron Pigpen McKernan. It's from his dad. He thanked the band for being a positive force in his son's life. Meriwether says this underlines the humanity of the band.

MERIWETHER: And I think it's just an incredibly powerful expression of what an archive can do.

ALMANZAN: It can reveal things that even the biggest fans didn't know. For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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