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The Practical Side Of The Great American Jam Band

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The Practical Side Of The Great American Jam Band

The Practical Side Of The Great American Jam Band

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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."


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.

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