UCSC 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.
Standing 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.