UCSC’s ‘Attics of Our Lives’ exhibit helps keep the spirit of the Dead alive
Nearly two decades after The Grateful Dead’s demise, the band continues to inspire near-religious devotion among its worldwide fan base. If you never caught a Dead show back in the day, you might well wonder what all the squawk is about. Nicholas Meriwether, director of the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library, offers an excellent explanation for the lasting impression that the band has made.
“When the moment was right, [a Grateful Dead concert] would seem to be this long meta-narrative about changes, circumstances or situations you were facing in your own life,” he notes. “At the end of the show, it left you personally and profoundly transformed; it left you with a sense that you’d seen what can happen when people onstage get together with no preconceived notions of how things should go, and simply communicate with each other and with the audience. Collectively, you could create something that never had existed before. There was something about that lesson that left those people walking out of those shows with an equal commitment to seeing if they could transform their own lives.”
Meriwether adds that the celebrated mythographer and comparative literature scholar Joseph Campbell viewed the band’s concerts as the modern incarnation of the Eleusinian mysteries. “[According to Campbell,] this was a Dionysian festival, pure and simple,” the director says. “And he didn’t mean that in a dismissive way; he meant that it’s tapping into a primal kind of human ritual, and at the core of those human rituals is the notion of personal transcendence and transformation.”
The still-embryonic archive at UCSC is a shrine to the spirit of the Dead, boasting such artifacts as stage props, show programs, T-shirts, tickets and interview recordings. In the interest of encouraging potential donors to help finish the space, Meriwether and his associates are holding a one-night preview exhibit on Saturday, Nov. 5. Enlivened by food, wine and music, this “Attics of Our Lives” exhibit will focus on the poster art of the Grateful Dead, which Meriwether sees as a great way to tell the story of the band as well as of the archive itself.
“So many of the treasures that we have in the archive also have posters that dovetail or tie into [them],” he explains. As an example, the director mentions that the Dead sponsored the Lithuanian Olympic basketball team in 1992. On display at the exhibit will be a poster of the design for the team uniforms that the band helped provide, as well as one of the actual uniforms.
Other noteworthy items on display will be a bronze sculpture of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia’s hand (donated by the archive’s biggest contributor so far, Scott Brittingham) and handwritten lyric sheets. “You’ll see the way a lyric can go from a very early draft to its final, polished version, and the enormous changes that lyric might go through in the process,” Meriwether states. “There’s nothing quite like seeing Robert Hunter, Phil Lesh or Jerry Garcia scratching out a word and putting in another one, or writing down a chord change.”
The guest of honor at “The Attics of Our Lives” will be the revered poster artist Stanley Mouse. Each attendee will receive a signed copy of a limited edition poster that Mouse has designed to commemorate the event, as well as a 225-page limited edition hardbound book that documents the exhibit and goes into more detail about the 30-year trajectory of Grateful Dead poster art.
According to Meriwether, “The Attics of Our Lives” will be just a taste of greater things to come. “In many ways, it’s the archival equivalent of when the Dead would go into, say, an open field and turn it into a wonderful concert venue,” he offers.
“The Attics of Our Lives” takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5 at Dead Central, McHenry Library, UCSC, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 502-7242 or visit events.ucsc.edu/attics/. Photos: UCSC Grateful Dead Archive.