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Grateful Dead's long, strange career comes alive at UC Santa Cruz

Papers, art and artifacts from the Bay Area band's 30-year career will be housed in an exhibit at the school's McHenry Library. It's been christened 'Dead Central.'

July 01, 2012|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times
  • Grateful Dead band members in front of their house at 710 Ashbury St. in San Francisco in 1966.
Grateful Dead band members in front of their house at 710 Ashbury St. in San… (Special Collections & Archives,…)

Deadheads everywhere have a reason to go to the library.

UC Santa Cruz opened a rare kind of exhibit to the public on Friday to display the loads of papers, art and artifacts that make up the university's Grateful Dead archive.

Appropriately, the refurbished former classroom on the main floor of the university's McHenry Library has already been christened "Dead Central."

One band member says the new Grateful Dead gallery belongs as much to the fans who helped build it as the scholars who will pore over its materials.

Drummer Mickey Hart said that the band explored other options for the archive, including housing it at the Library of Congress, but that UC Santa Cruz won out because the people had their "heart and soul really into it."

"It's part theirs," Hart said. "Everybody who appreciates the Grateful Dead believes they have a little equity in it because they gave their energy to allow us to play like we did. That's the kind of community it spawned."

Few bands have drawn such devoted followers or demanded as much diverse scholarship as the Dead. Archivist Nicholas Meriwether, for example, was culled from a job applicant pool of more than 400 scholars.

Meriwether started his work in 2010, about two years after band members joined UC Santa Cruz librarians to announce that they would give their archive to the university. Meriwether, 47, believes he could very well spend the rest of his life processing the backlog of items that keep streaming into the archive.

"The band wasn't particularly sentimental about their history, but they didn't need to be," Meriwether said. "They did a great job surrounding themselves with others who documented it for them."

What fans will see at the gallery is less than 1% of the entire collection, which is tucked away on a separate floor, according to Meriwether. It is unclear exactly how many items there are because the collection is still being processed, but more than 200 pieces have been selected for this opening display. Some date to the 1960s, when the band was forming in the Bay Area under the name the Warlocks.

In the fall of 1965, the Warlocks changed their name to the Grateful Dead.

Over the next 30 years, until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the group recorded dozens of albums, including 1987's "In the Dark," which produced the band's only Top 10 hit, "Touch of Grey."

Much of the scholarship surrounding the band examines how a hippie subculture could work its way into the mainstream and why fans connected so strongly with the band.

"We didn't really know what we were doing," Hart joked. "We were just doing things with great spirit, though it turned out really well. It gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people."

And it is those people, Hart said, who were the "amazing strength of the band." The community of Deadheads drew an "innate power" from the group's music and performance, Hart said, so he hopes the new mecca will do more than simply evoke nostalgia.

"Once you're exposed to a spirit and something that touches you, you take that feeling on and you do good things with it," Hart said. "Hopefully, the archive does that."

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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