A moment at the Grateful Dead exhibit in New York City captured the whole experience for me. I was standing, enraptured, before a handwritten page of Dick Latvala's notes on the 1977 Cornell University show — stick with me here — when two Russian girls about 20 years old asked me to take their picture. They were wearing headphones with the audio of The Grateful Dead Movie, which was being projected onto a wall, and wanted to record their visit.
I took their picture, then asked what they knew about the Dead. "Nothing," one of them said. "What is it?"
Aside from being pointless, asking a Deadhead what the Dead were all about can be borderline dangerous. Tempted though I was to devour the next hour of their lives, I let them off the hook with "They were an American rock-and-roll band." The girls skipped on out the door, and I went back to read that Latvala called the closing of the Winterland in 1978 "the greatest time I have ever spent on this Earth."
Somewhere between "what is it" and "greatest time on Earth" lies the record of the Grateful Dead. And somewhere in a library at the University of California at Santa Cruz is 600,000 linear feet of books, recordings, business correspondence, posters, tickets, photographs, films, stage props, and who knows what else, collectively known as the Grateful Dead Archive. A small show with some highlights of the collection has been extended at the New-York Historical Society until Labor Day.
One might ask, "Why?" The short answer is so that people who don't know much about them can learn a little something, and the rest of us can feel the vibe again. The Dead may or may not have been "one of the most significant cultural forces in 20th century America," as the exhibit's press materials claim, but they were definitely interesting.
Non-fans will learn, for example, that the band was corresponding directly with its fans back in the early 1970s. Today we have Facebook, but 40 years ago the Dead were asking fans, via stamped letters, for advice on cool old theaters "where we would dig playing." By the 1980s, they were selling tickets directly through the mail and setting up "tapers' sections" at shows. When it ended in 1995, they had a mailing list with more than 500,000 names on it.
For Deadheads such as myself, putting on a set of headphones and hearing one of those old ticket announcements, re-living the excitement at new shows being announced, then realizing this one was for a show I actually went to at Cal Expo in Sacramento, then remembering the amazing glow-in-the-dark Frisbee toss I had with a stoned-out waif in the parking lot there, and the "Scarlet Begonias" they played the third night ... well, let's just say that this exhibit hits different people in different places.
Much of it is similar, though on a far smaller scale at this point, to a tour of Elvis memorabilia: of some interest to an outsider, captivation to a true fan. There's Jerry Garcia's guitar next to Bob Weir's once again and the skeleton dolls used in the "Touch of Grey" video. There are handwritten notes for the "Wall of Sound" speaker system they tried out in 1974. There's a video somebody shot at a gig in 1967. There's a wall of decorated envelopes fans sent their ticket requests in. Another of backstage passes. Another of tickets — and for me, the teary recognition of one from December 30, 1991, in Oakland, which featured a drum solo so powerful and intense that the drummers (and some fans) leapt into a bear hug when it was done.
Okay, I'm back now. The overall effect of the exhibit is to realize that the Dead were "an American rock-and-roll band," sure, but also something else. You might think they were a sham perpetrated upon generations of drug-laden teenagers, and you might think they were (again with the press materials) "one of the most significant cultural forces in 20th century America," admired by "a sociological phenomenon known as the Deadheads."
Full disclosure here: I went to 50 or 60 shows and can write some of the most over-the-top prose about them you'd ever want to read, but even I cringe at phrases like this one from The Atlantic in March: "The Grateful Dead Archive ... will be a mecca for academics of all stripes: from ethno-musicologists to philosophers, sociologists to historians ... business scholars and management theorists, who are discovering that the Dead were visionary geniuses."
I mean ... sure. Maybe. I can assure you of one thing: It was a hell of a good time. And if you weren't into it, it remains a curiosity. But either way, if you're in New York between now and Labor Day, it's worth dropping $12 to check out the exhibit.
"Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the
New-York Historical Society" (nyhistory.org)