Grateful Dead at The New York Historical Society

“The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New York Historical Society” is being presented between now and July 4th in NYC.  If you have the chance to visit be sure to check it out, it looks fascinating.  From the New York Times, by Larry Rohter:

The Grateful Dead performed the last of their more than 2,300 concerts in 1995 and thus belong increasingly to history, not the present. Two related events make that reality clear: a new exhibition about the band that has just opened at the New-York Historical Society and the recent creation of the much larger archive, housed at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from which it is drawn.

“The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society,” which continues through July 4, includes only a tiny part of the material that the band donated to the university in 2008. But as the first large-scale public showing of artifacts from the collection, it offers a tantalizing glimpse of material that is stirring the interest not just of hard-core Deadheads but also of scholars.

The items on display include instruments, letters from Deadheads, memos from the band’s business meetings, newsletters, concert programs and T-shirt designs. There is also a rare original poster from one of Ken Kesey’s mid-1960s Acid Tests, and even the 1968 letter in which Warner Brothers Records renewed the band’s recording contract, with a paltry 8 percent royalty rate for domestic releases (and 5 percent abroad).

Though the Grateful Dead were based in the San Francisco Bay area and were closely identified with the psychedelic movement that emerged in the mid-1960s there, Louise Mirrer, president of the historical society, justified the exhibition by referring to the band’s “great New York pedigree.” The Dead first played New York City in June 1967 and went on to perform here more than 150 times, including many shows at the Fillmore East, which Ms. Mirrer called “the band’s home away from home.”

The larger archive at the university, which has received a $615,000 grant from the federal government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services but is looking for additional financing, will have both a physical and an online presence. But even before the archive is fully mounted, the historians, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, musicologists and other academic researchers who make up the growing field known as Grateful Dead Studies are eager to plunge in.

“We’re ecstatic with anticipation,” said Nicholas Meriwether, editor of “All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon” and a historian at the University of South Carolina. “That archive is a remarkable window not just into Haight-Ashbury and the dawn of the modern rock theater, but to all the documentary evidence and heritage of the counterculture and all the issues historians are concerned about in discussing the 1960s.”

The archive was one of the subjects talked about last month when the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus convened in Albuquerque for its 13th annual meeting. In a journal called Dead Letters some of the researchers have also published essays with titles like “The Taoist Perspective in ‘Weather Report Suite,’ ” and “How the Music Played the Band: Grateful Dead Improvisation and Merleau-Ponty.”

“If I were starting out, I’d find the archive to be amazing as a way to bring a fresh eye and new perspective to what happened,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has been researching the Deadhead phenomenon for more than two decades. “There are millions of projects people could do.”

In addition business scholars and executives are starting to regard the Dead’s business model as worthy of examination. This month’s issue of The Atlantic includes an article called “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead,” and band members have recently appeared on cable television business channels to discuss their consensus-based management style.

“They had a brilliant business acumen without being business people, and may have been the most egalitarian business organization ever,” said Barry Barnes, a Deadhead and professor at Nova Southeastern University’s school of business and entrepreneurship in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “They are credited with inventing viral marketing, and with their emphasis on superior customer value and use of technology, long before the Internet, they were in tune with a lot of practices we see now.”

Like so many other things related to the Grateful Dead, though, the archive is largely the product of happenstance, not design. Early on, the band hired a veteran of the Acid Tests, Eileen Law, as a liaison to its fans, and she made a point of preserving what other musical groups of the era would have considered ephemera.

“Eileen saved everything and was extremely methodical,” said Dennis McNally, author “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead” and the band’s longtime publicist. “She began as the ministering mother to all Deadheads, the voice on the answering machine, but she became the keeper of stuff, and that all this marvelous material is there is to her credit.”

After Jerry Garcia, a founder of the band and its lead guitarist, died in 1995, the group gradually wound down its business affairs, a process that lasted well into the next decade. Fredric Lieberman, chairman of the music department at the Santa Cruz campus, had traveled with the band and worked with Mickey Hart, one of the band’s drummers, on some projects, including a pair of books. He was aware of the extent of the material Ms. Law had collected and thought that scholars would find it useful — if it could be preserved.

“It was taking up a lot of space in a storage area in Marin, and it looked like they were just going to throw it away,” Mr. Lieberman said. “I basically said that I didn’t care where the archive went so long as it was maintained and not dispersed. Mickey thought first of the Library of Congress, since he’s on the board there, but given all the other things they have to do, their budget didn’t seem conducive to the kind of cataloging that was going to be required.”

Other universities besides Santa Cruz were also contacted and expressed interest in the archive, among them Stanford. But in the end band members decided they “wanted to go to a public institution because the whole idea of it being public and free was important to them,” said Christine Bunting, the director of special collections and archives at the Santa Cruz university’s library.

What remains unclear, however, is to what extent, the archive will be able to make available what is probably the band’s most valuable asset: its own recordings of three decades of live shows.

“We’re not going to be doing anything that people haven’t heard anywhere else,” Ms. Bunting said. “That doesn’t mean people can’t come here and listen, because we will have music playing. But we’re not competing with their business.”

The university is now engaged, though, in digitizing much of the other material, including documents and photographs. The plan is to make as much as possible available online through what is being called Virtual Terrapin Station, a name taken from a 1977 album, where Deadheads past and future not only can come to look but also can donate items and ideas of their own.

“I always knew what this was worth — the artwork, the guest lists and all the other things the crew brought back from the road,” Ms. Law said in a telephone interview. “It was just something that came naturally to me. People in the office would say, ‘We don’t need this stuff, get rid of it,’ and instead I would hide it all. So I’m just so happy that it has found a home, the right home.”