Nicholas Meriwether: Keeper of the Dead Archives
Journalists are supposed to keep a degree of subjectivity when doing an interview—yet, when going face-to-face with Nicholas Meriwether, the recently hired Grateful Dead archivist at the University of Santa Cruz, I was somewhat jubilant. For hardcore Deadheads, the idea that the Dead are the only band in America seen worthy enough for an academic institution to create an archive is a roundabout validation on a long suspected suspicion—the Grateful Dead were of a high caliber, mysterious and worth studying. From his Southern roots to his new California post—Meriwether is distinctly cool about his position. He knows that he is the luckiest Deadhead in the world and over the course of our conversation, I often feel like the luckiest journalist.
I’m a little daunted, I did some research and you’re incredibly well educated.
Not at all. (Laughter) It’s great to be able to hang out in school until you know what you want to do with your life.
You’re an East Coast guy. Was it a big culture shock moving to Santa Cruz?
I lived in San Francisco for ten years, Oakland for a year and a half and San Mateo for a year and a half so I knew exactly what I was getting into.
Do you find it more subdued here in Santa Cruz then say, Oakland?
Not really, actually. I dated a girl for two years in Santa Cruz when I was living in SF. And there’s a little bit of a different vibe, but not that different. And both of them are so radically different form the East Coast vibe, that it’s more an East Coast/West Coast thing. And I was born in South Carolina and the North East/South East is so different, as well. Where are you from?
I was born in Newark, NJ. During the 1960s riots Newark was on fire. My dad likes fire, not just being in one, so we moved one town over to West Orange.
I went to college in New Jersey.
Right, absolutely. I was there from Fall of 1983 to Spring of 1987.
I moved out here in 1985 to go to graduate school and be closer to Jerry.
So you’re a fan as well. Good, excellent. How many shows?
500 Jerry shows.
I was committed.
That’s impressive. I think I saw close to 80.
But you’re also a scholar. When you go to community college it’s easier to miss class. In graduate school I majored in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology—going to Dead shows was research.
I think there is a definite parallel. Some of the more interesting Dead work is being done by psychologists. One is Stanley Krippner.
Right, love Krippner. He did the dream telepathy experiments with the Dead back in 1971. I didn’t realize he was still involved with the Dead.
He is part of a group of scholars that study the Dead to and meet once a year at one of the big national conferences. I recruited Stanley three or four years ago and he’s a regular—he’s 83-years-old now, but he’s got more energy, sharp as a tack and loves to come hang out with us.
When you meet are you talking about what happened in the past or recently? Which Dead band do you focus on: Furthur, RatDog, Phil and Friends or the Rhythm Devils? They’re back with friend my Tim Bluhm, from the Mother Hips playing with them—Keller Williams dropped out and Tim from the Mother Hips stepped in.
I’m so busy with the archive that I haven’t seen too many shows. I did make it to Outside Lands. Swallowing the archive I’ve sort of dropped out of being a Deadhead.
It’s one of those ironies, I’ve been so busy writing about music that I don’t get to as many shows as I would like too.
I did see five Furthur shows. I saw the first three and went to the NYE shows—and I had big fun with that. That was interesting. Furthur is the most successful post-Jerry aggregation. My contention is that if that they should have chose Steve Kimock and paid him well and let everything else go. He’s the only guitarist for my money that can do Jerry without floundering.
Jerry even passed the torch when he called Kimock his favorite guitarist.
I think Furthur works now because they simply gave up. Warren Haynes is a wonderful guitarist, but not in that context. Jimmy Herring is a wonderful guitarist but not in that context. Kimock was great, but they won’t be able to keep Kimock—so the thing they did is good. The core of Furthur is that you have these two great “rhythm players,” amazing virtuosi—putting Weir and Lesh together is putting two rhythm players who are acting as the lead and everyone is arrayed out and subservient, tributary to that—and it works and it’s cool and it’s interesting.