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Published: 2010/11/04
by DNA

Nicholas Meriwether: Keeper of the Dead Archives

I went primarily for Jerry. I loved travelling around making my way by selling shirts, anklets, license plates in the lot—but that was not why I was there. I wanted to be near the touchstone. I feel that people now are just living in the echo. On the other hand, when I was 16 I told myself that I would never get jaded. So new experiences, getting to hear Dead songs live for the first time, congregating with friends for adventure is awesome—I salute fans going to shows. But it’s not for me.

I just had a fascinating interview with a kid who never saw Jerry, but he really gets “it.” I saw something of that when I went to a RatDog show about three years ago. Here’s me in my gray hair in my 40s with a bunch of my contemporaries and we’re looking around overwhelmingly at 19/20 21-year- olds. The thing that I was so charmed by was for them the highlights were “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “One More Saturday Night.” And I remember thinking, “Wow, the reason they are going apeshit over this is because they know this is as close to the Dead as they are ever going to get.” He’s interested in doing some oral histories with people even younger than he is—who also somehow get “it.” And as much as I agree with you and that was our experience and we were lucky enough to see Jerry, these kids are still getting something out of it. The other thing, DNA, let’s think about what that says—just as you and I found it…

Didn’t we always know that one older guy Deadhead who was like, “Ever since Pigpen left the band it hasn’t been the same.”

Yeah! “I never saw them after 1971 because Pigpen wasn’t there.” It’s great. (laughter)

I never try to disparage anyone from their “thing.” But my question is what is “it?” What is the “it” that younger people are getting? Is it simply enjoyment of the music? People really like bands of all kinds, they like their songs, their sounds, and the crowd they attract. You get aesthetic pleasure from the way the composition rings in your ears. So what is “it?” What was “it?” And let’s say there continues to be an “it,” what is “it?”

And how is it that that thing continues without the heart, core and soul of “it”, in our experience. I think the answer to that unfolds on several levels. Number one in general we lack a vocabulary, a common cultural vocabulary for describing the kind of X-Factor or experience that we are really getting at. We don’t have that and we’re kind of groping—I tend to think that all the scholarship that I’ve been participating in is that each one of those disciplines is trying to get to that core from their own perspective—we all know that the other perspectives are valid and we hope that if we put enough of them together that we’ll be able to see what “it” is.

So the mystery is intact?

One of the reasons that mystery existed is explained in an essay by a fine scholar who talked about the degree to which the music was about the experience of hearing the music and I think there is a lot of truth to that. The article is by Granville Ganter; it’s called “ “Tuning In”: Daniel Webster, Alfred Schutz, and the Grateful Dead,” in John Rocco, ed., Dead Reckonings (NY: Schirmer Press, 1999), pp.172-181.

The exact quote is, referring to Schutz’s theories, “His {Schutz’s] characterization of musical experience helps explain how the Dead’s music can be thought of as the focal point of a communal consciousness. The Dead’s sound is a kind of music about that interaction.” [p.177]

That may be why people continue to get “it.” My first falling in love with the Dead was when a California friend of mine put on Skullfuck, which I made the mistake once of saying on the radio—the eponymous live 1971 album.

Which is often not the top of the list of favorite Deadhead records.

It tends to fall out of people’s consciousness, but it stands. The thing that blew me away was “Wharf Rat.” I thought it was the most enormously sophisticated compositions of music I had ever heard. It was an amazing combination of lyrics and music. And then of course you get into the whole side two” Not Fade Away”>”Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” and I thought that was magnificent and I was hooked. Then he gave me Dead Set and that really cemented me and then I got Reckoning and then I saw my first show.

At what point did your passion with the Dead intersect with your scholarly critical analysis of what you were experiencing?

I started thinking about it immediately. It’s funny—I actually gave my first academic lecture on the Dead in the summer of 1987 when I graduated college or 88, right before graduate school and I lectured a summer school class on the band. I came across those notes just a few months ago when I moved out here—I hadn’t seen them in years and I looked at them with a sense of, “Oh my god, what the hell was I saying.” None of the good reference books had come out yet. What was amazing was that I hadn’t gotten that much wrong. Almost immediately I thought this is worthy of explication.

As a guy who had an enormous amount of time and money invested in his education, were you concerned that your passion in a supremely strange band, at a time when there were no other scholarly treatises were written would label you as a wingnut? When did you first think this could be a career or at least a deeper pursuit?

I never thought it could be a career and until I took this job….Let’s fast forward. One of the things that every scholar who studies the Dead phenomenon has to come to terms with is the stigma that attaches to you from studying that—sociologists are keenly aware of that because it’s happened in other areas. There’s a famous sociologist who studied strippers—he did a fine conservative job on a very reasonable topic, but he was immediately labeled…

He became known as “that guy.”

Exactly. So we all have to contend with that. It was interesting for me because I was at a crossroads in career before I took this job. I had been offered a high-level job at the university I was at before this and I saw my career path diverging. If I had stayed there and taken that new job not only would I not have time not do anything outside that area which was mid-nineteenth century American southern cultural and intellectual history—it was an either or situation. Up until then I had managed to have a fairly eclectic carved out bohemian lifestyle in the academy which is not easy to do—but you can do it if you are a librarian or an archivist—but you can’t do it if you are going to teach.

My crossroads was I either take this job and come out and do Dead studies and solely Dead studies or I stay there and give up on the Dead studies—and I really was not sure which direction I was going to go in. I let the two universities have a bid for me. There were really compelling arguments on both sides. One of the arguments against taking this job was exactly your statement about being labeled. My contention is, stepping back from it—I was born and raised in South Carolina and I had studied American cultural and intellectual history at a pretty high level. So I had a real sense there were contexts and precedents that really were exactly analogous for what I was interested in seeing happen with Dead studies. I could take comfort in the fact that I might be getting beaten up for studying something like this now but that is no different from what earlier generations of scholars had gone through.

My father was pilloried in the 1950s for wanting to study this obscure southern writer, who at the time had all his books out of print and he was very weird and no one paid attention to him and then he won a Nobel Prize and gave an incredible acceptance speech. At that point everyone said, “This guy William Faulkner has got something going on.” And from then on, father looked pretty good. (Laughter) There’s a wonderful book on Black Nationalism and Jazz that came out in the late 1960s—he starts the preface of the book by saying, “It’s traditional to start a book by thanking all your colleagues who helped you, tragically none of those people thought this topic was worth studying.” And that was 1969—it’s a reminder to all of us. General Jazz studies started not long after that but Jazz faced a similar problem of being accepted academically. You can go back to before then in the 19th Century, opera was considered a debased and vulgar form of classical music, ain’t nobody going to say that today—it’s a high art as it gets.

So I would say in fact to summarize all the work being done on the Dead—and there are some wonderful currents, Bob Weir is engaged in an interesting project with Giancarlo Aquilanti of the Stanford Wind Ensemble and are going to have an amazing premiere of Weir’s symphony which is based on taking motifs and elements from a whole slew of Grateful Dead songs and turning it into a symphony. This is by way of saying that you could see the broader forces at work that have always worked in culture which is as folk art becomes popular art and eventually passes into high art—it’s not a universal process, but I definitely think that it is the complexity of the Dead that lends themselves to high art. They are in many ways as high art as they are folk art. There’s enough good work done by good high-end musicologists to demonstrate that. I can point you to four essays right now that will make you agree.

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