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Published: 2010/11/04
by DNA

Nicholas Meriwether: Keeper of the Dead Archives

From the Graceful Instruments collection?

Two of them are in All Graceful Instruments and two more are from a book called Perspectives on the Grateful Dead edited by Rob Weiner, but they’re all enormously bright and very accomplished musicologists. Their essays make the point that not only are the terms of art music absolutely applicable to what the Dead did, but even more, you need those terms to satisfactorily explain how that music is working. When David Malvini describes the incredibly complex orchestration of “Terrapin Station” he points out that, “Oh by the way, you know how many rock songs have been written in the key of F—the Dead do that.” When you read Graeme Boone about why “Dark Star” hits you a certain way, he’s giving you an intellectual and musical vocabulary how the music works and sockets into on an emotional level—and it’s absolutely compelling. There’s lots of examples of how academic musicology and sociology having a real hard time with rock music. There’s a great opening in a book by a British sociologist named Simon Frith considered the dean of rock sociologists—he has great fun opening one chapter of a book called Sound Effects where he takes an Animals song and he juxtaposes this really high-level erudite musicologist’s voice:

(Nicholas lowers his glasses to the bridge of his nose, slumps in his chair and becomes a stuffy music snob.)

“This kind of riff is kind of a blend of Mozart and Bach, I call Mach.” (Laughter) Incredibly highfalutin and you’re just going along forgetting the fact it’s really a very simple Animals song. Then he juxtaposes this Animals clip where the band members are saying, “Right. Me mate and I wrote this in the back of the van, badly hung over, vomiting and we sort of did this and it kind of worked.” A very Spinal Tap kind of thing. Often rock has had that difficulty where you had this very academic approach to the subject matter that did not work and often ended up looking ridiculous. It never looks ridiculous with the Dead, ever. In my first long interview with Dennis McNally he asked me, “Nick, you know what made the Grateful Dead don’t you?” I said, “I think I do, I also think you’re going to tell me.” He said, “Three geniuses.” I said, “Agreed.” He said, “Name them.” I said, “Easy. Garcia, Lesh and DNA?”

He mentioned me? (Laughter)

No, I’m asking you who is the third?

I would have to say Mickey Hart.


Well this is a horrible game and I’m now I’m losing. The audience? No, that’s not it. Damn.


Oh yeah, of course!

He’s the other critical thing. Don’t get me wrong, Weir is brilliant. And you could make the argument that he too is a genius. The proper analogy there is that there is an amazing string quartet in classical music—musicologists point to the Budapest String Quartet being the entity that really redefined the way that a String Quartet is understood today. There is a brilliant second violinist named Sasha Schneider and the way to understand Weir’s role in modern music is that he reinvented the rhythm guitar. The first time I saw a show I thought, “So many licks that I used to think were played by Jerry are played by Weir.” The symbiosis between those two is just extraordinary. For my money as a fan I think “Two Djinn” and “Ashes and Glass” which are the post-Jerry RatDog songs, for my money, those are Bobby’s equivalent of “Lazy River,” “So Many Roads” and “Days Between”—which are the most stunning later era Garcia/Hunter songs.

What about “Black Muddy River”?

No I’m thinking of the very last gasp of songs.

Ahh, when I hang out with my friends because they just agree with whatever I say even when I’m wrong.(Laughter) I’ve seen countless side projects. Bobby and the Midnites, Kokomo, Go Ahead…

I saw Kokomo and Go Ahead and it was bad, I thought nobody had seen that stuff.

I remember, but every Garcia show was magic. Whether it was JGB, or Old and in the Way, or Grateful Dawg or just solo, or with John Kahn—I understand the whole Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human, misfit power story of the Dead, but even away from the Dead, unlike anyone else in the band, Jerry could still manifest the mojo and with the other guys I didn’t really feel it. Look there are plenty of musicologists who write about all kinds of music, and the Dead are no exception—but what about everything else going on at shows and I don’t mean the lots, the travels, the pretty colors. Plenty have tried to pen thoughts regarding the glance that Deadheads gave each other, the knowing. I think it’s still ill defined. And while Jerry was verbose, when asked about any hidden meaning in the Grateful Dead he signed off.

And he was pretty consistent about that. At the same time there are some scattered comments from him on the record I’ve heard over the years where he says, “You know, I don’t really believe in anything I cannot see, touch, taste at the same time if there are enough reports like that you can’t discount them, you have to take them into consideration.” Your question seems to have two different parts. One part is how we as academics as fans as just thoughtful people, how can we keep pushing at naming the ineffable, putting words to something that is transcendent. That is really what Stanley Krippner’s work in life is all about—post-modern science says that we may not able to replicate something in a laboratory but that doesn’t mean we cannot come up with ways about talking about it.

It sockets me back to a wonderful comment my mother made to me. She’s a very pragmatic, down-to-earth person, a very Southern lady but a very progressive feminist, not namby-pamby, she had an MA in Chemistry and all that stuff, she’s passed away now, but years ago she told me was that one of my siblings had been born, and this was at a time when the practice was to immediately remove the newborn from the mother and to let the mother sleep. I forget which sibling it was but they wouldn’t shut up and my mother couldn’t get to sleep. Hours after the birth, the nurse comes to my mother who is still awake and she says, “I know the baby is still awake, bring him-or-her to me.”

I think that we are connected in ways that we do not understand yet—and some point we will learn how those connections work, but right now we do such a bad understanding of our brains—such a bad job of so many fundamental things. I have no problem saying much of what we describe as happening in those moments of highly charged connections in a community—there’s a reason we have words like synchronicity, they may not be technically accurate but they are certainly getting at something that everybody has a window into. It doesn’t mean that you have to get all mystical and put crystals on yourself to pull out bad vibes or something. The point is not to become untethered, the point is to admit ignorance. Admit a place in your life for profound mystery, how could it be otherwise? At the same time don’t get all wrapped up thinking you can control the channel to understand we’re still as a people a long way from that.

The second big thing is that I do think on an academic scholarly level we can push the discourse a lot further than we have—the approach that I take, that I’m working on now with one of my books is to demonstrate how the approaches to the Dead all fit a pattern of scholarship that has really come into particular focus over the last hundred years across a number of different disciplines and how the ways that we have suggested and have started to talk about the Dead actually fit in with these actually broader and deeper intellectual currents and themes and I do think there are certain things we can point to like Mikhail Bakhtin.

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