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Published: 2010/11/04
by DNA

Nicholas Meriwether: Keeper of the Dead Archives

Who’s that?

A guy who has a theory almost a sociological or cultural theory of carnival and how that describes these kind of luminal moments of ecstasy and transformation. You can go back all the way to the Eleusinian mysteries. When I first walked into my first Dead show, my reaction was, “Wow. I am going to spend the rest of my life thinking about this and this is my generation’s Eleusinian mysteries, this is it.” The Eleusinian mysteries insured that when you left you were transformed—nobody could talk about it, but they would spend the rest of their lives thinking about it. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? And I don’t think that happens in any other venue or form.

Part of your job is that you are also a fundraiser for the archives.

I wouldn’t call myself a fundraiser, I think the proper way to put it is that any special collection that comes into any archive in this country at this time, all are hurting badly. Taking care of archives is more expensive and more difficult and more time consuming than taking care of books. It’s an enormous resource intensive process. Every archive has to do fundraising and development. You can make a contribution to UC Santa Cruz, McHenry Library or directly to the Dead archive and it’s all tax deductible, 100%. I get a certain amount of money that is donated free and clear, but I also get in kind donations of materials we need, pictures, posters recordings, you name it. I got a wonderful gift last week of a handpainted jean jacket of Mars Hotel, just an amazing piece of Deadhead art. So yes, I am actively trying to raise money but that is part of what it takes to build a collection and that requires a lot of different things. I work with interns, I write articles, I do interviews, I conduct oral histories and I also talk to people who have money who are interested I supporting the archive.

I would imagine that the red-headed stepchild for you might be something that is integral to the story of the Dead—LSD.

One of my responses is that the problem with that conversation is that our country does not do well when we discuss substances or inebriation in any way shape or form—very much conditioned by our Puritan past. There’s a religious overlay that deeply informs the American thought, remember we are only country stupid enough to try and ban alcohol. Dinoysianism ain’t where we at as a species.

As an example of that look at the genesis of drug literature in this country is Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater. He is the son of a minister and a Presbyterian abolitionist. The fear that runs through his novel, the Calvinist repudiation of inebriation being an invalid thing for humans to do. It starts in the 19th century, look at all the temperance movements. There are a good couple of scholars who have done analysis of how marijuana became illegal and in general is the kind of way that prohibitions have happened. What that scholarship has proved is that prohibitions are really political control of an undesirable class. So the wave of anti-marijuana laws in this country that began in the early 20th century is essentially targeting Mexican workers. Prohibition of alcohol was celebrated by Republicans who toasted it with hard liquor because it would shut down all those beer drinking saloons where the Irish would congregate, and the Irish democrats would congregate. Scholarly research shows that prohibitions aren’t about controlling substances—they are about controlling part of the population for political reasons. And I think that is compelling. This is how in the middle to late 1960s you could be sent away for more years for a conviction of having two joints then you would for violent rape.

In Eric Schlosser’s recent book Reefer Madness he says: Look at what we have done with the war on drugs—we’ve destroyed people’s lives. It’s a very respectable mainstream book. He goes on to say: Any society that finds it more appropriate to punish a non-violent drug offense with greater severity than you do murder, has lost its bearings, and I think that’s absolutely correct. This is along winded way of saying the question is just hopeless and by asking that question you have identified yourself among the ignorant. There is no amount of lecturing by me or any other human being that is going to bring you face-to-face with your prejudices and your misinformation.

Except maybe a nice tab of acid. (Laughter)

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