Monday, October 11, 2010

An Interview with Grateful Dead archivist: Nicholas Meriwether

by DNA

The original opener for the interview with Grateful Dead archivist, Nicholas Meriwether began, “Like Superman wandering around the Fortress of Solitude, slowly unpacking his crystals. . . “—but got self-edited in a measure to not seem like a dunce. I may know Grateful Dead, but I don’t know academics. You can read the printed article here.

This, then, is the raw unscripted version of our talk. It wandered, it meandered, a few things were taken out for discretion---much laughter pervaded the entire interview—hope you enjoy.

Meriwether holds a bachelor of arts degree from Princeton University, plus a master's in library science—with a specialization in archives—from the University of South Carolina.

His research on the Grateful Dead, their cultural significance, and their impact on late 20th century society has resulted in a number of publications.
Meriwether is the editor of All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007), as well as four volumes of Dead Letters: Essays on the Grateful Dead Phenomenon (Dead Letters Press).

DNA: I’m a little daunted, I did some research and you’re incredibly well educated.

NM: 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.

DNA: You’re an East Coast guy. Was it a big culture shock moving to Santa Cruz?

NM: 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.

DNA: Do you find it more subdued here in Santa Cruz then say, Oakland?

NM: 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?

DNA: 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.

NM: I went to college in New Jersey.

DNA: Princeton.

NM: Right, absolutely. I was there from Fall of 1983 to Spring of 1987.

DNA: I moved out here in 1985 to go to Graduate school and be closer to Jerry.

NM: So you’re a fan as well. Good, excellent. How many shows?

DNA: 500 Jerry shows.

NM: Dude.

DNA: I was committed.

NM: That’s impressive. I think I saw close to 80.

DNA: 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.

NM: I think there is a definite parallel. Some of the more interesting Dead work is being done by psychologists. One is Stanley Krippner.

DNA: 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.

NM: 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.

DNA: When you meet are talking about what happened in the past or recently? Which Dead band do focus on: Further, Ratdog, Phil and Friends or the Rhythm Devils? They’re back with friend Tim Bluhm playing with them—Keller Williams dropped out and Tim from the Mother Hips stepped in.

NM: 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.

DNA: It’s one of those ironies, I’ve been so busy writing about music journalism that I don’t get to as many shows as I would like too.

NM: I did see five Further shows. I saw the first three and went to the NYE shows—and I had big fun with that. That was interesting. Further 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.

DNA: Jerry even passed the torch when he called Kimock his favorite guitarist.

NM: I think Further 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 Further 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.

DNA: 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.

NM: 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 fucking says—just as you and I found it…

DNA: 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.”

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

DNA: 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?”

NM: 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.

DNA: So the mystery is intact?

NM: 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.

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

NM: It tends to fall out of people’s consciousness, but it stands. The thing that blew me away was Wharf Rat—it was one of the most intelligent pieces of music I had ever heard. 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.

DNA: Is this your friend in college, Christian?

NM: Ah, no. Christian became my running buddy. He and I saw tons of shows together. But no, the guy who turned me on is now a very respected oncologist at Dana Farber Institute and faculty member of Harvard Medical School and I don’t know if he ever saw a show—he was just a California guy who liked the Dead, thought they had a real interesting sound and thought that I should know that. I was just a good old boy from South Carolina and I said “you’re right!”

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

NM: 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.

DNA: 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? I recall the first book about the Dead was written by Hank Harrison and it was a skewed bunch of literature combining occult knowledge with a fictional narrative.

NM: Of course, Courtney Love’s father.

DNA: He later tried to cash in with a story about how Courtney killed Cobain.

NM: He’s insane.

DNA: I remember Mickey Hart being very vocal that the book did not represent the band. The book was filled with astrological charts and I knew the band was weird, but I didn’t resonate with Harrison’s particular kind of weirdness. So when you began down the road of scholarly analysis of the band you didn’t have much text to back you up—you were an archeologist digging in an area nobody had ever explored before. When did you tap that vein and realize you were onto something and think this could be a career or at least a deeper pursuit?

NM: 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…

DNA: He became known as “that guy.”

NM: 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 arguements 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.

DNA: From the Graceful Instruments collection?

NM: 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 Graham 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 high-falluting 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 McNalley 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?”

DNA: He mentioned me? (Laughter)

NM: No, I’m asking you who is the third?

DNA: I would have to say Mickey Hart.

NM: No.

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

NM: Hunter.

DNA: Oh yeah.

NM: 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.

DNA: What about Black Muddy River?

NM: No that was much earlier, 1987 or so. I’m thinking the last gasp of songs.

DNA: Wow, it’s amazing to hang out with somebody who knows the answers to stuff. It’s actually easier 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…

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

DNA: 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.

NM: 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 Stanlel 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

DNA: Who’s that?

NM: 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 generations 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.

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

NM: 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 enourmous resource intensive process. Every archive has to do fundraising and development. You can make a cointrinution 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.
DNA: Have you seen Slugs and Roses?

NM: Yes. I love the healthy musical scene that Santa Cruz has. I’ve seen Shady Grove, The China Cats and Slugs and all are remarkable bands. A wonderful convivial collaborative scene.

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

NM: 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 undesireable 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. Eric Schlosser’s recent book Reefer Madness where 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 predjudices and your misinformation.

DNA: Except maybe a nice tab of acid.(Laughter)

NM: In a hundred years I hope that this archive is able to give a future archeologist the stories of personal transformation that came out of the Dead scene. Most of the collection is off site for processing, but I will take you to the ultra secret high security room and let you see what I got.