By Rod Bastanmehr
After nearly three years of negotiations, countless school biddings, and a treasure trove of memorabilia that spans 30 years, the verdict is finally in — legendary Bay Area band the Grateful Dead has handed its entire archive over to none other than the home of the Banana Slugs.
And for a school that takes pride in keeping its campus and community “weird,” the match couldn’t be any better.
“I can’t even express how fucking thrilled I am,” said Holly Erlingson, a UC Santa Cruz second-year and “Deadhead.” “It’s remarkable how perfect a fit it is — the campus and their music. It’s really like it was meant to be.”
If only it had been that simple. It was over two-and-a-half years ago that UCSC made an initial inquiry about the status of the archives, and nearly a year and a half after that the discussions actually began. At that point, both UC Berkeley and Stanford University had thrown their hats into the ring, but ultimately, the remaining members of the band chose UCSC as the home of all things “Dead.”
The items range from the band’s first recording contract and press clippings to every show’s guest list and backstage passes. The archive even houses the thousands of decorated envelopes that fans sent to the ticket offices, as well as the infamous skeletons from the “Touch of Grey” music video. And that’s barely even the tip of the “Dead” iceberg.
“Before the decision was made to give the archives to UCSC, [McHenry Head of Special Collections] Christine Bunting and I visited the Grateful Dead Production’s business manager and had a chance to see the archive,” said university librarian Ginny Steel.
“We then sent a proposal in that provided information about how the archive contributes to the academic programs on campus and how we would process and preserve it,” Steel said.
But there was much more that led to UCSC winning the bid. Not only were both the band and UCSC byproducts of the mid-’60s revolution, but there have also been lectures taught by band members, radio programs centered on the Grateful Dead, and classes devoted to the studying of the band and the “Deadheads” — the name given to the band’s die-hard fan base that, even today, remains remarkably unmatched in music history.
Having a campus professor who has written three books, as well as collaborated on many projects with Mickey Hart, the band’s drummer, couldn’t have hurt either.
“I got to know the Grateful Dead and their music when I began a long-term partnership with Mickey Hart shortly after my arrival at UCSC in 1983,” said Fred Lieberman, professor of music at UCSC. “Mickey sought me out to help him catalog his large collection of percussion instruments from around the world.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. But at the end of the day, it was more than just connections with the band and a large campus fan base that brought the entire legacy of the Grateful Dead to the campus. For Steel, the “Dead” and the Slugs are matched together not by university politics, but by a common perspective of the world.
“Santa Cruz in general shares an outlook that matches well with that of the band,” Steel said. “We share the same worldview as the band and are committed to social justice, inclusiveness and equality.”
But housing the Grateful Dead archives may give UCSC more than just bragging rights. The university’s eventual goal is to become one of the foremost centers for contemporary and American vernacular music research, Bunting said. That’s something for which UCSC is already slowly but surely gaining recognition.
“The UCSC music department has long offered a rigorous bachelor’s degree program that rivals or exceeds those offered at other UC campuses,” Lieberman said. “Our recently established graduate programs offer tremendous promise and are in great demand.”
Still, maybe the Grateful Dead and UCSC simply are a perfect match. The uniqueness and pride in its strange essence is exactly what connects the band to an establishment — the very thing that the band rebelled against.
“There is something beautiful about the way [UCSC] embraces its difference and originality,” said Keelin Garcia, daughter of the late Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s former lead singer and guitarist who passed away due to a heart attack in 1995. “They have always understood how they’ve been regarded as somewhat alternative, even radical. I think that finding comfort in that difference is really wonderful. It’s very in keeping with the band.”
Regardless of the fit, what it comes down to is housing the artifacts of a musical revolution, and celebrating a band that is arguably one of the most influential in music history.
“We are proud to have this new archive that will provide insights into one of the most — if not the most — significant contemporary musical group of the second half of the 20th century,” Steel said.
“The Grateful Dead created a community like no other,” Erlingson said. “Santa Cruz takes such pride in its community — it feels like it’s just a perfect fit. It feels like they’ve been here all along.”