When the Grateful Dead played their first show in 1965 at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests in San Jose, Calif., no one could have possibly imagined-whatever their mental state-that 45 years later one of the guys wailing away onstage would be a tour guide for the New-York Historical Society.
And yet there stood longtime drummer Bill Kreutzmann Wednesday night leading a group of 30 or so Dead fans on a private tour of “The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New York Historical Society” in Manhattan, the first public exhibit of material from the Grateful Dead Archive housed at UC Santa Cruz.
It was a long, strange trip, to say the least. But then so is the archive itself. The numbers alone are astonishing: 6,000 linear feet of books, posters, photos, stage props and other memorabilia; 800 feet of business correspondence; 12,000 ticket envelopes illustrated by fans-all of it dutifully collected by the band and their associates over the Dead’s 30-year career.
The one-room exhibit at the Historical Society, set to close on July 4, represents only a tiny fraction of the full archive (which will open its collections to the public in installments beginning next year).
But there was still more than enough there to keep Kreutzmann talking. And the 63-year-old drummer had an anecdote ready for nearly every photo on the wall or question from his audience.
There was the time in Cairo in 1978 when the band tried to use the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid as an echo chamber by running a microphone from the tomb to the soundboard. (“One minute it was working and the next minute it wasn’t. We’ll just leave it at that.”)
Or the time Kreutzmann got bored and tore up one of the band’s gold records only to find a Johnny Cash LP inside. (“Don’t get me wrong, I love Johnny Cash, but c’mon…”)
Or that bit about how David Crosby taught the band to sing harmony during the recording of American Beauty, which made the record, in the drummer’s indelible words, so “far out.”
“We sure did a lot of stuff in 30 years,” Kreutzmann added.
Sure, but so did the Deadheads. In fact, some of the most amazing items on view were fan-made. There was the collection of self-addressed envelopes, each featuring hallucinogenic hand-drawn designs, sent to the band’s ticket offices in California, or the knick knacks-the dolls, the deck of cards, the nativity scene with Jerry as a wise man-submitted to the Dead in the hopes that the band would sell them as official merchandise (which they sometimes did). “Those guys have an amazing imagination,” Kreutzmann said of the fans.
They’re also insanely loyal. Among the gaggle of former Deadheads in attendance was one Ed Agudelo, a guy who showed up just to give Kreutzmann a copy of a publicity photo he took of the band with his little Nikon F back in 1980 after the Dead’s 15th anniversary show at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo. Kreutzmann, of course, graciously accepted the gift on behalf of the archive-because really, despite all the priceless old posters (“Can you pass the acid test?” read one), the elegant black-and-white photographs, and the life-size skeleton marionettes hanging around, that’s what the exhibit is really all about: acknowledging the power of the band’s music to bring people together. Or as Grateful Dead archivist Nick Merriwether noted that night, “The archive isn’t just about the band, it’s about all of us.”