SANTA CRUZ - Tempting as it may be to hum "Truckin' " while visiting the Grateful Dead archive at UC Santa Cruz – you know, "what a long, strange trip it's been " – the exhibit itself really isn't that long nor all that strange.
What it is, at core, is thorough.
The public archive, though afforded just two rooms on the second floor of McHenry Library, nonetheless houses a treasure trove of Deadheadnalia, presented in such a wonderfully nostalgia-laden way you'd think they were pumping patchouli oil (or some other potent substance) through the heating vents.
Here's a partial list of what you'll see: psychedelic concert posters; ticket stubs and set lists; original lyric and sheet music; reel-to-reel bootlegged concert recordings; old Fender amps and beat-up guitars played by Jerry Garcia; swag swiped by roadies; photographs culled from private collections; missives exchanged between band and fans; and, serving as something of a centerpiece, a bronzed sculpture of Garcia's right hand, with that famous chopped-off middle finger.
OK, so it's a fun trip and all. It might even jog some cobwebbed memories of boomers whose recollections of the '60s might be a touch hazy. And, if you wanted to delve ever deeper into Dead lore, there are voluminous files squirreled away on the third floor that researchers and just plain fans can request.
But, you may ask, what is the Dead doing in the stuffy and insular world of academe? Shouldn't the band's, uh, remains be entombed in some funky Victorian in the Haight?
The answer, said University of California, Santa Cruz, archivist Nicholas Meriwether, is that the Dead are doing just fine hobnobbing with scholars and deep thinkers, given the band's enduring impact on society. Of course, it should be noted that Meriwether is an admitted Deadhead. He saw 88 shows, so, yeah, he's pretty hard-core.
"You need to keep in mind," Meriwether said, defending his affinity for the Dead, "that when you're in a humanities department, you'd never criticize your English professor for being a fan of Shakespeare or William Blake. Same thing."
Don't scoff. Academics concur. The Dead have been the subject of rigorous study by cultural anthropologists, sociologists and music theorists. The current exhibition, in fact, showcases doctoral dissertations penned about the band.
Among the titles, in handsome, leatherbound covers:
"A Qualitative Examination of the Ritual Structure and the Spiritual Nature of the Grateful Dead Experience."
"Collective Expressions and Negotiated Structures: The Grateful Dead in American Culture. 1965-1995."
"Deadheads as a Moral Community."
Just as it would be wrong to dismiss the archive as some silly fan site, it would be equally unfair to think it belongs only to those in lofty ivory towers.
As band member Bob Weir said at a press conference in 2010 announcing that this would be the archive's home, "It seemed to all of us that the stuff really belongs to the community that supported us for all those years. And Santa Cruz seemed the coziest possible home for it."
The Dead's homes were predominantly San Francisco and Marin County, but, especially in the early days, they also hung out in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Garcia's family owned a home in Lompico.
Meriwether said the relatively remote location of the archive – it's deep in the UC Santa Cruz campus – has not deterred visitors since it opened in June.
"This is our inaugural exhibit and it's drawn many thousands of folks," he said. "We don't have a counter, but it's heavily trafficked, a couple hundred visitors a week. The archive still is very much in the preliminary stages of processing. I handle a great many reference requests, from a couple of dozen to, in some weeks, several hundred."
He said 75 percent of requests for private Dead papers are scholarly, 20 percent of them inquiries by journalists – "and 5 percent 'other,' " which includes devout Deadheads and the merely Dead-curious.
"While anyone can register and say, 'I'd like to look at this box of letters or whatever,' the truth is, your average fan is more interested in a well-curated exhibit, not interested in pawing through boxes," Meriwether said. "But I will say, we had one fan who did that. He had gone to the Watkins Glen (New York, July 27, 1973) show and all he wanted to do was look at all of the press clippings surrounding Watkins Glen. He spent two hours, happy as a clam.
"There's nothing wrong with folks doing that. I'm happy to help."
Indeed, the last thing Meriwether wants is the archive to be elitist. That would clash mightily with the Dead's belief system. And it is not going too far to categorize the Dead as a secularized religion, if not quite a cult.
The archive poked a little fun at that reputation by constructing a small "chapel," with pews and stained glass Grateful Dead logos and a continuously running video loop of Deadhead interviews.
One recent day, the video showed a fan named Craig Corwin reading from a letter he received in early 1967 from Jerry Garcia. The band had just recently done a show (Dec. 28, 1966) at the Governor's Hall at the old State Fairgrounds in Sacramento, and Corwin, then a Fair Oaks resident, had penned a fan letter.
At one point in his response, Garcia apologized to Corwin because "it wasn't one of our better shows," to which Corwin chuckles and said that Garcia always made such claims. Now retired and living in Pacifica, Corwin vividly recalls seeing the Dead in Sacramento and feels honored that his small part is featured in the Santa Cruz exhibit.
"The concert that night affected me so much I went ahead and wrote, four to five pages of pure adulation, sincere adulation," he said. "The Dead that night gave the kind of performance that would melt the fillings in your teeth."
OK, so the archive may not melt the acrylic resin of longtime fans' dentures, but it nonetheless will take them back in a flashback that's anything but a bad trip.
GRATEFUL DEAD ARCHIVE
Where: UC Santa Cruz, McHenry Library (second floor), 1156 High St., Santa Cruz
Hours: Open daily and hours matched to those of the McHenry Library (library.ucsc.edu/about/hours)