There are few terms in the American cultural lexicon these days more deeply familiar than the term "Grateful Dead." You could probably find someone under the age of 60 who's never heard the term, but it would take you a few days, or weeks.
But 50 years ago, "the grateful dead" was only an obscure reference that Jerry Garcia happened to find in a dictionary. It was a motif found in the folk tales of many cultures in which the spirit of a dead person bestows some kind of benefit or favor upon a living person who had helped bury him or her.
Before it became a band name, "grateful dead" was a literary idea.
That is only the most basic link between the literary tradition and the iconic San Francisco musical group that defined and embodied the 1960s psychedelic ethos. A new exhibit at UC Santa Cruz's Grateful Dead Archive explores the many connections between the Dead and the written word. "All the Page Are Our Days: The Books of the Grateful Dead" opens Saturday at the Archive's Dead Central exhibit space at UCSC's McHenry Library.
There are two fundamental parts of the Dead's relationship with the literature of their times -- books that inspired or influenced the band and its members; and books that the band either authored themselves or inspired others to write. There are the obvious artifacts -- Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" -- and the not-so-obvious, including a screenplay written by Garcia and comedy writer Tom Davis based on Kurt Vonnegut's "Sirens of Titan."
Archivist Nicholas Meriwether, who oversees the Grateful Dead Archive at UCSC, curated the new exhibit. He pointed to one of the first auctions of Grateful Dead memorabilia from many years ago that featured copies of books by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg belonging to the late Dead musician Ron "Pigpen" McKernan as an indicator of the band's great love of books.
"All of the band continued to be voracious readers throughout their career," said Meriwether. "It was an easy theme for me to seize upon."
The literary heyday of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the emerging hippie aesthetic of the 1960s are often viewed as two separate cultural phenomena. But, said Meriwether, in the Bay Area, where both the Beats and the Grateful Dead first emerged, those demarcations are much more fluid.
Garcia and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter began to play music together in and around Palo Alto less than four years after the publication of "On the Road," the seminal book of Beat history. The connection became even more explicit through the example of Neal Cassady, the Beat figure who was the inspiration for Kerouac's protagonist Dean Moriarity and who later drove the "Further" bus as part of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, a scene that the Dead were very much a part of.
"All of the band has talked about the degree to which Neal Cassady was a powerful influence and inspiration to them," said Meriwether. "There's an enormous sense of artistic, intellectual and cultural continuity that links (the Beats and the Dead)."
The fabled Menlo Park bookstore Kepler's Books and Magazines served as a kind of cultural epicenter in the ongoing artistic relationship between Garcia and Hunter, who merits a special section of the new exhibit. In fact, Hunter was a literary figure within the context of a musical group, writing lyrics -- yep, that line "what a long, strange trip it's been" was his -- without performing with the band.
"What Hunter was doing with his lyrics was very much analogous to what the others were doing musically," said Meriwether. Hunter, he said, was a big fan of the more mainstream literary visionaries of the day, from Joyce to Faulkner to Fitzgerald. "There's a marvelous account of him reciting from memory passages from 'Finnegan's Wake' as a sound test for some of the Dead's early studio sessions."
The 73-year-old Hunter has also published his own volumes of poetry and two translations of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
Though the novels and poetry of the Beats continued to exert a strong pull on the Grateful Dead in their early years, the band was also open to other literary influences, especially the science fiction of the day, particularly Vonnegut and Theodore Sturgeon.
What's more, the Dead emerged from a folk music culture that put great importance on documenting sources and authorship of the folk songs that were carried through from the early 20th century into the rock 'n' roll era.
The new exhibit, said Meriwether, shows how the strands of Beat literature, science fiction, folk music and other influences were "part of the lexicon of ideas they were all playing around with."
As much as the Grateful Dead was a product of the literature that preceded them, they were also influences for a wide variety of books and printed material. The Archive exhibit shows the diversity of the Dead's ongoing influence in publishing, said Meriwether, pointing to such things as accounts of the Dead's business practices and of their technological innovations, including a sound system retired in the 1970s that was still being written about years later.
"There's also the many, many books of criticism and interpretation," he said, "which runs the gamut from passionate, nonobjective fan accounts to very dispassionate, critical, academic and scholarly accounts."
Whether the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic San Francisco musical scene of which the band remained in the center was an evolution of the Beat movement, or a simultaneous if related offshoot, Meriwether said that the new exhibit at the McHenry Library is designed to put the band into the context of the literary history of the era.
"What's always been remarkable about this band," he said, "was the sophistication of the lyrics, and the sophistication of the music and the very deep learning that unites them. The band members all had a similar philosophy when it came to learning about the world, to cast their nets widely and deeply. They considered themselves Artists with a capital A, steeped in American and European musical and literary antecedents." ------ (c)2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com