Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review: Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Image from the Internet

Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail
By Paul Grushkin
Forward by Bill Walton
Voyageur Press (Minneapolis), 2011
232 pages; USD $29.95 / CAN $33.00
ISBN: 978-0-7603-3854-4

I’m tellin’ ya, they’re freakin’ everywhere, maaaan, in every corner of our culture from high to low, infiltrating the very fabric of society. Just a couple of years ago, my religious, worldwide-advertising-products-company-owning, living-in-a-gated-community-that’s-on-a-golf-course cousin confessed to me that he is a Dead Head. But the thing is, ya see, you don’t need to be a Dead Head to enjoy this book.

There are a number of ways to approach this volume. The first is it being about the Grateful Dead. There is a lot of information about the band in the text, though most of it I’m assuming a real Dead Head (DH) probably knows, such as how the band picked the name, or which songs were the most played live (including the number of times) by the band. But then the author throws in his own recollections of living down the street from the band’s space (owned by Jay and the Americans) in Englewood, NJ, during the failed taping of their second LP in New York.

Speaking of the author, Grushkin is no stranger to the Dead world, especially its fans, having previously written (or co-wrote) Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads (1983), along with a number of other books about commercial rock art and merchandising, such as the classic The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk (1987). However, being a stalwart in the rock merchandising biz (as well as once having worked for Bill Graham), most of his previous work has to do with the literal objects side of music, such as tee-shirt designs and paraphernalia. Here, however, Grushkin digs for something different.

Which brings us to a second way to approach this new release: the main focus here is on art. When the band took back their ticket sales from those who would sell large chunks of seats to scalpers (the story is related in the book about how someone was first on line after waiting for hours, and ended up in row 50, a story we all know well), fans realized that they could attract the attention of the Dead’s mail order ticket office - who would receive hundreds of requests per seat – by artistically designing the request envelope. Over the years, over 10,000 of them have been saved in an archive at the University of California – Santa Cruz, from which the more than 500 images in this book are culled.

While there are reproductions of some shots of art produced by the band, et al., such as album covers or influences for the personalized envelopes, the majority of the book is focused on the actual fan-designed talent. Sometimes it is the full envelope (either front or back), or little parts that are enlarged, they are replicated in vibrant color on thick stock paper, giving a beautiful rendition. The ability of the requesters varies, but there are so many shockingly beautiful drawings, sketches and even painted ones that your eye will wander over them again and again.

The chapters are mostly broken up into themes, such as “Skulls & Skeletons,” “Bears & Terrapins,” “Dead Head Transportation,” “Shrooms, Tie Dye & Flying Eyeballs,” and “The Band Members.” Yes, the skull and lightning bolt (referred to as the “Stealie”) logo that everyone recognizes from a mile away is represented, as well. Each chapter also includes a relatively lengthy introduction by Grushkin, filled with trivia, and just why any of the particular themes have relevance.

For a third choice of ways to look at this book, I must use myself as an example: as a non-DH, I pick the option of “all of the above,” because I still found the whole book damn fascinating, for the information of a band I didn’t follow, and especially for the amazing (and volumous) art renditions that fill this hardback.

There is no denying that the Grateful Dead fans are among the most loyal and fanatical in the world, comparable with those who love Elvis, the Beatles, and yes, the Monkees, whose affection goes beyond the course of their idols career.

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