Calling Terrapin Station "equal parts interactive museum, sensory playground, and social/cultural laboratory," Gary Lambert, editor of the band's official newsletter, The Grateful Dead Almanac, describes the planned facility as "a circus of the synapses, evoking the most dazzling sounds, sights, and paramusical phenomena of a Grateful Dead concert ... a continuation and extension ... of an ongoing experiment in peaceful public assemblage, and a safe haven for free and spontaneous expression."
"We want to build a place where Deadheads can feel something of the community and freedom and abandon of Grateful Dead shows," former Dead bassist Phil Lesh explains.
"To me there's something slightly unsettling about the notion of a Grateful Dead museum,'" observes Blair Jackson, author of the upcoming biography Garcia: An American Life. "The Dead were always so conscious of not standing still long enough to become museum pieces themselves, as happened with so many of their musical contemporaries."
Jackson allows that "if Phil and the others involved in this project are hip enough, they can make Terrapin Station much more than a dusty shrine showing off the ossified remains of the once-glorious Grateful Dead scene. What it will take is thinking hard about what the essence of Dead experience was, figuring out ways to translate that into audio-visual terms in creative, non-static ways, and above all, making a commitment to interactivity, because that was so much at the core of the whole thing."
Interactivity will be the guiding principle of Terrapin Station as an extension of the "creative exchange of energy between the band and its fans - past, present, and future," says Cathy Simon, the director of architecture at Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris, the San Francisco firm that designed the city's new main library, and interiors for Apple and the Bank of America.
"It will not be a theme park, but a living, breathing place that is centered on their music... and the openness to experiment that is what San Francisco is about," Simon declares.
Exhibits at the site will change and evolve continually, says Simon, in keeping with the Dead's commitment to "the capability of transformation" via music. There will be displays of fan art, including the thousands of elaborately illuminated envelopes sent to the Dead's mail-order ticketing service. A room called "Eyes of the World" will feature multimedia recreations of celebrated venues from the Dead's 30-year career, from the Victorian dance halls of the electric Kool-Aid era to the Great Pyramid, where the band jammed with Egyptian musicians during a lunar eclipse in 1978.
The exhibits will be made even more intimately interactive, Lesh says, by a plan to offer Terrapin Station memberships that include participation in a database that will siphon images to the site's displays. "If you're a member, you'll swipe your card at the door, and when you enter The Wheel, you'll see yourself as part of the visuals," Lesh says.
As part of the effort to recreate the experience of a Dead concert in every Proustian particular, visitors will enter the building via "the Parking Lot," complete with virtual weather projected on the ceiling, and "tofu dogs and hacky sacks" for sale under the fractal sky, says Lesh. In another room, Deadheads will be encouraged to join an ongoing drum circle that will be piped to a rooftop garden for dancing. In a room called "The Music Never Stopped," digital recordings of many of the band's 3,000 performances will be available on demand as custom CDs.
To raise the estimated US$2 million necessary to undertake the ambitious high-tech project, the Dead are releasing a collector's-edition three-CD set this week called The Terrapin Limited, a live recording, limited to 25,000 copies, that will only be available via phone order and on the Terrapin Web page at the band's official site, dead.net.
Recorded on Lesh's 50th birthday at a concert in Landover, Maryland, on 15 March 1990, the set features artwork by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, the San Francisco poster artists who crafted much of the band's distinctive skull-and-roses iconography. The unedited performance includes an extended musing on "Terrapin Station" - a song by Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter that Lesh compares to "one of those spooky, weird pieces of Americana that Greil Marcus writes about in Invisible Republic" - as well as a rarely played encore, a cover of the Beatles' "Revolution."
In addition to housing the Dead's own extensive archives of music, artifacts, and instruments, Terrapin Station will be home to two other collections of significant historical interest: the Center for the Preservation of Music Culture (formerly the Bay Area Music Archives), and the Musician's Reference Library - a collection of extremely rare 78s, sheet music, books, and films documenting the development of jazz, gospel, ragtime, R&B, and rock and roll from the earliest days of recording on cylinders. The recordings in the Musician's Reference Library alone, amassed by Santa Cruz vinyl enthusiast Glenn Howard, have already made an impact on the current pop scene, informing the innovations of such roots-aware musicians as Beck and Mike Gordon of Phish, as well as Garcia.
A place to gather
News of the project and the reunion concert should be welcomed by Deadheads, who have had a hard time maintaining the kind of communal ésprit that flourished - both at shows and online - when the Dead were playing 70 to 80 shows a year.
David Gans, host of the nationally syndicated radio show The Grateful Dead Hour, observes that "Deadheads still love to get together and dance," but says that since the band called it quits in the wake of Garcia's death, "we've been at a loss. Since we lost our principal excuse for gathering, the community has fragmented and atomized for a number of complex reasons." Gans is involved in another, grass-roots attempt to give the homesick Deadhead community a haven in the Bay Area - the Deadhead Community Center, at a club called the Ashkenaz in Berkeley.
Even the online Deadhead world is feeling the strain of keeping the virtual fires burning without seasonal infusions of real-world fuel. Daily traffic in the newsgroup rec.music.gdead has fallen to half of what it was before Garcia died, and in the absence of "show reports" from the road, the celebrated Grateful Dead conferences on The Well have been roiled by testy flame wars in recent months.
"The community needs a place to gather so they can continue feeling as connected to one another as they did on tour," Lesh observes.
Both Lesh and lyricist Hunter have embraced the Net as a way to keep feedback channels open to the band's fans since Garcia's death.
A Web enthusiast when he first logged on, Lesh still enjoys an occasional foray into the ether. "Trying to figure out where you are on the Web is like trying to keep yourself coherent after you've smoked a doob," he says. "It's like, 'This is cool - but how did I get here?' At least on the Web, you have your browser history."
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