Dead Heads

For other uses, see Deadhead (disambiguation).

Deadhead or Dead Head is a name given to fans of the American jam band, the Grateful Dead.[1][2][3][4][5] In the 1970s, a number of fans began travelling to see the band in as many shows or festival venues as they could. With large numbers of people thus attending strings of shows, a community developed. Deadheads developed their own idioms and slang.


By the late 1970s, some Deadheads began to sell tie-dye t-shirts, veggie burritos, or other items at Grateful Dead concerts. This allowed many Deadheads a way to follow the band on its tours. During the early 1980s, the number of Deadheads taping shows increased, and the band created a special section for fans who wished to record the show. These tapes are still shared and circulated today via websites such as the Live Music Archive and In the earlier days of the Grateful Dead, there were questions as to whether or not it was in the best interest of the band for fans to tape concerts. As legend has it, when someone asked what Garcia thought about it, he replied, "When we are done with it [the concerts], they can have it." The practice of taping has evolved with the digital age, and the rise of the Internet has made it extremely easy to share concerts through unofficial channels.


The term "Deadhead" first appeared in print at the suggestion of "Hank Harrison": author of The Dead Trilogy on the sleeve of Grateful Dead (also known as Skull & Roses), the band's second live album, released in 1971.[6] It read: Template:Cquote

This phenomenon was first touched on in print by Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau at a Felt Forum show in 1971, noting "how many 'regulars' seemed to be in attendance, and how, from the way they compared notes, they'd obviously made a determined effort to see as many shows as possible."[6]

Eileen Law, a long time friend of the band, was put in charge of the mailing list and maintained the Dead Heads newsletter. It is estimated that by the end of 1971, the band had received about 350 letters, but this number swelled greatly over the next few years to as many as 40,000.[6] In total, 25 mailings/newsletters reached Dead Heads between October 1971 and February 1980. After this time, the Grateful Dead Almanac would succeed it, with this eventually being abandoned for[6] Those who did receive the newsletter in the 1970s often found pleasant surprises sent along. One example is from May 1974 when Heads received a sample EP of Robert Hunter's upcoming album Tales of the Great Rum Runners as well as selections from Jerry Garcia's second album, Compliments of Garcia and some cuts that were from bandmembers Keith and Donna Godchaux eponymous solo album, Keith & Donna,also on Rounder. This sample was titled Anton Round, which was an alias used by Ron Rakow.[7]

Impact on shows

The Grateful Dead's appeal to fans was supported by the way the band structured their concerts.

  • From the early 1970s on, night-to-night song selection changed over subsequent shows.
  • Also from the early 1970s on, it could be expected that the band would play two sets in a show.
  • From the 1980s on, the second set usually contained a prolonged drum solo, called "Drumz", by Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (also known as the "Rhythm Devils") followed by an extended improvisational "space" jam played by the rest of the band (See the album "Infrared Roses").

The varied song selection allowed the band to create a "rotation" of songs that was roughly repeated every 3 to 4 performances ("shows"). The rotation created two phenomena. The first was that the desire of Deadheads to hear their favorite song or hit a good show led many of them to begin following the band on its tour. The second was that the large number of traveling fans empowered the band to perform multiple shows in each venue with the assurance that the performances would be mostly sold out, as almost all were from the mid 1980s on. In this way, the Deadheads were one of the main driving forces keeping the band going. With large numbers of people thus attending strings of shows, a community developed out of the familiarity. As generations turned from the acid tests to the 1970s (and onward), tours became a time to revel with friends at concerts, old and new, who never knew the psychedelic age that spawned the band they loved.[8] As with any large community, Deadheads developed their own idioms and slang which is amply illustrated in books about the Grateful Dead such as the Skeleton Key.

"The Vibe"

Some Deadheads use the term "X Factor" to describe the intangible element that elevates mere performance into something higher.[9] Publicist and Jerry Garcia biographer Blair Jackson stated that "shows were the sacrament ... rich and full of blissful, transcendent musical moments that moved the body and enriched the soul."[10] Phil Lesh himself comments on this phenomenon in his autobiography by saying "The unique organicity of our music reflects the fact that each of us consciously personalized his playing: to fit with what others were playing and to fit with who each man was as an individual, allowing us to meld our consciousnesses together in the unity of a group mind.".[11]

Jackson takes this further, citing drummer Mickey Hart as saying "The Grateful Dead weren't in the music business, they were in the transportation business." Jackson relates this to the Deadhead phenomenon directly by saying "for many Deadheads, the band was a medium that facilitated experiencing other planes of consciousness and tapping into deep, spiritual wells that were usually the province of organized religion ... [they] got people high whether those people were on drugs or not." (For more on the spiritual aspect, see Spinners in the section below). It was times like these that the band and the audience would become one; The Grateful Dead and the Deadheads were all in the same state of mind.[12]

Rock producer Bill Graham summarized much of the band's effect when he created a sign for the Grateful Dead when the group played the closing of the Winterland Ballroom on December 31, 1978 that read:[13] Template:Cquote

The "Vibe" of the Grateful Dead is kept alive today by the many festivals that celebrate their traditions.

Deadheads through the years

  • 1960s – Before the term was invented, The Grateful Dead became one of the first cult acts in music. Although not as mainstream as other psychedelic bands, they were the leaders of the Haight-Ashbury music scene and had an intense following that started in San Francisco and eventually spread. Fans gathered at their jam concerts throughout the sixties.
  • 1970s – essentially known as the "second generation of Deadheads," the new Deadheads of this time can either be traced to "an older sibling who had turned them on by spinning Workingman's Dead or Europe '72" or through college and university dorm rooms.[8]
  • 1980s – The early 1980s brought about what would later become known as "Shakedown Street" (in reference to the Grateful Dead album of the same name). Started during the New Year's Eve shows at the Oakland Auditorium in California from 1979 to 1982, Deadheads began to realize they could sell their wares (anything from tie-dye t-shirts to veggie burritos) in order to follow around the band more. Also during the early 1980s, Deadhead tapers grew exponentially, resulting in the band designating a taping section in October 1984.[14] With the success of their album In the Dark (and the single "Touch of Grey"), 1988 started the "Mega-Dead" period.[15]
    • In the Darkers – also known as "Touchheads" (a reference of the album for the former and the single for the latter), these fans "dissed the fragile ecosystem" of a Grateful Dead show, in the words of Jackson. This led to "wiser" Deadheads, with the backing of the band, to mail SOS's and hand out show flyers telling people to "cool out."[15]
    • Minglewood Town Council – this group was a direct result of the Touchheads and were a "tribal council" consisting of Deadheads and the Hog Farmers Calico and Goose. They handed out garbage bags at shows for people to pick up trash afterwards and tried to keep the masses mellow.[15]
  • 1990s – The Deadheads of this time "tended to be young, white, male, and from middle-class backgrounds – in short, they were drawn from much the same demographic base as most rock fans." The band also tended to attract a large percentage of fans from high-income families. The main draw for these Deadheads to travel to shows seemed to be the sense of community and adventure. During the mid-90's there were a series of small "Deadhead Riots" peaking with a large scale riot at the Deer Creek Music Center near Indianapolis in July 1995. The riot was triggered by several gatecrashing incidents, and resulted in the fence at the venue being torn down by rioting Deadheads and the subsequent cancellation of the next day's show. The riot received national attention and is immortalized by Keller Williams in his song "Gatecrashers Suck," in which he calls the rioters "cock-sucking motherfuckers."[16]
  • 21st century – Many Deadheads of all ages continue to follow Grateful Dead musical incarnations such as The Donna Jean Godchaux Band, Ratdog, Phil and Friends, 7 Walkers, The Rhythm Devils, The Dead, Furthur, and Dark Star Orchestra.
  • The Spinners – also known as "The Family" or Church of Unlimited Devotion. These people "used the band's music in worship services and were a constant presence at shows." They were called "spinners" because of their twirling dance style.[16]
  • Wharf Rats – Deadheads who helped each other remain drug and alcohol free while staying in the Dead scene.[17]

Recordings of shows

At almost every Grateful Dead show, it was common to see fans openly recording the music for later enjoyment. This can be traced to shows in the late 1960s, with the number of tapers increasing yearly. In 1971, Les Kippel, from Brooklyn, NY, started the First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange. The purpose of "The First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange" was to preserve the heritage of the Grateful Dead's concert history by exchanging copies of recorded tapes made from audience members. This started a new era in recording, collecting, and trading Grateful Dead tapes. Often referred to as 'the Original Napster", the tape exchange grew into an international movement that continues today.

The Tape Exhange evolved into Dead Relix Magazine with its first fliers being handed out at concerts in 1973, followed by it first issue in 1974. In 1974, Dead Relix evolved into Relix Magazine and kept the Grateful Dead in the news while they took a year off in 1975. In 1980, Toni Brown became owner and publisher of Relix Magazine. In 2000, Relix Magazine was sold to Steve Bernstein. Relix Magazine is the second oldest continuously published rock magazine in the world, after Rolling Stone. Relix is still the only publication that supports the heritage of the Grateful Dead.

There were other Deadhead magazines that came about in the 1970s, notably, "Dead in Words" and "In Concert". The 1980s saw the production of "Terrapin Flyer", "Dupree's Diamond News",[18] "Golden Road," and "Acid". Dupree’s Diamond News was distributed as an in-concert newsletter at several hundred Grateful Dead concerts, where it averaged 10,000 copies per run. Dupree’s Diamond News was also distributed on a quarterly basis as a full-color, 72-page magazine to approximately 35,000 international subscriptions.

In 1998, Grateful Dead scholar Johnny Dwork, the founder of "Terrapin Flyer" and "Dupree's Diamond News", published the award winning, three volume The Deadhead's Taping Compendium: A Guide To The Music Of The Grateful Dead On Tape.

Fans were also known to record the many FM radio broadcast shows. Garcia looked kindly on tapers (he himself had been on several cross-country treks to record bluegrass music prior to the Grateful Dead), stating "There's something to be said for being able to record an experience you've liked, or being to obtain a recording of it ... my responsibility to the notes is over after I've played them." In this respect, the Dead are considered by many to be the first "taper-friendly" band.[19]

It is a matter of strict custom among Deadheads that these recordings are freely shared and circulated with no money ever changing hands. Some bootleg recordings from unscrupulous bootleggers have turned up on the black market, but a general "code of honor specifically prohibited the buying and selling of Dead tapes." These recordings, sometimes called "liberated bootlegs," still are frowned upon by the community and that feeling "has spread into non-Grateful Dead taping circles."[19]

Many deadheads now freely distribute digital recordings of the Grateful Dead's music, and there are several websites which provide and promote legal access of lossless music. The following are some among the most notable:

  •'s Grateful Dead collection

Deadhead Subculture

Along with the "Tapers" were many other Deadhead subcultures.

The "Wharf Rats" earned their name from the song, and were allowed to set up a table at every concert to support Dead Heads who believed in enjoying the Grateful Dead sober or needed support in their efforts to remain straight.

Other Dead Head factions included the "Rainbow Tribe', "Gay Dead Heads" and 'Jews for Jerry".

Celebrity Deadheads

The following celebrities have claimed to be Deadheads or have had media reported on them saying they are Deadheads:

See also

  • 32x28px Grateful Dead portal


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