Grateful Dead Symbol

The “Steal Your Face” Symbol named after the album “Steal Your Face” has come become a signifier of the deadhead subculture and the Grateful Dead.

The Deadhead Subculture

The Band

Members of The Grateful Dead met in Palo Alto, California in 1965 at the height of the counterculture movement of the ’60s. The lineup consisted of Jerry Garcia on lead guitar, Bob Weir on rhythm guitar, Rob “Pigpen” McKernan on keyboard and harmonica, Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutsman on drums. Robert Hunter was the band’s lyricist along with Jerry Garcia and was not a member of the band, but was nonetheless an influential figure in the band’s history. The group started out in the local San Francisco music scene as the Warlocks (eventually becoming the Grateful Dead after learning of another band with this name) and made their debut at Ken Kersey’s “acid tests” which were public LSD parties to experiment with the drug. Their music, while rooted in bluegrass and rhythm and blues, began to shift towards psychedelic and improvisational styles, mirroring their involvement in the “exploratory ethos of the countercultural context” (Sylvan 2002:84). Over the years the band had several studio albums some of which led to commercial success and songs on the radio, however many were unsuccessful in capturing their live, improvisational feel leading many fans to see them as primarily a live band. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s the lineup changed as keyboardist McKernan died of liver failure in 1973 and was replaced by Keith Godchaux who died in a car crash in 1980 and was replaced by Brent Mydland. In the ’80s the band released several live tapes but had unexpected success with the studio Album In the Dark featuring their first, and only, top ten song Touch of Grey. This success lead to a new generation of Grateful Dead fans characterized by more extreme drug use and run ins with police (Sylvan 2002). Throughout the ’90s Jerry Garcia experienced health problems relating to diabetes and an enlarged heart which lead to his death in 1995 and the official disbandment of the Grateful Dead (Sylvan 2002).


Writing a few years after Jerry’s death, Pearce (1998)  argues that the Deadhead subculture remained committed to staying together. Whether or not the subculture could survive without the Grateful Dead remained ambiguous at that time, however many deadheads interviewed showed a willingness to maintain ties to the community through other bands that also attracted deadheads (Phish and Rusted Root) as well as through online forums. Deadheads continue to organize their community around trading and discussing tapes, online forums and attending concerts put on by surviving members (Adams 2003 ). The expanding ability to share tapes and recordings on the internet has also allowed the deadhead community to remain connected through online tape trading networks (Harvey 2010).

a black and white photo of the Grateful Dead from a promotional photoshoot. Jerry Garcia is sitting in front while other members stand behind him.

The Grateful Dead in 1970, from a promotional photo shoot. Left to right: Bill Kreutzmann, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh.

The Rise of the Subculture

The height of the 1960s counterculture occurred around events such as the Monterey Pop Festival in Monterey, California and Woodstock held in Bethel, New York.  However, by 1970 it was clear that the widespread countercultural movement was on the decline. At the 1969 Altamont Festival, concert organizers hired the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang as security who stabbed an unruly young man to death during the Rolling Stones’ set. These events lead to a decline in the morality and high spirit of the 1960s counterculture as did the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison and the national guard’s shooting of four college students at Kent State University. The decline of the counterculture movement led many prominent bands to break up especially those around the Grateful Dead in San Francisco and so “It fell upon the Grateful Dead to carry on the tradition of the ’60s” (Troy 1991, quoted in Sylvan 2002:86). As the counterculture declined, the Grateful Dead became a surviving symbol of the ’60s era that many high school and college students became attached to. The Grateful Dead were a reserve of countercultural values which remained strong and even grew in strength as the counterculture declined in mainstream America (Sylvan 2002). To many hardcore adherents of the 1960s counterculture and a segment of youth who had “just missed out” on the golden era of the 1960s counterculture, the Grateful Dead represented a means through which the 1960s lifestyle could be preserved and experienced.

The subculture of “Deadheads,” fanatic followers of the Grateful Dead, started in 1971 as hardcore fans became part of a mailing list intended for the distribution of tickets and information on tour dates and album releases. The mailing list grew to 40, 000 people and eventually included its own newsletter. However, being part of the Deadhead subculture was about much more than just being on a mailing list. Deadheads accorded great value was the act of faithfully traveling, through any means necessary, to the Grateful Dead’s many stops on a tour. Deadheads made the effort to attend nearly all Deadhead tours as an important aspect of their lives even at the logistic and financial expense such a lifestyle requires.

The Deadhead subculture is geographically located in the United States and Canada and comes pretty much equally from regions across North America.  Significant numbers of Deadheads also come from England and across Europe, although they are not as numerous as north American deadheads. With the rise of the internet, a significant online community  devoted to the deadhead subculture began to organize itself (Pearce 1998).

Deadhead Subcultural Practices, Beliefs and Values

Deadheads adhere to a set of values similar to those of the 1960’s counterculture. Deadheads often speak of being attracted to deadhead culture because the community is peaceful, values camaraderie and shares resources which offers a refreshing escape from the dominant culture’s individualism, materialism and competition. Pearson (1987)  argues that among younger generations of deadheads, the Grateful Dead’s music is an attractive alternative to the formulaic top 40 hits of the mainstream music industry. In other words, Deadheads feel that music should be free emotional expression and should not be inspired purely by a desire for profitability. 

There are many practices of deadheads which serve to create an underground deadhead economy based on trading and bartering tapes of Grateful Dead shows which Pearson (1987) terms “the infrastructure of the subcultural network.” At Grateful Dead concerts there is a section of the audience called the “tapers,” people who tape shows. Normally such a practice is discouraged at mainstream concerts, but it is actually encouraged at Grateful Dead shows as trading tapes becomes an essential part of deadhead community and creates a diffuse network of sharing esteemed subcultural objects (Pearson (1987). In addition to a network of tape trading, deadheads also rely upon Relix magazine  as a forum to advertise and sell artworks. Selling art this way is a means of income for many deadheads and a means to finance tickets and travel to Grateful Dead shows. These practices fit into a wider context of anti-corporate beliefs held by deadheads and provide networks through which Deadheads can organize their community.

Tapers Recording at a Grateful Dead Concert

The Taper Section of A Grateful Dead Concert

The Concert Experience

Many scholars have studied Deadheads and have tried to explain why Deadheads go so far beyond the ordinary music fan to form such an intense connection with the band. I believe some of the best answers revolve around scholars who have seen religious aspects of the Deadhead concert experience. In other words, a Grateful Dead concert is not just about music, but features elements similar to religious groups. The deadhead subculture does not consider itself a religion. Instead scholars have focused on how the subculture shows phenomenon related to the sociological study of religion. In particular, Sutton (2000)  argues that the deadhead concert experience revolves around four religious phenomena which are community, cultus (ritual behavior), creed (beliefs about the meaning of human life) and code (rules for everyday behavior that reflect creed). Sutton goes on to say that a Grateful Dead concert is a place where community is developed through the communal attainment of mystical states and that those who are most open to transforming their consciousness in the concert environment through dance, hallucinogens and music tend to become devoted deadheads. More generally, Deadheads may be devoted to the Grateful Dead in much more intense and meaningful ways than the average person is connected to a musician, because the deadhead concert experience is about more than music. The Grateful Dead concert experience is a collective experience of a mystical state. Collective, transformative experiences foster intense feelings of unity within groups (Sutton 2000). 

Deadheads dancing

Two women dancing at a Grateful Dead concert


Deadheads also value several aspects of the concert experience which are contrary to the typical concert experience. Audience members believe they can induce the band into playing certain songs or certain improvisations that speak to their life situation or mood in the concert. Such a belief subverts the assumption that only the band creates emotional responses in listeners by showing how the audience has an emotional influence on the band. A Symbiotic relationship between the band and audience emerges from the band’s psychedelic improvisations and makes them “guides for a collective psychedelic journey” (Sylvan 2002: 84). Sutton (2000) writes, “Deadheads took part in shaping the music. Through its presence and reactions the audience influenced the band, who in turn fulfilled a quasi-shamanistic role through providing the music that brought about mystical experience for themselves and their audience.” The way Deadheads perceive their ability to control the band and the band’s role as provider of “mystical experience” create bonds between musician and audience that are arguably stronger than the conventional band-audience relationship.

Important Sociological Themes


            The deadhead subculture shows several important phenomena in the sociological study of resistance. In particular, they show how subcultures both challenge and resist the dominant culture. Ritzer (2000)  argues that deadheads negotiate their identity between mainstream lifestyles and subversive subcultures by taking elements from each to construct a lifestyle that fits their unique needs. One can imagine how such a process would in some ways support the mainstream and in other ways support a subversive lifestyle. Ritzer argues that deadheads exist within the dominant American society and therefore cannot help but support certain aspects of it such as capitalism and materialism (they buy blank tapes, gas to get to concerts, concert tickets). Deadheads can resist mainstream society in other ways such as through drug use or subverting capitalism by bartering, sharing and communality.

Status Hierarchies

            In his article, Identity and Status Stratification in Deadhead Subculture, Robert Sardeillo (1998) argues that the deadhead subculture exhibits status stratification. He also argues that there are two ways in which individuals maybe ranked on the status hierarchy: personally and socially. The personal dimension of identity is a subjective self-identification and relies on the extent to which an identity is internalized as part of one’s self concept. The social dimension of identity comes from self-identification that emerges from the treatment of one’s self by others and is situational, based on categorical distinctions as opposed to personal attributes (Sardiello 1998 ). Sardiello describes how differing levels of personal and social internalization of the deadhead identity create three types of deadheads:

            The Hardcore Deadhead: This type of deadhead is characterized as the “ideal” deadhead and is the type most caricatured by the media. Their level of personal internalization of the deadhead identity is the highest (Sardiello 1998). They often have a functional role in the deadhead subculture such as a taper, vendor or part of a tour group such as the “rainbow family.”

            The New Deadhead: New deadheads are characterized by their youthfulness and are generally in college or high school. They were likely part of the crowd attracted to the culture from the success of the album In The Dark. This group of deadhead is blamed for the “overpopulation” of the subculture and looked down on for a lack of experience and knowledge. Due to these negative perceptions, most deadheads do not personally identify with this group, yet many deadheads say it exists. Thus a deadhead in this category has a strongly defined social identity, but a low level of personal internalization of this identity.

            The Stable Deadhead: Stable deadheads are characterized by an occasional yet consistent participation in the subculture. They often have responsibilities outside of the subculture such as jobs and families to provide for. They have a moderate amount of personal internalization of deadhead identity.


Deadheads are a highly stigmatized group in the media. They are often depicted as lazy, filthy hippies who reject the protestant work ethic that is so valorized by American Society. Adam’s (2003) article Stigma and the Inappropriately Stereotyped: The Deadhead Professional begins to breakdown these assumptions and shows how they arise in the popular media by using Goffman’s (1963) work on ‘tribal stigma.’ She explores how membership in the Grateful Dead is achieved (voluntary) and so is even more stigmatized than ascribed membership. She also focuses on discredited and discreditable deadheads, showing that discreditable or “out” deadheads are often discriminated against by police, at restaurants and in other social places.

Deadhead Subculture Media:

Time and Again- The Grateful Dead (NBC)

This video was produced by NBC, a major company that is part of the mainstream media industry. One can get a sense of how the mainstream media approaches the subject of the deadhead subculture and the type of ways the media may stigmatize deadheads.

Tie Died Grateful Dead

This documentary is very valuable because of its focus is entirely on the subcultural participants rather than on the band itself. While watching this video, one can really get a sense of an ethnographic approach to Deadheads showing how deadheads interpret the meaning of their own participation.

1992 News Report

This is a news report from 1992 which illustrates how a community may react to a Grateful Dead concert. This report details both the police targeting of illegal vendors and the impact of the Grateful Dead concert on the local economy.

Top songs

  • Touch of Grey

Album: In the Dark

Touch of Grey is the only song by the Grateful Dead to reach the Billboard Top ten hits ending up at number 9. The unexpected popularity of this song led to a renewed interest in the Grateful Dead and the appearance of new and younger fans in the subculture.

  • Truckin’


Album: American Beauty (1970)

Truckin’ is a good example of the blues inspired instrumental style of the Grateful Dead and is one of their best known songs. It helped attract more Deadheads to the band and gave rise to the cultural use of the phrase “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

  • Friend of the Devil


Album: American Beauty (1970)

This song captures the improvisational jam band essence of the Grateful Dead. The live performance of this song normally would be stretched out as Jerry Garcia improves guitar for extended periods of time. Also important are the mystical elements in the lyrics such as the devil and his “hound dogs.”

Significant Scholars and Scholarship

Rebecca Adams

Rebecca Adams is one of the most prominent scholars who studies the deadhead subculture phenomenon. She is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The sources I have used from her include a book of research by various deadhead scholars, many of whom are deadheads themselves. She has also researched the processes of teaching students and the public about deadheads. 

Adams, Rebecca G. 2000. Deadhead Social Science: You Ain’t Gonna Learn What You Don’t Wanna Know. Rowman & Littlefield .

Adams, Rebecca. 2003. “Stigma and the Inappropriately Stereotyped: The Deadhead Professional.” Sociation Today 1(1).

Robert Sardiello

Robert Sardeillo is another prominent deadhead researcher who published “Deadhead Social Science: You Ain’t Gonna Learn What You Don’t Wanna Know” along with Rebecca Adams. His sources are helpful for understanding status and ritual in the subculture.

Sardiello, Robert. 1994. “Secular Rituals as Popular Culture: A Case for Grateful Dead Concerts and Deadhead Identity.” Pp. 115–40 in Adolescents and Their Music: If it’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old. New York: Garland.

Sardiello, Robert. 1998. “Identity and Status Stratification in Deadhead Subculture.” Pp. 118–47 in Youth Culture: Identity in a Postmodern World, edited by Jonathon S. Epstein. Malden, MA: Blackwell.


Helpful Books:

This book chapter provides a good historical overview of the band and the social forces that created the subculture.

Sylan, Robin. 2002. “Eyes of the World: The Greatful Dead and the Deadheads .” Pp. 83–116 in Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music. New York, New York: New York University Press.

Robin Sylvan's Anthology, Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music

Robin Sylvan’s Anthology, Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music

Rebecca Adam's book, Deadhead Social Science: You Ain't Gonna Learn What You Don't Wanna Know

Rebecca Adam’s book, Deadhead Social Science: You Ain’t Gonna Learn What You Don’t Wanna Know

Jonathan Epstein's anthology, Youth Cultures: Identity in a Post Modern World

Jonathan Epstein’s anthology, Youth Cultures: Identity in a Post Modern World


Other Sources

This is a digital archive of recordings made by tapers at Grateful Dead concerts. Nearly all of the bands years of touring and all of their shows are represented. You can search by year, concert venue and taper.

The official website of the Grateful Dead and everything deadhead.

-By Ben Grubb (2016)