Welcome to #5DaysOfTheDead. On Friday, Dec. 1, Dead and Company, featuring the core surviving members of seminal rock band the Grateful Dead will perform at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The band, in any of its many forms, hasn't performed in Dallas since October of 1988, so we thought it would be fitting to spend a few days looking at how the group became legends and why its legacy is as strong today as it ever was.
For many legendary bands, a cleverly designed logo is every bit as iconic as the band name. The lips and protruding tongue logo of the Rolling Stones, the "Flying W" of Waylon Jennings, and Social Distortion's dancing "Skelly" are colorful, artistic parts of the legacy and identity of legendary artists.
It should come as no surprise that the Grateful Dead have a small stable of iconography to dig into. As one of the first bands to employ psychedelic light shows and vividly-designed gig posters, the visual aspect of their expression has been a prominent force since the band's inception. Though there's a lengthy list of images that dedicated fans will associate with the Dead, there are two that stand out above the rest still today.
Those beloved, and recognizable designs to even uninitiated Deadheads are the "Steal Your Face" lightning skull and dancing bears. Both designs have rather innocuous origins, and as you might imagine, their meanings aren't easily explained.
'Steal Your Face' lightning skull
Without question, the single most recognized image for the band, even more so than Garcia's face probably, is the "Steal Your Face" design. Also commonly referred to as the "lightning skull," the concept was born out of necessity, really. The group's longtime sound engineer (and noted LSD chemist) Owsley "Bear" Stanley needed an easily identifiable symbol for the band's gear when it was jammed in with other boxes and cases in backstage areas, according to the beloved companion-slash-chemist. After being inspired by a boldly-marked, dual-colored freeway sign, he discussed his ideas for a spray paint-ready stencil with Bob Thomas, a graphic designer friend of his. While the original thought basically consisted of a circle with a clear delineation between one blue side and one red side, the lightning bolt and the skull aspects came about as the brainstorming continued, Owsley writes.
The lightning skull became a part of popular Dead lore when it appeared on the inside gate-fold cover of 1970 self-titled LP. That record's front cover features Stanley "Mouse" Miller's "rose skeleton" design that some fans argue belongs in any serious conversation of Grateful Dead art (so here it is!). Though the creation of the lightning skull design seems rather benign and functional, its overall meaning has soared above its humble origins. Some seem to think the 13-point lightning bolt represents the original American colonies while others think it represents the 13-step process to creating LSD, if you are to take message board scuttlebutt seriously, that is. There are theories floating around that the bolt signifies the transformative powers of nature's all-consuming strength.
As it turns out, the cuddly bears aren't really dancing, or so said Owsley, the chief inspiration behind yet another Thomas design. According to his Owsley's personal website, the bears' stride "are quite obviously those of a high-stepping march." The design was created to grace the rear cover of the 1973's History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear's Choice) LP, which featured yet another variation of the lightning skull on its front. Some have theorized that the colorful chorus line of lovable teddy bears is also partly inspired by Jerry Garcia's "Papa Bear" nickname. Further message board and chat room speculation suggests the band leader wasn't terribly fond of the lightning skull, so maybe a friendlier, cuter artistic manifestation of his band's spirit was in order?
You'll surely see both of these iconic logos on Dec. 1 at the American Airlines Center, when Dead and Company performs in Dallas.