Skulls & the Grateful Dead

Skull with Flowers copy72For those who are too young or from another planet, the Grateful Dead was an American rock band that formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. The band was known for its unique, eclectic style. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame  in 1994 and have sold more than 35 million albums worldwide.

Fans of the Grateful Dead, many of whom followed the band from concert to concert for years, were known as “deadheads,” recognized by their dedication to the band’s music and other deadheads. During the height of the band’s popularity, if your vehicle (probably a VW bus) broke down along the side of the road and you had a Grateful Dead sticker on it, you could rest assured that soon another loyal deadhead would stop to assist you, based solely on your common bond of being fellow deadheads.

The name “Grateful Dead,” was chosen from an old Britannica World Language Dictionary; the definition being “the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial.”

The Band’s Skull Logos
Over the years, a number of iconic images have come to be associated with the Grateful Dead. Many of these images originated as artwork for concert posters or album covers.

Steal Your Face skull
Perhaps the best-known Grateful Dead art icon is a red, white and blue skull with a lightning bolt through it. The lightning bolt skull can be found on the cover of the album Steal Your Face and the image is sometimes known by that name. It was designed by Owsley Stanley and artist Bob Thomas, and was originally used as a logo to mark the band’s equipment.

Skull and Roses
The skull and roses design was composed by Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse, who added lettering and color, respectively, to a black and white drawing by Edmund Joseph Sullivan. Sullivan’s drawing was an illustration for a 1913 edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Earlier antecedents include the custom of exhibiting the relic skulls of Christian martyrs decorated with roses on their feast days. The rose is an attribute of Saint Valentine who according to one legend was martyred by decapitation. Accordingly, in Rome, at the church dedicated to him, the observance of his feast day included the display of his skull surrounded by roses. This was discontinued in the late 1960s when Valentine was removed from the Roman Catholic canon along with other legendary saints whose lives and deeds could not be confirmed. Kelley and Mouse’s design originally appeared on a poster for the September 16 and 17, 1966 Dead shows at the Avalon Ballroom.Later it was used as the cover for the album Grateful Dead. The album is sometimes referred to as Skull and Roses.

Uncle Sam skeleton
The Uncle Sam skeleton was devised by Gary Gutierrez as part of the animation for The Grateful Dead Movie. The image combines the Grateful Dead skeleton motif with the character of Uncle Sam, a reference to the then-recently written song “U.S. Blues”, which the Dead are seen performing near the beginning of the film.

Historian, Harley Owners Club, Kingwood, Texas Chapter
Carlos Miller, The Arizona Republic
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