Grateful Dead Week – Day 2: Dead Head vs. Deadhead


You’re a Deadhead or you aren’t. But unless you are part of the Grateful Dead’s inner circle, no matter how you feel about the band, you are not a “Dead Head.”

Asked as an afterthought, figuring it was little more than a matter of editorial inconsistency over decades of usage, Grateful Dead archivist Nicholas Meriwether surprised me with the seriousness of his answer: “You have to use ‘Deadhead.’ You can’t use ‘Dead Head.’” I’d already been doing that, since I was teenager, as it has always struck me as the natural choice. But what I didn’t realize was that within the seemingly anything goes realm of the Dead such a strange fiat existed.

The anglicized abbreviation of the Cantonese word for “opium,” pronounced “ha peen,” infiltrated American slang in the early twentieth century, resulting in a “hop head” referring to an opium addict. In his illuminating Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, Jesse Jarnow cites a 1952 article in Time about an eighteen-year-old girl arrested for pot, who told the cops, “I’m higher than a giraffe’s toupee . . . Everybody’s a head now . . . One out of every five persons you meet on the street are heads.” She was referring to an increasingly not-so-underground underground community with Greenwich Village and North Beach enclaves and satellite pockets popping up across the nation, and around the world.

On the inner sleeve of the 1971 Grateful Dead album the band declared  “Dead Freaks Unite” and asked for fans’ names and addresses. Shortly thereafter, the first official band newsletter landed in mailboxes, trumpeting “Dead Heads Unite!” Unite they did, especially around bootleg tapes of shows, and somewhere in the scrawls of dates and setlists “Deadheads” became a formidable subculture.

In 1983, two of the first books about the Dead were released, Blair Jackson’s The Music Never Stopped and Paul Grushkin’s The Official Book of the Dead Heads. The latter includes a preface by Jerry Garcia that concludes, “I see Dead Heads both as familiar faces in the audience and stars in their own right”; the two-word version of the term is used throughout the book. Jackson, a Deadhead since 1970 with access to the band, employs the single-word spelling.

For as much as the band and the fans understood their relationship as mutually symbiotic somewhere along the line how to refer to, and identify as, a Grateful Dead fan became a benignly curious Us and Them distinction.

Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip, uses “Dead Head”; not only is he the band’s official biographer but he worked as their publicist from 1984 until 1995. He is definitely an insider. Official live releases rely on an editorial house style that uses “Dead Head.” Interestingly, in their memoirs, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann refer to their fans as “Deadheads.”

I asked Jarnow about this. (Full disclosure: I will be joining Jarnow for a number of Heads Talks, a series of events he has organized that will take place over the coming months.) He is a fan who has ended up writing liner notes for some recent official releases, including the outsize Thirty Trips Around the Sun box set, compiled last year on the occasion of the band’s fiftieth anniversary. “We never had the conversation,” he told me in an email. “When I submitted my draft, I wrote it ‘Deadheads,’ as I always do, and they corrected it to the trademarked ‘Dead Heads,’ as I figured they would.” He went on to explain his reasoning: “Basically, I think, you can’t trademark a Deadhead. They’re real people, not the creation or property of anybody, even the Dead.”

It’s impossible not to agree with this logic, and I am sure the Dead organization’s protection of the term “Dead Head” is not about their fans but about merchandizing matters. But coming to learn that there is a difference was one of the more eye-opening dynamics I learned about the culture of the Grateful Dead, which was an amazing embodiment of T.S. Eliot’s idea of the fire rose, a chaos of freedom within a form, like dancing.

No matter the spelling, in McNally’s words, any fan of the Grateful Dead shares one thing in common with all the other fans: “some inner click of affinity, some overwhelming sense of ‘here I belong,’ when confronted by the Dead, its music and scene . . . After that, each person’s role within the culture was improvised, in the same way as the music was played.”

3 thoughts on “Grateful Dead Week – Day 2: Dead Head vs. Deadhead”

  1. I had never thought about the usage of “Deadhead” vs “Dead Head.” I too had always assumed it was just an editing choice from some style manual, used by someone who had no stake in the choice. I had no idea it was trademarked.

    Of course, “deadhead” has various meanings–you can deadhead a rose, which is very different than deadheading a train, both of which long predate the rock band. Now, roses and trains are classic Hunter lyrical themes, so perhaps he knows something he’s not telling us–can you deadhead a deck of cards?

  2. Unfortunately, I still don’t understand the difference between a “Deadhead” and a “Dead Head.” In any event, I’ve long considered that subculture (by whatever name/s you call it) to be almost as conformist in its own way as is the larger culture that those in that subculture eschew. I don’t write this from an anti-Dead perspective. I’ve attended some of their concerts and am an admirer of many of their albums as well as those of some of its members. Further, or perhaps should I write “Furthur,” I admire the fact that the core members (e.g., Lesh, Garcia, Hart) have broader musical influences than do many Deadheads/Dead Heads. I just regret that the original, nonconformist spirit of The Merry Pranksters morphed into that formulaic Deadhead subculture.

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