Grateful Dead Artwork Origin Stories, Understanding the Collection
You’ve seen the Grateful Dead’s legendary Dancing Bears on our bags and timepieces… but do you know where the bears first appeared? What about the first Steal Your Face skull? We tapped into a living vault of knowledge for insight on the Grateful Dead artwork we all love.
"They all have a story behind them." - David Lemieux, Grateful Dead Archivist
David Lemieux has been the official archivist for the Grateful Dead for 23 years and has been listening to the Dead since ’84—he still remembers the first time. Living in British Columbia, Canada, Lemieux can also be referred to as the legacy manager for the band, meaning he keeps an eye on things to make sure they stay, “within the Grateful Dead sensibility.”
Following our Grateful Dead x Nixon lineup of watches and bags, we reached out to Lemieux for a few words on the gear and a bit of the backstory to some of the iconic artwork that dons this timeless collection. His insights shed light on the origins but when it came to their underlying meanings, Lemieux left the door open for interpretation.
Buckle up, we’ve got a long, strange trip for you ahead.
Nixon: Thank you for your time, David. Obviously, you were listening to the Grateful Dead before becoming the official archivist; How old were you when it all started?
David Lemieux: “I started listening to the Grateful Dead at 14 years old. It was right at a time that I was–as many of us at 14 start–exhibiting my independence and finding the things in this world I liked whether it was art or sports or whatever. For me, I was listening to a lot of older music. When I heard the Grateful Dead for the first time (my older brother had an album), instantly I said, ‘this is the music for me.’”
N: And you’ve been a Dead Head ever since?
DL: Yes. At 16 years old, I saw the dead for the first time, and I went on to see them 100 times—I literally just counted my ticket stubs.
In 1998 I wrote them a letter and in 1999 they hired me to catalog their video collection. My background was as an archivist cataloging Film and Video, so they hired me to do that on a three month contract. Later that same year, the Grateful Dead archivist–my mentor, my friend, the guy who hired me–passed away. The Dead said, ‘you should just stick around and work in the vault and archive our tapes.’ So I did and then that led almost immediately to producing a few other things, and then in 2010 expanded to the Legacy Manager, which is exactly what it sounds like managing the legacy of the Grateful Dead.
When it comes to the old recordings and the merchandise licensing to use the Grateful Dead logos; whether it's the Dancing Bears, Skeleton and Roses, Lightning Bolt, Steal Your Face skull—I work on those things, anything related to the legacy.
N: Speaking of legacy, how is it that the Grateful Dead artwork has become so famously known? Why do you think they have made such a mark on American culture that some people have literally tattooed on their bodies?
DL: The Grateful Dead we're very fortunate to travel in a circle of people who are incredible artists and incredibly visionary artists. From that came some of the most definable and identifiable logos in music history.
Now, you’ve got the Rolling Stones’ lips. You've got the Pink Floyd prism thing. Led Zeppelin has a Zoso, and that's great. They've all got their one thing, but the Grateful Dead have half a dozen visual icons that everybody knows. Even if you're not a Dead Head, you've seen those Dancing Bears. You've seen the skull and lightning bolt. You've seen the Skull and Roses.
I've had younger bands say, ‘we're just a band starting out what do we need?’ I say, ‘get a good logo, get something identifiable. That way you will always have this community of people who know, and it's a wonderful thing.’
The Dead’s visual icons, I think are a huge part of the Dead's legacy because it's the kind of thing where we all very proudly wearing something with a Grateful Dead logo on it. I wear that stuff proudly just as people get tattoos, or I've seen plenty of tire covers on the back of a Jeep that is a Grateful Dead logo of Dancing Bears or the Lightning Bolt. It's kind of everywhere. It's ubiquitous now and I love that.
N: What about artwork misconceptions? Can you clear up some of the origins without taking away from their lore?
DL: The Grateful Dead visual icons (and there's a good half dozen of the main ones), they all come from somewhere. They all have a story behind them. The Dancing Bears have to do with Owlsley and his album Bear’s Choice—that's where they first appeared.
The skull and lightning bolt–Steal Your Face–came from a time when the Grateful Dead were playing festivals in the mid-to-late ‘60s. Bear, or Owlsley, who was the Grateful Dead sound engineer, benefactor and friend; wanted to have identifiable logos on the road cases. He came up with a red and blue with a lightning bolt in a circle and then that developed into this red and blue skull with the lightning bolt down the middle of the Steal Your Face logo.
The Skull and Roses, that Kelly and Mouse usurped from the Rubaiyat [of Omar Khayyam], encapsulated Grateful Dead, and when they saw that they said, ‘that's the logo for us.’ This art was then first used [for the Grateful Dead] on a concert poster from 1966. Then, in 1971 (50 years ago) it became the identifiable Skull and Roses on the 1971, Live album.
These were all things that the Grateful Dead, when these artists would present the band with these ideas for artwork, knew immediately: Yes, that's the thing for us, or: No, it isn't. The Dead picked absolutely correctly because you see this stuff and know what it is now more than 50 years later.
N: The art definitely stands out as unique for so many reasons, especially the contrast or the juxtaposition of things like roses and skeletons—it gives you all kinds of thoughts, ideas and feelings. Then, next to a series of dancing bears there doesn’t appear to be any tangible connection but, to your point, regardless of where they are seen they are recognized as Grateful Dead art.
DL: Exactly. There's such a variety of artwork, you've got these bears that have now become a very friendly thing. We have a lot of merchandise and licensed products for toddlers and babies that have the dancing bears them as they should. They're cute. They're fun. Then you've also got skull and roses and it's also fun but in a very different way.
Just as Grateful Dead music can be that gorgeous acoustic music, like on Working Man's Dead; or the Live Dead stuff from a year earlier, the psychedelic powerhouse; or what you hear with Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street that was affectionately (or possibly not affectionately) called Disco Dead—it's all Grateful Dead music, but it's all very different, Grateful Dead. The artwork is the same in that way.
N: After a little bit research about the art it has actually generated more interest in the meanings, because they all have some lore around them.
DL: It's exactly that and there is a lot of open to interpretation. And there is a phenomenal body of academic discourse about the Grateful Dead. There are even academic conferences about the Grateful Dead, where they will talk about visual iconography, its history, its meaning. People are always looking into things, new ways to interpret the Grateful Dead—and I love it. I love that the Grateful Dead has such a huge body of academic discourse. Again, something that most other bands don't have that at all.
N: All of your insights have been awesome. What else would you like to add to our conversation?
DL: I will say that going back to the late 80s and early 90s, before cellphones, Dead tour one of the most valuable things that I had was the watch I was wearing at that time.
I'd like to think and say that I don't care about time, but I do—we're a time based world.
As much as we were all hippies and we didn't like to, you know, ‘follow the rules,’ but we had to know what time it was. When concerts started, because we had to meet our friends at a certain time or when to pick them up at their hotel—that was through our watches.
This is exciting that you know Nixon kind of brings it full circle with having timepieces on our wrist so we can make sure we're at the show at the right time and meeting our friends at the right time without relying on this thing that we're all glued, looking at our phones.
N: One last thing before I let you go: Have you had a chance to study the watches in detail? Has anything about them surprised you?
DL: All of the details have jumped out at me and I'm amazed at the craftsmanship on each of the watches. What I was admiring last night was the different hands the detail of the lightning bolts on them and how those pieces move.
When you see these watches in person you can see how well they're made and how incredible the details really are. I'm shocked at how perfect this craftsmanship is. I had expanded the images to be huge on my computer screen, but it doesn’t do them justice compared to seeing in person. It’s three dimensional, moving art.