Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads

Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads

by David Shenk, Steve Silberman

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For fifty years and more than two thousand shows, the Grateful Dead have been earning the "deadication" of more than a million fans. Along the way, Deadheads have built an original and authentic American subculture, with vivid jargon and rich love, and its own legends, myths, and spirituality.

Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads is the first


For fifty years and more than two thousand shows, the Grateful Dead have been earning the "deadication" of more than a million fans. Along the way, Deadheads have built an original and authentic American subculture, with vivid jargon and rich love, and its own legends, myths, and spirituality.

Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads is the first map of what Jerry Garcia calls "the Grateful Dead outback," as seen through the eyes of the faithful, friends, and family, including Bill Walton, Elvis Costello, Tipper Gore, Al Franken, Bob Bralove, Dick Latvala, Blair Jackson, David Gans, Bruce Hornsby, Rob Wasserman, and Robert Hunter. Skeleton Key puts you on the Merry Pranksters' bus behind the real Cowboy Neal, uncovers the origins of Cherry Garcia, follows the dancing bear on its trip from psychedelic artifact to trademarked icon, and unlocks the Dead's own tape vault.

Informative reading for the new fan or the most grizzled "tourhead," Skeleton Key shines throughout with Deadheads' own stories, wit, insiders' knowledge, sincere appreciation of the music of the "band beyond description," and the diverse and soulful culture it inspires.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Hey Now, WebHeads! Welcome to the Skeleton Zone.

Some of the Nice Things Folks Have Been Saying About Skeleton Key:

"A modern day Joycean epiphany...colorful, witty and persuasive...One can't help but be lulled into the feeling that if you're not a Deadhead, you're missing out on a good time."
—Bob Kelly, Wired

"Replete with a healthy sense of humor and an obvious love for its subject...the mix of concrete and the absurd reminds you of the Dead's music itself."
—Steve Futterman, Rolling Stone

"This indispensable guide to all things Grateful Dead-related is the only dictionary you can laugh your way straight — or not so straight — through from beginning to end."
—Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons" and Life in Hell

"One of America's great underrated wonders, the Grateful Dead reflect everything that is glorious, tawdry, and strange about this land of ours. Skeleton Key is an elegantly written, one-size-fits-all passport to Deadhead culture's rich, weird pageantry."
—Richard Gehr, Village Voice

"A patchwork portrait of the Grateful Dead aesthetic....This gold mine of history and commentary will appeal to even the most seasoned Deadheads."
—Al Kemp, Wilmington News Journal

"An informative and pleasurable read for any neophyte fan...[and] a must for the Dead freak who can't get enough."
—Brett Pauly, Los Angeles Daily News

"Indispensable...captures the essence of the Grateful Dead experience, both enriching it for experienced Deadheads and explaining it for 'newbies.'"
—Gersh Kuntzman, New York Post

"Loaded with more jargon, humorous slang terms, anecdotes and minutiae than you can shake a kind veggie burrito at! ...this book is way entertaining."
Terrapin Times

"The Key to understanding our subculture...truly the Rosetta Stone of the Deadhead scene."
—Mike Maynard, Unbroken Chain

"Not just the best book at what it does, it is the only book that does what it does.... This book has left trails of multi hued memories alive and kickin' in my head.... Even the PICKIEST PICKY DEADHEADS will approve of Skeleton Key.... Skeleton Key not only passes the acid test, it defines it."
—Blair Jackson on "Skeleton Key"
from the '94 Year in Review feature in Dupree's Diamond News #30, Winter '94

Library Journal
dead-icated followers. While many picture a Deadhead as a scruffy youth in a tie-dyed T-shirt who drives a wildly painted bus and follows the Dead from concert to concert, Deadheads form a unique subculture that includes people of all ages and from all walks of life. In attempting to capture a culture that mythologist Joseph Campbell called "the most recently developed tribe on the planet," this book includes album reviews, band member profiles, and Internet addresses. But best of all, it captures the Deadheads' rich jargon-from crispy, the ick, and jonesin to rezzie, spacedancing, the Zone, and many more. Essential for larger public libraries, music collections, and any venue where Deadheads park their bus. [See also Sandy Troy's Captain Trips: A Biography of Jerry Garcia, reviewed on page 79.-Ed.]-Tim LaBorie, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
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5.52(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

From American Beauty to the Zone: American Beauty    
Album #6, released in November, 1970.   David Grisman plays mandolin on "Ripple" and "Friend Of The Devil".

Robert Hunter, lyricist, on American Beauty:
"American Beauty shows the GD playing, singing and songwriting skills in full stride.  We had the confidence of a successful record (Workingman's Dead) behind us, plus a shared sense of direction that was in tune with the times.   The Band, The Byrds, Poco, CSNY & Dylan were all exploring traditional music augmented by the power of rock & roll.   Psychedelia had had its moment (marking the GD forever in the public perception) and we were continuing to evolve what we believed to be the logical next step in American music, hence the title.

There is an underlying tone of sadness to American Beauty (Phil's father had just passed away, Jerry's mother was dying in the hospital as the result of an auto accident) reflected in the colors of such tunes as "Box Of Rain," "Brokedown Palace," "Attics of My Life" and "Ripple."  On the up side, "Sugar Magnolia/Sunshine Daydream" reaffirmed the important business of just getting stupid and being in love, while "Truckin'" announced, as early as 1970, what a long, strange trip it already seemed to have been.  This didn't refer only to the GD, but to the ten years of bluegrass, old timey & jug band configurations leading up to the rock & roll departure.  Grateful Dead Live  '71 , Europe '72 & the Garcia solo release (also '72) staked out the GD's musical territory in a definitive way.  It wouldn't be until 1975 and Blues for Allah that we would break with that feeling and extend the territory into less definable musical spaces, neither psychedelic nor tradition-based.  This amorphous state of transition lasted until 1985, when In the Dark once again found us in command of our direction in a way comprehensible to the public.

American Beauty remains the favorite studio record of many fans and members of the band, mustering, as it does, all the resources at our command in a futile but game response to the rising tide of commercially safe music which had already begun a counter mission to recover its monopoly of the American airwaves and record racks in the '70's."  

Cherry Garcia

Ben & Jerry's salute to the Great One: a designer ice cream, infused with flakes of dark chocolate and bing cherry slivers soaked in amaretto, which made its debut in February, '87.

"At least they didn't name a motor oil after me," Garcia is reported to have quipped when sent a sample to taste.  Half of his royalties go to the band's in house charitable group, the Rex Foundation.

"Nothing really rhymed with 'Grateful' or 'Dead,' explains Jane Williamson MacDonald, the 100-show veteran who came up with the idea in '84, in a Ben & Jerry's store on Exchange Street in Portland, Maine.   "So I said, 'For me, Garcia is the heart of the band,' and within 15 seconds, out popped 'Cherry Garcia.'  We wrote it down and laughed hysterically for ten minutes, and then put it up on the suggestion board."  As luck wouldn't have it, that store burned down soon afterwards, the idea literally going up in smoke.

"So I sent them a postcard," MacDonald says.  "But I didn't sign it.  I just put a heart at the end.  It was a political postcard   that's what Ben liked most about it.  It was a drawing of Ronald Reagan as 'Ronnie Reggae,' with dreadlocks;  it said, 'Fire up the Sky,' and there were missiles exploding everywhere."

At the behest of a friend, MacDonald phoned Ben & Jerry's headquarters a few months after the flavor came out to identify herself.  "I told her who I was, and she said, 'Wait a minute, could you say that again?"  I started to repeat myself, but before I finished, she put her hand over the phone and started screaming, 'I found her! I found her!'  She went wild.  In June, I was the guest of honor at their annual shareholders' meeting.  They sent us shirts and plane tickets. I got a year's worth of ice cream.  You know how Andy Warhol said everybody gets their 15 minute of fame?  I've had way  over 15 minutes. This has been one of the most hysterical things I've ever experienced in my life."

In 1988,  Cindy Scott, Arts Editor for the California Aggie at the University of California at Davis, took the cue and ran with it, conjuring up "Eyes Cream of the World," a fantasy ice cream parlor with Dead flavors only.   Some of her flavors:

Touch of Grape   ò  Blackberry Peter   ò  Sugar Mango   ò   Jack Strawberry   ò   In the Mint Chip Hour   ò   He's Gone Bananas   ò   Fudge Ripple   ò   Wharf Raspberry   ò   Gimme Some Lemon   ò   Looks Like Rainbow (also available as Box of Rainbow)   ò   Rocky Road to Unlimited Devotion   ò   Beat it On Down the Lime   ò   China Cat Sundae   ò   Mocha Stack Lightning   ò   Amaretto Getaway   ò   Might as Watermelon    ò   U.S. Blueberry   ò   Mexicali Blueberry   ò   Minglewood Blueberry   ò   Walkin' Blueberry   ò   Dupree's Diamond Blueberry   ò   Stella Blueberry

Scott also suggests some flavors that might not go over too well in the parking lot, such as Jack A Roe (a caviar swirl), Stagger Beet, Cucumberland Blues, Friend of the Deviled Egg, and Uncle John's Clam.  Says Scott, "there'd be a choice of Casey Cones, Sugaree, Throwin' Cones, or The Other Cone.  Row Jimmies optional."  

False Jerries

Garcia look alikes who catch Heads' eyes at shows.    Hair color and weight can be used to date faux Garcias to a specific vintage. "Did you see that guy?  He looked a lot  like Jerry   the '82 Jerry."  

On the Bus

The moment that you realize you are a Deadhead is sometimes called "getting on the bus."  "I got on the bus after that Fox show in '77, and started touring heavily." (A loss of interest is sometimes described as "getting off the bus.")

Most Deadheads recognize the phrase from Weir's lyric to "The Other One," "The bus came by, and I got on, that's when it all began   with Cowboy Neal at the wheel of a bus to Never Ever Land."  "The bus" was the Merry Pranksters' "Furthur," a renovated and customized 1939 International Harvester, bought by Kesey in the spring of 1964 for the Pranksters' road trip to the New York World's Fair, driven by "Cowboy" Neal Cassady [link to Cassady page at Literary Kicks site].

The bus became a countercultural icon after the publication of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.  According to Wolfe,  Kesey first uttered the phrase on the way to Houston, Texas, as he struggled for an ironic declaration of policy about what might happen to Pranksters who accidentally got left behind along the way.  "There are going to be times when we can't wait for somebody," Kesey announced.  "Now, you're either on the bus or off the bus.  If you're on the bus, and you get left behind, then you'll find it again.  If you're off the bus in the first place   then it won't make a damn."

Deadheads have enlarged on Kesey's declaration, so that the words mean more than being on a particular bus, and more than being a Deadhead.  The phrase has become a metaphor for having had a particular insight, a knowledge transmitted through the music, the experience of shows, the psychedelics, and the community.

"Getting on the bus," says longtime Head Alan Mande, "means crossing the perceptual threshold, as in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass  and Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces.  'The bus came by and I got on' is a freeze frame of the flashpoint where Grateful Dead music triggers a psychic/spiritual awakening    'the kind of awakening the great religions first intended,' as Campbell said."

Phil Bombs

Very low notes and chords played on bass by Lesh that can literally cause floorboards and seats to tremble.  "When Phil hits that note that drives a   sound wave through your body," explains Tom Bellanca, "that's a bomb."  Heads who enjoy being especially close to the speakers often articulate this experience in ways along the lines of Nethead Galen Watts, who speaks of "feeling Phil in your legs" and "sensing Bobby in yer chest." See Deafheads, Phil Zone.

Rock Med

Short for "Rock Medicine," the mobile emergency care clinic which has been providing valuable medical care at Dead shows and other West Coast rock concerts, community events and festivals for 20 years.  "We're like the Deadheads' HMO," says Rock Med's Director, Glenn "Raz" Raswyck.  The goal of Rock Med, as stated by founding director Skip Gay, is to "take care of the individual, and return him to his friends or family," and to avoid "the necessity of either hospitalization or getting involved with the law."  All of the doctors, nurses, paramedics and staff at Rock Med   outside of the director contribute their expertise for no pay.

  Rock Med was founded in 1972 by folks at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, at the behest of Bill Graham, who had seen too many medical needs at Woodstock, and elsewhere, go untreated.  "Bill knew that people were going to do what they wanted to do, and you'd better be prepared for it," explains Raswyck.  "He felt a moral obligation to be helpful, but also non judgmental.  At the same time, Bill wanted to put in a safety net, before Heads wound up in local hospitals or jails.  As a businessman, he knew when the jails started filling up, officials would start saying, 'You can't do this anymore.'"

On average, Raswyck says, Rock Med cares for  70 or 80 Heads per show, 60 of whom are there for minor matters - cut feet, heat exhaustion, headaches, and so on   but one of Rock Med's areas of expertise is in helping Heads navigate difficult trips   "Intense Psychedelic Reactions."  The basic tenets of Rock Med style "talkdown" are,  says Raswyck:  "Number one, 'You're OK.'  Number two, 'You're in a safe place.'  And number three, 'No, we're not going to tell your mom.'"  The volunteers are most interested in preventing needlessly dire situations from occurring in the first place.  Their brochure advises all Heads to eat nutritiously before shows, and to make sure to drink plenty of non sugary, non alcoholic liquids during their journey.  And try not to overindulge.  "Abuse," says Raswyck, "gives fun a bad name."

ò Dugout —The first aid station located close to the main hall.  
ò Field Teams — Medics in uniform visibly circulating through the crowd so that they can be flagged down if necessary.  
ò The Pit Crew — Three-person medic team positioned on the floor near each side of the stage, available for quick aid to overheated or hyperventilating Heads.  
ò Space Station — The intake room where talkdown happens.
ò Talkdown — Assistance for Heads having difficulty navigating in psychedelic space.  "The art of talkdown," explains Steve Anderson in the Rock Med Training Guide, "is the interplay  of knowledge, intuition and experience of the guide, varying  with individuals, circumstances, substances, and resources available.  A tripper is an Id with feet.  He has no rules (Superego) or reason (Ego). He is his own universe. We become the rules, and provide an 'alternative ego' until those functions of his character can reassert their own control."  


  One style of what writer Shan Sutton calls Deadheads' "bodily conversation with the music" — freeform gestures involving gentle bending of the knees, swaying of the arms, and rocking of the head, combined with expressive movements of the hands.

  Spacedancing is Heads' way of participating in the jam.   It may appear to an outsider to be "formless," but close observation reveals that most Heads are responding to subtle gestures in the music with equally subtle gestures.  Heads will spacedance anywhere — even at concerts by other bands.

        "It is very much like the loose jointed bowing and swaying one sees in orthodox Jewish synagogues," suggests Gary Greenberg, "amongst the men who are 'dovening' or praying.  One rabbi taught that 'As the soul journeys in the higher realms, it influences the body to make gestures of an entirely uncontrived nature.' "  The Hasidim believed that this swaying movement enabled a man to put the whole of himself into his worship, and likened it to a kind of lovemaking with the Divine.

"I think one of the ways to get at what the Dead do is to see them as taking a song and generating sparks with it, one or two of which they then breathe into their own kind of fire.  When they are successful, they draw out a moment of creation, the moment that animates all of human action, but which is usually ephemeral and invisible.   At those moments, they play the bones of the song, of each other, and of everyone involved.  We put the whole of ourselves into our worship, and we sway."    

The Zone

    The state of being to which band members and the audience "travel" together when the music is at its most intense, exploratory and collective.

          Because Dead music is improvised music, the moment the gate to the zone swings open — when the "rusty strings" are dusted off and shine   always comes as a moment of surprise, of something made new.  As Hart says, "Once in the zone, the point is to go somewhere you've never gone before."

            The zone was not invented by the Dead, and it's a place people will be able to go to long after the band is gone.  Mythographer Joseph Campbell — who only went to one Dead show — recognized that what the band and Heads help create together echoes something very old, comparing Deadheads to the ecstatic worshippers of Demeter at Eleusis, the temple of the Mysteries in ancient Greece.  "When you see eight thousand kids all going up in the air together, this is more than music.  It turns something on in here  [pointing to his heart].  What it turns on is life energy.  This is Dionysus talking through these kids."

        The zone is freedom — freedom to spin if you're a spinner, to stand with eyes closed wholly absorbed or flail madly throwing off sweat, to watch the levels on your tape deck dance during one of the great moments of your life.   To dance with a child's heart, or play like a drummer who says, "Your mind is turned off, your judgement wholly emotional.  Your emotions seem to stream down your arms and legs and out the mouth of the drum;  you feel light, gravityless, your arms feel like feathers.  You fly like a bird."


Meet the Author

DAVID SHENK is the author of six books, including The Genius in All of UsData Smog, and The Immortal Game. His book The Forgetting inspired an Emmy-winning PBS film of the same name and was featured in the Oscar-nominated film “Away From Her.” He has advised the President’s Council on Bioethics and contributed to The New Yorker, National Geographic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Gourmet, Harper's, Spy, and NPR. Shenk lives in Brooklyn. More at

STEVE SILBERMAN is an investigative reporter whose feature articles have appeared in Wired, The New Yorker, and many other national magazines. He is also the author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery/Penguin 2015) and one of Time's selected science tweeters (@stevesilberman). More at

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