The Story Behind the Grateful Dead Steal Your Face Logo

Much like the Grateful Dead bears, the Steal Your Face logo is one that both Deadheads and non-fans of the band are familiar with at this point. According to the official website of the late Bear Stanley, the Grateful Dead skull and lightning bolt symbol was first designed out of necessity way back in 1969, right near the beginning of their long, strange, trip. It started because the band needed a way to easily identify their road cases while out on tour or playing festival-style events with other bands.

The initial idea was to use a lightning bolt as the dividing line between the red and blue half of a circle, because apparently he thought it would look cool, though some speculate that the lightning bolt has something to do with LSD.

Anyway, Bear made a stencil with his circle and lightning bolt design and showed it to artist Bob Thomas (who also designed the dancing bears). Bob elaborated on Stanley’s initial design and came up with the Steal Your Face skull and lightning bolt that has become so famous over the years. The band stenciled the design on their road cases and used it in their album cover art and soon it became engrained in the culture surrounding the Grateful Dead.

At first, though, the skull and lightning bolt symbol was not referred to as the “Steal Your Face” logo or as some call it a “Stealie”. It was just the Grateful Dead logo.

Later, (on 4/17/72, to be precise) the band introduced the song “He’s Gone”, which includes the line “Steal your face right off your head”. The lyrics actually refer to the father of drummer Mickey Hart, who had served as the band’s manager but stole a bunch of money and left, but it was soon taken to have another layer of meaning by the fans.

In June 1976, the Grateful Dead released a double album titled Steal Your Face Which features the iconic logo front and center on the album’s cover, and thus officially connecting the logo to the phrase. The album features recordings from October 17-20, 1974 to close out the final tour before the band’s touring hiatus in 1975. These shows were also the focus of the Grateful Dead Movie, released in 1977.

The cover of Steal Your Face by the Grateful Dead (1976)

The logo had already been a part of the band’s culture by that point, and had in fact already been used on official artwork in the past (Bear’s Choice Vol. 1, which also features the dancing bears), but the release of Steal Your Face! was perhaps the first time fans ever called it the “Steal Your Face” logo or “Stealie”.

Deadheads also took the “steal your face” lyric and album title and applied it to having your “face stolen” by the music, meaning that the Grateful Dead (and specifically, Jerry Garcia), are blowing your mind with their improvisational jams. By association and increased performances of “He’s Gone”, the Grateful Dead’s skull and lightning bolt logo took on the meaning of Steal Your Face” and the symbol became synonymous with the phrase.

Today the logo is all over the place, and in some towns you’re likely to see at least one a day, usually pasted on a tie-dye shirt or in the form of a bumper sticker on somebody’s Subaru. Now you know where it came from. Enjoy a ripping performance of “He’s Gone” from 5/6/81 at Nassau Coliseum below.

8 thoughts on “The Story Behind the Grateful Dead Steal Your Face Logo

  • April 30, 2021 at 8:42 am

    This overlooks the main reason the skull-and-lightning design is known as a “stealie”: A giant version of the logo appears on the cover of the 1976 double-live album titled “Steal Your Face!” The album is essentially a soundtrack album for the Grateful Dead Movie which, in typically anarchic Dead fashion, didn’t come out until a year or so after the album, in 1977.

    Also following the Dead’s unique logic, “He’s Gone,” the song that includes the lyric “steal your face right off your head,” appears nowhere on the Steal Your Face! album.

    Reply
    • August 8, 2021 at 6:18 pm

      Thank you for pointing this out! I’ve updated the article to discuss the Steal Your Face album as well!

      Reply
  • May 29, 2021 at 10:18 am

    Hope there wasn’t any confusion dun by making an album that was soundtrack for a movie till it came out as a movie. I love the design. It is crested by Rose’s in some thing of the dead manifesto fashion and that I have that tattooed. Since about2003 and just recently got skelton holding Rose’s aswell.

    Reply
  • June 2, 2021 at 6:37 pm

    Over time, He’s Gone became associated with the many band members and extended “family” who died. He’s gone, and he ain’t never coming back.
    In fact, I was told the song was written about Pigpen, but realized it was on a live album (Europe 72 maybe?) on which Pigpen is playing and singing…so I figured it was not written about him, but may have come to be his “anthem”.

    Reply
    • June 8, 2021 at 5:02 pm

      I get that the chorus of “He’s Gone” has been associated with Pigpen, Brent, and eventually even Jerry, but if you listen to the verse lyrics, the song is no elegy—it’s about a thief and and a scoundrel who’s done his worst and disappeared. It was written about Lenny Hart, Mickey’s dad, who managed the band for a time and absconded with hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving the Dead in a major financial bind. Mickey was so ashamed and mortified that he left the band (eventually to return in 1974). “He’s Gone” was introduced during Mickey’s absence from the band, on the Europe ’72 tour.

      Reply
      • October 18, 2021 at 6:43 pm

        If anyone knows anything about Pin Pin he loved to drink. Yes he was an alcoholic, but didn’t like LSD. You don’t have to take my word on this, after the acid test was over. You can read all about it in Living With The Dead by Rock Skully. There was flyers out one last acid test. Witch seemed impossible because Kesey had a number of warrants and not for small stuff. The Greatful Dead was playing the last Acid test at Fillmore West. Kesey put it off by be one of the true Pranksters that he was the leader of of the Mary Pranksters. He was where by pay the biggest radio station in San Francisco to play the show life but from patching him life thru without being in the radio station. The cops over that radio station with a fine tooth comb. The hiring ever radio station in San Francisco. To miss with them and as they was looking for him it left the Fillmore almost cop free. This is where everyone got dosed. Sad to say even Pin pins favorite drinks. Jerry started noticing that something was wrong with Pig Pin and so did Rock Skully at the time was The Greatful Dead manager. They didn’t have Mickey at that time. Rock took Pin Pin back stage and he said he’s knees want work. Some believe he drank so much bourbon before someone couldn’t help them sell to think they was helping Pig Pin. At the time Pig Pins girlfriend was a black woman who happened to be working that that btw she was a R.N.. Rock called her and asked her to please help Kesey running the show and the cops are looking for him everywhere. Lmfao
        Rock stayed with Pig Pin and Pig Pin is a small man. He’s not that tall, but the steps up to the house on 710 Ashbury Street it took him a long time to get him up them steps. Rock stayed until Pin Pin and his girlfriend was have sex.
        Rock was pretty sure he was alright after that I would have agreed with him. I left out the part about Pin Pin begging to call him a ambulance. Good thing nobody did because it was the best last Acid test. The main point of this story is the where the line Steal your face right of your hand. Came from that night. It’s when someone dosed you and you and you don’t know anything about it it until 20 to 40 minutes later.
        That the store because Pin Pin keeps saying my knees want work and look they stole my face. Look at it. To back we can’t ask Pig Pin.
        Read Living With The Dead by Rock Skully.

        Reply
  • August 4, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    “Nine mile skid, on a ten mile ride …” is a nod to Neal Cassady, because he liked to drive fast.

    I can see why people say this song is about Mickey Hart’s father, but if it were, why would the line “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile” be in there, and the tone of the song be so whistful and mournful?

    Perhaps it is a chameleon of a song, and like most every song, we bring our own meanings to the lyrics.

    Reply
    • October 18, 2021 at 6:50 pm

      Cheerio mate!

      Reply

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