Icons of the Dead: Backstage Passes in the Archive

This backstage pass recently surfaced in the Archive during processing, and represents one of the earliest examples in the collection. Its simple lettering demonstrates that the central concern backstage during those early years was quick identification—security personnel could quickly and easily spot who should be there, and who should not.

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Over the years, the Dead’s backstage passes evolved into highly sophisticated designs, often incorporating pop culture icons like film stars and comic book heroes. It’s interesting to note that when the band used trademarked images, they were careful to secure permission, even though passes were not sold; I had an interesting chance conversation with the former head of Marvel Comics at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about that and he remained impressed with the band’s scrupulousness. “It wasn’t easy to negotiate copyright clearance for those images,” he recalled. And all to make colorful, memorable, disposable passes that, once affixed to clothing, were often hard to preserve.

For some runs of shows and even whole tours in the late 1980s and 1990s, the band hired artists solely to create passes. Some tours featured designs that fit together like pieces of a puzzle, forming elaborate images that incorporated signature Dead icons and motifs. Although these artistic efforts can be seen as part of the band’s approach to doing business artistically, those designs had a very practical dimension as well: they were hard to counterfeit.

Some backstage pass designs were based on designs and symbols from the band’s extensive library of images, such as iconic posters by artists such as Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin; others might be simple motifs, sometimes taken from a sketch by Garcia or even a doodle by one of the bandmember’s children. Some passes featured visual puns based on the band’s name, sometimes repeated over the course of several years.

The rich imagery adorning the Dead’s backstage passes means that researchers who want to delve more deeply into the band’s iconography, and their pioneering approach to the visual art that accompanied their music, will be rewarded by a close examination of the backstage passes in the Archive. This early, simple design documents how an interesting, often-overlooked artform began.