AskDefine | Define deadhead

Dictionary Definition



1 a nonenterprising person who is not paying his way; "the deadheads on the payroll should be eased out as fast as possible"
2 a train or bus or taxi traveling empty

User Contributed Dictionary

see Deadhead




  1. A person either admitted to a theatrical or musical performance without charge, or paid to attend
    • 1901 R. J. Broadbent, A History of Pantomime
      Among the Romans.... The free admission tickets were small ivory death's heads, and specimens of these are to be seen in the Museum of Naples. From this custom, it is stated, that we derive our word "Deadhead," as denoting one who has a free entrance to places of amusement.
  2. An employee of a transportation company, especially a pilot, traveling as a passenger for logistical reasons, for example to return home or travel to their next assignment.
  3. Anyone traveling for free.
    • 1873, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, Part 4.
      With the check came two through tickets—good on the railroad from Hawkeye to Washington via New York—and they were "deadhead" tickets, too, which had been given to Senator Dilworthy by the railway companies. Senators and representatives were paid thousands of dollars by the government for traveling expenses, but they always traveled "deadhead" both ways, and then did as any honorable, high-minded men would naturally do—declined to receive the mileage tendered them by the government. The Senator had plenty of railway passes, and could. easily spare two to Laura—one for herself and one for a male escort.
    • 1882, Bret Harte, Found At Blazing Star
      I reckon I won't take the vote of any deadhead passenger.
    • 1904, Gideon Wurdz, The Foolish Dictionary
      PASSENGER One who does not travel on a pass. (Antonym for Deadhead). From Eng. pass, to go, and Grk. endidomi, to give up. One who has to give up to go.
    • 1908, Wallace Irwin, The Love Sonnets of a Car Conductor
      The yap that kicks and rings a deadhead call
      Must either spend or else get off the car.
  4. A train or truck moved between cities with no passengers or freight, in order to make it available for service
  5. A person staying at a lodging, such as a hotel or boarding house, without paying rent; freeloader.
    • 1872, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr, The Poet At The Breakfast Table
      For the Caput mortuum (or deadhead, in vulgar phrase) is apt to be furnished with a Venter vivus, or, as we may say, a lively appetite.
    • 1922, Rex Beach, Flowing Gold
      Haviland had a sense of humor; it would make a story too good to keep--the new oil operator, the magnificent and mysterious New York financier, a "deadhead" at the Ajax. Oh, murder!
  6. A stupid or boring person; dullard
    • 1967, James Jones, Go to the Widow-Maker, Delacorte Press (1967), 72,
      "Listen, you two deadheads," he growled at them, more viciously energetic than he meant, and both turned to stare. He softened his tone. "What's going on here, anyway? What kind of a morgue is this? Is this any way to spend my last four days in town? Come on, let's all go out and do something."
  7. Driftwood.
  8. A fan of the rock band the Grateful Dead.


  1. To travel as a deadhead, or non-paying passenger.
  2. In the context of "transitive|intransitive": To drive an empty vehicle.
    • 2006, Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, Vintage 2007, p. 845:
      Kit had fallen into conversation with a footplate man who was deadheading back out to Samarkand, where he lived with his wife and children.
  3. To send (a person or message) for free.
    • 1873, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, Part 4.
      Washington suggested that she get some old friend of the family to come with her, and said the Senator would "deadhead" him home again as soon as he had grown tired, of the sights of the capital.
    • 1910, Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Edison, His Life and Inventions
      He said that if the operator had taken $800 and sent the message at the regular rate, which was twenty-five cents, it would have been all right, as the Jew would be punished for trying to bribe a military operator; but when the operator took the $800 and then sent the message deadhead, he couldn't stand it, and he would never relent.
    • 1934, Lester Dent (as Kenneth Robeson), Brand Of The Werewolf, A Doc Savage Adventure
      "I'll deadhead the message for you, Mr. Savage. It won't cost a thing."
  4. To remove spent or dead blossoms from a plant.
    If you deadhead your roses regularly, they will bloom all season.

Extensive Definition

Deadhead or Dead Head is a name given to fans of the American jam band, the Grateful Dead. In the 1970s, a number of fans began travelling to see the band in as many shows or festival venues as they could. With large numbers of people thus attending strings of shows, a community developed. Deadheads developed their own idiom, slang and touchstones.
By the late 1970s, some Deadheads began to sell tie-dye t-shirts, veggie burritos, or other items in order to follow the band on its tours. During early 1980s, the number of Deadheads taping shows grew a great deal, and the band created a section for fans who wished to record the show. Deadheads shared and circulated these tapes with no money ever changing hands. The practice of taping has continued into the digital age; by the 2000s, Deadheads were circulating digital recordings of shows.


The term first appeared in print on the Grateful sleeve of Grateful Dead (also known as Skull & Roses), the band's second live album, released in 1971. It read, as suggested by Hank Harrison: This phenomenon was first touched on in print by Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau at a Felt Forum show in 1971, noting "how many 'regulars' seemed to be in attendance, and how, from the way they compared notes, they'd obviously made a determined effort to see as many shows as possible."

Impact on shows

The Grateful Dead's appeal to fans was supported by the way the band structured their concerts:
  • From the early 1970s on, night to night song selection changed over subsequent shows.
  • Also from the early 1970s on, it could be expected that the band would play two sets in a show.
  • From the 1980s on, the second set usually contained a prolonged drum solo, called "drums", by Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (also known as the "Rhythm Devils") followed by an extended improvisational "space" jam played by the rest of the band (See the album "Infrared Roses").
The varied song selection allowed the band to create a "rotation" of songs that was roughly repeated every 3 to 4 performances ("shows"). The rotation created two phenomena. The first was the desire of deadheads to hear their song or hit a good show, which meant that deadheads began traveling between various cities on tour to see the band. The second phenomenon, was that the large number of traveling fans also permitted the band to perform multiple shows in a single venue and be assured that the performances would be mostly sold out- as almost all were from the early 1980s on. With large numbers of people thus attending strings of shows, a community naturally developed out of the familiarity. As generations turned from the acid tests to the 1970s (and onward), tours became a time to revel with friends at concerts, old and new, who never knew the psychedelic age that spawned the band they loved. As with any large community, Deadheads developed their own idiom, slang and touchstones which is amply illustrated in books about the Grateful Dead such as the Skeleton Key. The deadhead passion for the band and desire to travel was not well understood by society at large, but deadheads did impact greater society by bringing their slang into general use (e.g. "What a long strange trip it's been").
Deadheads use the term "X Factor" to describe the intangible element that elevates mere performance into something higher. Publicist and Jerry Garcia biographer Blair Jackson stated that "shows were the sacrament ... rich and full of blissful, transcendent musical moments that moved the body and enriched the soul." Phil Lesh himself comments on this phenomenon in his autobiography by saying "The unique organicity of our music reflects the fact that each of us consciously personalized his playing: to fit with what others were playing and to fit with who each man was as an individual, allowing us to meld our consciousnesses together in the unity of a group mind.".
Jackson takes this further, citing drummer Mickey Hart as saying "The Grateful Dead weren't in the music business, they were in the transportation business." Jackson relates this to the Deadhead phenomenon directly by saying "for many Deadheads, the band was a medium that facilitated experiencing other planes of consciousness and tapping into deep, spiritual wells that were usually the province of organized religion ... [they] got people high whether those people were on drugs or not." (For more on the spiritual aspect, see Spinners in the section below). It was times like these that the band and the audience would become one; The Grateful Dead and the Deadheads were all in the same state of mind.
Rock producer Bill Graham summarized much of the band's effect when he created a sign for the Grateful Dead when the group played the closing of the Winterland Ballroom on December 31, 1978 that read:

Deadheads through the years

  • 1960s - Before the term was invented, The Grateful Dead became one of the first cult acts in music. Although not as mainstream as other psychedelic bands, they were the leaders of the Haight-Ashbury music scene and had an intense following that started in San Francisco and eventually spread. Fans gathered at their jam concerts throughout the sixties.
  • 1970s - essentially known as the "second generation of Deadheads," the new Deadheads of this time can either be traced to "an older sibling who had turned them on by spinning Workingman's Dead or Europe '72" or through college and university dorm rooms.
  • 1980s - The early 1980s brought about what would later become known as "Shakedown Street" (in reference to the Grateful Dead album of the same name). Started during the New Year's Eve shows at the Oakland Auditorium in California from 1979-1982, Deadheads began to realize they could sell their wares (anything from tie-dye t-shirts to veggie burritos) in order to follow around the band more. Also during the early '80s, Deadhead tapers grew exponentially, resulting in the band designating a taping section in October of 1984. With the success of their album In the Dark (and the single "Touch of Grey"), 1988 started the "Mega-Dead" period.
    • In the Darkers - also known as "Touchheads" (a reference of the album for the former and the single for the latter), these fans "dissed the fragile ecosystem" of a Grateful Dead show, in the words of Jackson. This led to "wiser" Deadheads, with the backing of the band, to mail SOS's and hand out show flyers telling people to "cool out."
  • The Spinners - also known as "The Family" or Church of Unlimited Devotion. These people "used the band's music in worship services and were a constant presence at shows." They were called "spinners" because of their twirling dance style.
It is a matter of strict custom among Deadheads that these recordings are freely shared and circulated with no money ever changing hands. Some bootleg recordings from unscrupulous bootleggers have turned up on the black market, but a general "code of honor specifically prohibited the buying and selling of Dead tapes." These recordings, sometimes called "liberated bootlegs," still are frowned upon by the community and that feeling "has spread into non-Grateful Dead taping circles."


deadhead in German: Deadhead (Fangemeinde)
deadhead in Spanish: Deadhead
deadhead in French: Deadhead
deadhead in Italian: Deadhead
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