‘Grey’ Matter: 30 Facts about Grateful Dead’s ‘Touch of Grey’

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1987, the Grateful Dead released “Touch of Grey,” from the album In the Dark. Peaking at #9, the song was– and remains to this day– the only Grateful Dead song to reach the Billboard Top Ten. Or even the Top 40. Or even the Top 50. (“Truckin’”— the Dead’s highest charting song prior to “Touch of Grey”— peaked at #64.)

“Touch of Grey” introduced the band to a whole new generation of listeners (and I count myself among them). Although Jerry Garcia and his band of mellow pranksters were always a phenomenon, they were now smack dab in the pop culture mainstream for the very first time.  More people were listening to the Dead than ever before, and quite a few of those new fans eventually became card-carrying Deadheads. And you can trace it all back to that “Touch of Grey” Summer of 1987.

(What’s curious is that, despite the popularity of “Touch of Grey,” I think the song is much less optimistic than people believe. Sure, the chorus says “I will get by/ I will survive,” which is pretty hopeful. But then there’s the line, “Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey”– presumably, a twist on the expression is “Every dark cloud has a silver lining.” So, in that case, the “dark cloud” is bad, and the “silver lining” is good… but the Dead is saying that even that good thing, that “silver lining,” isn’t totally good; it has a “touch of grey”– just a touch, just a little, but enough. So it seems like they’re saying, “Everything bad has some good, but even that good isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But hey, we’ll muddle through.”)

In any case… to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the song that injected new life into the Dead, here are thirty facts about “Touch of Grey.”

  1. July 10, 1986: Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia falls into a coma. Even though Garcia’s drug use is legendary, the coma is caused not by drugs, but by the singer’s diabetes.  He remains in the coma for five days. When Garcia emerges, he has to relearn how to play guitar (as well as how to do other minor activities, like eat and walk).  Fans fear the Dead is… well, dead.

  1. December 15, 1986: After five months of recovery, Jerry Garcia finally returns to performing with the Grateful Dead, at a concert at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.  The band’s opening number? “Touch of Grey”— an appropriate comeback song for Garcia, given its “I will get by/ I will survive” mantra.

  1. AND YET, “Touch of Grey” was not written to commemorate Garcia’s triumphant return, nor was it even a new Grateful Dead song.  In fact, by 1986, the song was over five years old: lyricist Robert Hunter began working on the song as far back as 1980.

  1. Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics for many classic Grateful Dead songs, including “Truckin’”, “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “Sugar Magnolia” (to name only a few). A knack for poetry runs in his family: Hunter is the great-great-grandson of Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose works include “Auld Lang Syne,” “A Red, Red Rose,” and “To a Mouse” (which inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men).

  1. Speaking of poetry… the expression “Every cloud has a silver lining” (which seemingly inspired Hunter’s line “Every silver lining has a touch of grey”) has its origins in John Milton’s work Comus: “Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud?/ Turn forth her silver lining on the night? (221-222).

  1. While Hunter wrote most of “Touch of Grey” lyrics, Garcia contributed the line “Light a candle, curse the glare”– which, according to author David Dodd’s The Annotated Grateful Dead, is a rather defeatist take on the expression “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” (currently used by Amnesty International as its slogan).

  1. Regarding the line “The Ables and the Bakers and the Cs”: according to author David Dodd, “Able” and “Baker” formerly represented the letters “A” and “B” in the military communication alphabet; they were eventually replaced with the words “Alpha” and “Bravo.”  So, this line is just a more complicated way of saying “ABCs” (which Hunter does say, in the very next line). The military alphabet comes up again in the line “the deltas and the east and the freeze”; in this case, “delta” is the word for “D.”  (No idea what “east” and “freeze” could mean, though…)

  1. The line “the shoe is on the hand it fits” seems to be a nonsensical mangling of the phrases “if the shoe fits, wear it,” “the shoe’s on the other foot,” and maybe even “fits like a glove”… though in this case, it’s not clear why a shoe is being worn on a hand.  (For what it’s worth: “handschuh”– literally, a “hand shoe”– is German for “glove.” Also, “glove shoes”– shoes that form to your feet like socks– is a new trend in women’s fashion.)

  1. The third word of the song’s title has always been spelled GREY, not GRAY.  (That’s how it’s spelled on the original album.) According to Dictionary.com, “gray is the more popular spelling in the US, while grey reigns supreme in the UK.”  Crayola.com uses the spelling “gray.” Also, Just for Men’s hair-coloring treatment– presumably inspired by the Grateful Dead song– is called “Touch of Gray” (with an “A”).

  1. The Dead performed “Touch of Grey” live for the first time on September 15, 1982, at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland– almost five years before the song appeared on any Grateful Dead studio album.

  1. January 6, 1987: the Grateful Dead, with Jerry Garcia back at the helm, begins recording In the Dark, their first studio album in seven years.  To replicate the feeling of a live show, the band records the basic tracks in a darkened auditorium. The album, which takes a week to record, is eventually released on July 6, 1987.

  1. June 12, 1987: the Dead kicks off their 1987 Summer Tour. Although live performances have always been the band’s forte, Garcia’s return from the brink of death, coupled with the imminent release of the new album, translates into even bigger buzz for their concerts.

  1. June 19, 1987: MTV premieres the video of “Touch of Grey”— a first for the Dead. The video’s concept: life-sized marionette skeletons wearing the same clothes and playing the same instruments as the Dead musicians gradually morph into the actual performers. The video was shot in front of a live audience at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway.

Grateful Dead – Touch of Grey Music Video

  1. Skeleton imagery has been linked with the Dead long before “Touch of Grey.”  In 1966, artists Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley designed for the band the now-iconic “Skeleton and Roses” poster (featured in the “Touch of Grey” video).

  1. In the video, Jerry Garcia definitely has a little more than a “touch of grey” in his hair and beard; however, at the time the video was shot (May 1987), he wasn’t even 45. Garcia’s physical appearance– combined with his addictions and poor health– always made him appear older than he actually was; in fact, when he died in August 1995, he was only 53.

  1. July 12, 1987: The rebirth of the Dead marches on, as the band sets a new attendance record– 71,598– for Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The show is the third of a six-concert mini-tour pairing the Dead with Bob Dylan.

  1. July 25, 1987: “Touch of Grey” enters the Billboard Hot 100 charts at #77.

  1. Many of the 1987 fans who became acquainted with the Dead thanks to “Touch of Grey” end up sticking around. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, in 1989, the Dead were the third-biggest concert attraction, grossing $25 million in tickets. (Only Rolling Stones and the Who made more money in live performances that year, but those two bands also charged more than the Dead– $35 per ticket, as opposed to the Dead’s $22.50.)

  1. On a serendipitous note: 1987 is also the year Ben and Jerry’s debuted its Cherry Garcia ice cream.  The flavor and “Touch of Grey” Fever are not actually related; Cherry Garcia was launched on February 15, 1987, four months before the release of In the Dark. Still, it’s fun to think that all the new ‘87 Deadheads could enjoy a brand new Dead-inspired ice cream.

  1. August 15, 1987: “Touch of Grey” reaches #32 on the Billboard Top 100.  It is the first time in the band’s history that one of its songs breaks the Top 40.

  1. The Dead’s entrance into the pop culture spotlight does have some downsides, however. Many of the die-hard Deadheads don’t exactly feel warmly toward the new fans who jumped on the bandwagon because of “Touch of Grey.”  Their derisive name for these Johnny-come-latelys? “Touchheads.”

  1. According to the die-hards, “Touchheads” didn’t come to shows for the music or the message, but for the party. And they weren’t wrong: after the success of “Touch of Grey,” many folks without tickets showed up at concerts, just so they could do/ deal drugs in the parking lot.

  1. Over the next few years, some concert venues banned the Dead from coming, not only because of the crowds but because of the drug dealing and the subsequent arrests that became inevitably linked with the band’s live performances. In this regard, the band almost became too successful after they hit it big with “Touch of Grey.”

  1. September 18, 1987: the album In the Dark goes platinum– which means a million albums sold. (By 1995, it will go double platinum.)  Peaking at #6 on Billboard’s Hot 200 chart, In the Dark remains the Dead’s only album to reach the Top Ten.

  1. September 26, 1987: “Touch of Grey” peaks at number 9 on the Billboard charts. The top three songs of this week: Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (#1), Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” (#2), and Michael Jackson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (#3).

  1. October 31, 1989: the Dead releases the album Built to Last, its follow-up to In the Dark.  Despite the continued popularity of the band’s live shows, the album doesn’t come close to matching the success of its predecessor. This is the Dead’s final studio album.

  1. August 9, 1995: Jerry Garcia dies of a heart attack at a California rehab clinic.

  1. July 5, 2015: the surviving members of the band play together for the last time as the Grateful Dead at a concert in Chicago. “Touch of Grey” was first song of the encore and the penultimate song of the night. (The last song was “Attics of My Life.”)

  1. May 20, 2016: the album Day of the Dead, a tribute album comprised of 59 cover versions of Dead songs, is released. Philadelphia-based band The War on Drugs records “Touch of Grey” for the album.

  1. June 24, 2017: The reunion band known as Dead and Company (which teams John Mayer with original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann) plays at Citi Field in New York. During the performance, a nearby skyscraper synchronized its lights to the band’s rendition of “Touch of Grey.”  That skyscraper? The Empire State Building.  And no one cursed the glare.

Author: Mark Dursin

Mark Dursin is an English teacher at Glastonbury High School in Glastonbury, Connecticut. His writing has appeared in the Hartford Courant and several online publications, including The Faster Times and JMWW. He and his co-conspirator, his wife Sheri, blog at www.edgeofstory.com.

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