Nobody expected the Grateful Dead to score a major hit single. To most people in the band, around the band, or who knew nothing about the band, the Dead were as far away from the pop charts as a musical act could possibly get. Other than some well-known classic rock radio songs like ‘Truckin” and ‘Casey Jones’, the Dead never had anything that even remotely resembled a hit. By the end of the 1980s, it seemed like they had largely stopped trying together.
The 1980s proved to be a tumultuous decade for the Dead. Keyboard player Keith Godchaux was asked to leave the band, along with his wife Donna Jean Godchaux, in 1979, with the pianist eventually dying in a car accident in 1980. Jerry Garcia’s health began to decline rapidly as his drug addiction caught up with his sedentary lifestyle. After 1980’s Go To Heaven failed to make any kind of notable impression on mainstream charts, the Dead focused on touring until Garcia entered a diabetic coma in the summer of 1986.
“Well, I had some very weird experiences,” Garcia later explained. “My main experience was one of furious activity and tremendous struggle in a sort of futuristic, space-ship vehicle with insectoid presences. After I came out of my coma, I had this image of myself as these little hunks of protoplasm that were stuck together kind of like stamps with perforations between them that you could snap off.”
Garcia’s recovery process was delicate: he had to re-learn how to walk, write, and even play the guitar. With a new outlook on life, Garcia encouraged the rest of the band to enter the studio to record 1987 project In The Dark. Although the Dead had forsaken the studio throughout the 1980s, the band continued to incorporate new songs into their repertoire, giving them plenty of material to choose from.
One of the songs that had been circulating in the band’s live sets throughout the decade was ‘Touch of Grey’, a song co-written by Garcia and longtime lyricist Robert Hunter. Hunter had experimented with a number of different phrases and verses before the final version was played by the Dead starting in 1982.
“Flipping through a green hardbound 1980 notebook, I come upon a run of pages in which I discover ‘Touch of Grey’ – dozens of verses that gradually fall away until the familiar ones emerge,” Hunter remembered in his online journal dated January 8th, 2006. “As I read, I’m not otherwise than the person who wrote it down. It’s the clear light of dawn after being up all night. I sit at the kitchen table in a 16th Century house in rural England, turning what I feel into images, awash in that writing trance in which I spent, and spend, so much of my life; a place that doesn’t have much relationship to the nominal time stream. If I could slip back physically and change anything, perhaps I’d rip out those pages. No getting the genie back in the bottle.”
Despite its somewhat dark and opaque lyrical content, ‘Touch of Grey’ was one of the most anthemic and pop-friendly tracks that the Dead had ever composed. Often used as either an encore or a concert opener, ‘Touch of Grey’ had an immediacy that wasn’t always common for the Dead. Casual fans could embrace it immediately, while longtime fans would soon have to grapple with the effect that ‘Touch of Grey’ would have on the Grateful Dead ecosystem.
When it was released as the first single from In The Dark, ‘Touch of Grey’ experienced a surprising run up the pop charts. Bolstered by the band’s first music video, ‘Touch of Grey’ soon surpassed the band’s previous peak on the Billboard Hot 100. ‘Truckin” had risen to number 64 on the pop charts in 1970, but almost 20 years later, ‘Touch of Grey’ hit number nine, becoming the band’s first and last top ten pop hit.
The success of ‘Touch of Grey’ introduced the Dead to a whole new generation of fans. The band were already playing stadiums by this point, but as crowds began attracting more young people, a disconnect began to emerge. Deadheads who had followed the band for decades became confused by so-called “Touch-heads” who had only recently gotten on the bus. It was a new era for the Dead, one that proved to be too big for them to properly control.
Check out ‘Touch of Grey’ down below.