Classic Tracks: Grateful Dead, "Touch of Grey"

Sep 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson


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Grateful Dead's

Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey" single cover.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, the Grateful Dead made it into the Top 10 with the only hit single of their 30-year career: “Touch of Grey,” written by Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter. For a band long derided by the mainstream for its loose, jamming ways and its blissed-out hippie following, this was quite a shocking (and satisfying) accomplishment. Even the video for “Touch of Grey,” featuring life-size skeleton marionettes performing the song, was an MTV sensation. WTF?

It didn’t totally come out of nowhere. The Dead had been slowly ascending in popularity for, well, their entire 22-year history. Originally known as the great acid band to come out of San Francisco’s hippie scene in the mid-to-late ’60s, they had their first real brush with national fame when they tapped into their folk and country roots and produced such memorable songs in the early ’70s as “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “Ripple,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin’” and “Playing in the Band.” In the music industry, styles and fashions came and went through the years, but the Dead always seemed to be charting their own course, oblivious to the “real” world. They didn’t need hits because their ever-growing and famously devoted fan base made them one of the top touring bands in the U.S. By the early ’80s, they were easily selling out large arenas and the top sheds of that era.

By 1985, however, it had been five years since they had put out a studio album, with nothing on the horizon. That spring they decided to begin work on a long-form video instead. In late April, they secretly booked the 2,000-seat Marin Veteran’s Auditorium in San Rafael, Calif.—just a few miles up the road from the Dead’s office and their funky recording studio, Le Club Front—and hired Guy Charbonneau’s Le Mobile recording truck and One Pass Video’s Mobile One to capture three days of sessions there, sans audience.

The thinking was that because the Dead traditionally had trouble capturing the energy of their live performances in a studio, they might play better if they recorded on a theater stage. They set up as they would in a venue of that size, except instead of all the players facing out at the empty seats, Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh formed a half circle facing drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart on the back line (and keyboardist Brent Mydland off to one side), so everyone could see each other clearly. This also created interesting visual angles for the cameras. Because there was no crowd, there was no P.A., but recording engineer John Cutler—a tech wizard who had worked with the band since the early ’70s—did put up a few mics around the hall to capture the sound of the amps in the room. Onstage, the group employed its traditional stage monitoring setup, with Harry Popick mixing through a Gamble console to the band’s Meyer wedges.

Over the course of three long days, the Dead tackled a wide range of songs, including numerous stabs at some of their unrecorded numbers. At that point, it was not clear what form the eventual video might take, and three additional days at the Marin Vets in November ’85 did nothing to clarify matters. Then, in the summer of 1986, calamity struck: Following the group’s summer tour, Garcia collapsed and went into a coma that was apparently related to an undetected diabetic condition, coupled with his notoriously unhealthy lifestyle. He teetered on the brink for several days, and once he was out of danger, his brain was scrambled and he was extremely weak. Over the next few months, he essentially had to relearn how to play the guitar, and his doctors dictated a serious health and diet regimen. By December ’86, the Dead were back in business and the revitalized Garcia looked and sounded the best he had in years.

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