Classic Tracks: Grateful Dead, "Touch of Grey"

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


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The group’s 1987 promo photo (L to R): Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Brent Mydland.

The group’s 1987 promo photo (L to R): Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Brent Mydland.

Having cheated death, Garcia now enthusiastically poured himself into a variety of projects, including, finally, recording a new album. Though the ’85 Marin video sessions had produced only intermittently strong performances, the band liked the experience enough that in January ’87, they went back there—with Le Mobile once again in tow, but no video truck—to begin recording the album that would soon be named In the Dark.

“We did basics in two weeks,” Cutler, who engineered and also co-produced the record with Garcia, told me in 1987. “There’s no reason why they can’t be successful as a recording band, but I think it’s apropos that they do their basic tracks as if they were playing live, because that’s where their expertise lies… But it’s definitely a studio recording.”

Charbonneau noted recently, “When we came back and did the album, it was like a different Grateful Dead. They worked really hard, and Jerry was much more into it than he was earlier.”

Le Mobile was (and still is) equipped with a classic Neve 8058 console, with its coveted 1073 mic pre’s. In those days, the Dead were staunch advocates of 16-track recording, but Cutler noted that he’d heard raves about Dolby’s just-released SR noise reduction system, did an A-B test with and without it on some Mickey Hart drum tracks, and ultimately opted to record the album basics using SR in conjunction with Le Mobile’s Studer A800 24-track recorder. “The nature of the [SR] system is that crosstalk between channels is reduced, and its dynamic range increased,” Cutler said. “So I don’t have to pull two [16-track] tape machines all the time, which means you use half as much tape, which is nice economically. From a hassle point of view, you don’t have to wait to lock things up. And it is transparent.” Cutler and the Dead liked SR enough that they bought cards from Dolby for Club Front, where all the keeper vocals and most of the other overdubs for In the Dark were done to a Studer A80 16-track through the studio’s own 24-channel/16-bus Neve 8068, which Garcia had purchased in 1977. “We also had a smaller sidecar Neve BCM-10 tied into the stereo bus for more inputs/returns,” Cutler recalls.

Club Front was in a large tin-roofed warehouse building in a seedy part of the Canal District of San Rafael. There was no separate control room—the console and tape machines were out in the main room—so headphones were usually required to monitor recordings, and isolation came from curtains and goboes. More than just a studio, though, Club Front was the Grateful Dead’s rehearsal space, the place where equipment repairs were made and gear was stored, and also their “clubhouse” hangout.

The songs on In the Dark were a mixed bag of tunes that had been introduced in the early ’80s but never recorded, and a couple that Garcia wrote after he recovered from the ’86 meltdown. This month’s “Classic Track” was written initially by Robert Hunter alone in the kitchen of a 16th century house in rural England during a visit in 1980. As he noted in a 1988 interview, “I had been up all night and I was looking blearily through the window the next morning wondering, ‘How do you survive?’ And I thought, ‘You just do.’ And I sat down and wrote from the world-weary point of view I was experiencing right then. I started detailing the things that were happening to me.” Indeed, the song serves up a poetic litany of complaints—“I see you got your list out/Say your piece and get out,” “Cow is giving kerosene/Kid can’t read at 17,” etc.—but then concedes “it’s all right” and, ultimately, “We will get by/We will survive.”

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