Classic Tracks: Grateful Dead, "Touch of Grey"

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


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Hunter originally intended the song—which included other verses not in the Dead version—for a solo album he started in 1981 but never completed. However, Garcia was struck by it, and chose to rewrite the music in his own way. “Hunter sang ‘Touch of Grey’ as a sort of dry satirical piece with an intimate feel,” he said, “but I heard something else coming through it. ‘We will get by’ said something to me, so I set it to play big. My version still has the ironic bite in the lyrics, but what comes across is a more celebratory quality.”

The Dead first played the song live in September 1982, and its bright, anthemic qualities made it instantly popular among Dead Heads, who embraced its quirky couplets and its message of perseverance. The song took on extra meaning following Garcia’s near-death—now it was a triumphal celebration of his miraculous survival, too. It was no coincidence that the first song the Dead played when they returned to performing in December 1986 was “Touch of Grey.” As Garcia said, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

In the process of tightening the song for recording, the arrangement changed somewhat. Garcia slowed the tempo a bit and keyboardist Mydland introduced a catchy bell-like riff—played on a Yamaha DX7—that became a melodic touchstone in the choruses. A couple of the guitar leads on In the Dark were live takes from the Marin Vets tracking sessions, but the one on “Touch of Grey” was a Club Front overdub. “Jerry’s guitar amp [a Fender Twin] was usually miked with a [Sennheiser] 421 and often blended with an AKG 414,” Cutler says today. “Bobby was typically DI, but we would also use an iso’d cabinet with a mic, as well. Phil would be a combo of DI and mic.” Culter believes that Garcia’s lead vocal on “Touch of Grey” was most likely through a Neumann U 87 with a short delay.

The overdubbing was mostly completed during February and March of ’87, with Garcia and Cutler mixing together at Club Front on the Neve through Meyer 833 loudspeakers. (Mickey Hart created some of his percussion parts at his own Marin County studio, working on 16-track slave reels, then passing them back.) Once the band went out on tour, Cutler, who stayed in California, sent mixes to the group for their comments. Later, Garcia and Cutler chopped 1:15 out of the album version of “Touch of Grey” to make it more palatable as a single: “I dislike that as a matter of principle,” Garcia said, “but when it happens, it happens.”

There’s no question that the media’s fascination with Garcia’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes contributed to the success of “Touch of Grey” and In the Dark (which also hit the Top Ten). All of a sudden, being a long-lasting hippie band didn’t look so bad. As Garcia told me with a laugh that summer, “We’re sort of like the town whore that’s finally become respectable.”

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