The Grateful Dead. A mere mention evokes a cascade of memories, each interwoven with melodies that defined a generation. Among this rich tapestry, “Touch of Grey” stands out, not just as a song but as an emblem of life’s journey. To some, it might just be another 80s hit. But to those who’ve walked the long, strange trip with the band, it represents so much more.
Robert Hunter, the lyrical genius behind many of The Grateful Dead’s iconic songs, penned the anthem’s words back in 1980. It was two years later when the Dead debuted it on stage, but the track only found its album home in 1987’s In The Dark. And its journey from paper to stage to record is as intriguing as the band’s own storied history.
Reflecting on its significance, Jerry Garcia remarked:
“Touch of Grey, that success changed the band or did it? It didn’t really change it very much.”
Such candidness from Garcia hints at the song’s multifaceted impact. While it brought an influx of mainstream attention, the essence of the Dead remained intact.
“Mostly it made it so that now having lunch with record company guys very comfortable. They’re really nice.”
For the Dead, who spent decades carving out a unique niche, this sudden embrace by mainstream culture was both affirming and perplexing. While the band never aimed for radio dominance, the song’s message resonated far beyond their usual sphere.
“It’s more a kind of a surprise, a kind of a left-field thing.”
Hunter’s poetic brilliance, coupled with the band’s musical prowess, resulted in an anthem that touched upon themes of aging, resilience, and life’s unpredictable twists. The line “Light a Candle, curse the glare” is a testament to the song’s depth. It’s a play on Adlai Stevenson’s words, showcasing optimism over lamenting adversity.
The song serves as a timely reminder that it’s not just about growing old, but aging with grace. The Dead, through their journey, symbolized this very spirit.
“Our audience has been particularly giving… they come as much to be there and enjoy each other… They don’t come to hear us do our hits… they come to hear us do whatever we’re going to do.”
In many ways, “Touch of Grey” is a reflection of the Dead’s ethos. An anthem for the band’s evolution and their continuous dialogue with their faithful. When Garcia faced health challenges in 1986, the song became the band’s reassuring message to fans.
Fast forward to Garcia’s untimely passing in 1995, and the song still finds resonance. Various incarnations of the band and subsequent acts ensured its melody lived on. The song’s spirit encapsulates the very essence of The Grateful Dead – timeless, enduring, and forever hopeful.
Its impact is further solidified by the band’s decision to create a video for MTV. By blending their ’60s and ’70s counterculture aura with the dominant visual medium of the ’80s, they bridged generations.
“Touch of Grey”is a chapter in the Dead’s legacy, a beacon of hope, and a testament to life’s journey. As the band’s journey intertwines with our own, the song serves as a poignant reminder of the beauty in each ‘touch of grey’ we encounter.
Hear Jerry Garcia speak on “Touch of Grey” and more in this interview from 1987.