For a band with a legacy as far-reaching as the Grateful Dead, it may come as a surprise to some that “Touch of Grey” was their only song to break into the mainstream Top 40 charts. Written by the dynamic duo of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, the song was released in 1987 as a single from the album Built To Last. It peaked at number 9 on the Billboard Top 40 chart, and hit number one on the mainstream rock charts.
Of course, anyone who knows the Dead knows that the true secret to their success was the live show, which is why the band already had a long and successful career under their belts by the time this song came out. Though “Touch of Grey” was released in 1987, the Dead had been playing it live since the early 80s: Since September 15th, 1982, to be exact.
Many of those who found out about the Grateful Dead by hearing “Touch of Grey” on the radio soon found out about their live shows, as the summer of 1988 boasted gigantic crowds at Dead shows. The band started playing stadiums to massive audiences, which would become a problem (among other things) in later years when it was shown that the mainstream newcomers to the audience could not handle their shit.
For this reason some fans have a bad taste in their mouth about “Touch of Grey”, blaming it for the surge in popularity that brought the unruly frat crowd to the Grateful Dead lot scene.
The lyrics to “Touch of Grey” are centered around getting older, with your life in shambles, everybody is confronting you about it, but you just continue to smile through it and trudge onward. There is a dark humor to the whole thing as Jerry describes somebody who has very low standards for themselves: “I know the rent is in arrears / The dog has not been fed in years / It’s even worse than it appears / But it’s alright.”
The meaning of “Touch of Grey” can also be applied to the state of affairs in the Grateful Dead at the time of its release. In 1986, Jerry was struggling with drug abuse and also entered into a diabetic coma that nearly killed him. “Touch of Grey” was released the year after he returned to the stage, and the band even opened with it at his first show back (pre-release).
The band had been around for 20 years at this point, but they were still kicking, even if things had gotten a little wonky:
The shoe is on the hand, it fitsExcerpt of lyrics from “Touch of Grey”
There’s really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit
‘Cause it’s alright
And you know what comes next: “I will get by!”, the famous chorus that makes this song so memorable. It was upbeat and boppy enough to have a universal appeal, and it could be heard shouted out by thousands of wide-eyed and tie-dyed Deadheads, plus bumping in the minivan with Mom on the way to soccer practice.
The Dead also released a music video for “Touch of Grey” that featured animatronic skeleton versions of the band members playing the song on stage. The video was in heavy rotation on MTV, which further contributed to the song’s popularity.
Watch the video for “Touch of Grey” below.