Blair’s Golden Road Blog - That “Touch of Grey” Summer
by Blair Jackson
On June 19, 1987—25 years ago this week—MTV showed the video of the Dead’s just-released single, “Touch of Grey,” for the first time. You’ve all seen it: Life-size skeleton marionettes decked out like each band member (complete with facial hair!) mime the song before an enthusiastic Dead Head crowd—it was shot at Laguna Seca (Monterey, Calif.) the night of May 9, a few hours after the first of two weekend Dead shows there. In the video, which was conceived and directed by Gary Gutierrez (of Grateful Dead Movie animation fame, among many more film projects), the skeletons magically transform into the actual Grateful Dead near the end of the song. The band is all smiles, and Garcia, who was hovering near death less than a year before, looks fantastic—“Sorry, not today, Grim Reaper!” MTV placed the video in heavy rotation, exposing the band to millions of people who had never heard them before.
Around the same time, the single began its slow march up the pop music charts. This had happened a couple of times before on a much smaller scale—a Dead single gets some radio play, a few folks buy it to nudge it up a few notches the first couple of weeks, but then it vanishes before it can get to the coveted Top 40. But this time it was different. “Touch of Grey” had a bouncy, irresistible quality that made it appealing to non-Dead Heads. Just about everybody could relate to “I/We will survive” on some level, even if they couldn’t quite fathom all that strangeness in the verses about clocks running late, the cow giving kerosene and the shoe being on the hand it fits.
It helped that the Dead were suddenly media darlings. Garcia’s miraculous return from the brink did not go unnoticed. The group’s 1987 spring tour was big, big news: The tie-dyed spirit of the ’60s lives on! Grateful to be alive! Reluctant Haight-Ashbury guru is back and better than ever! It was incredible to read all the nice things that were suddenly being said about this band that was mostly ignored or derided by the mainstream and rock press just a year earlier. Tickets were extremely hard to come by (nothing new about that), and the ticketless hordes outside the shows—which had been on the increase for a few years—grew significantly on that tour, though not compared with what was to come in the summer.
And what a summer it was! I remember hearing “Touch of Grey” on the radio in my local convenience store and in The Gap. I bought the single just to show my support (and to get the B-side, “My Brother Esau”); it was the first Dead single I ever owned. My 69-year-old mother bought the single (she was always supportive of my Dead obsession) and proclaimed it “pleasant and catchy.” The announcement of summer tour—including six stadium dates with the Dead opening for, and then backing, Bob Dylan—built the new Dead fervor to a fever. Not one, but two ’60s legends! Everybody wanted a piece of that!
The group’s first studio album in seven years, In the Dark, was released on July 6 to mainly favorable reviews and huge sales on its way to Number 6 on the Billboard album chart. The single of “Touch of Grey” made it to No. 9. An hour-long conceptual video directed by Garcia and Len Dell’Amico, called So Far, was an instant smash, as well. MTV was so enraptured by the group, all of a sudden, that in the middle of the band’s summer tour they put on what Grateful Dead ticket czar Steve Marcus later described in The Golden Road as “that goddamned ‘Day of the Dead’… I personally think that Day of the Dead on MTV is what fucked up everything. There was one solid day on MTV where like every third video was Grateful Dead-related, and then all day they did cut-ins from the Meadowlands parking lot showing ‘what a great scene it is out here in the parking lots!’ From that point on, the number of people in the parking lots tripled, and it was like—party time! Instead of going to Fort Lauderdale for spring break, you go on tour with the Dead, but you don’t go inside!”
That, of course, was the downside of the Grateful Dead’s brush with the mainstream. The crowds outside the shows became larger and increasingly unmanageable, which led to the Dead eventually being banned from a number of venues and cities. Inside, there were now thousands of newbies, some of whom came just to party and not necessarily pay attention to the music. There were also thousands more who totally “got” the Grateful Dead during this era and became fans for life; it cut both ways.
We all knew the inundation was coming, though it was hard to predict exactly what it would feel like when it hit. There were definitely plenty of bad moments caused by boorish behavior, but actually more after the summer of ’87, on subsequent tours. The “Touch of Grey” summer had a certain triumphant glow to it that let us see past the bad stuff. It was shocking that this band I’d been ridiculed for loving the previous 17 years was now the Toast of the Town. It was hard not feel giddy about it.
Mostly I remember being thrilled that my Grateful Dead were back and healthy and playing great music again—this after we nearly lost them the previous year. I had so much fun in 1987, seeing runs at the SF Civic (January, Chinese New Year), Kaiser (March, Madri Gras), Irvine Meadows (April), Frost (May), Laguna Seca (May), Ventura (June), the Greek (June), Eugene and Oakland shows with Dylan (July), Red Rocks and Telluride (August), Shoreline (October), Kaiser again (November) and New Year’s at the Oakland Coliseum. Whew, I’d forgotten how many shows I saw. They weren’t all great shows, but they were all great fun. Never had such a good time!
Truth be told, the extraneous crowd bullshit wasn’t too bad inside the arenas and amphitheaters, and I was convinced the alien influx would fade away after “Touch of Grey”-mania subsided. I was wrong about that. But from the center of the swirl in 1987 the future looked bright indeed. We weren’t just surviving; we were thriving. It was a wonderful time to be a Dead Head.
* * *
And now, as a special 25th anniversary bonus, here’s a bit of a much longer interview I conducted with Garcia on June 24,1987, the day before the band left for Alpine Valley to start summer tour. This originally appeared in Issue 15, Summer 1987, of The Golden Road.
I sense a massive Grateful Dead assault coming, like troops coming over Pork Chop Hill or something.
Does it feel that way to you guys?
Yeah, it does. Although it wasn’t planned that way. It’s not like we planned D-Day and now we’re hitting the beaches. It just worked out that way. So, I really don’t know what to think about it except there really isn’t that much to it, you know?
What do you mean?
Well, there’s the Grateful Dead record, and the video—the short video that goes with “Touch of Grey,” the single. The single is the consequence of the album; that’s really one thing. And then there’s the video [So Far], which is really a completely separate but interrelated project.
Have you thought of what real success would mean to the scene?
Shit, I always thought we were real successful! [Laughs]
I know. That’s what I’m saying.
As long as people buy tickets to our shows we’re successful. And we’re already way ahead of that.
When you can sell out Giants Stadium in two hours you’re doing OK.
Yeah, how much more successful can we swallow?
Exactly. So what do you do?
I don’t know. If this translates to unheard of record sales or something—some enormous number of records—then we’ll have a real serious problem. We’ll have the problem of where are we gonna play?
Right. We already have that problem to an extent [East Coast promoter] John Scher says he has to “de-promote” us. [Laughs] We don’t spend any money on advertising anymore. So where do we have to go? At this point the Dead Heads and the Grateful Dead have to get serious. We have to invent where we can go from here, because there is no place.
Do you have any sense of options?
What options? There aren’t any in existence that fill the bill in terms of the band and the audience. The audience requires the band, the band requires the audience, you know what I mean? And anything short of live performances is short of live performances. So some sort of video isn’t going get it. Bigger venues isn’t going to get it. When you’re at the stadium, that’s the top end, and that’s already not that great. So we’re looking to improve the quality of the experience—that’s been our thrust all along—in whatever ways we can. Either by the sound or the production; all the things that have to do with the show.
I don’t think we can play that many more shows, so this represents a problem. The answer may be videos and more records and that sort of stuff. I don’t know.
It’s pretty weird.
It’s an interesting problem to have. The problem of being too successful. It’s one of those things that completely blows my mind.
Also, in the case of the Grateful Dead, it manifests itself in such a different way than it does for someone like Springsteen or U2, because there’s such a scene surrounding the Dead.
That’s true. We may have to do something like work on material that’s deliberately inaccessible. Thin down the audience that way.
That’s what I’ve been suggesting. Come out and play “Blues for Allah” for half an hour.
Yeah, play something that’s too weird for words! [Laughs] We could do something like that, but it seems kind of counterproductive.
Unless it’s sincere. Unless the whole thing weirds you guys out so much that that’s the kind of music you start making.
Yeah. That could happen.
There’s a sort of mini-parallel to this situation. Back in ’70, when American Beauty came out, I noticed an influx of this new element shouting for “Truckin’” and “Casey Jones” because they’d heard those on the radio. But as often as not you’d play 25-minute versions of “Dark Star,” and most of those people didn’t come back. Sort of “natural selection.”
That will stay in operation. If people come to our shows expecting to hear the album, they’re not going to, you know? They’d have to come to three or four shows. Eventually they’d hear the album, but they wouldn’t hear it in the traditional way. So, since we don’t play down that road, people will either be attracted to our live shows or they won’t—those that can get in. But there’s already a problem there—they can’t get tickets; the tickets are already sold to Dead Heads.
As far as I can tell, we’re at the cul-de-sac, the end of popular music success. It doesn’t mean there’s no place to go from here. But now we have to be creative on this level, as well, and invent where we’re going to go. It’s happened before. The times we’ve gone to play theaters and do runs in places and that sort of thing were all efforts to address this kind of thing. Making changes in the P.A.; all that kind of stuff.
But you know, for me the success of the album and everything is still hypothetical. I’ve heard all this before: “Your album is going to be triple-platinum!” and all that stuff. That’s not new to me. I’m not convinced we’ve produced something that’s that accessible.
I am reasonably sure these were the Dead's two last "massive" shows, where one could easily sense being among ~100,000 people, like Englishtown (my first show). The JFK '87 scene was so vast, hot, sunny and dusty, stadium filled to the top edge. It was mellow, and all about how to survive the heat. Thank god for the hydroworks.... eventually, shower pipes on flimsy wood frames were ripped down and then held vertically and rotated around (by the strong and wild-eyed), for the benefit of the sweaty. I loved the two hour superset by the Dead, I wished after that day that more shows could be so musically concise and intense. I went to Maine, to Vegas, and a few other large outdoor and stadium shows after '87, but Dylan and the Dead at JFK '87 was the last of its kind for me.
... and was disappointed by Dead-Dylan in Eugene (though there were great moments). But for some reason when the Dead-Dylan tour came to Oakland a few days later I loved that show, even though we were miles from the stage. Maybe I'd lowered my expectations after Eugene. But also the Dead played a more "stadium"-style show, with more rockers, etc. And the Dylan portion was excellent. Made me almost wish I was going to Anaheim, so vividly described by Shug9 above. I'm happy to have the VFTV of the Oakland and Anaheim Dead sets. Both are great!
A few years ago, I approached Bob Dylan's management, whom I knew a little, and said, "Hey, guys, let me put together a REAL Dead-Dylan 2-CD live album from that tour as part of your 'Bootleg Series.' Dead Heads will definitely buy it." Could've been SO cool. But they politely declined. Oh, well, maybe someday someone will see the light and pluck the jewels from those six shows, because the first Dylan-Dead album sure didn't...
I'm glad Shug 9 (see previous comment) enjoyed his first Dead show in 87 at Anaheim Stadium, and i don't mean to rain on his parade.
But for me, it was without doubt the worst of some 35-40 GD shows I attended starting in 1970.
The reason is simple: the venue - a giant, faceless, characterless, soul-less concrete pit. We were pretty far back and I'm sorry, but the music just didn't translate very well in such a giant bland space.
Thank God many Touchheads were a passing fancy and by 92, 93 or so, I was relieved to be able to once more see the band at say tiny Cal Expo in Sacramento - positively miniscule compared to the Big A.
I took a friend to his first Dead show - it must have been '93 or '94 - here in L.A. (either the Inglewood Forum or the Sports Arena), and the one song he wanted to hear - naturally for the sake of this thread - was Touch.
And sure enough the boys opened the show with it.
It was a great moment.
40 years ago today...the first show after the Europe 72 tour...my first Grateful Dead concert and Pigpen's last performance with the band.
Sorry to be off subject...how time flies by...
July 1987 Anaheim Stadium with Bob Dylan was my first Grateful Dead show. I went for two reasons: At that point I’d go see Dylan anytime, anywhere, no exceptions and two, I’d FINALLY get to check out the Grateful Dead. I was 20 years old and had been a hardcore music fan for about half my life, with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan being my all-time faves. I learned a lot about music from my local record store in Escondido, CA called Gary’s Record Paradise, just a tiny little place with new and used vinyl and a few shelves of ‘head shop’ stuff including bumper stickers that said “There Is Nothing Like A Grateful Dead Concert”, which piqued my curiosity, but never enough to make me seek out their music. What I’d heard as a kid sounded mellow and country and that was before I was into country/folk/roots music (before I’d gotten into Dylan). I’d read in books about other bands that the Dead were ‘‘acid rock” which in my mind meant heavy metal and what I heard (studio version of stuff from American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead) didn’t sound like metal and it didn’t fit the image in my mind conjured up by the name Grateful Dead, either. A few years later, I remember seeing the ads for their concerts at Irvine Meadows, where it seemed they played so frequently and they played several nights in row each time!. “Wow, there really must be something that makes people love this music so much. I don’t get it, though.”
As I got into Dylan (via the Byrds) I started to open up to the country and folk side of rock music and I was unknowingly becoming primed to get into the Dead. I met Mellisa, the ex-wife of Gary, owner of Gary’s Record Paradise. She was into the Dead, he was not. He looked a little bit like Frank Zappa. I think the Dead were partially responsible for them not staying together, but that’s just speculation. Another employee at the shop was also into the Dead and he informed me that the Dead often covered Dylan, but not on records, only on live tapes. He invited me over to his house and he had tons of tapes of shows, none of them labeled with the setlists, just the dates. I just wanted to hear all the different Dylan covers he had, but he didn’t really know what song was on what tape very well, so it was a cumbersome process to search through his collection for the Dylan covers, so I just settled on a few of his choice picks. He gave me 7-13-84 Greek Theater, but just the second half of the second set for some reason. I listened to Space>Wheel>Miracle>Stella Blue>Sugar Magnolia over and over. The Wheel and Stella Blue immediately grabbed my attention. He also gave me some version of Its All Over Now Baby Blue and I was floored by the emotion that Garcia sang this with and the loose, rambling way the band sounded, earthy and organic in tone and in no hurry to reach a particular destination but rather focused on getting into the feeling of the song, it sounded. “Hmm, I guess I was wrong about the Dead, there is really something to them. And it seems that the people who get it have their own collective little secret and that the rest of the world has a mistaken notion of what the Dead are all about. I think I kinda like this stuff.”
When I told Mellisa and this other Head who gave me my first tape I was going up to Anaheim, they said they were too and I could ride along with them if I wanted. So these older Heads were about to show me how it was done going to a really long daytime concert. I wasn’t smoking at that time and they didn’t pressure me, but once we were in our seats it felt right and I partook for the first time in a few years. “Wow, the Dead are a REALLY good rock band! This crowd seems really cool and mellow and friendly for a rock audience. People are dancing and smiling and interacting with one another. And they are REALLY listening to the music!” I was amazed at lots of things on that day: how a dude could be the only dancing, standing up person in an entire section of sitters and not one person every asked him to sit down! I had some kind of stoned epiphany about the deep and significant meaning of the words “little red light on the highway, big green light on the speedway” that I, of course, could not remember the next day.
After the first set was over, I was feeling good, glowing in how great this music was and I was happy to be around such nice people. I, however, realized how thirsty I was. I really didn’t feel like getting out of my seat to navigate the crowded halls or wait in long lines. My hosts, after asking what I was thinking about, at that moment pulled out of their bags slices of cold watermelon and I will tell you I was never so happy to get that cool liquid in me without having to leave the comfort of my seat. These Deadheads know how to attend a rock show, they bring everything they might want with them.
Later in the show, after the Dead’s second set, they pulled vitamin B-12 tabs out of their bag and said “You’ll need these for energy for the Dylan set”!
I got a nice Shakedown second set opener, my wished-for Stella Blue, and a mind-blowing Terrapin Station in all its orchestral bombastic glory! I was dancing my ass off and smiling perma-grin and we still had the third set with Dylan to go! Dylan’s set was also a revelation, with the songs like Watching The River Flow that he hadn’t played in years, all backed by that easy-going shambling Grateful Dead music.
When it came time for the Touch of Grey encore, I swear the entire stadium was on its feet, dancing, twirling, rocking out with a joyful abandon that I just could not believe. A huge electric feeling of happiness filled that stadium and I’d never experienced anything like it at any rock show I’d yet been to. All these people, all focused on the same thing, feeling the same thing at the same time, everyone happy and open to one another and the joyfulness of being alive and music was the vehicle for it all, the center of the celebration. I was overwhelmed with joy and a thrilling feeling that I’d at long last found the home I never even knew I was missing. I immediately became a Deadhead through and through.
After the show I was thinking that this was just like the first time I discovered pot, that the Dead had been waiting for me all these years, that I would eventually get into them had always been a foregone certainty that I just didn’t know about, and that this day was a major culmination of destiny in my life. My only question was “When is the next time I get to see this band? I’d go tomorrow night and every night after that if I could”
Yeah, the summer of Touch of Grey was a big one for me, a life-changer for sure. I never felt weird or lesser or had anyone judge me for getting into the Dead at that particular time. And I do wish I’d gone to see them years earlier, but then again things happen for a reason and I got into the band when I was most ready for it. That’s just how the universe works, in my view and I’m more than grateful that I got to see so many fantastic Dead shows in the years I went.
For me, I dug the slow burn of new music and not knowing just
where it came from or where and when it would end up. On a new Record? Perhaps. It was
The 1st Touch of Grey Cap Ctr 9/15/1982 in the encore slot.
Then: the band placed it as the 2nd set opener in Portland Me. 9/17/82.
From the get go when we heard "Must be getting early,clocks are running late..." we said, "That's unmistakable R.Hunter words." Also that night was Bobby's 1st Throwing Stones. We all wrote down "Ashes Ashes" on our UD XLII cassette card set lists. And from then on for, what, nearly 5 years?, we got to
hear this material getting rolled out with no reference to an official recording. Out came "Brother Esau", "West
L.A. Fadeaway blues", etc. Also enjoyed the Dupree's revival of that time. There was Brent's "Monster Train Song"(-Garcia), "900,000 Tons of Steel", Bob's "Helena Bucket" ... Oh dear, I lost my purpose for this comment in the swirl of memories. Touchhead, Touchhole, who cares? Regardless, I was done after the Boston Gahden run of Sept 1991, Grey matter notwithstanding. "If I only had my way, I would tear this old building down" Razed in 1997.
shwack in nh-- onbus: 1978-1991
In Philly, the din was beginning to build even during the April '85 run at the Spectrum; same was true in spring '86 too when they almost had a broadcast on WMMR. But, Wow! The March '87 Spectrum shows showed that the times were a-changin'. The strangest of places was the 3-29 show which got underway late due to Wrestlemania's simulcast. The next night was incredible, as was the last night of the run (3-31).
By the time they pulled into town for the "Alone and Together" show with Dylan (7/10), it was a mad house. In fact, it took several hours to make it through stopped traffic from Wilmington, Del. to JFK Stadium and the scene was waaaallll to waaaalll.
That was the show in which suddenly a Looks Like Rain appeared to be a first set closer, but wait... Terrapin followed? In the first set?? Nope. It was a first and second set combined. The second set was the Dylan and the Dead. My first time seeing Dylan and it was a terrible intro. It was awesome to see them all together, but the music fell waaaay short of being all that good. It was great to get to see Jerry sitting at his pedal steel, but aside from that, the Dead set was pretty good.
Yes; Touch was the encore that evening and smiles were all around. It was also cool to have Los Lobos on the radio is heavy rotation with La Bamba! The fall Philly show brought out La Bamba sandwiched between Good Lovin'.
All in all, '87 was the return of hot Dead! The years between '77 and '87 are what I consider "ordinary time." Yes; '80 and '82 were well played, but most shows were more about the experience than the blow your mind music. 87 was back to blow your mind music for the next few years! "and [we] kept on dancin'
I absolutely came along during the Touch era but was always respectul of the culture and as a fellow musician, I was there for the music. All I have to say is thank God the music never stopped - each era was full of wonderful twisted idiosyncracies from Pig to Keith to Brent to Vince. For me, Touch was a starting point to dig furthur back and forth in time (from In the Dark to Skeletons to Terrapin to Live Dead and beyond.) The trip is neverending (and if you think some 80s shows are boring, try listening to and making (non)sense of what Bob is doing or the logic of musical decisions Phil makes as individual contributors to the ensemble . . . then I dare you to figure out what Jerry is thinking).
As Blair mentioned, it may have been wonderful in the late 80s and 90s when the scene was thriving (in some ways and not in others), but it was definitely that era of the Dead the got me intrigued and eventually dragged me on the bus. But how fortunate are we to have sereral years of resurgence and golden nuggets post 87? Maybe I wear rose colored sunglasses, but I'd rather have all the good of the resurgence with the bad ... and just be grateful.
I remember that summer well. The radio stations played "Touch of Grey" A LOT!! I heard it played from "pop" to "hard rock" stations. Of course MTV was still actually playing videos most of the time, they played the video all the time. Sullivan Stadium 07/04/1987 was my first concert experience. I was 15 years old and my father took me. He was there for Dylan, I was there for the Dead. I thought that the show was WAY OVER-PROMOTED!!!! It was all the radio stations talked about! I enjoyed myself and thought that the live experience was really fun, but the show definately did not live up to the hype. I always wondered why so many fans of any group always complain when their favorite band finally gets some success. They work their butts off for years with little/no recognition or success, and one song/record becomes really popular and everybody thinks they sold out. I think that it was well deserved for any band to have success after struggling for a long time. I had gotten turned to the Dead about a year and a half before seeing them live. American Beauty, Aoxomoxoa, Live Dead, and a couple of live tapes was all I had to listen to. I wish that I was old enough to see them in '69, 70', '72, or '77, but I wasn't. I feel fortunate to have seen them live 35 times, even though it was not their best shows. It was still better than many other bands at their very best!!