Jerry Garcia / Grateful Dead / Robert Hunter

Touch of Grey

Composed by Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter

Song Review by

"Touch of Grey" was the most successful song of the latter part of the Grateful Dead's career, if not of their entire career, but it took a while to reach its exalted position. Lyricist Robert Hunter wrote the first version of what he called "A Touch of Grey" in September 1980, composing his own music, and he planned to use it on a solo album he worked on in 1981. He later said that in the lyrics he was discussing his "intense alienation" from problems in the world of the Grateful Dead, and the words certainly have a bitter, sarcastic tone. But they are also very witty ("I know the rent is in arrears/The dog has not been fed in years/It's even worse than it appears"), and Hunter was unable to avoid his usual philosophical sense of balance, so there are countervailing assurances, including the repeated phrase "It's all right" and the affirmation of the "I will get by/I will survive" chorus. (Note, however, that these positive statements are deliberately phrased as bland clich├ęs.) The 1981 Hunter album was never finished, and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, Hunter's songwriting partner, asked to use "Touch of Grey," which he set to a rollicking tune that emphasized its humor and turned "I will survive" into a triumphal statement, changed to the plural at the end of the song. The Grateful Dead introduced the song at a concert at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD, on September 15, 1982, and it became an immediate audience pleaser. At the time, the Dead, who had not made a studio album in a couple of years, were planning to go into the studio soon. They didn't, but they continued to perform regularly in the early and mid-'80s, and their following remained faithful. In fact, during this period, the band became a kind of underground cult favorite, traveling beneath the radar of the media and the record business. They played "Touch of Grey" regularly -- 21 times in 66 shows in 1983, for example -- and it became a special song of mutual celebration between the band and its audience, possessed and known only by them. In 1987, seven years after their last studio recording, the Dead finally prepared a new album. Its leadoff track was "Touch of Grey," which Arista Records released as a single in an edited form running 4:14 (down from the LP's 5:47 version) on June 16, three weeks ahead of the new record, In the Dark. The Dead also filmed a music video to promote the song. The result was unprecedented. "Touch of Grey" reached the Top Ten, as did In the Dark, which became the band's best-selling regular album release. This commercial success increased the Grateful Dead's popularity and swelled its concert attendance, somewhat to the chagrin of longtime fans, which in turn caused something of a backlash against "Touch of Grey," the song that had started the hoopla. The Dead continued to perform it regularly, even playing it at what turned out to be their final concert on July 9, 1995. But as of mid-2000, it had been included on none of the band's many archival releases of their concert performances, not even the five-disc retrospective So Many Roads (1965-1995). Of course, it was featured on the 1996 compilation The Arista Years, and there have been a few covers, notably the one by the Mighty Diamonds on Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead (1996).

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
In the Dark 1987 Arista 5:47
blue highlight denotes editor's pick