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.
if you lived in the Bay Area it was relatively easy, but otherwise, not so much.
Ten shows in two years is some pretty serious deadication if you were a working stiff like myself
I was prepping for a "Weekend in the Valley" at Alpine Valley on June 26th, 27th and 28th, just before the deluge of new, and justly deserved success and the massive throng of new fans. Alpine '87 was the calm before the storm.
Prior to that, at my first Dead show in '84 at Pine Knob, I had very little knowledge of their music, and no clue about the scene. I was intrigued, but not quite to the point where I actually felt like I "got it". I didn't see them in '85, so my next exposure to them was at Alpine Valley in '86 for two shows. That was the first time I felt like there was more going on than just simply a concert and enthusiastic fans. I guess I was starting to grasp the bigger picture with the Dead. By the time of my next shows, which was Alpine '87, I felt like I understood most of the big picture. My next show was Buckeye Lake '88, and by then, it was pandamonium. Humongous open air general admission venue, massive parking areas in massive farm fields, oppressively hot day and what seemed like 200, 000 people in a venue that holds 70,000. It didn't matter though. Tickets were available at the box office, and Bruce Hornsby sounded great on accordian sitting in on a couple of songs.
Does that make me a "touchhole"?
After all that the Grateful Dead had been through up to that point, the loss of two bandmembers, the near death of Jerry and any other number of ups and downs, the band got the long overdue success they deserved. I don't understand why some fans have this hierarchy mentality when it comes to those who came onboard at any given time before or after them.
In regards to the Garcia interview, I think it's interesting how Jerry seemed to have a good sense of forsight into things coming their way, even not knowing how successful they were about to become. A true "be careful what you wish for" moment.
I've never read that interview before! Thanks for posting it. In fact, I have never had the opportunity to read the Golden Road News letter, but have heard lots about it. I think I may have to start tracking some of those down.
All of a sudden, or so it seemed, the band that I loved got swamped by wanna-bes. The touchholes just flooded the scene forevermore and unless you were selling something and getting rich it just didn't feel the same anymore. The most annoying people were those who just posed as veterans after going to ten shows in a two year period. The scene became much more snobby and exclusive as the older deadheads tried to adjust.
MTV had to go and spoil a really good thing. I could have lived with the skull & bones Greek college kids -- at least they were intelligent. The great unwashed masses were just all too much.
Way too much!
July 2-3 1988 Oxford Speedway, Oxford Me.
I remember my long time tour buddy saying to me "Look at all the Touch Heads" meaning people walking around in Kiss shirts and Van Halen shit. No offense... I saw and liked both but it was pretty obvious that they didn't get and were only there for the balloons and and massive alcohol consumption.
(I'll jump on my soapbox here and say again that Dead Heads should not drink at shows. It just seems to bring out the stupid in this crowd)
My biggest complaint was it seemed to bring out those who were only looking to make a buck off the newbies and Dead Heads. My other memory is that there was more litter everywhere after this show than any time in my Bus Ride. Beer cans and bottles and trash everywhere.
This is a top notch 2 days of shows and was glad I was there. Listen to it all the time but I knew this was going to be it. Can't stand massive venus and really don't like outdoor shows even though I have two more tickets for this summers tour because I also don't want to make the mistake and miss the possible last tours we will ever get to see. All we get is today and I'm taking everything I can get
For me there was a sense of urgency. I had seen the dead for 10 years and thought the end of the way it was, with touring and venues was about to change. i thought it wasgoing to be scaled back. When tickets when on sale for Ventura I made sure I called the hotline and sent money immediately. I had not seen them in California. Dylan and the dead was a must, etc... I enjoyed 1987. As time went on it seemed nothing was going to change, but the parking lot.
Really good piece Blair... substantive rock journalism remains no small thing! I remember thinking for a stretch in the 80s, that the way out of the arena life for the group was to duplicate to go upscale e.g. Jerry On Broadway. Higher prices for sure to make it work, but much smaller venues and most important -- a creative setting for experimental, improvised new Grateful Dead. Infrared Doses Tour, in a plush theater near you. I think this was why I flipped so much for the PLQ in particular, they seemed experimental to my ears.
Gained a pile of new fans during this period. I wonder how many heads the Dead lost around this time.
I'll raise my hand for that one.
My first Dead stadium show was Foxborough, Sullivan Stadium 7/4/87. Dylan and the Dead. It was the single worst Dead show I've seen (ditto for Dylan). It was also the last Dead show for me. I hated the fact that I was in a football stadium for a show. It was hot. There were just way too many people. I have no good memories of the day...precious few memories of the day, period.
I didn't know it would be my last show. It wasn't intentional, I didn't walk away thinking "That's it, I'm outta here." But that experience coupled with the whole MTV-ization of the band (or so I saw it) left a bad taste in my mouth. I just let go and really didn't look back.
And then Jerry's death hit a nerve that I didn't know existed. Some kind of reset button got pushed that day, and I was back on the bus. Kicking myself in the butt for ever having gotten off. We live and we learn, eh?
I'd got my first real job that month, at a London-based satellite TV station called "Super Channel". They carried several hours a day of 'Music Box' - an MTV clone. In the library was a copy of the "Touch of Grey" video.
My job was in transmission (master control) - making sure the right thing ran at the right time. We had a bit of a free hand for fillers, so every now and then "Touch of Grey" got another play.
If it didn't reach anyone else, it turned me into a DeadHead, and I finally saw 'em in Shoreline 2 years later.
I also worked briefly at MTV Europe, where I could push the "Bucket" video as well - now that was a wonderfully dumb video :-)
Good times to be in satellite TV.