Transcript 94–Touch of Grey

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and maybe I need a safer day job. 

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How about some trivia for ye? 

I’d like for you to name the song, written in 1908, where practically much every American knows, but they know only the chorus, but they don’t know the verses. And I’d be willing to bet that most people think the chorus is the entire song. I’ll even give you a hint by playing part of the song: 

[TRIVIA HINT]

How about that? That’s a recording from the year it was written, 1908, and it’s probably one of the first recordings of the song. So that’s the first verse of the song, now, what’s the title?

I’ll have the answer for you later on, in the show. 

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Today we’re going to be talking about “Touch of Grey,” the only song by the Grateful Dead to make it into the Top Ten on the Billboard Chart. It’s also the only song to make the Top 20, the Top 40, or the Top 50. “What!” you say. “What about ‘Truckin’?” Nope. That song, while it got a lot of airplay on the album stations, only made it to Number 64 on the Billboard chart. “What about ‘Good Lovin’’?” Nope. Didn’t even chart despite the band performing it on Saturday Night Live. “Touch of Grey” topped out at Number Nine,  and I think it created a whole new generation of Grateful Dead fans. 

The record was released in 1987, and it represented the band’s comeback after Jerry Garcia spent five days in a diabetic coma the previous year, and several months after that in recovery, including learning how to do stuff like walk, and eat, and play the guitar. So that the band released anything at all after all that was a big honkin’ deal. 

And while the song might represent some acknowledgment of mortality, it wasn’t written in the shadow of that event. 

The song, in fact, goes back a few years earlier, to 1982, when they first played it as an encore at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland. And if you know anything about the Dead, it’s that they not only allow recordings at their concerts, they encourage it by providing the means for fans to jack into their equipment. 

[1st PERFORMANCE]

So the first performance was, in fact, recorded and is circulated among Deadheads, and as far as I can tell, other than the later addition of keyboards it’s already pretty fully formed…

[AULD LANG SYNE]

But its genesis begins just a little earlier than that. It goes all the way back to Robert Burns, the guy who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.” 

…OK, maybe not quite that far. But we do go back to Robert Burns’ great-great grandson, Robert Hunter. Now, Hunter was a lyricist who became so associated with the Grateful Dead that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the band, even though he wasn’t officially a member. And so far as I know, he remains the only non-performer to have that distinction. But anyway, Hunter started work on the song around 1980, so it was still about two years before he and Garcia beat it into good enough shape that they felt it would make for a decent performance. 

We fast-forward five years, and Jerry has the diabetes incident, and he goes into the coma, and he comes out of it and goes through rehab, And. 

[TOUCH OF GREY]

The band went back into the studio during the first week of January in 1987. And to partially replicate the feeling of being on stage with an audience, the band recorded the basic album tracks in a darkened auditorium, hence the album title In The Dark. The recording part of the album took about a week, and then after mixing and such, the album was released on July 6, exactly six months after they started. By July 25, the song has already entered the Hot 100 in the Number 77 position. By mid-August, the Dead have cracked the Top 40 for the first time when the song reaches Number 36. And then finally, in September, the album goes platinum–meaning one million sales–plus a week later, the song peaks at Number Nine on the Hot 100. Just for the giggles, I looked up the other songs in the Top Ten, and they were: 

…and while Prince is the only one credited on that song, I’m pretty sure that,  at the time, Sheena Easton got a lot of attention for her vocals in the chorus. In fact, she’s in the video! So that’s a little bit weird.  

“Touch of Grey” is also the only song for which the Grateful Dead created a video for MTV, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. In it, the band is performing on stage when they all suddenly turn into skeletons. Now it’s the skeletons, dressed as the band members and with identical hairstyles including beards, who are playing the instruments and singing. Now, the video makes no attempt to hide the fact that these are basically marionettes, because you clearly see the strings that are controlling the skeletons as they play. At one point a dog steals the leg bone of drummer Mickey Hart, with the foot still in the show, and someone goes running after it and returns it so he can resume playing the bass drum. Near the end the skeletons turn back into the band, to great approval by the crowd, and finally we see that the band is also marionettes, controlled from above by a couple of skeletal hands. The video was shot at the Laguna Seca Raceway following a Dead concert; once the shoot was set up, the audience was allowed back into the venue so they could be photographed for the video, and they got to see the Dead play the song twice: once as their real selves and again as skeletons. And, in a nice attention to detail, if you look closely you’ll see that the skeleton representing Jerry Garcia is missing most of its right middle finger, just like the real deal. Garcia lost two-thirds of that finger when he was four years old, in a wood-splitting accident. 

So let’s take a look at some of the lyrics that Hunter wrote for this song, because there is some meaning here other than the whole “aging gracefully” thing. And for this, I’m turning to a website called “The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics,” compiled by a man named David Dodd. 

And I’m going to start with the line “Light a candle, curse the glare” because according to Hunter, that line was Garcia’s contribution to the lyrics. Now, Dodd attributes it to something that Adlai Stevenson said about Eleanor Roosevelt after she died, when he said that “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” but the fact is, that phrase comes from an old Chinese proverb saying that it’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. The bottom line is that you’re better off doing one small positive thing than complaining about all the bad stuff going on. But the context of the song has it a little bit backwards. The singer seems to be feeling a little cynical about it at this point. 

The title line, “Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey” is a play on the phrase “behind every dark cloud there’s a silver lining” and it’s a corruption of something John Milton wrote in the 1600s: “there does a sable cloud/Turn forth her silver lining on the night” About two hundred years later it starts to move into the phrase we’re more familiar with. 

The last lyric that might stand some explaining is in the bridge: “It’s a lesson to me/The Ables and the Bakers and the Cs/The ABC’s we all must face.” This is a throwback to the old-style Military Communication Alphabet, where if you wanted to spell something out loud, you’d use words instead of letters. Nowadays we say “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” to represent “ABC” but before the mid 1950s it was “Able, Baker, Charlie”. So while he’s literally saying “The ABCs” twice–once in the Military Alphabet and once in the usual way–he’s also doing it old-style, which also suggests that he’s got a few extra ticks on his odometer. 

[MIGHTY DIAMONDS]

There are only two notable covers of the song that I know of. One was by the Mighty Diamonds, which was part of a collection of Dead songs recorded by reggae artists called Fire on the Mountain

[WAR ON DRUGS]

The other cover is by a band called The War on Drugs, and it opens a 2016 compilation album of Grateful Dead covers called Day of the Dead. They take some liberties with the lyrics, but it’s not awful, I guess…

I should close out this segment with two other things: first, just because the song was a hit didn’t mean that they played it at all their concerts after 1987. In fact, in true Grateful Dead style they pretty much played it whenever they felt like it. And I should also note that while the title looks misspelled on your screen here, and on the website, it’s only looking misspelled to Americans. For whatever reason, Hunter and the Dead chose to use the British spelling. Why? We don’t really know. 

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And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify a song from 1908 that’s still known to Americans today, and in fact is sung by thousands and thousands of people each year, mostly between April and October. But most people sing only the chorus, thinking that that’s the entire song. 

The song was written by Jack Norworth. Norworth was a vaudeville actor who, at the tender age of twenty-nine, had already been a part of Ziegfeld’s Follies, and it’s about a girl named Katie Casey. As far as I can tell, Katie is a fictional woman. But anyway, one day Jack is riding the subway in New York City, and he sees an advertisement for baseball at the Polo Grounds, which is the field in upper Manhattan where the Giants played when they were a New York team. Despite the fact that Jack had never been to a major-league baseball game before, he found inspiration in the sign and he knocked out a set of lyrics very quickly. The song talks about how Katie had baseball fever, and attended all the home games, and wasn’t afraid to call out the umpires when they got it wrong. It wasn’t an extraordinary song, lyrics-wise. 

Not the verses, anyway. The chorus, however, lives on today, largely, I’ll bet, because of the melody, which was written by Albert Von Tilzer. And I’m sure by now you’ve guessed that the song I’m talking about is “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, which is sung at the seventh-inning stretch in ballparks nationwide, and which is used a musical shorthand in movies and TV to signal, “Hey–baseball going on here.” 

And just because it’s so cool, I’m going to go back to that recording I played earlier and let you hear the entire thing, which was recorded on one of Edison’s wax cylinders: 

[TAKE ME OUT]

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when you’re Born to Run. 

Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.