In The Dark | 1987 | Track #1 | Written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia | Performed by The Grateful Dead

Of the hundreds thousands of songs in the oeuvre of the Grateful Dead, this one met with the most mainstream success. Perhaps it was the simple, catchy tune. Perhaps it was the message of growing old and "getting by," sung by one of the definitive baby boomers. Perhaps it was an inspired video, featuring a set of skeletons performing the song only to be replaced at the end by Jerry Garcia and company, that saw heavy rotation on MTV (imagine that, the Dead on MTV...).

Must be getting early
Clocks are running late
Paint by number morning sky
Looks so phony

The old familiar story about Jerry falling into a diabetic coma, getting through it, and then the band getting together to write this song about the experience? It's a fairy tale. The reality is so much more organic than that; everything about the Grateful Dead is more organic than that. The group was working on this song since the birth of the 1980s and were playing live versions of it as early as 1982, whereas Jerry's coma didn't happen until '86 and this record was released in '87.

Dawn is breaking everywhere
Light a candle, curse the glare
Draw the curtains, I don't care
'cause it's all right

The Dead were never that simple, that cut and dried, and neither was their generation. At this turn of the century, they're having grandchildren and are thinking about retirement; they're busy handing the keys of the planet to their children. They were the first generation to really believe that anything was possible, a gift given to them by the freedom and safety built by the greatest generation.

But it's not that whitewashed. Life is never that simple. They hid under their desks in school, wondering what would happen if the Soviets really did drop the bomb. Many of them followed their parents' footsteps to college, where they could see the world changing around them. Jack and Bobby died, and Martin, and Malcolm, and Jim and Jimi and Janis, and the Ohio four.

I will get by
I will get by
I will get by
I will survive

What kind of world did they make? They look back over the years, into the eyes of their own children only a few years out of college, and into the eyes of their grandchildren, taking their first steps into the world.

What a long strange trip it's been
- The Grateful Dead, Truckin'

Their children are able to talk instantaneously with people on the other side of the world for free. They can share their views with anyone at any time. They can talk to their friends and loved ones at any given moment without a second thought.

It's a different world, one that didn't exist when they emerged from the womb. It's a world that their generation built, and it's up to the next generation to figure out what to do with it.

I see you've got your list out
Say your piece and get out
Yes I get the gist of it
but it's all right

What's really important, though? What's the value structure? The value is in the message, not the medium, and that's one of the revelations of this song. "I see you've got your list out / Say your piece and get out" makes that abundantly clear; we all have a greater capacity to be heard by a wide audience than we've ever had (E2 is an example of that), but it doesn't matter if you don't have something to say.

Sorry that you feel that way
The only thing there is to say
Every silver lining's got a
Touch of grey

Every single one of us is limited in our understanding of the world, of the reality around us. The best we can hope to do is to teach our children well and try as best we can to stumble through, interpreting what we see.

We're not going to get it all right; the best we can hope for is to leave life a little more rich than when we began. The good in life comes hand in hand with the bad, and it is that mix that is the beauty, the value of life. I wish I had known that simple idea when I was eighteen and pissed off at the world, full of a hatred and anger which amounted to nothing.

I will get by
I will get by
I will get by
I will survive

The Dead were a jam band, and there is something quintessentially beautiful about the concept. Improvisation, experimentation, and not following a recipe are the keys here. Some might find it boring and long-winded, others might see the technical flaws that abound at such a thing; beyond that, though, there is something beautiful and organic and alive about it. It's much like the beauty of anything given life: you never know how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Yet, the studio version of this song is how most know the song, when it was cut down to a nice manageable sub-five minute track with nice fades at the start and the end, maybe a bit too long but not overly long, and catchy. It has that pop sensibility to it, the kind where the hooks will dig their way into your mind and not let go.

Listen to the studio version of this song, then take a listen to one of the many live recordings that has Touch of Grey on it; they're fairly easy to track down. Then ask yourself:

Is it the same song?

It's a lesson to me
The Ables and the Bakers and the C's
The ABC's we all must face
And try to keep a little grace

Between these two verses is a short jam that goes on for most of a minute on the studio version, anyway. Live bootlegs will feature jams of several minutes in here that vary greatly from show to show. It neatly divides the song in half, allowing the phrases "keep a little grace" and "give a little love" to mirror each other.

It fits in place, like so many things about the Dead do. Love and grace are always looking in the mirror at each other, forever intertwined in each other, each a beacon of beauty upon the world. They are beauty and elegance that we can share with others, and isn't that the meaning of it all?

It's a lesson to me
The deltas and the east and the freeze
The ABC's we all think of
Try to give a little love

Touch of Grey stands out so much in the Dead oeuvre, I believe, because it is their one real attempt to make their music as widely accessible as possible. The "jam band" contingent can hear the bootlegs of the Dead's later shows and admire the improvisation and imagination, but at the same time, the song can reach out to the soccer mom who is sending her kids off to college or touch the college student who is on the cusp of real adulthood, or touch the kid in middle school who doesn't understand the adults around them.

It's a message that everyone can relate to, a message that carries inherent meaning in all of our lives. We get old, but that doesn't mean we die. As old Red put it, get busy livin' or get busy dyin'

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 all right

The song paints a sad tale here: is the domestic life falling apart at the seams? We are given an image of chaotic domesticity, but puts a seal of, if not approval, at least acceptance on the situation at the end.

The verse leads into even greater chaos in the next one, diverting into the nonsensical.

Cows giving kerosene
Kid can't read at seventeen
The words he knows are all obscene
but it's all right

Cows giving kerosene? It is a line of nonsense symbolizing a world filled with madness. And yet the world around it, as represented by the other lines of the song, aren't all that mad: they describe the world we've inherited.

This one line sums up the lessons learned since the 1960s, and apparently one that Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia have picked up on. The late 1960s were infused with psychedelica and nonsense was a completely valid way of expressing the world as chaos. This view, of the world as chaos, was commonplace at the time: rather than the world being an orderly, stable, and safe place, it was being torn asunder, thrown topsy turvy. People were rioting in the streets, a president and his brother were shot, people would shout for freedom and be silenced by force, and in the middle of all of this, a man stands upon the moon for the first time. What could express this better than the nonsense of songs like Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, for example?

Yet here, there is only a bit of nonsense, and it stands out in stark contrast to the reality of the rest of the words. It's a lesson learned: nonsense is no longer the message as a whole, but merely a tool that can easily express a unique state of mind in the framework of normalcy. Lewis Carroll understood this; so did L. Frank Baum.

Few things can sum up the Reagan era in the eyes of a free thinker than a line or two of nonsense in prose otherwise grounded in normalcy.

I will get by
I will get by
I will get by
I will survive

At this point, the song begins to wind down; Jerry even gives vocal indications as such. Jerry's vocals on the studio version of this song are part of the charm; his voice is quite weak and somewhat off key compared to the standard he set prior to his diabetic coma.

The simple fact that Jerry even lived through the coma is amazing. He lapsed into the coma while on stage July 10, 1986, and remained in the coma for better than a month. Upon awakening, he had lost his ability to play a guitar and his voice had slightly changed as well.

The shoe is on the hand it fits
There's really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit
'cause it's all right

You can hear all of this in the studio version of the song, and it lends great credence to the idea that the group wanted to make a statement that would reach everyone, as they did here. Mortality had been shown to them in a deep and direct way, and this was the band's opportunity for a second chance that not many of us ever get.

Perhaps there is no better statement of the band at the time, or of their perspective on the greater world, than this song.

Oh well a touch of grey
Kind of suits you anyway
That was all I had to say
It's all right

Growing old is just another part of our humanity, another piece of the puzzle that is our lives. Things change, the faces come and go, but yet we still stay on that same forward path: child to parent to grandparent.

This path is paved with tender bricks stretching to the horizon in either direction, and we are Dorothy, surrounded by friends old and new and hoping that we do indeed make it to our own Emerald City.

I will get by
I will get by
I will get by
I will survive

It's appropriate that one of the true voices of the 1960s was still around, still living the dream, and letting all of us know that the dream wasn't dead, even if a touch of grey had snuck in in the meantime.

When most younger folks today think of Jerry Garcia, they imagine him in a black tee shirt, a friendly Santa Claus figure with a grey beard and a big belly. They hear stories of Grateful Dead concerts and of the Deadlot phenomenon and shake their heads; there isn't such a phenomenon any more, though some try.

It's a dream lived by an earlier generation, and we are lucky for the opportunity to hear of it, even at the end of the tour.

We will get by
We will get by
We will get by
We will survive

Many have written long essays about the "spirit" of the 1960s and about when it died, or if it did. I think Touch of Grey somewhat answers that question: it was still alive and kicking in 1987 at least, and if you believe that, a look around you will tell you that it's still around today.

In March 2005, my wife and I discovered that she was pregnant with our first child. My parents gave up so much to raise me in a way that reflected their values, and the joy that this news has introduced into their life is immense.

I've seen pictures of my parents when they first started dating, and I remember how they were when I was young. She had long, straight brown hair and a million-watt smile. He had a big bushy beard and black hair that flowed down his neck and a twinkle in his eye that made you think that maybe, every once in a while, he could do something magical.

There's a touch of grey in his beard now, and maybe more than a touch in my mother's chocolate locks, but that twinkle is still in his eye, and my mother's smile still lights up a room.

I'm getting older, too. A touch of grey is due to appear any day now on my chin or above my ears. Some would hide it. I welcome it.

This writeup is long and rambling, and goes in several directions at once, and maybe goes on for too long. But I like to think that it strikes to the heart of some universal truth.

I like to think that Jerry would have been proud.

This writeup was checked with special care with regards to E2 FAQ: Copyrighted Material
Thanks to Ice Nine Publishing for permission to use Grateful Dead lyrics

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.