1987 is an important year in Grateful Dead history. It marked a period of prolific creativity for the iconic psychedelic rock band, along with widespread mainstream success. The band toured aggressively in ’87, playing over 80 shows on both coasts and all points in between. The year also marked the first Grateful Dead shows outside the Bay Area after Jerry Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma on July 10th, 1986. As a result of the five-day coma, Garcia lost some basic motor skills and had to relearn how to play the guitar.
To kick off the year, the band recorded their 12th studio album, In The Dark. The band recorded the album at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael, California from January 6th to 13th, with the album being released during the pinnacle of summer music season – on July 6, 1987.
In The Dark features songs that had been in the Grateful Dead setlist rotation for almost five years, including “Touch Of Grey”, John Perry Barlow’s “Hell in a Bucket”, “West L.A. Fadeaway”, and “Throwing Stones”.
“Touch Of Grey” – A History
Culturally, “Touch Of Grey” marked a pivotal moment in the band’s trajectory – much to the chagrin of some long-time fans of the band, 22 years into their career at the time.
“Touch Of Grey” is about the band trying to age gracefully in a new era. It went on to become the band’s biggest commercial hit. Released as a radio single, it hit #1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart on September 26th of that year.
Perhaps more importantly, however, was the Grateful Dead’s music video for the song – the band’s first-ever music video.
The “Touch of Grey” music video was filmed at the Laguna Seca Raceway after their performance in May 1987. pic.twitter.com/EKT7ly5wiG
— Grateful Dead (@GratefulDead) May 11, 2021
MTV launched just five summers before, on August 1, 1981.
The music video for “Touch Of Grey” features life-size skeleton marionettes dressed as the band, with a wonderful moment when Phil Lesh catches a rose between his teeth. It was filmed in May ’87 after a Dead show at the Laguna Seca Recreation Area in Monterey, California.
The process of filming the music video was documented in a project called Dead Ringers, a 30-minute documentary by Justin Kreutzmann, the son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. It details how the crowd was readmitted to the concert area after nightfall following the afternoon show at Laguna Seca, filming crowd reactions while the band lip-synched the song with queue cards.
The “Touch Of Grey” music video was released as a music video on June 19, 1987. It quickly received heavy play on MTV that summer, only five years old at the time. The music video helped introduce the Dead and their ’60s counterculture roots to a new generation of MTV-loving teenagers and college students, creating what became known as the “Touchheads” fan phenomenon.
The band spent June on the road, with shows in California and Alpine Valley, along with Toronto and Rochester.
Shortly after the release of “Touch Of Grey” in June ’87 and the album in early July, the Grateful Dead embarked on a six-show summer stadium tour with Bob Dylan, known as the Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead 1987 Tour. The July 1987 tour hit 50,000+ capacity stadiums, with three sell-outs: Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, Giants Stadium in New Jersey, and Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. Musically, each show was historic in its own right, featuring two sets of Grateful Dead and one set of Dylan singing his catalog with the band. This string of stadium shows was captured on video via the band’s long-time audio engineer, Don Pearson, via multi-camera pro-shot, with many of the performances available to watch on YouTube.
MTV Day Of The Dead: A full day of Grateful Dead programming
That summer, MTV jumped on the bus, sensing an emerging youth interest in the Grateful Dead and their playful, acid-soaked iconography.
This wasn’t the first time the world of the Dead overlapped with MTV airwaves. In 1983, Jerry Garcia sat down for an interview with Nina Blackwood at MTV studios in New York City, mostly talking about the Jerry Garcia Band.
At the Giants Stadium show, in 1987, however, an MTV film crew captured the carnival-like party environment of a Grateful Dead show. All this, approximately 20 years after Grateful Dead gained a national fanbase growing out of the famous 1967 Summer Of Love.
The cable network launched a day of programming called “Day Of The Dead” on August 8th, 1987. It featured pro-shot concert footage from the Grateful Dead’s film catalog, along with mini-documentaries about the band and their fans, including the footage captured at Giants Stadium in July. The programming features interviews with Jerry Garcia, Brent Mydland, Bob Weir, and more, all speaking to the band’s history up to the present. It especially captures Jerry Garcia and his jolly, larger-than-life spirit, beard and all.
But more importantly at the time, MTV’s Day Of The Dead captured fan culture around the Grateful Dead. Some of the short bits showed the rabid dedication of Deadheads old and new, crisscrossing the country “on tour” in vans and buses with their friends, all in the spirit of seeing the Dead and a good time. It featured many of the hallmarks of Deadhead fan culture: Free-spirited fans gushing about their favorite Dead songs and shows, strolling past bohemian vendors on Shakedown selling veggie burritos.
Considering that it was the mid-80s, vanity and materialization were very much so in vogue at the time.
But MTV’s day-long tie-dye showcase of strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands, was a breath of fresh air from the “greed is good” cultural superficiality of the era.
The cultural impact of MTV’s Day Of The Dead
These visuals, broadcast by MTV that day, coupled with the commercial success of “Touch Of Grey”, were culturally powerful. Throngs of new fans were experiencing the Grateful Dead for the first time in the ’80s, but MTV helped give it a cultural stamp of approval.
Archival from the broadcast recently appeared on YouTube. On a Reddit thread about the subject, Redditor MrCompletely outlines how this dedicated day of programming helped launch the “Touchhead” phenomenon – New Deadheads who gravitated to the scene
“This ran as part of MTV’s Day of the Dead I believe, which was a huge factor in the accelerating growth of the crowds over the next year. Along with this special, they ran a ton of parking lot and crowd footage from the Giants Stadium show, which (fairly accurately) portrayed the wide-open “wild party with fun crazy people” aspect without giving any balance to it. So those images, at least as much as the album or the touch of gray video, were what triggered the so-called “Touch Head” phenomenon (I hate that term) and let to true overload on the scene over the next few years. Summer tour 87 wasn’t actually that bad crowd-wise relative to the prior few summers.”
Previously, the same Redditor shared some thoughts on how important this moment was to springboarding the Grateful Dead into a mainstream moment at the time.
“In late summer 1987, as the Touch of Grey video was popular, MTV aired a special that completed the boost of popularity which became called the “Touch head” phenomenon,” writes MrCompletely. “In my opinion, the Day of the Dead special had more to do with the growth of the fanbase than the Touch video itself did, particularly the segments that showed the crowd, the scene, Shakedown, the dancers, and the party in general. All of that was filmed at the Giants Stadium show on 7.12.87 and the special aired in early August.”
The “Touch Head” effect was felt one year later, in 1988
“The biggest impact of this growth would be felt the next year, in summer of 1988. Fall 87 and Spring 88 definitely had more ticket pressure but it wasn’t extremely dramatic, I think because the high school and college kids that were getting into it couldn’t easily drop what they were doing and see big runs of shows – they would go to one or two close-by ones if they could. But in summer 88 everyone was on vacation and pent-up demand exploded, and the scene was flooded with younger folks looking for tickets which overwhelmed some of the venues. The following summer tour in 1989 was the first that was exclusively large stadium venues on the East Coast, presumably in response.”
That pent-up ticket demand ruffled some feathers amongst other Deadheads, bemoaning the newbies (aka, “custies”) to the scene. These “Touchheads” were stereotyped as being there for the party vs. the music.
MrCompletely adds, “FWIW I don’t think there’s any point or fairness to bemoaning the “touch head” thing or blaming the kids for the growth of the scene. A lot of them were great and stuck around and became real Heads after all, and the ones that didn’t f*cked off after it became unfashionable. It’s nobody’s fault when they’re born, after all.”
“It made it seem much realer”
Redditor the_lonliest_monk offers some additional perspective on how the MTV programming was an entry point into the world of the Grateful Dead.
“I was a young noob just getting into the band when they aired this. Taped several hours of the Day of the Dead special and just pored over that tape daily for the next few months. Hugely influential and informative for me and actually quite well done. The documentary covers a lot of ground and has some great footage from all of the different eras of the band. And seeing all the freaks partying just down the ‘pike in Jersey (my home at the time) made it seem much realer and more accessible than it had seemed prior. I was on the bus fully within a year and doing full tours the year after that. Thanks, MTV!”
In the comments for the recently resurfaced Day Of The Dead videos on YouTube, a user by the name of Freeherenow offers and similar perspective:
Oddly, after having the time of my life at Dead shows in ’83-’85, 1986 was such a horrible year for the band that I quit seeing them live. Almost every show I saw in ’86 was awful, Jerry seemed to be at death’s door, and the spell was broken. My friend and I decided we’d ride our bikes across the country (East to West) in the Summer of ’87, as an adventurous alternative to going to Dead shows. By the time we got to Missoula, MT, we passed through a college town and heard Touch of Grey blasting out of dorm windows. We thought, “What? The Dead have a hit song? After last year? Amazing!” I mostly missed out on their final renaissance of ’87-’90, but I did catch one more show in Spring ’90. A much better note to end things on than the abysmal summer of ’86 tour. Still miss Jerry to this day.
MTV made the scene “a little more self-absorbed”
Other Deadheads add that the MTV programming “let the whole world in on our little secret.” Another YouTube commenter, arizjones, adds:
“1987 after Jerry’s Coma and the Touch of Grey video, is when the scene got big and out of hand, and a new type of fan came into the scene that was a little more self-absorbed. Before that the scene was smaller and more intimate and had more of a vibe of selfless love for others. But it was still better than anything else that was going on and you could still get some of the positive vibe from the scene. I feel blessed to have seen a lot of shows before it got big, but still saw some great shows latter. The Greek Theater, Berkeley shows of the early 80s were a really great time, with a great vibe.”
Arizjones continues: “I was at the filming of the Touch of Grey video that night between the Laguna Seca shows in 1987. Take after take of the same song, with the band doing lip-sync, as the fans partied all night, and hung around to give the appearance of a live show. The band was about experimentation and evolving creativity, and it was ALL part of the evolution of music, and all fun, if you didn’t let yourself get in the way. Believe it if you need it or leave it if you dare. It was such a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there.”
The pseudo, neo-hippie revival
Finally, Joe on YouTube offers how MTV broadcasting the Grateful Dead had a lasting impact, without being old enough to go to a show yet.
“I never know (or particularly care) if I’m classified as a “Touch Head.” I was only 8 years old but very much remember becoming aware of the Dead that Summer of 1987 during the pseudo, neo-hippie revival via MTV. I absolutely loved Touch of Grey, which ironically is now a song I rarely listen to. My musical influences around me at the time were mostly older Metalheads, no Deadheads, but once I could start buying my own tapes and CDs a few years later I really started to figure out what the Dead were all about. I guess Touch is what introduced me, but it wasn’t what hooked me, and I wasn’t one of the hordes of teenagers that oversaturated Dead shows in 87.”
Brandon is the publisher of BroBible.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.