The Dead’s Not-So-Grateful Response to Going Mainstream

When “Touch Of Grey” became a Top 10 hit, Jerry and crew were forced to deal with industry politics

By David Browne

By 1987, the Grateful Dead had endured busts, deaths of band members, and a temporary breakup, but that year they found themselves confronting something almost as jarring: a hit single. “Touch of Grey,” a jaunty if dark-hued Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter collaboration that had been kicking around in their set for several years, gave the Dead their first-ever Top 10 hit.

The repercussions of that fluke — especially a surge in the number of people who wanted to see them in concert — would linger with them until Garcia’s death in 1995. But in the meantime, the Dead were now forced to deal with that beast called the music business — or, in this case, the business was forced to confront the Dead. What follows is the often comical interactions between the band, its label (Arista) and the music industry in the wake of “Touch of Grey” and its accompanying platinum album, In the Dark.

Jerry Garcia on stage at Cal Expo in 1991 | Photo by Eric Kabik

Even before the “Touch of Grey” video was completed, the Arista wheels began turning in ways they never had before for the Dead. The label was stocked with executives who’d grown up with FM rock, were fond of the Dead, and related to the band more than to the label’s MTV-geared pop. But In the Dark was the last release on the band’s contract.

Although Arista had come to be known as a pop label, thanks to its enormous successes with the likes of Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow, label head Clive Davis didn’t want anyone to forget that Arista had fostered plenty of rock & roll, dating back to Patti Smith, Graham Parker, and other acts of the 70s. Holding onto the industry-wary Dead became crucial for both the label’s image and rock-press credibility. “We knew that if it didn’t work, we would have lost the band, no question about it,” says then Arista vice president Don Ienner, “and that gave us impetus.”

But it was most telling that at that point in their career the Dead were willing to play ball with a business they’d normally viewed with antipathy or suspicion. That turnaround became most apparent in the spring of 1987 when, before a New York show, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, and Bob Weir had a brief meeting with Arista executives in a hotel conference room. At least for a moment the combative days of the past — the Dead versus the likes of Joe Smith of Warner Brothers — evaporated. Arista’s Davis, Ienner, and Roy Lott pledged commitment to the project; no one in the band objected. The one concern arose when Garcia turned to Lott after a discussion of obligations and said, “I don’t have to do Dick Clark, do I?” They all laughed at the very thought of the Dead on Clark’s Top 40 TV show, American Bandstand, but they also knew Garcia had his limits.

As many on the Arista business side had anticipated, In the Dark had become that rarity, a million-selling Grateful Dead album. The label’s promotional muscle — and the urge to ensure the record’s commercial success so that the Dead wouldn’t flee for another company — had worked in ways it never had before. It was almost impossible to turn on MTV and not see the “Touch of Grey” video, and the single climbed to number nine. In the Dark itself sneaked into the Top 10, smirking alongside albums by Whitney Houston, Def Leppard, U2, and Mötley Crue. Even when the album began slipping down the charts after peaking at number six, an issue of the Deadhead fan newsletter Terrapin Flyer, distributed free at shows, urged Deadheads to “call MTV to tell them how much you love the video” in order to “give the Dead’s new album a needed sales push because it has slipped slightly on the charts.” The fans could be as organized as the office itself.

In September 1987, to celebrate the success of In the Dark, executives from Arista, along with promoter John Scher, gathered backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden to have their photos taken with the Dead. Here was a standard industry ritual: pose with the suits, hold up your gold records, smile, and watch as the photo of the victory lap was reprinted in the music trade magazines. (Editor’s note: see image at the top of this story.) But as Dennis McNally, their publicist of three years, was learning, sometimes in the most excruciating way there was only one hitch: The band couldn’t be remotely bothered with those sorts of customs.

In 1986 the Dead had been in need of a new business manager. Their finances, especially after Garcia’s diabetic coma and their canceled shows afterward, were in shambles; they were also behind on their tax returns. The band approached Nancy Mallonee, a CPA with experience in the music business. During her job interview at a band meeting Garcia chuckled and said to her, “I don’t know why anybody would want to do this job, but if you want it, it’s yours.” Mallonee saw for herself the way their finances turned around the following year. “Things changed dramatically after In the Dark was released,” says Mallonee. “The business took off after that. It was surprising how much things changed from 1986 to 1987. Huge. They made a lot of money off In the Dark.”

Record sales were merely one indication that the Dead’s business was erupting around them in the wake of “Touch of Grey.” By now touring income amounted to 80 to 90 percent of the Dead’s gross income; the Dead took home $26.8 million in 1987 alone. In 1987 mail-order ticket sales hit 450,000, more than 10 times from a few years before. Enough requests had come in for their 1987 New Year’s Eve show at Oakland Coliseum to fill that venue six times over. Some promoters didn’t even bother advertising for shows; because the fans knew ahead of time, it was just wasted money.

Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart at the Oakland Coliseum on December 31, 1987 | Photo: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Sensing they had the upper negotiating hand for the first time in their careers, the Dead barreled into the renewal of their contract with Arista with a rare sense of boldness and self-assurance. With their savvy, poker-champ lawyer Hal Kant leading the way, they demanded and received a higher royalty rate, about $3.50 per CD. They floated the idea of releasing a series of live albums from their vault on their own label, to be curated by in-house archivist Dick Latvala. Arista wasn’t initially taken with the idea — they feared it would compete with live albums the label was planning to release — but the company agreed, as long as the band limited the pressings.

“I said, ‘You can’t sell more than 25,000 units,’” Arista Vice President and General Manager Roy Lott recalls. “‘If you have live recordings and want to sell 25,000 to the hardcore, go ahead.’” (That series became One from the Vault, launched in 1991 after soundman Dan Healy convinced the band to dig into the archives and release the famed Great American Music Hall gig in 1975. That release was followed in 1993 by the launch of the two-track recording series Dick’s Picks, helmed by Dick Latvala, Kidd Candelario, and John Cutler.) Busting Arista’s chops a bit more, Kant insisted the contract be as boiled down as possible and limited to only five pages at most, about 10 times shorter than the usual music business paperwork. To squeeze in all the details and numbers, Arista lawyers had to extend the page margins and make the point size as small as they could and still have it be readable. But for the Dead post–“Touch of Grey,” it would be done.

Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia perform on June 26, 1987 in East Troy, Wisconsin. | Photo: Tim Mosenfelder /Getty Images

Playing by the industry’s rules had never been the band’s forte, as was immediately evident during their five-night run at the Garden starting September 15, 1987. To the puzzlement of Clive Davis and his troops, they only played “Touch of Grey” two of those five evenings. One top executive was also baffled when Garcia would start a solo but stay put where he was rather than walk to the front and engage in some watch-me-play showboating — standard rock procedure for nearly every other arena band in the world. Garcia would have none of it.

McNally received a lesson in industry politics himself when Garcia, Weir, Brent Mydland, and Scher dropped by New York’s iconic rock station, WNEW-FM, to hang out and chat with Scott Muni, the gravel-voiced DJ legend. As Scher watched, surprised but helpless to stop them, the band and Muni began playing cards on the air. “I was jumping out of my skin,” Scher recalls. “Every time Scott took a break, which was not very often, a lot of advertisers got screwed. I remember saying, ‘Hey guys, we’re on the radio — it’s not television! Nobody can see what you’re doing!’”

Garcia poses begrudgingly at New York’s WNEW-FM

Unfortunately no one in the Dead organization told anyone at the label that the Dead were dropping by the station for some lackadaisical promotion, and back at his hotel room McNally received a furious call from an Arista executive who hadn’t been informed of the Dead’s plans until he’d turned on his radio. McNally had to apologize for the oversight.

Backstage at the Garden, the time had come to honor the Dead’s promise to pose for photos with the higher-ups at Arista while holding sales awards for In the Dark. McNally began hitting one dressing room after another. But schmoozing with record industry people — those who Garcia would regularly refer to in a David Letterman–esque way as “weasels” — still wasn’t especially appealing. When McNally began making the rounds, the responses were, to say the least, mixed. Weir, agreeable as ever and also the most cognizant of the value of face time with label folks, emerged readily. But with the rest McNally found himself begging and cajoling the Dead, sometimes on his knees, to leave their rooms and shake a few hands: “We promised!” McNally implored.

Finally Garcia begrudgingly agreed, and he, Hart, and Weir trudged into the Arista-filled room, where they gathered with Davis and his troops, smiled, stood still for a few photos, and then almost immediately left. McNally would later describe the experience as “brutal,” leaving him frazzled and exhausted after what he called one of his worst days on the job.

This is an excerpt from David Browne’s So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (Da Capo). Browne is a Rolling Stone contributing editor.

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Top Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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