Car tunes: The Grateful Dead, “Touch of Grey” (1987)

97X car 2

(Pictured: My 1987 Nissan 300 ZX on a day when I drove around and gave away concert tickets. Find me and win.  I’d never play this game today.)

Quick now: name all of the Grateful Dead songs to make the Billboard Top 40.  I’ll wait.

That’s correct – there is only one, and it’s the subject of today’s post, in a very roundabout way. I wanted to write about the Dead closer to what would have been Jerry Garcia’s birthday.  All too often in rock and roll history we chronicle death over life.  They don’t have Elvis Week in January, and in some corners the only time you hear Ritchie Valens invoked is in connection with the February 3, 1959 plane crash that took his life.  I was thinking about the Dead on August 1st and remembered this song.

When I got my first full-time job in radio in 1989, the very first irresponsible thing that I did was buy a car. I had a car – a 1988 Chevrolet Cavalier Z-24 that never ran right, especially after it had been stolen from my college apartment near Joliet.  (They caught the thief sitting in it and stripping it.  The guy had the stones to plead “not guilty” in court, but justice prevailed, and I got my broken car back.) But I needed a *cooler* car.

That fall I was hired as the night slammer at KRVR in Davenport, Iowa. K-River was a “beautiful music” station, featuring instrumental music with the occasional vocal.  This wasn’t cool trippy lounge music.  It was more like 101 Strings plays Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” (I think that was really on the playlist.) But I was 20 and saw myself as an eventual rock jock, and needed the car to fit the image.

I settled on a used 1987 Nissan 300 ZX with T-tops.  I would say that I fell in love with it on the test drive, but I didn’t drive it. The car had a manual transmission, and I didn’t know how to drive one.  But I loved the car, so after the salesman drove it around, puzzled, he made the easiest sale of his life.  I then left the dealership to tackle the hills of Davenport, killing the clutch in the process.

Over the next almost-five years I put about 125,000 miles on the car.  It had been in the parking lot of every station that I had ever worked for up to that point. I was making a 40-mile commute to Morris to work for WCFL along with many road trips, which ran through mileage, clutches, starters, etc. By the summer of 1994 I had settled in Springfield, Illinois and mornings at WQQL.  It was while in Springfield that I got the chance of a lifetime – an offer to pack up everything and move to New Zealand to take a job at Gisborne’s 89FM as programme director.  (When you leave the country, you get the extra letters in “program” in lieu of salary.) The situation in Springfield was, shall we say, less than ideal, and the offer came at a perfect time in life. Sometimes the stars do line up.

Packing to leave the country is not as easy as it seems.  You essentially put all of your possessions on a boat and hope for the best.  Not all possessions fit into boxes, though, and after getting the quote to ship the car over – and choking on the cost – I realizes that it was time to part with the Nissan.  I found a buyer in Springfield who was willing to take it off my hands.  By that time the car had 150K miles, a rusted floorboard, several dents and scratches, and not much life left in it.  But the car and I had been through a lot: job changes, relationship changes, and more moves than I can count. It was sad to let it go.

The drop site was at the Springfield Airport.  That way I could sell the car and catch a flight back to Chicago, just days before leaving the country to start my new job.  As I pulled into the parking lot for what would be the last time in the car, WYMG began to play “Touch of Grey.”  Some listeners to NPR have what they call “driveway moments,” where they stay in the car until the story is over.  My driveway moment was waiting for that song to end.  I think in my mind the chorus to the song was addressing the nervousness that I had about the new adventure and summing up what had been a tumultuous career up to that point, and it struck a chord with me. I repeated it along with the radio like a mantra.

“I will get by.  I will survive.”

The very cool video for the song can be found here. If you look closely, you can see the wires moving the skeleton marionettes.  That didn’t stop the video from claiming a well-deserved “Best Visual Effects” award in 1987.

 

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