Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics, as he did with many Dead songs, although Garcia wrote the line, "Light a candle, curse the glare." This is according to the book Box Of Rain, which was written by Hunter and is a collection of his published songs. In the book, it is "A Touch of Grey" and has an asterisk next to the line Jerry wrote. There is no definite reasoning for the song - many feel it's about aging, but many also feel it's about all the drugs they've done. (thanks, Eric - Houston, TX)
Robert Hunter started writing the lyrics to this song in 1980, and the Dead first performed it on September 15, 1982 at a show in Landover, Maryland. They played it sporadically over the next few years, and finally recorded it for their 1987 album In The Dark.
According to David Dodd in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, the line "Light a Candle, curse the glare" is a play on Adlai Stevenson's 1962 reference to Eleanor Roosevelt's death. He said, "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness." The line, "The Ables and the Bakers and the Cs" refers to the first two words in an older version of the military communication alphabet, "Able" and "Baker." The modern version starts with "Alpha" and "Bravo."
The song is about the band aging gracefully. The phrase "Touch Of Grey" is a reference to getting older, as for most people, their hair starts getting grey as they age.
This was The Grateful Dead's first and only hit song. They never set out to be on the radio, enthralling fans with their mind-bending musical landscapes and confounding critics with their interminable jamming. Their large and loyal following ensured that their albums sold well and their concerts were full. For many of the Dead faithful, it was strange hearing the group on pop radio and seeing them on MTV, but the song fit well with their canon and was clearly not an attempt to chase the '80s trends.
The song did change the dynamic of Dead discovery. Most fans were turned on to the band by listening to their classic albums or going to a concert with a seasoned follower, but now there was a new poseur class who came on board for "Touch Of Grey."
The line, "I will get by, I will survive," became a mantra of resilience in the Dead community. When Jerry Garcia fell into a diabetic coma in July 1986, it looked like the group could be finished; when he returned to action in December, the group opened with "Touch Of Grey," reassuring fans that they would indeed get by.
Following Garcia's death in 1995, various incarnations of the band and associated acts like Ratdog and Phil Lesh & Friends have played the song. A notable performance came on the final night of their Fare Thee Well tour on July 5, 2015 in Chicago when Trey Anastasio and Bruce Hornsby each sang a verse. When the band returned that year as Dead & Company with John Mayer in the fold, the song went back into rotation.
The band made a video for this song, which was the first one they made for MTV. Directed by Justin Kreutzmann, they shot it after a concert at Laguna Seca Raceway in California on May 9, 1987, which let them use a real audience. The crowd was re-admitted after the shoot was set up; they saw the band run through the song in human form, and also as skeleton likenesses. This footage was combined to create the clip.
The video was included on Dead Ringers: The Making of Touch of Grey, which was sold as a home video.
The Dead were known for varying their setlists so that every show was different, and they didn't change this tradition even when this song was on the charts. Instead of catering to newcomers by playing their hit single at every concert, they only played it when they felt like it.
The Mighty Diamonds covered this in 1996 on Fire On The Mountain, an album of reggae versions of Grateful Dead songs.
In addition to its #9 showing on the Hot 100, this song went to #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart and #15 on the Adult Contemporary tally.