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Published: 2002/05/21
by Jesse Jarnow

Throwing Down With The Upper Crust (On The Fate of Some Guitars)

1.

The auction of two of Jerry Garcia's guitars – Tiger and Wolf, both built by
Doug Irwin – at New York's Studio 54 on May 8, 2002 was an event so
positively rich in metaphor, so absurdly overflowing with cosmic
coincidence, that it's hard to know exactly where to begin. Facts? Sure.

After Garcia died, there was some controversy as to the ownership of his
guitars. He willed them to Doug Irwin, the Bay Area luthier who designed and
built them. Meanwhile, the Grateful Dead organization claimed that they
weren't Garcia's to give. The Dead had paid for them and, therefore, owned
them. A protracted court battle ensued. In the end, two of the guitars
(Tiger and Wolf) went to Irwin, and two (Rosebud and Headless) went to the
Dead. Irwin, in turn, promptly put his two guitars up for auction by way of
the Guernsey's auction house. And so things were put in motion.

2.

The guitars were in New York at least as early as April 11th, when they were
put on display at Theater 99, on the lower east side, for a benefit held by
Relix Magazine. For $100 a pop, one could gaze at the guitars, sip wine, throw back
booze, poke at cheese with toothpicks, and cavort with Wavy Gravy. (In the
interest of honesty, I did three of the above five things, though didn't
pay.) The proceeds from the evening were directed towards Jim Greene, a
Deadhead electrician paralyzed from the neck down in a tragic accident. This
was a fine, noble cause.

Something seemed inherently weird about the whole affair, though I couldn't
quite pinpoint what. The first thing I could put my finger on was the
wording of the benefit's advertisement. Tiger and Wolf would be there, it
said, as well as other "rare and desirable" Grateful Dead memorabilia.
Something about the way that was said – mostly the "desirable" part – creeped me out thoroughly.

I got to look at the guitars from up close. Shit, they really were beautiful
creatures. I don't think it would spoil the ending to say that they ended up
going for $850,000 (Tiger) and $700,000 (Wolf). They made Doug Irwin a
(pre-taxes) millionaire. "Which, incidentally," my friend Bill wrote, "he
deserves to be for making those instruments". While that may be true, the
guitars didn't command that money because of Doug Irwin's fine craft. They
got that money because Jerry Garcia played them.

It is an interesting chain of logic that led to that value, that fetish. Why
were they valuable? Well, Garcia played them. What was good about Garcia? He
was an incredible musician; and the guitars were how he made his music. But,
he was such a good musician (in the eyes of some) that he became a cult
legend. It's not the guitars, then, that made them valuable, but – rather – an abstraction of them. Their historical purpose. Okay, fine. To me, that's
weird. But it leads to the inevitable question of just what should
happen to the guitars.

Should they be played? After all, that's what they were intended for. Maybe.
Like it or not, they were Garcia's guitars. More importantly, they
are incredible instruments — ones that – regardless of whether or not
Garcia ever laid hands on them – would probably go for well over $15,000 on
the open market. (According to Steve Silberman and David Shenk's Skeleton
Key, Garcia paid Irwin "around $13,000" for Rosebud, when it was built
in 1990.) If they should be played, then, they should be played by someone
who deserves to play them. And, shit, how does one determine that? Does that
turn Garcia's guitars into something akin to prized violins, passed from
master to student? Definitely not a feasible solution, especially in this
day and age. Any decision made would be a political one, and therefore a
cynical one — a result of jockeying and taste.

Like it or not, the placement of Jerry Garcia's guitars on an auction block
was the most genuinely honest, stripped bare way to deal with the situation.
To that end, Relix wasn't to blame at all — or even to credit. No, both
belonged to Doug Irwin and Guernsey's.

3.

The disco ball – the fucking disco ball (and the most splendid I've
ever seen) – still hung from the middle of the ceiling. Like Theater 99,
Studio 54 is an old-time New York vaudeville theater reappropriated for more
contemporary purposes. It's a very New York kind of place — the modern city
co-existing with the old city like an overlaying, mostly transparent leaf.
Outside, a sharply dressed bouncer – in finely tailored suit, as opposed to
the usual rock club muscle shirt – verbally harassed folks waiting behind
the velvet rope. A Studio 54 tradition, I s'ppose.

Inside, potential bidders filled out a form and presented major
identification and a bank reference. Those interested in competing for Tiger
and Wolf were required to establish Guernsey's credit. (I'm not sure what,
precisely, that means.) Others (like us) could fork over $30 for a
catalogue, which became our ticket to the cheap seats in the balcony.
Walking up the stairs, into the theater, one was immediately met with
decaying reliefs of debauchery, which decorated the theater in an arch all
around the room. Other than a few scant clumps up front, the vast majority
of the balcony's faux-leopard skin covered seats were empty.

The balcony enclosed the theater like branches of a tree, catwalks and
ladders shooting out like odd roots. From upstairs, we had a perfect view of
the stage. Enclosed in brightly lit, upright glass coffins were Tiger and
Wolf. Later, as more of Garcia's personal effects were wheeled out onstage
for sale – including his leather jacket ($23,000) and a couple of his black
tee-shirts ($6,000, $3,500) – it felt as if a seance might suddenly break
out. More, though, the guitars seemed to be on trial. It was sad, too. In
all likelihood, it was probably the last time those two guitars would
probably ever be on the same stage, let alone in the same room.

At least as far as I know, there is no record of Jerry Garcia's singing the
old folk song "No More Auction Block". As a dutiful folkie, he had to have
known it, though. Dylan sure did. "When Bob Dylan sang the antebellum song
of runaway slaves," Greil Marcus wrote in Invisible Republic, "or
when he took its melody to fashion his own tale of repression and
resistance, 'Blowin' In The Wind', a tale for the present and future, he
symbolized an entire complex of values, a whole way of being with the world.
But while he symbolized a scale of values that placed, say, the country over
the city, labor over capital, sincerity over education, the unspoiled
nobility of the common man and woman over the businessman and the
politician, or the natural expressiveness of the folk over the self-interest
of the artist, he also symbolized two things more deeply, and these were
things that could not be made into slogans or summed up by programmatic
exposition or romantic appreciation.

"He embodied a yearning for peace and home in the midst of noise and
upheaval, and in the aesthetic reflection of that embodiment located both
peace and home in the purity, the essential goodness, of each listener's
heart. It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by
commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young
people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s
and 1930s… That was the folk revival." (Marcus, 20-1)

With that, it is interesting to note number items 43 and 44 in the
catalogue. The latter is a transcription, made by Jerry Garcia while working
as a folkie guitar and banjo teacher in a music shop, of "Little Moses"
($2,750), an old folk tune. The former – from the same batch – is a
transcription of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" ($7,000) — a song
adapted from "No More Auction Block". Yes, one could hear Garcia moaning the
song from somewhere beyond. Of course, one could also probably hear his
smoker's laugh wheezing and cackling just after he finished the tune, like
all that now familiar banter on his myriad recordings with David Grisman.

Yeah, Garcia was a folkie. More, he was a hippie, a downright, out-and-out
hippie (at least for a time). He was a member of the Grateful goddamn Dead.
He lived with Owsley Stanley, survived on red meat and LSD, and wanted to
turn on the masses. (There are, of course, many other aspects to Garcia's
voluminous character but we're allowed to be choosy in such circumstances.)
Somewhere along the line, something happened. Who was responsible for
it is another question entirely.

Another interesting item in the catalogue – one which might point us in the
answer of the question – is #40, titled simply "Concert Tapes". And, as the
name suggests, it was a big honkin' batch of Dead tapes — 1800 of 'em, if
you trust the catalogue (which also says next to a picture of Donna Jean
Godchaux [$300], ahem, "[she] mesmerized the crowd with her soaring
vocals"). The tapes were expected to fetch between $6,000 and $8,000 — or
somewhere between $3.33 and $4.44 a tape. The Dead were (and are), of
course, in favor of show taping, but firmly against the sale of the
material. The sale of Grateful Dead concert tape by Guernsey's auction house
is not, however, the same thing.

These tapes are unique. They are their own entity. They are no
longer merely mechanical reproductions of other, superior quality, sources.
As an entire collection they are, in a word, an artifact. They are a piece
of Americana. And they are a piece of Americana because Jerry Garcia is a
piece of American history. And the reason Jerry Garcia is a piece of
American history is because he was an extraordinary man — or, if one isn't
willing to grant that, he simply existed in extraordinary circumstances. He
is a folk hero, somehow beyond mere celebrity, one who belongs to a freakish
cast of characters. One who, I might add, fits right in with such company.

The tapes were ultimately pulled from the auction, however. It is possible, I suppose, that
the seller came to his senses. Or, maybe the Dead organization threatened
suit (I'm sure they're none too happy about Tiger and Wolf falling into
private hands). Perhaps the auction made the seller reminiscent to hear some
of the tapes he was about to unload. Possibly, just possibly, he wanted an
anniversary gander at 5/8/77 – the legendary Cornell show – which happened
to be celebrating its 25th birthday on the very day of the auction. (Another
acceptable suggestion to honor the show would have been, of course, to bid
on the rare poster for the show [$9,000].)

A custom job Grateful Dead motorcycle was wheeled to the front of the stage,
ready to go. Doug Irwin took the platform, cigarette in hand, to say a few
words. "It's good to know that rock and roll is still a tool of freedom," he
said with a straight face. One could hear him around the theater for the
rest of the evening, cackling as he signed autographs.

4.

The auctioneer lost me somewhere in the stating of the ground rules, so much
that I didn't realize they were about to start the auction. It was no
matter. There was a palpable energy rush the moment the auction began.
Literally within seconds, people were bidding far more money than I will
make this year, bids leap-frogging $25,000 and then $50,000 at a time.
People gasped. The auctioneer was strangely musical, delivering things in a
sing-song monotone. She would remain on the same note for all syllables
except one, where she would raise her voice and pitch slightly. "We're on
THIS side of the room," she said, pointing like an air traffic controller.
"Six-hundred-fifty-THOW-sand dollars," she would say.

Soon, the two serious contenders made themselves known. One of them was
somewhere beneath the balcony, out of our view. The other was a slight man
in a baseball cap, sitting alone at a table on (appropriately, I suppose),
Jerry-side. With one hand he operated the sign he used to signify continued
reentry into the fray. With the other, he cupped his mouth. He listened
intently to the cell-phone piece placed in his ear. Whenever a milestone was
achieved – $700,000, for example – the crowd would erupt into cheers. There
was great dramatic tension, and the bidders seemed pretty aware of it. Once,
the man in the hat let the count work its way down before – at the last
possible second – chiming in with a bid. It was, I will say, rather exciting
to watch.

When the man in the hat finally won Tiger for $850,000, there was a
monstrous ovation. He tipped his hat and smiled. Who was he? All parties are
still officially mum on the subject. He was obviously somebody's
proxy. Who was on the other end of that phone? Wolf went much the same way.
I was hoping – given that it was used to make far more adventurous music
than Tiger – that it would fetch a higher price, but I guess there's no
accounting for taste. (And, I will admit, Tiger is probably the prettier
guitar.)

Yes, Tiger and Wolf and Jerry are all pieces of Americana, but they are so
in a loose way, at least in the sense that many of the people who made them
as such are still alive. I haven't been to many other auctions, but I'd
venture a guess to say that the crowd at this particular event related to
the items on the block in a fairly unique way. "This guitar strap," the
auctioneer announced, "was signed by members of the Grateful Dead; Jerry
Garcia and so forth." With that, the crowd erupted in deep jeers. "Tough
crowd," the auctioneer said, sounding a bit like a bemused Kindergarten
teacher. When the boos didn't subside, she looked around in a minor panic.
She couldn't read off the names of the rest of the band members. She didn't
know 'em. She pressed on. It went for $5,500.

5.

Nobody won the motorcycle. Nobody met the reserve place. That really crushed
me. When it came up, the crowd screamed at the auctioneer to start it up to
prove that it worked. She came back with answer about how it would be
illegal to start it up indoors. "Bullshit," somebody cried back.

"This chopper…" she started.

"It's not a chopper, it's a bike!" somebody shouted, in a reverse of Bruce
Willis's famous line from "Pulp Fiction".

Regardless, nobody won the thing.

I will admit that I did have a fantasy for what would happen to the guitars,
one whose logical impossibility I am not prepared to admit. Someone, I
hoped, would win one of the guitars. He would also snatch up the signed
guitar strap, the leather jacket, the motorcycle, and the (possibly real)
sheet of acid signed by Tim Leary. He would casually stroll up to the stage,
don the leather jacket, strap the guitar onto his back, munch down some of
the acid, hop on the bike, rev the fucker up, and charge it down the aisle
of Studio 54, out onto 54th Street, over to the West Side Highway, up and
out of the city…

Jesse Jarnow is still creeped out

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