Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Tiger and The Steward

In my life, I consider myself to be luckier than most. It usually comes with a price, but more often than not, the price is worth paying for the experience. And, if that experience teaches me something important, so much the better. In the case of June 1st, 2015, it was banner day on all fronts.

First, let's step back a bit. If you know me, you know that I'm a huge Dead Head having even spent several years playing in a Grateful Dead tribute band. Also, if you've read my previous blog, you'll know that I also spent time as a luthier in the employment of Gibson Guitars where I repaired guitars for their warranty repair division. I tell you this because I've spent more than my fair share of time obsessing over some of my musical heroes instruments, particularly Jerry Garcia's guitar Tiger.

Tiger represents one of the first famous custom-made guitars of the modern era. Throughout the 1970's there was a movement, by more forward thinking musicians, toward specialized instruments to realize their sound. The first company to begin catering to this new niche market were the guys at Alembic in San Francisco. Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner, and a handful of crazies created what would become the modern custom guitar industry. They were pioneers in build concepts, electronics, and in getting in touch with exactly what their client was looking for, no matter how ludicrous the request might be (if you're interested, pull up Phil Lesh's Godfather Bass and check out his electronics).

Jerry Garcia saw a guitar in a shop window in San Francisco and found the design unique. He went inside and asked to play the instrument. He purchased it on the spot and asked if the shop owner knew the builder. It turned out to be Doug Irwin whom they had just hired as their new shop repairman. Irwin had apprenticed at Alembic and had carried some of their design concepts over to his own line of instruments. The two men struck up a friendship that would last the rest of Garcia's life. Their relationship would produce several incredible custom guitars, including Tiger which was Jerry's main guitar for 11 years.

After Jerry died, his two most famous guitars wound up on the auction block. Both guitars, Tiger and Wolf respectively, were made by Doug Irwin. It was pretty easy to keep track of Wolf because it showed up periodically and the gentleman who owns the instrument made no real secret about it. Tiger was a different matter. It just vanished and did not resurface for years. I often wondered if the instrument would make an appearance at some Grateful Dead related event, but it never turned up. I always figured it was in some vault and wouldn't be seen again for a hundred years.

Then, out of the blue, I read a story a few years back about a guys' girlfriend who had tracked down the guitar. Tiger had made it's way into the private collection of Inidianapolis Colts owner, Jim Irsay. She had written Jim Irsay a letter asking if her husband, a huge Dead Head, could spend a few minutes with the instrument. Low and behold, the bastard got to do it! I was astonished. I saw pictures of the guy in Irsay's office holding Tiger and all I could do was shake my head in wonder. The seed was planted that I would have to find a way to play that guitar. But, the question in my mind was "how in the hell do you go about contacting the owner of the Colts? And, even if you do, how do you ask to play his one-of-a kind guitar which he payed just shy of $1 million dollars to own?"

I stewed on this for a while, knowing that I would likely only get one chance and it had to be a home run. One afternoon while reading an article in Guitar Aficionado, I happened across the name of the curator of Jim Irsay's collection and, wouldn't you know it, he worked for Gibson! I had my in. I found the man on facebook and friended him with a message about the guitar and my intentions. We struck up a friendship based on our love of guitars and our shared displeasure with having worked for Gibson (there's a large community in the music industry of disgruntled ex-Gibson employees. Nothing builds friendships like shared suffering.)

It took close to a year to get Jim Irsay to agree to give me an audience with Tiger. I won't bore you with the details of that year-long struggle suffice to say it was worth it. I was to be given one hour with the guitar on June 1, 2015. My wife and I could not afford the round-trip flight at the time, so like the trooper she is, she agreed to drive all the way to Indiana and back with me in two days. It was twelve hours up and twelve hours back with just enough time to sleep, drink coffee, and visit the guitar.

We arrived at the Colts training facility fifteen minutes early on June 1. Stopping at the guard station, I couldn't help but chuckle when I told the guard my name and that I had an appointment with the curator of Jim Irsay's guitar collection. Entering the Colts facility, we stopped at the receptionist desk to sign in for our visit. Members of the Colts staff came and went during our wait and I noticed a curious thing. No one referred to the team owner as "Mr. Irsay," everyone just called him "Jim." I thought that was a nice touch, all things considered. When my contact, Chris, showed up we were ushered down a long hallway where all the office doors had signs on them bearing the last name "Irsay." I had not known how much of a family business it was until that moment.

When we arrived at Jim Irsay's office, we were told that Jim would not be joining us, but that we had free run of his office for the next hour under Chris' supervision. There was a small waiting room with a pool table and some original paintings from Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. On the other side of the room were two large wooden doors with round Colts emblems for handles. Chris opened the doors for us and welcomed us inside.

The room was long with the far wall made entirely of glass. It looked out onto a porch surrounded by evergreens to give privacy to anyone lucky enough to find themselves invited out for a relaxed hang. To my left were the helmets of the Colts offensive line from their last Super Bowl, to my right was Jim Irsay's desk. And there, in an ornate wooden/glass cabinet above the desk, hung Tiger. Inside the office were several other items which could be considered just as incredible as Tiger; items from other musicians, literature, American history, football history, etc. I promised to keep those items out of the public record, so I can't list all that I saw here. However, I will tell you that the collection was incredible enough for me to put Tiger down so I could take it all in.

As I was gawking at several items in the collection, I completely missed Chris removing Tiger from its' cabinet. Rebecca had to pull me away from another display case to tell me that Chris was bringing me the guitar. I pulled a chair out from underneath a long, boardroom table in front of the Colts helmet display. Chris gently placed Tiger on a rubber mat, easing its neck into a neck rest. He took a cloth from his kit bag and wiped off the guitar, gave it a quick strum to check the tuning, then brought it over to me.

The instant I took the guitar is burned into my mind. Even as it was happening, there was a surreal quality to the moment. From my research, I knew the guitar weighed a whopping thirteen pounds, but in that moment, it was weightless. My hands were shaking as I tried to settle in with the instrument. It's tougher than you think when you realize that you're holding an item someone paid close to a million bucks to own which had once belonged to one of your greatest artistic influences. I strummed a chord and listened to it resonate, feeling the strings move under my fingers. Chris told me that the strings on the guitar, sans one, were the strings on Tiger when Irsay had purchased it. As it was the guitar used by Jerry Garcia for the last song during the last performance of the Grateful Dead, it was highly likely that these were his strings.

I looked down and marveled at the sight. It was like I was seeing Tiger through the eyes of Garcia. I could see every little imperfection in the instrument, every ding that only he would have ever seen. My hands moved around the neck of the guitar playing the signature licks and chord progressions of her former master. Amazingly, Chris still had another surprise up his sleeve. He asked me if I wanted to plug Tiger into Jim's Vox amp.

I had been told from the outset that there would be no peeking inside at the electronics and no playing it through an amp. Within moments, both of those caveats were null and void. I handed Tiger back to Chris who once again placed it on the mat. He retrieved a screw driver and removed the ebony plate behind the bridge; a plate with an pearl-inlaid Tiger which gave the instrument its name. He handed me the plate as he grabbed a 9 volt battery to power Tiger's active circuitry. Rebecca managed to catch a picture of me holding the plate which I'm sure was difficult because I couldn't stop staring at the piece of ebony cradled in my hands. I thought about the millions of people who had seen this little piece of art and the joy it had brought to them.

Chris took the plate and screwed it back down to the body to cover part of Tiger's electronics. I sat down on a stool in front of a stock Vox AC-15 (much like my own) and placed the guitar on my lap, tucking its upper bout underneath my right arm. In front of me was a music stand with a songbook on it. I don't remember the artist, maybe it was the Beatles or The Who (both whom Jim Irsay has great affinity for). There was also a stock Les Paul custom on a stand to my left. But, in that moment, there was only Tiger. And, she lived up to her name.

The guitar came to life when from the moment I rolled up the volume knob. The controls and switches, a bit intimidating from the outset, were very intuitive and easy to work with. Once I was able to get around the fact that it was Jerry's guitar, I found it to be a stunning piece of craftsmanship. Each voicing was distinctive. Having played a handful of famous instruments over the years, I've noticed that only a small percentage actually sound like the person who made them famous. Most are just normal instruments who respond to each individuals own touch. Tiger, however, was one of the few that truly was so linked with Garcia's sound that it was impossible to tune him out. The instrument had been built for the express purpose of channeling everything Garcia saw as unique in his style. And, in that task, Doug Irwin had gone above and beyond the call of duty. Somewhere inside that beautiful combination of brass, wood, and circuitry he had captured a piece of Jerry Garcia's soul which spoke with a clarity unhindered by the mortal coil.

For most of that hour, Rebecca and Chris wandered the office and took in all of the sights (and there were many) leaving me free to have my moment. I would play for a minute, stare for a minute, chuckle, and shake my head at the absurdity of it all. During the time I was playing, a thought kept coming back to me; a quote I had read in the Guitar Aficionado article where Jim Irsay had referred to himself as a "steward" of these instruments. Sometimes, people say things such as that just to give the impression that they are not dragons simply sitting on their hoard of gold. Yet, here I was holding this instrument. I had been invited into the man's private office to see some of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my entire life. And, at that moment, Rebecca called my attention to the last piece of the puzzle which made it all fall into place.

As my time ran short, I placed Tiger on the mat Chris had laid on the boardroom table. Rebecca asked me to come take a look at a display. There, to the right of Jim Irsay's desk, was a wall of pictures dedicated to his grandchildren. I noticed that on his desk, and behind it, were pictures of his family. The family names on the doors in the hallway fell into line with all of these images. His father's jacket from when he owned the Colts hung on a hangar nearby. In that moment, I felt I understood something about this man whom I've never met. A strong sense of family, a knowledge that all things are transitory, and a love of seeing the greatness of the human spirit on display. I understood that Jim Irsay truly is the  steward he claimed to be in that article; one that cares enough about history to share these important pieces so they can continue to inspire people to strive for the individual greatness in themselves.


  1. Wow! What an amazing story. Even though I was there, I didn't have the ability to perceive all that you were experiencing. Like all of us, Jimmy has his flaws, but he's trying to do something good with the gifts he's been given. We all should be good stewards of our gifts in life.

  2. Indeed, my friend. What a ride that was!