In June 1978, Pete Sears and his Jefferson Starship bandmates narrowly escaped a riot following a cancelled concert in Germany. Amid the chaos, much of the band's gear was left behind, including Sears' one-of-a-kind bass created by famed luthiers Doug Irwin and Tom Lieber – the men responsible for Jerry Garcia's most iconic instruments. Sears never played the guitar live, and he never thought he'd see it again. Thirty-five years later, however, the missing bass has resurfaced.
While a member of Jefferson Starship in 1976, Sears commissioned Irwin and Lieber (the latter working at the Doug Irwin Custom Shop) to build a custom bass dubbed "Dragon." Grateful Dead fans will recognize the work of both artisans, as they had hands in creating a series of iconic Jerry Garcia guitars, including "Rosebud," "Lighting Bolt" and "Tiger," which were all exhibited as part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Grateful Dead: The Long, Strange Trip exhibit that was on view from April 12, 2012 to March 24, 2013.
The bass' resemblance to Garcia's famous guitars was no coincidence: the designers used the same piece of wood as Garcia's "Tiger" to build Sears' "Dragon," incorporating rare hardwoods such as cocobolo and birdseye maple. The bass also featured the same Earth-and-eagle headstock inlay as "Tiger," though a unique silver dragon flourish embellished the body. The finished bass guitar was delivered to Sears in 1978, and the musician brought it with him to the Lorelei Festival in Germany.
The situation at the outdoor venue overlooking the Rhine River was tense, as Jefferson Starship singer Grace Slick refused to perform and inclement weather only served to exacerbate the crowd's agitation. With the announcement that Jefferson Starship would not be performing, the crowd erupted. "Bottles, bricks and rocks started raining on the stage and everybody was hiding behind the amps," Sears recently told Rolling Stone. "Then people started rushing the stage. Someone chopped up the drum kit with an ax. They were throwing amps off the cliffs into the Rhine. They found gasoline and set fire to the stage; compressed air tanks exploded. It was total mob mentality." His bass was gone.
Decades later in December 2009, Lieber, the luthier who had apprenticed with Doug Irwin and worked on Sears' "Dragon," posted to a Grateful Dead forum asking whether anybody knew of the bass' whereabouts. It wasn't until April 2, 2013 that Lieber received a promising reply: a musician in Germany named Klaus Wilm posted a photo of the bass in his possession. Lieber responded, "dude , you have blown me away!!!!!" Wilm had bought the guitar in the early 90s from a musician in the Netherlands, who claimed the bass belonged to the bassist of Golden Earring. Wilm eventually sold the bass to Lieber, who set about restoring it.
Last week, I was in upstate New York, where I met up with Lieber at his workshop. Since the bass guitar's miraculous return, Sears has been playing it at live gigs with his current band Moonalice, but it's back in the capable hands of Lieber, who is working on some of the bass' electronics. Expect to see it back on the road soon. What a long, strange trip, indeed. (pictured below: (left) detail shot of Pete Sears' "Dragon" bass guitar silver inlay that's now a golden hue; (right) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum president and CEO Greg Harris at Tom Lieber's workshop with Pete Sears' custom bass)