|A white 1961 Corvair, similar to the type of car that Jerry Garcia and Sandy Rothman drove across the country in 1964|
As I was motivatin' over the hillBerry inaugurated a rock tradition of not only singing about cars, but singing in detail about the make, the model and the special features. This tradition was picked up and expanded by American rock bands from the Beach Boys to Bruce Springsteen and beyond. Cars, Girls and Rock and Roll were the American teenager's dream in the 50s and 60s.
I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin' on the open road
Nothin' will outrun my V8 Ford
Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were a contrarian force in American music and culture in numerous ways. One rarely noticed perspective on Garcia and the Dead was an all but complete absence of the automobile as an icon, whether in the music of the Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia's personal or professional image. Jerry Garcia was much more likely to sing about a railroad line than a specific car, and Robert Hunter's lyrics always evoked a somewhat timeless America without too many time-bound references. As a result, to my knowledge, no one has ever done an automotive analysis of Jerry Garcia, not least because it is an absurdly trivial perspective on a great artist.
However, this blog is focused on Hooterolls. Like almost all Americans, a look at Jerry Garcia and his cars, or cars that were associated with him, tells us something about his professional life. This post will look at the cars that Jerry Garcia owned, drove or was regularly driven in during the formative years of 1960-70. Since any car owned or used by Garcia has usually been only mentioned in passing, the photographs I have included are often just guesses on my part. Anyone with additional information about this hitherto rarely discussed aspect of Garcia's career, whether make, model, color or engine size, is encouraged to Comment or email me.
|A 1950 Cadillac Series 61, possibly similar to the car Jerry Garcia bought in 1960, and lived in when it broke down in East Palo Alto. This model was not a large Cadillac|
According to McNally, in 1960 Garcia used one of his last paychecks from the Army to purchase a 1950 Cadillac. This must have been Garcia's first car, although I don't know where he learned to drive--perhaps in the Army. (Update: according to Commenter LIA, Garcia had learned to drive prior to the Army, and in fact he "stole" his mother's car, which triggered a juvenile delinquency charge that led to his enlisting. In the Army itself, Garcia ended up in the motor pool, and apparently drove missile trucks around the base). In any case, Garcia drove the car to East Palo Alto to begin his new post-Army life, and the car promptly died. Garcia then apparently lived in the car. Although I don't know what model Cadillac he had bought, no Cadillac was small.
|A 1940 Chrysler New Yorker. Robert Hunter owned a 1940 Chrysler (model unknown) when he met Jerry Garcia in Palo Alto in the early 60s.|
Garcia quickly became friends with Robert Hunter, whom he met at St. Michael's Alley in Palo Alto. Hunter was getting out of the Army, too, and he had returned to Palo Alto, where he gone to school from the 8th to the 11th grade (Wilbur JHS and Cubberley HS). Hunter had a working car, so that insured that the new friends would spend a lot of time together, since Garcia's car was broken. David Nelson had an old '48 Plymouth (h/t LIA), so Nelson and Hunter's closeness to Garcia may have been essential in cementing their future lifelong cooperation.
A 1940 Chrysler seems old and exotic to us today. However, in 1961, a 1940 Chrysler would have only been 22 years old. There are plenty of 1990 Plymouth Reliants on the road today, so a 1940 Chrysler would not have attracted particular attention. Since no American passenger cars were manufactured between 1942 and 1946, due to World War 2, there were somewhat more cars around from the pre-war era, since a whole generation of vehicles had never been built.
|A 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk, similar to what Jerry Garcia was riding in when he was in a terrible accident that killed his friend Paul Speegle|
The Studebaker Hawk is a largely forgotten car today. However, it was designed as a competitor to the Corvette, and the Hawk was a cool looking and powerful vehicle for the time. It was in a speeding Studebaker Hawk on the Foothill Expressway in Palo Alto, driven by his friend Lee Adams on February 20, 1961, where Garcia found himself in a terrible accident that took the life of his friend, painter Paul Speegle. The accident had a profound affect on Garcia's life in many ways. I think one of the minor ways in which it affected Garcia's life was to inoculate him from thinking that a fast, masculine car was a desirable object.
|Jerry Garcia's 1961 Corvair surely did not look this good. By the standards of early 60s American cars, the Corvair was a small sedan|
Other than the Cadillac, the one specific vehicle associated with Jerry Garcia prior to the Grateful Dead was the 1961 Chevrolet Corvair in which Garcia and Sandy Rothman drove across the country in 1964. The Corvair was Chevrolet's "compact" sedan, a relatively small four-door for the era. The Corvair did not have a good reputation for quality, which may have accounted for the fact that the perpetually poor Garcia could have ended up with a car that was only a few years old.
In 1965, Ralph Nader wrote an alarmist book (Unsafe At Any Speed) about the safety record of the Corvair, criticizing General Motors for building an unsafe car and ignoring crash test data. Notwithstanding that Nader's book may have overstated the danger, the Corvair has become a black sheep amongst otherwise classic 60s cars (Time magazine included the 1961 Corvair in its list of "The 50 Worst Cars Of All Time"). Nonetheless, none of this was known in 1964. However, the Corvair was a relatively small, underpowered family sedan, not an attractive hot rod.
|A 1958 Dodge Sierra Station Wagon, probably similar to Bill Kreutzmann's gray wagon that was the Warlocks first band vehicle (along with Garcia's Corvair)|
When the Warlocks started, Bill Kreutzmann owned a Dodge station wagon. I assume it was a relatively large one, since it became the unofficial 'band vehicle' of the Warlocks. Kreutzmann was married and had a child, so a station wagon would have been par for the course. Garcia was married and had a child, too, but I'm not certain he still even had the Corvair (Update: apparently he did).
|A 1967 Ford Mustang was as cool as an American car could be, and great looking, too|
The Grateful Dead received a $20,000 advance from Warner Brothers for signing a record contract. Apparently the station wagon had been run into the ground, and no doubt replaced by a panel truck, so Kreutzmann insisted that he should get a brand new Ford Mustang out of the advance money. In 1967, the Ford Mustang was the coolest of cool cars. Frankly, it still is today, whether it had a 200, a 289 or a mighty 390.
Garcia and the band consented to Kreutzmann's demand for the Mustang. In a typical rock band, it was the lead guitarist or the lead singer who drove the hot cars. Eric Clapton had a fleet of amazing Ferraris, and Rod Stewart spent his entire advance from his first solo album on a Lamborghini. Yet Garcia cheerfully assented to the drummer getting a cool car, while he himself may not have had a car at all.
Mountain Girl's Plymouth Station Wagon
|A 1961 Plymouth Wagon, possibly similar to Mountain Girl and Jerry Garcia's car in 1967|
|In 1968, the Grateful Dead leased a fleet of 13 Ford Cortina Mark IIs like this one|
In mid-1968, Ron Rakow arranged for the Grateful Dead to lease a fleet of 13 Ford Cortinas, presumably 1968 Mark IIs. Whatever hodge-podge vehicles the band members and family may have been driving--Kreutzmann and his Mustang excepted, of course--the Cortinas would have been cooler and more fun. The somewhat unreliable Cortina never really caught on in the United States, but in England they were both ubiquitous family sedans and pretty cool street cars. Indeed, the legendary Lotus-Cortina variant (1963-70) had a phenomenal competition record, and was a formidable race and rally car in the hands of the likes of a Jim Clark or a Vic Elford.
Presumably Garcia or anyone who drove him around used the Cortina fleet once the band moved to Marin County in the Spring of 1968, although I think Mountain Girl still had the old Plymouth wagon. Marin County was and is thinly populated and spread out, and walking or public transportation was not a serious option. The Ford Cortina was a cool and practical little car, but while it was an English icon it was not an American one. I don't recall a specific story or picture of Garcia driving or riding in a Cortina, although he must have. Due to Rakow's peculiar business practices, almost all of the Cortinas were repossessed by New Year's Eve. Bob Weir had run his into a tree, but Pigpen took a fancy to his, and kept up the payments and held onto it.
Update: I just noticed that Dennis McNally says that in May, 1969, at the birth of the New Riders, Garcia drove his "midget school bus" (p.318) down to Menlo Park to play with John Dawson. I wonder what kind of vehicle this was? Whatever it was, the description makes sense for a musician's utility vehicle.
|When Sam Cutler met Jerry Garcia in December 1969, he was driving a "battered old Volvo," possibly similar to this 1966 Volvo 122S sedan|
Sam Cutler's book You Can't Always Get What You Want (2010: ECW Press, Toronto) is mostly a description of the 15 month period from June 1969 through September 1970, when he went from shepherding the Rolling Stones across America to shepherding the Grateful Dead across America. The apex of the book comes in December, 1969, when Cutler is left in the Bay Area to clean up the disastrous mess left by the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway. Cutler describes being met at Mickey Hart's ranch by Garcia, who had "arrived in a battered old Volvo" (p.193). Cutler doesn't describe the car further, but I take it to be a mid-60s Volvo 122 Sedan, which were popular in California at the time. By this time, when Garcia wasn't on the road, he was living a quiet suburban life in the beautiful little Marin town of Larkspur.
I was surprised when we arrived at Garcia's place to find that he lived in a perfectly normal house in a perfectly normal street intertwined with massive redwood trees. Perhaps I expected him to dwell in some strange version of Gandalf's Garden, or a peculiar Hobbit's cave? His house was set back from the road and had a driveway beside a front lawn that needed mowing. There was no front fence; the garden was open to the road (Cutler, p.196)In 60s Northern California, the Volvo 122 was a sort of hip Mom-mobile. Volvos were still exotic cars, a critical factor in the Bay Area, and they drove well enough for Dad to enjoy them on the freeway, but they were safe, reliable and had lots of room in the back seat. Whether or not Jerry shared the car with Mountain Girl isn't clear, but rock star or not, an old Volvo 122 was exactly what a hip young couple with a child would have had in sleepy Marin in the late 60s.
The three bedroom house and the old Volvo that Garcia shared with Mountain Girl and her daughter describe a certain kind of reality that is often ignored when thinking about Garcia's wide range of activities in the 1970s. It is a traditional trope of rock stars that they are terrible drivers who need to be waited on hand and foot by a retinue of sycophantic groupies and road crew. Yet in the early 70s, when Garcia was not on the road, he was a regular at San Francisco recording studios and clubs like the Matrix, Keystone Korner and Keystone Berkeley. None of that would have been possible if Garcia wasn't able to drive himself to where he needed to be, find a parking space and drive home. Easy tasks, yes, but not one mastered by the likes of many a rock legend.
In 1970, Jerry Garcia was a hip guy who lived in groovy Larkspur with his little family, and when he wasn't on the road, he drove into San Francisco and Berkeley to ply his trade. In that respect, he was probably similar to a lot of young professionals his age who were lawyers or architects or something similar. Plenty of people in Marin liked to smoke a joint, or more, but they still had work to do. So they drove a Volvo 122 to where the work might be, a suitably cool vehicle but a reliable one, with plenty of room in the back seat for the family or a Fender amp, as needed. As the 1970s wore on, when Garcia became both more successful but less able to travel freely, I believe he mostly took to driving BMW sedans. Now, BMWs are wonderful machines, but they represent a little more success, and they were commonplace in Marin County by the middle of the 1970s. At the end of the 1960s, though, like many of Marin's future BMW drivers, Jerry Garcia was just another ambitious professional commuting to work in an old Volvo.
Update: a reader found a comment elsewhere from someone who said:
I remember back in the 70's when he had a funky house up in Madrone Canyon in Larkspur near where I lived, and also he used to live up on the hill in Stinson Beach at Mountain Girl's house near where I lived. I used to see him all the time in Larkspur and Stinson Beach. He did have a cool little Volvo sportwagon (made by Jensen), but he never once gave me a ride when I was hitch hiking over the hill.Now, I just assumed that Garcia had a Volvo 122, but I don't really know, or maybe he had a 544, or maybe he had a Wagon. The Volvo 1800 ES Sportwagon was not made until 1972 (to my knowledge), so that would date the car as later. Nonetheless, the Sportwagon was a cool looking and high performing car for a wagon, prefiguring the BMWs Jerry would drive in later years.
Appendix 1: David Nelson
|A 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle|
Working on automobiles requires knowledge and skill, but in post WW2 America, it didn't require specialized tools or a degree in computer science. Parts could often be had cheaply, as well, from junkyards or other sources. This led to the post-war phenomenon of the "Car Guy," usually a young male who not only kept his own car running, but took pride in making sure that however old his car might be, it looked better and ran faster than his classmates' rides. Jerry Garcia was fairly far outside this slice of Americana, but I believe that to a moderate extent David Nelson was a "Car Guy." This meant that Nelson would have always had a good ride to share with Garcia, a necessary thing for any band seeking work. Hunter wasn't a good enough guitarist to play bluegrass with Garcia, but Nelson was, and I think he had a better car, too.
|A white 1962 Chevy Impala station wagon, probably similar to the car David Nelson had in 1967|
Betty Cantor-Jackson said that when she first met David Nelson at Pacific Recording in San Mateo, during the initial period of producing Aoxomoxoa, he rode up on an Indian motorcycle. Whether the Indian was Nelson's or just borrowed, it marks him with a certain sort of cool. The Indian motorcycle company (based in Springfield, MA) had a legendary competition history, but the company had gone out of business in 1953. Thus riders of an Indian (the Scout and the Chief were their most popular models) were an exotic cult who appreciated high performance without having to lay down too much money. Nelson seems to have been one of the few people in the 1960s Garcia universe who qualified as a "Car Guy," and even riding an Indian, whether or not Nelson owned it, marked him as such.
Appendix 2: Bob Weir's Vehicular History
|A 1965 Mercedes 220, similar to Bob Weir's first car|
Although Weir was mostly a BMW driver as well--his first new car was a 1969 BMW 2002ti--he became a true American male when he bought a 1963 Corvette Roadster in 1976. Weir still owns the car today.
|A 1963 Corvette Roadster, similar to the car Bob Weir bought in 1976 and still owns today|
|A 1955 Plymouth Plaza station wagon, probably similar to Bob Matthews' car|