Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Me And My Uncle" 1966-95 (Folk Tradition)

The Judy Collins Concert album, released on Elektra Records in early 1964, included the first recorded  version of "Me And My Uncle"
No fan of the music of the 1960s can lose sight of the fact that we are at the 50th anniversary of everything: the formation of the Grateful Dead (1965), Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde (1966), the Summer Of Love (1967) and numerous other cultural milestones. Yet one milestone has gone unremarked, which is surprising amongst the trainspotting Deadhead culture. Come the end of 2016, why did we not see endless homages to the 50th Anniversary of the Grateful Dead's first known performance of John Phillips' song "Me And My Uncle?"  Since no one else has seen fit to do it, it is left to me, even if we are now approaching the 52nd year.

Before there was an electric Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir played folk music. In principle, folk music consisted of songs that were passed on in an oral tradition, usually in cultures where there were few, if any, other ways to transmit songs.  In fact, many songs we now consider "folk songs" often had a specific composer, but even then the origins of the songs were murky. Sometimes singers wrote down known songs in order to capture the publishing rights. In other cases, the original songs got transfigured by the folk tradition, so that while the root of the songs could be traced, the original version differed significantly from the more well-known version sung by "folks." In any case, the tradition tends towards folk songs that either have no author or an attribution to a long-ago person for whom we often have little more than a faded sepia photograph. Peggy-O, she was pretty, and blonde, supposedly a maid of Fife-i-o, so pretty that a Captain fell in love with her. But who was she, really? The song does not say.

The Grateful Dead, although an electric rock band modeled on the Rolling Stones, was nonetheless profoundly embedded in the folk tradition. "Me And My Uncle" is very much part of a folk tradition, in a very traditional way, with a confusing origin story that borders on a fable, and a seemingly serendipitous transmission. Yet for all of that it is part in a folk tradition, the song defies the folk convention, since its author was famous and successful, the song only circulated because of the conscious intervention of another famous singer, and there was a tape recorder involved. For all that, the reality of the origins of "Me And My Uncle" remain just beyond our grasp.

How Many Is 616?
The old Deadbase calculated that the Grateful Dead performed "Me And My Uncle" 616 times. I have no reason to doubt this number, but it's important to remember that it's a minimum. Although the band probably didn't perform "Me And My Uncle" often in 1966, we have very few tapes from 1966. Our first recorded evidence of the song is from the Matrix on November 29, 1966, so there are very likely a few other performances of the song from that era. Furthermore, while you can define "performances" any way you like, remember that the New Riders Of The Purple Sage performed "Me And My Uncle" regularly in 1969 and '70, with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, and on at least some occasions with Bob Weir guesting on lead vocals (May 1 and May 2, 1970, just to cite some specific examples). So 616 performances of the song by the Grateful Dead is a baseline, not a total.

Individual solo artists with long careers may perform for decades, but it's a lot rarer for groups. It's even rarer for groups that have some kind of quorum of "original" members. Willie Nelson, a solo performer, has no doubt performed "Night Life" and "Whisky River" uncountable times, but he is only beholden to himself. A band has to keep its members together and stay out on the road for decades at a time, a project that is actually harder when the band is famous.

Think about the Rolling Stones, one of the very few groups that were contemporary to the Grateful Dead and yet remained touring with a quorum of original members for three decades. I looked into it, and while my statistics are hardly perfect, between the 1960s and August 9, 1995, the song that the Rolling Stones played the most was "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Since the song's live debut on December 11, 1968, the Rolling Stones have performed "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at every concert since then, as far as I can tell. I counted, however , and as best I can calculate, between 1968 and August 8, 1995, the Rolling Stones played "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in concert 615 times. Now, I may be off by a few (see below for a glimpse of my methodology), but that doesn't affect the big picture. Over three decades, the Rolling Stones played their best known song as many times as the Grateful Dead played an obscure cowboy song that Bob Weir learned from a fellow hippie. In the Big Picture, this is strange, and strange in a way that intertwines with the uniquely 60s saga of the Grateful Dead.

update: Commenter Ben reports that the Rolling Stones debuted "Jumping Jack Flash" on the NME Pollwinners TV show on May 12, 1968. This means that the Stones played the song at least 616 known times, the exact number of known performances of "Me And My Uncle."

New Directions In Folk Music, by The Journeymen (John Phillips, Scott McKenzie and Dick Weismann), the third album by the group, released on Capitol Records in 1963
John Phillips and "Me And My Uncle"
Like many Deadheads, I discovered "Me And My Uncle" from the Grateful Dead ("Skull & Roses") double live album. I saw the songwriting credit, but my teenage self thought it unlikely that the "John Phillips" was the man who had written and arranged classic pop hits for The Mamas And The Papas like "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreaming." "John Phillips" seemed like a common name, and I figured it was just some old Cowboy dude. Why would the Grateful Dead play a song by the leader of a Southern California pop band, and one they had made fun of in the past for writing the embarrassing "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)"? But it was him, and the story was very strange indeed.

Sometime in late 1963, there was a folk concert in New Mexico. Apparently, after the show, some of the performers got together and, in the practice of the time, passed a guitar around in a circle, and each person would play a song. Bye the bye, at this party, apparently, a lot of tequila was consumed. Presumably, among the performers at the concert had been The Journeymen, featuring John Phillips, who had three albums on Capitol Records, and Judy Collins, then a rising young folk singer with three successful albums on Elektra. One little-recalled problem about folk music in the early 60s was that there were a limited number of actual folk songs, and folk artists were always on the lookout for something new to play.

In early 1964, Judy Collins released her fourth album on Elektra, The Judy Collins Concert. One of the songs was "Me And My Uncle," credited to John Phillips. Phillips called Collins, and told her "I never wrote such a song," or words to that effect. Collins replied that he had indeed done so, and she had a tape. Collins had taped the "tequila session" after the New Mexico show, and Phillips had apparently made up "Me And My Uncle" on the spot. Phillips himself was blind drunk and had no memory of it. Collins, an astonishingly ethical performer, had sent a copy of the song to Phillips' publishing company so that the song would be published in his name, and then recorded it.

Now, Judy Collins is a wonderful singer with an engaging voice, and I understand that singers engage a persona when they sing, and that Johnny Cash did not, in fact, shoot a man in Reno. Nonetheless, I don't find it thoroughly convincing when she sings "I slapped him in the jaw" (much less "it being summer, I took off my shirt"), but, hey, props for Judy for rescuing the song from obscurity, and being honorable about the publishing. Collins was a very popular folk singer, and so the song got around, the way folk songs did back in the day. This is how someone like Garcia knew "Morning Dew" or "Alberta." Whether or not he had heard a record, someone would have played him a song and he would remember it.

Joni Mitchell performing "Me And My Uncle" on the Canadian (CBC) TV show Let's Sing Out in Fall 1965 (for the YouTube link, see here)
The strangest version of "Me And My Uncle" is from a Canadian (CBC) show called Let's Sing Out in Fall 1965, featuring Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell. Yes, the very same. The guitar playing is great, and Joni owns the camera, but let's just say it's a long way to the Big Yellow Taxi, much less a Hissing Of Summer Lawns. The one thing we can take from this peculiar performance is that the song was "around" because it had been on a Judy Collins album, even if the composer himself did not recall it. In the 1960s and 70s, various singers recorded "Me And My Uncle," including Dino Valente and John Denver, among many others.

"Curly Jim" Stalarow, ca. 1967, on the steps of 710 Ashbury, probably stripped from a Gene Anthony photo (h/t Holly for identifying him)
Who Was Curly Jim?
As far as I know, Blair Jackson was the first to try and find out where Bob Weir had heard "Me And My Uncle." In some mid-80s edition of Golden Road, Weir said that he had learned the song "from a hippie named Curly Jim." Blair, along with me and everyone else, assumed that was guitarist James "Curley" Cooke (1945-2011), a member of the Steve Miller Band back in 1966. It made perfect sense, and that sufficed for a few decades. Several years ago, however, researching another matter, I was in touch with someone who knew Curley Cooke from way back when, and I mentioned that Cooke must have been the "Curly Jim" who taught Weir "Me And My Uncle." She replied, much to my surprise, that Curly Jim was a different person entirely than Curley Cooke. As if that wasn't enough, she confirmed with Cooke that he hadn't taught Weir the song, and even sent me a picture of the actual Curly Jim on the steps of 710 Ashbury. Taking advantage of the miracle of the Internet, I wrote a blog post called "Who Was Curly Jim?" I repeated much of the information included above. It wasn't long before the Internet directed me to the answer.

"Curly Jim" was one James Stalarow, one of those 60s characters who keeps turning up in interesting places. In 1965 Texas, he was the first manager of the legendary 13th Floor Elevators. The story of the Elevators is too hard a tangent to go into, but suffice to say, being a long-haired freak in 1965 Texas was a very different proposition than in mellow San Francisco. Stalarow apparently had a little money, somehow, not much, but enough to buy groceries when his fellow freaks were starving, so he seems to have helped arrange gigs for the band. The 13th Floor Elevators had moved to San Francisco in the Fall of 1966, as Texas had gotten too hot even for them, and Stalarow went too. It's not at all clear to me whether Stalarow went out to San Francisco first and invited the Elevators, or if he went out along with them. In any case, he ended up in the Haight Ashbury, although I think his connection to the Elevators was more informal by that time.

The Grateful Dead, or at least Garcia, were clearly aware of the 13th Floor Elevators, but they never played on the same bill, more's the pity. There were still so few long-hairs in San Francisco at the time that it's no surprise Stalarow fell in with the 710 crowd, whether or not he had known anyone in their circle beforehand (probably the connection was through a band called The Outfit, who had rehearsed at the Straight Theater). Like many hippies, he played a little guitar and wrote some songs, so teaching Weir "Me And My Uncle" was the kind of thing that musicians used to do in the days before cassettes--it you knew a song, you taught it to your friend, because it wasn't cheap to swap a tape.

Folk music is at its heart a tradition, and songs are a way of passing tales from one to another. Of course, folk music isn't as good at passing tales as the Internet. So when I wondered on my blog about the identity of "Curly Jim," I got some great comments. I found them very convincing, but you have to decide for yourself how "true" they were--kinda like  a folk song.
An anonymous commenter wrote
I met Jim Stalarow (aka Curly Jim) in the mid 70's. We played music in Houston and wrote a few songs together. He had just gotten out of prison in Mexico from a drug bust. He told me he was at the party where "Me and My Uncle" was written and had provided some of the lyrics himself. He said Philips never credited him for his part but he didn't really mind. And yes he was an early Elevators manager and brought Roky around for a living room jam session once. He was definitely a character and a lot thinner than what you see in that picture, at least he was in the 70's.
When I queried about Roky jamming, the same commenter went on to add
Sorry, I wasn't clear about Roky. Jim brought him in the mid 70's to jam with us in Houston, not the Dead. It was soon after Roky had written "Two Headed Dog". Years ago I found several online mentions of Jim in relation to The Great Society and Quicksilver. You might still be able to find them. While Jim was in prison, Joe Smith from Warner Brothers sent him a (fairly new at the time) cassette recorder so he could write music. I still have the original lyric sheets in a closet somewhere.
It is entirely plausible that Stalarow was at the infamous "Tequila Party." Only Judy Collins seems to have been (at least somewhat) sober, and she would not likely have known the identity of every other person there, in any case. It certainly makes poetic sense if an eyewitness and participant to the creation of the song passed it on to the singer who made the song well known. Of course, the only other information we have about the party comes from John Phillips himself, who says that Stephen Stills and Neil Young were there, too. This cannot be true. Neither of them had met the other, as Stills was in school in Florida and Young in Canada, so the whole idea is a fiction. Certainly Phillips knew them both later, in Los Angeles, but he is imposing a memory on the party that simply wasn't fact.

What became of the tape? In order to publish the song, Collins would have had to have had the song transcribed and sent to Phillips' publishers. This would have been unorthodox, but since she was a hit artist, a few phone calls would have cleared that up, and in any case, Phillips' company would have wanted to facilitate the recording. The tape itself would be pretty fascinating, just to hear what such a party sounded like in Fall 1963, but Collins has never suggested she still had the tape or knew what happened to it.

The Jefferson Airplane performed Jim Stalarow's "Blind John" on their final tour. The last Airplane show, September 22, 1972 at Winterland, was released on cd and included the song. 

The Story Continues: "CJ Stetson"
Mickey Hart's 1972 Rolling Thunder album had credits for just about everyone in the PERRO/Marin/post-Fillmore West crowd. Two songs, "Blind John" and "Hangin' On," had songwriting credits of music by CJ Stetson and words by Peter Monk.  "Blind John" was sung by Paul Kantner, David Freiberg and Grace Slick, and "Hangin' On" by Freiberg.

"Blind John" (words: Peter Monk/music: CJ Stetson)
  • Steven Schuster - flute
  • Grace Slick - piano, vocals
  • Mickey Hart - field drums, tympani
  • Greg Errico - drums
  • Tower of Power Horns
  • Barry Melton - guitar, vocals
  • David Freiberg - guitar, vocals
  • Paul Kantner - vocals
"Hangin' On" (words: Peter Monk/music: CJ Stetson)

  • John Cipollina - guitar
  • Barry Melton - guitar
  • Robbie Stokes - guitar
  • David Freiberg - bass, piano, viola, vocals
  • Mickey Hart - drums
  • Tower of Power Horns

While Peter Monk turned out to be Buddhist monk Peter Zimels, who co-wrote "Passenger" with Phil Lesh, I always assumed that "CJ Stetson" was a psuedonym for the Jefferson Airplane crew. I thought this because not only were Slick, Kantner and Freiberg on the record, but the Airplane had even performed the song live (it was on the semi-official 2007 UK cd release Last Flight, recorded September 22, 1972 at the final Jefferson Airplane concert at Winterland). I wasn't the only person who thought CJ Stetson was a pseudonym, Well, I was wrong.

Fellow scholar LightIntoAshes weighed in with a remarkable find:
Robert Hunter actually mentioned this guy in his April 1980 interview with the UK magazine Dark Star - they ask him, "Who is C.J. Stetson?"
RH: "Ah, Curly Jim - he's a guitar player and singer."
DS: "Oh, he is a real person - people have often wondered if it was a pseudonym for Barry Melton..."
RH: "Where did this come from?"
DS: "He's on Rolling Thunder. He's credited with Peter Monk."
RH: "That'll be Curly Jim then."
So Curly Jim was still part of the extended Grateful Dead scene in the early 1970s, enough so that his song became part of the latterday Jefferson Airplane repertoire.

Alex Allan, the proprietor of Grateful Dead Lyrics and Song Finder, whose intelligence is always top-shelf, passed on an email, summarizing the story
"C.J. Stetson is not a pseudonym that the performers used, but is a real person. His real name is "Texas" Jim Stalarow. He was a regular in the San Francisco music scene in the late 60s/early 70s, and prior to that briefly managed The Thirteenth Floor Elevators. I know this because his sister was, until quite recently, my landlady. One day we got to talking about Roky Erikson and The Thirteenth Floor Elevators when she brought up her brother Jim and asked if I had ever heard the Mickey Hart album "Rolling Thunder". She let me borrow an old dog-eared copy she had on vinyl, saying that "he was going by the name C.J. Stetson at the time". Then she showed me the photo montage on the album cover and pointed him out, and I knew she wasn't lying. They look very much alike. His headshot is in the lower right hand corner of the montage--- the person with the fu-manchu beard to the immediate right of the guy in the striped shirt. She said he had passed away, but she didn't tell me when."


Me And My Uncle
Folk music is a way of telling tales, often about tellers of tales. A captain fell in love, with a lady like a dove. Somebody had a girlfriend, "and she meant the world to me," but she went down to the Deep Elem district in Dallas, and she ain't what she used to be. Tom Dooley loved Laura Foster, yet Tom Dooley killed her, and now he's bound to die. They all make for good song material.

But there really was a Tom Dula, and Laura Foster really was found dead. Yet Tom's role in her death remains controversial. The actual story seems even more complex, and we will likely never know the real answer. The other songs beg for answers, too; why did the singer's girlfriend even go down to Deep Elem in the first place? And Pretty Peggy-O--what was her view of events? She said her mama would be angry-o, sure, but how did she feel herself? Folk songs ask the questions, but they don't answer them. That's why they are folk songs, rather than folk tales, because we have to supply the conclusions ourselves.

Some folksingers had a party in New Mexico in 1963, and sang some songs. A songwriter wrote a song, apparently on the spot. Remarkably, the song was preserved and thus passed on, in the folk tradition. James Stalarow knew the song, and passed it on to his friend Bob Weir. Weir's band turned out to never break up. Not only did his band perform that song more than any other, the successor is still playing the song this Summer, 51 years after Weir learned it. Yet we can't find out the history of the song, even though the people involved are famous and lived in the media age of the 20th century. In this case, the folk tradition is in the transmission of the song itself, rather than the song, but the appeal of the song lies in its mystery, not its facts, just like "Pretty Peggy-O."



The picture sleeve to The Rolling Stones "Jumpin' Jack Flash" single, released in May 1968
Appendix: The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
(Some notes on my conclusion that the Rolling Stones performed "Jumping Jack Flash" 615 times)
Firstly, I want to say in advance that while I was careful, I did not check my work, and I could be off by a few performances. It appears that after it was recorded, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was performed at every single Stones concert thereafter. So I counted the total number of concerts, but I did not actually check every setlist. If anyone has a source that counts the number of Rolling Stones performances of individual songs, please pass along the link.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash" was recorded in London in April 1968, and released in May 1968. However, the Rolling Stones were not touring or performing during 1968. Thus the live debut of the song was at session for the TV special "The Rolling Stones' Rock And Roll Circus" on December 11, 1968. For an ending point, I looked at the last Rolling Stones concert before Jerry Garcia's death, which happened to be August 8, 1995 in Budapest, Hungary (their next show was August 12, in Germany). From Rock And Roll Circus to Budapest, I counted 615 Rolling Stones concerts (I counted double shows on the same night as two shows). Since "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was part of every tour, I have assumed 615 performances of the song. They could have left it off a few shows, or performed it a few times on television shows, which weren't part of the concert database, so 615 is an approximation, but an accurate one. The important point is that the Grateful Dead played "Me And My Uncle" as many times as the Rolling Stones played "Jumpin' Jack Flash," even if the exact number of either isn't precise.

Incidentally, although "I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)" was released in 1965, and performed regularly on 1965 and '66 Stones tours, it was not performed nearly as often as "Jumpin' Jack Flash," In general terms, the Stones did not perform "Satisfaction" regularly throughout all of their 70s tours, It came back into their set in the 1980s, but by my count "Satisfaction" was performed only about 430 times between  September 3, 1965 (the live debut in Dublin, IRL) and August 8, 1995.

13 comments:

  1. Damn! That's some thorough investigation into a single song and the stories of its origin! Very interesting read, nicely done.

    Perhaps if investigative reporters on the political scene would do half the sleuthing you have done, the whole Trump/Russia thing could have been put to bed months ago, lol

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  2. An interesting investigation! Bob & Jerry followed what you might call the "modern folk" tradition of learning some songs from other musicians in person, and others from recordings.

    The early performances by Judy Collins & Joni Mitchell seem rather out of character for female singers, but illustrate how folk songs can be shared between men & women, regardless of the song narrator's gender. (This is less common in rock music, though the early Beatles enthusiastically took up girl-group songs.)
    As a rock group, the Dead were more masculine in their orientation - I think you can count the number of songs the Dead played written by women in the single digits (and on one hand, if you rule out ones Donna sang).

    The early performances of Me & My Uncle were more jammed & desperate-sounding than they later became - the Dead had a different vision of this song when they started doing it in fall '66. It remained rather spare and dark in feel for a few years, but gradually during the Keith era became more of a comic jaunt, and later a rote hasty set-filler... Playing this song over 600 times seems to indicate a certain inertia & creative block on Weir's part, no matter how much he loved the song!

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    1. To fill in the picture a little bit of how the "folk tradition" passed into the Dead's repertoire, here are the cover songs from their first album:

      Beat It On Down The Line - likely picked up from seeing Jesse Fuller in person, or possibly from his album as well.
      Good Morning Little Schoolgirl - from Junior Wells' 1965 Hoodoo Man Blues album; at the time Garcia seemed unaware that the song traced back to the '30s.
      Cold Rain & Snow - Garcia learned the song from his friend Ken Frankel, who'd learned it directly from Obray Ramsey on a trip out east.
      https://singout.org/2012/09/10/cold-rain-and-snow-introduction/
      Sittin' on Top of the World - a song recorded so often, there's no single Dead source; but they used the country version of the song (as done by Bill Monroe or Carl Perkins). Garcia had done a very different blues version back in '62. He said in '67, "It's also an old blues song... The way we do it...it's fast...it's not the traditional way to do it, it's not even the country way to do it, it's just our way to do it, which is like a little of them all."
      Morning Dew - Garcia picked it up after hearing Fred Neil's 1964 album version. I don't know if he was aware of Bonnie Dobson's original; the Dead seem to have developed their version independently of Tim Rose, who did his Dew cover around the same time.
      http://hooterollin.blogspot.com/2012/01/december-9-11-1966-fillmore-auditorium.html
      New New Minglewood Blues & Viola Blues - learned off the old Noah Lewis/Cannon's Jug Stompers records. The Dead also knew Jim Kweskin's Jug Band's versions, but I don't think they were a source.

      That's just a small sampling, showing how the Dead could pick up songs from a variety of sources old & new.
      Some interesting comments from Garcia in March '67 on the folk tradition and where the Dead got the songs on the album are here:
      http://deadsources.blogspot.com/2013/04/march-1967-larry-miller-interview.html

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  3. Crazy, I am listening to TDIH show from 7/25/72, and at the very end of the Sugaree track Bob says "We're gonna continue the show now with a song that made somebody famous." Serendipity is so much fun.

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  4. Before dropping into MAMU, that is.

    Great, amazing post. I love your thing about folk songs versus folk tales. Garcia talked about his love for character fragments. Your analysis of the folk tradition, as it played out in this context, is compact and fascinating. And you are writing wonderfully! Well done, sir.

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  5. Thanks. This is a great read. I am now listening to the 11-26-1966 version.

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  6. Great post, as always, Corry! Wonderful work. Minor correction: Gene Anthony took the photo, not Gene Sculatti.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, and pointing me towards Genetic accuracy. Fixed the attribution.

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  7. Fantastic essay, I really didn't know any of the details behind this. I have to be a stickler though and point out that you're wrong about the first performance of 'Flash'. The December Circus show was the song's second airing - the first was at the 68 NME Pollwinners Award show on May 12. They did 'Flash' and 'Satisfaction'. Amazingly enough, an audience 8mm film surfaced recently of the show:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psBCPDVBi3U

    -Ben

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    1. Ben, thanks so much for this detail. I updated the post. This means that (as of our current count) the Stones played "Jumping Jack Flash" the same number of times as the Dead played "Me And My Uncle."

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  8. I remember reading a quote from Bob weir about the photo on the steps of 710 ashbury where he laughs and says the photographer invited curly Jim into the shot because he looked more like a hippy than they did, I always thought it was the guynwithnsunglasss on the bottom right of the steps. Bob w. Refers to him as a pot smuggler from Mexico (the pot) not him. In bill k's Book deal he refers to the first time he did cocaine was with curly Jim in 67.!

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    1. Carlos, do you have any idea where the quote from Bob Weir came from.

      Good note on the BK bio (end of Chapter 9, for those seeking an exact citation). Billy refers to him as "Curly Headed Jim." It seems that tales about Stalarow always seem to have him turning up on the "colorful" side of the law.

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