INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay became the envy of Deadheads everywhere when he bought Jerry Garcia’s “Tiger” guitar in 2002.
But upon getting the $850,000 instrument home and trying to play it, Irsay wondered if the venerable leader of the iconic rock band the Grateful Dead was sending him a disapproving message from the grave.
“I plugged in my amp cord, had my pick, turned on the amp, and nothing,” Irsay remembers.
“I was like, ‘What is going on here? Is the ghost of Garcia jinxing this? At this moment is he saying, ‘No, you are not worthy to play my guitar’?”
Not so much.
After making a few calls, Irsay learned that the electric guitar needed a 9-volt battery he hadn’t installed. Once it went in, the instrument worked just fine.
“But, for that moment, I was alone and I was really perplexed, you know, at what, exactly, was going on,” said Irsay, who is worth $1.4 billion and ranks No. 312 on Forbes’ list of the 400 Richest Americans.
The custom-made guitar — said to be the last one played by Garcia before he died in 1995 — will be on display at the Indiana State Museum soon as part of the exhibit “Chaos is a Friend of Mine: Cultural Icons From the Jim Irsay Collection,” which runs Jan. 27 through May 6.
The eclectic, 36-piece exhibit, which also includes letters from Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl jersey and Jack Kerouac’s roughly 120-foot manuscript “On the Road,” is part of Irsay’s stockpile of hundreds of items. He is showing it in Indianapolis next year as part of the Super Bowl XLVI celebration.
It’s a collection that is hard to categorize, even for Dale Ogden, the State Museum’s senior curator of cultural history.
“We had a real challenge trying to make something coherent,” Ogden said.
But when researchers found Bob Dylan’s “Chaos is a friend of mine” quote, it fit. After all, rock ‘n’ roll, football and politics are all chaotic, they thought.
“No matter what you applied it to, it seemed to work,” said Ogden.
To Irsay, though, the collection makes sense. The items tell the stories of cultural history. Pieces from the 1950s and ’60s, for example, were created as an American social revolution got rolling.
“Just being able to capture some pieces in the infancy of cultural change — that is significant to me,” said Irsay. “It’s not limited to any sort of genre.”
Although he started with baseball cards as a kid in the Chicago area, the crown jewels of Irsay’s collection have come since 2001, when he bought the Beat Generation manifesto “On The Road,” for which he reportedly paid $2.43 million.
The New York auction where he got the scroll (by bidding against American business magnate Ted Leonsis) was the first and last auction Irsay attended personally. Since then, he has sent representatives in his place.
“I was all fired up. . . . I was going to get the scroll unless Bill Gates was bidding, and he’s not as crazy as me,” said Irsay about that day at the auction.
When the State Museum exhibit opens soon, the scroll will be unrolled in a case to fit its 119-feet, 6-inch dimensions. It will be only the second time the entire scroll has been shown publicly. The first was in 2005 in Iowa.
Irsay loves sharing his pieces — a main reason for the exhibition, which will surely get a lot of visitors during Super Bowl week. And despite most people’s ideas about ownership of things and the sums Irsay pays to buy them, he thinks he’s more of a borrower than an owner.
“The illusion of ownership is dust to dust. I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul going to the cemetery,” he said. “So, I hold it very loosely.”
So much so, that he has a little daydream about what he might do with the scroll when he dies: “Sometimes I think, well, at my death, I’ll bury the scroll and have like a treasure map, and whoever can figure out the code, you know, could find it and keep it,” he said.
According to the caretakers of Irsay’s collections, he’s a good custodian of the pieces he buys.
Martin & Co. product specialist Chris McKinney, Indianapolis, maintains Irsay’s 100-piece guitar collection. Jim Canary, a conservator at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, takes care of the scroll.
“I think he’s very responsible. Why else would he have a conservator who is devoted to just the scroll?” said Canary, who also watches over the original manuscript for “Peter Pan,” scripts from the James Bond series and Sylvia Plath’s early archives at the Lilly Library in Bloomington.
Glenn Gass, an IU rock history professor, is encouraging people to see the exhibit. Gass, who taught Irsay’s daughters at IU, said the Colts owner dropped by his class unannounced one day, with George Harrison’s guitar in hand.
“It was one of the high points of my life,” said Gass. “I thought he was so gracious, not only with me, but also with my students, who were clustering around. He couldn’t have been more unassuming.”
Having such instruments in hand is an opportunity to touch history, Gass said.
“It’s like touching Beethoven’s tuning fork. It’s as close as you can get to touching genius that changed the world.”
The State Museum exhibit is a huge opportunity for the public, Gass said.
“(Seeing) the guitars alone is enough for me. Except for the Colts (losing), the stars are aligning just perfectly. Everybody is curious about Jim Irsay.”
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
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