Pete Sears is a lucky man. Almost 40 years after losing his bass during a concert riot in Germany, he has been reunited with his one-of-a kind instrument made by Doug Irwin and Tom Lieber, the famed luthiers who built guitars for Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
Sears, a veteran Bay Area bassist (Jefferson Starship, Rod Stewart, Hot Tuna) who now plays in Moonalice, had his custom-made guitar built in 1976. Named "Dragon," it was crafted from the rare hardwoods cocobolo and birdseye maple and had a distinct, silver dragon design inlay on the body. It was also built from the same piece of wood as Garcia's "Tiger," and it had that same earth and eagle design inlay on the headstock.
Sears received the guitar in 1978 and played it for three months. Before he could ever play it live, however, it was gone.
"It was always in the back of my mind," Sears tells Rolling Stone. "I never thought I would see it again. I thought it was sitting in someone's basement."
The bass went missing in June 1978 during a riot at the Lorelei Festival, held at an outdoor venue overlooking the Rhine River. According to Sears, Jefferson Starship singer Grace Slick – then battling alcohol addition – had locked herself in the dressing room and refused to perform. Bad weather and the delay had the audience restless. The band had to cancel the show.
"Things were getting hairy," Sears said. "The feeling from the audience was not good." The band's road manager asked the promoter to tell the audience the show would be canceled and they would get a full refund. Unfortunately, that last part was lost in translation and the crowd turned.
"Bottles, bricks and rocks started raining on the stage and everybody was hiding behind the amps," Sears recalls. "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."
The band made an escape, leaving their equipment behind.
The next morning, Sears said the site looked like a war zone. Stragglers roamed the venue, carting off equipment or pushing it off the cliffs. The band's sound engineer worked his way through the crowd, lingering around the gear, buying back whatever he could. The Irwin "Dragon" was gone.
Fast forward to three decades later. Tom Lieber, a luthier who worked at Doug Irwin's guitar shop and worked on the "Dragon," wrote a post on a Grateful Dead forum in 2009 asking readers if anyone had seen the bass. Nothing.
Then finally, last month, a German musician named Klaus Wilm responded to the post, writing that the bass had survived the riot and that he was the owner. He told Lieber he bought it between 1990 and 1991 from a studio musician in the Netherlands who claimed it once belonged to the bassist of the 1980s band Golden Earring. Wilm said he tried to research the guitar's previous owners, but the trail went cold. Lieber contacted Sears; a few exchanges later, Wilm agreed to sell back the bass to its original owner for $3,200 and shipped it to Lieber for restoration.
"It's an antique now, like I am," jokes Sears. "I just can't wait to get it back and hold it again."