Thirty years ago, a San Francisco officer on patrol in Golden Gate Park noticed a parked BMW on a dead-end street with expired registration tags. Upon further inspection, the cop noticed that a man was sitting in the car — and not just any man. It was rock legend Jerry Garcia.
The officer said at the time that he saw an open briefcase on the passenger’s seat next to Garcia. In it were 23 packets of “brown and white substances,” according to a Jan. 19, 1985 story in The San Francisco Examiner. Garcia was booked on drug possession charges, and the briefcase was submitted as evidence.
But police likely didn’t give much thought at the time to the fact that there was much more than drug evidence in the briefcase: It also contained a number of Grateful Dead songs Garcia and the band’s songwriter, Robert Hunter, were working on. Although it has been decades since the arrest, the Police Department might still have the briefcase — and if so, several people would love to get their hands on it.
Maybe the briefcase is collecting dust in a remote corner of the evidence room, or maybe it was destroyed. No one seems to know. But Hunter, a poet and the Grateful Dead’s prolific lyricist, said during a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine that there are “a number of new songs [Garcia] was working on” in that briefcase and he wants them back.
The arrest report of the Jan. 18, 1985 incident confirms that police at Richmond Station booked into evidence, among other items, a brown briefcase containing miscellaneous papers, according to a copy of the report provided by the blog Jerry Garcia’s Middle Finger.
In a March 11 Rolling Stone interview, Hunter said he has never “gone searching” for the songs in the briefcase, but “if the police still have them, I’d like them back, please. It doesn’t seem right. A lot of those songs disappeared.”
Officer Grace Gatpandan, a spokeswoman for the department, said that if Hunter had a case number he could contact police and ask about retrieving the briefcase.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Gatpandan was unable to confirm whether the briefcase was in the department’s property division where evidence is stored. “They purge stuff. I don’t know if they still have it,” she said. “They actually could have it. For some reason they could have kept it.”
And even if Hunter locates a case number, it would take a request from Garcia’s estate for the department to check. Garcia died in 1995 from a heart attack.
Garcia’s daughter Trixie Garcia told The Examiner she had never heard the briefcase story and had “very little faith” that police still have it. Still, she expressed interest in trying to recover the songs.
And even if the briefcase does not turn up, there may be other treasures waiting to be found.
“There is much more lost music out there,” Trixie Garcia said.
Supervisor John Avalos, who represents the Excelsior neighborhood where Jerry Garcia grew up, intends to have plaques installed later this year to commemorate the musician’s childhood homes.
When asked if The City should proactively search for the briefcase, Avalos — who attended two Grateful Dead shows in his life, both in 1987 — was unequivocal. “Hell yeah,” he said, after jokingly likening the incident to one described by Hunter in the famous “Friend of the Devil” song he authored. “I ran down to the levee. But the Devil caught me there. He took my twenty dollar bill. And vanished in the air.”
If the briefcase is found, it would contribute to the celebration of Garcia this year, as 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the band’s founding in Palo Alto. Shortly thereafter, the band moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. The “core four” members — Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir — will be joined by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio to celebrate the anniversary in July with three sold-out shows in Chicago’s Soldier Field, the location of the last performance by the band before Garcia died Aug. 9, 1995. The band is also reportedly considering playing at AT&T Park in San Francisco in June.
Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally, who was the band’s publicist, pondered the idea of finding the lost songs.
“Obviously to find new songs from Jerry Garcia would be marvelous,” he said, suggesting that they would likely “be paper with maybe some chord changes and maybe even in connection with lyrics that Hunter has given him.”
McNally was measured as to the possible significance of the songs when it comes to Grateful Dead lore.
“The distance from a piece of paper, even with some notes and clear indication of how you fit it to the lyrics and vice versa, the distance from that to hearing a new song is a light year,” he said. “That’s the magic.”
For David Gans, a musician who has long hosted radio broadcasts playing the band’s music, the lost work is lamentable.
“I am not sure what can be said about this, other than it’s a shame if any of Hunter’s lyrics were lost,” he said.
McNally was skeptical that the briefcase would ever be found.
“I would be very excited for any of this to turn up,” he said. “I think it’s most unlikely – that’s thirty years ago – that anything has survived in storage.”