“He’s gone and nothing’s gonna bring him back.” – Robert Hunter
With Pete and Helen Cripe aging into their golden years, Cripe chose to relocate from Miami north of Tampa Bay to be closer his parents.
Trilby, Florida, was a tiny town named for the lurid and sensational 1894 novel by George de Maurier that introduced the Svengali character to the cultural vernacular, as well as influencing an entire youthful generation in the direction of bohemianism—is it ironic, or perhaps synchronistic, to note that the movement that spawned the Grateful Dead sixty years later would do the same?
Steve put himself a workshop out back. As will be seen, he had big plans to capitalize on his newfound status as a luthier of growing renown, especially with the guitar we’d come to know as Top Hat high on his list of projects.
To make extra money in the interim, however, he put one of his other skill sets to task and decided to make fireworks. Many Florida woodworkers and boatbuilders like Steve had been affected when a new governor had pushed through a 10% sales tax on watercraft that put a severe dent in the boatbuilding industry, along with it craftspeople like Steve Cripe. Guitar building could be lucrative— in this case a few thousand bucks per Garcia guitar—but such a sum as Steve would receive for his spec work would last only as long as it lasted. Maybe not even as one of the Dead’s classic, extended onstage improvisations.
Sure. Making and selling guitars was a plan—he had conjured himself a brand, and with the Garcia association, a dream marketing pedigree. To get by, Steve would create as much of what he knew how to build as he could. Transformation of base matter was what he did, the value he could create for the world. And value, along with attention, would return his way—an immutable law, at least when executed under the conditions of the participant having made his best efforts.
And while Steve and his father may not have always been on the same wavelength about life and philosophy—a common affliction among sons and fathers of their generations—Pete could at least help his son with his latest business endeavors, bearing undeniable fruit as the guitar-making had: he advised Steve that if he wanted to grow his business he’d need a solid workspace, and suggested buying a pre-fab workshop and have it delivered whole, set up and ready to begin producing handcrafted masterpieces. Why waste time?
Steve agreed; maybe he already had the feeling that the clock was ticking, somehow, not only for his parents.
On a high from Garcia’s continued use of Lightning Bolt through the end of 1993, Steve was further thrilled to learn the Dead would be closing out the Spring 1994 tour in Miami on April 6th, 7th, and 8th. Over the first weekend in April, Steve and his girlfriend Theresa were granted tickets and backstage passes to the trio of shows at the pastel-colored downtown arena.
During the second set of the first show, they were escorted onstage and allowed to stand behind the drums, only feet from Jerry. They were given headphones and allowed to hear the soundboard feed. All amounted to the thrill of a lifetime, or at least the latest one in Steve’s increasingly magical life.
In Steve’s own words, “the last days of a tour are the worst for mingling with the band,” but during the next show he was granted an audience with Jerry himself. For forty-five minutes, they hung out like pals and talked guitars.
Jerry complimented Steve’s work, saying that Lightning Bolt and Top Hat were like “museum pieces,” some of the finest guitars he’d ever played. High praise indeed.
We can only imagine what this experience felt like to Steve Cripe, the opportunity to have pierced the veil in ways most fans could only dream of achieving—here, not only supplying Jerry with a pair of guitars he now owned with obvious pleasure but a backstage insider, sitting with legs crossed shooting the bull with Captain Trips himself. No need to speculate—more than a guitar maker, Steve was first and foremost a Deadhead. It must have been like a side-trip into hippie heaven; a peak experience, to be sure.
As the Grateful Dead tended to hit the South in the springtime, early 1995’s announcement that they would play Tampa Stadium on April 7th came as part of a somewhat atypical tour that included other venues never before played, like Birmingham and the Pyramid in Memphis.
Steve, with two guitars under his belt, retained enough pull to request another round of tickets and backstage passes. This was a BIG Grateful Dead stadium show compared to the Miami run from the previous year, complete with an opening act in the form of the Black Crowes.
Backstage, the ‘bigness’ of it all prevented Steve from getting facetime with Jerry again, but Parish hung out for a few minutes to talk shop. He said Lightning Bolt had thus far “held up better than any other guitar Jerry had ever owned,” and that Top Hat was being played around the house for the time being.
Jerry did a cover of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” that night, a heart-rending passionate rendition, as well the ultra-rare 1974 cut “Unbroken Chain,” which the band had debuted on the tour for the first time in its career. A kind of holy grail of rare Dead tunes most fans had only dreamed of ever hearing them play, “Unbroken Chain” blew minds at every one of its 1995 appearances, which would continue through the next and final tour Jerry would play before his death. It was a good way to finish up for a Deadhead like Steve Cripe, finally getting an “Unbroken Chain.” He didn’t know it was his last show, not at the time. Few Deadheads did. Jerry’s color was poor, and he was hitting more clams and forgetting more lyrics, but the Grateful Dead remained bigger than life, and more popular than ever. Nothing lasts, as Ken Kesey said.
On August 1, 1995, Steve was working in his shop with a leftover piece of the rosewood from Lightning Bolt. The local Tampa classic rock station played lots of Grateful Dead for Jerry’s birthday. An eerie feeling came over him.
For the rest of the week, especially on Steve’s birthday of August 6, he kept suffering strong feelings of dread about Jerry—not as a rock legend, but as a human being. Dreams about him and the Dead. Unsettling dreams.
Then, on August 9, the hammer hit the anvil and the news came down hard, as every Deadhead had dreaded ever since Jerry’s diabetic coma almost ten years before—the fat man would rock no more. A heart attack suffered in a Marin County rehab—one more attempt to get off the junk—would write the line in all the histories, the Day Jerry Died.
Does it need saying that Jerry Garcia’s death hit Steve Cripe hard? How would you feel? A tough day, the ninth of August, 1995. It would ripple around the world, that grief. And in the wake of losing the iconic musician, the world, or at least a small portion of it, would come calling to hear about the man who had not only made Jerry’s last guitar, but had more in the pipeline, including one especially for Jerry—not that they all weren’t for him—Cripe had decided to call Masterpiece.