There’s an old rust-colored bus that’s seen better days parked on the property of Strokers Dallas. Strokers is a combination custom motorcycle fabrication studio, showroom, auto repair shop, bar, restaurant and tattoo parlor on Harry Hines Blvd near Love Field. The bus, dubbed Sugar Magnolia, is purported to be the longtime tour bus for the Grateful Dead — but it might not be what its owner claims it to be.
Actual rust is competing to overtake the chipping paint on the 1965 Gillag bus, which is parked discreetly to the side of the large beer garden. The windshield sports a large, sprawling crack. The ceiling is plastered with peeling, water damaged vintage rock ’n’ roll posters and Cold War-era stickers declaring, “Make Tapes, Not War” and “Let Peace Begin With Me.” The stench of mold makes it hard to breathe; patches of the fuzzy stuff are growing on the historic posters.
There’s an old-timey cash register posted on a counter top, the register digits are frozen to “4.20.” An old green plush velour sofa sags in the middle. Beyond the couch, in the back of the bus are three make-shift beds in a U shape. They’re covered with patchwork and crocheted quilts. Between the beds is a small shrine — a drawing of Jerry Garcia, still under cellophane, is propped up so he can watch over the bus.
This old vehicle harbors a bus-load of knick-knacks and also an urban legend that it belonged to the Grateful Dead from 1967 through 1985. As rumor has it, it was used to carry their sound equipment, and when the equipment was hauled off the bus for the shows, the space became their place to party.
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“Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and a lot of the big boys back in the day had partied in that bus with the Grateful Dead,” says Rick Fairless, current owner of the bus and proprietor of Strokers.
It’s unclear where that story began, but Fairless is capitalizing off the myth, holding VIP concerts from within the decaying space, recently charging $100 per ticket for one such show featuring Stoney LaRue.
But the Dead’s longtime publicist and biographer challenges Fairless’ claim. “Deadheads bought school buses and followed the band around. The Grateful Dead did not. I can flatly tell you that in the early '80s when I became part of the tour, the equipment was carried by an 18-wheeler, and the band traveled by charter jet,” says Dennis McNally. “The idea that the equipment would be traveling around in a bus is somebody's fantasy. A bus is not a good way to haul equipment. It's not stable, it's not built to carry a heavy load. They used trucks.”
As further evidence, McNally points to Robert Nichols, who transported the Dead’s equipment in the 1970s in an 18-wheeler. McNally details this fact in his book, Truckin' With the Grateful Dead to Egypt.
So how did the myth of the bus get this far, with so many people believing its provenance without ever seeing proof and buying and selling it over and over for hundreds of thousands of dollars?
The bus was most famously owned by Butch Patrick, who played Eddie on The Munsters. His comments are the first publicly linking the bus to the Dead, so it’s possible that the stories originated with him. Of course, he also could have been repeating what he'd been told. Patrick didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
Patrick consigned the bus at the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois for $200,000. A press release issued by the museum in 2005 quotes Patrick as saying, “She was the sound bus, the caboose, No. 5 in a caravan and unofficially the party bus where the guys relaxed with their friends after the show.”
There’s still a sign in the bus typed out on white paper that reads: “This Bus is on Loan from Butch Patrick… His new book will be out late summer early fall.”
Brian Grams is the director of the Volo Auto Museum, which his grandfather started in the 1960s. He says that the museum never had a certificate of authenticity or any other guarantee that the bus was what Patrick claimed it was. “When Butch brought it to us, it was based on what he was telling us, so we didn't have any actual facts,” says Grams.
He said for a piece to be in the museum it doesn’t necessarily have to be authenticated. “It's all in how we represent it. It's 'said to be,' but no guarantee,” says Grams.
The bus came to Dallas by way of Richard Rawlings of Gas Monkey Garage. Rawlings and his co-proprietor Aaron Kaufman are featured on the Discovery network series Fast N’ Loud. An episode from several years ago shows Rawlings buying the bus and then selling it to Mike Sisk, owner of the nationwide chain of testosterone therapy clinics called Low T Center, which originated in Southlake.
Tony Taylor, who does sales and purchasing for Gas Monkey Garage, said the show doesn’t really go through a verification process, even though much of their business is brokering vehicles with historic pasts. “It’s a situation where that was reported to be the Grateful Dead’s bus, which is why we were interested in it. Obviously your story probably has a little different standard than we need to adhere to as far as verifying that,” Taylor says.
Fairless says he later got the bus from Sisk in a sort of trade arrangement for a motorcycle that Fairless’ shop had built for him. That was two years ago. Sisk didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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“Maybe I'm an old man, but when somebody looks me in the eye and shakes my hand I believe what they say,” says Fairless. “I got the word from Richard Rawlings himself.” Rawlings was also unavailable for comment.
Fairless is ambivalent about what to believe when he hears the news from the publicist. “Obviously, I can't argue with whatever somebody in that inner circle says, but that's not how it came to me. So no, I don't have any proof of anything… Does he have any proof of the 18-wheelers?” asks Fairless. “You got pictures of those? Can we do a full search on all that to see if he's telling the truth?” He ends the conversation by asking for this story to not be published.
“Someone spun a tale to sell and the tale has stuck. It’s not the first time I've done an interview in which I've said this stuff, but people keep selling it and selling it,” says McNally. “The fact that people keep buying it is a commentary on the human need to believe in a good story, which is what con artists have been making a living on for a long long time. It's the gift that keeps on giving.”