When Bob Grimm paid Bob Hieronimus $1,000 in 1968 to paint up an 11-window Volkswagen bus for the former’s rock band, Light, neither could imagine that it would go on to eclipse the fame of the band that was to ride in it or that it would become emblematic of the entire hippie movement and inspire a quest to replicate it nearly half a century later.
That’s evident largely in the fact that both Bobs somehow lost track of one of the most eye-catching buses around.
“It was being held together by the paint,” Hieronimus told The Baltimore Sun last year, noting that he likely — though he doesn’t recall for sure — traded it for another van after it spent some time on a Baltimore-area commune and endured a number of engine and transmission swaps. And after the van made the trip to Woodstock that seared its image into the public consciousness.
Light, according to Grimm, had become one of the bigger bands in Baltimore, opening for Jefferson Airplane and even landing a recording contract. “In those days, we had a full-time house gig at the Mardi Gras on Harford Road and became well known for our original music and long, self indulgent jams,” he wrote on his website.
Of course, the band needed a touring bus, so Grimm took his 1963 Volkswagen to Hieronimus, a self-educated esoteric artist who’d already painted a few art cars. While the end result appears influenced by the chaotic, rambling, psychedelic paint on Ken Kesey’s Furthur, Hieronimus instead described its imagery — stars, moons, snippets of dead languages, zodiac and occult signs — as symbolic.
The bus was “deliberately created by a trained occultist… to be a true magical talisman for the dawning of the Aquarian Age,” Hieronimus wrote on his website.
David and Cee Eccles, writing in their book, Traveling with the VW Bus and Camper, similarly found deeper meaning in what they describe as one of the first psychedelic-painted VWs: “It is not just another ‘hippie bus,’ but a work of art in its own right, which captures the mood and aspirations of a generation searching for its own identity and place in the universal scheme of things.”
Whatever the meaning, Grimm decided to pile his girlfriend and a couple of Light bandmates into it in August 1969 for the trip from Baltimore up to Woodstock — not to play, but to take in the music. As Grimm told the story, when the group arrived other attendees had already started to abandon their cars along the highway, and a police officer told them to turn around and walk to the festival. Instead, Grimm told the officer the bus was part of the art exhibit; the officer waved them on through.
“We drove the Light Bus up the tree-lined dirt road to the festival grounds and into our little bit of Woodstock history,” he wrote on his website. “On the drive up, we were surrounded by people walking up the road; at one point, two guys jumped on the rear bumper. I slammed on the breaks (sic), leapt from the driver’s seat, and, in a manner not to be confused with the love generation, told them to get the hell off my bus! We proceeded on to the festival grounds and found a spot to park near the portable toilets on the hill to the left of the stage (‘stage right’); this was to be our home for the next three days.”
Photographers from Rolling Stone and Life magazines captured the Volkswagen in their coverage of the festival, but the Associated Press‘ photo of it — a head-on shot with Light drummer Rick Peters and Light singer Trudy Morgel sitting barefoot atop the bus — became the most widespread photo of it, appearing not only in newspapers across the country but also in a blue-million Woodstock retrospectives, documentaries on the hippie movement, and even on the cover of a high school textbook.
After Woodstock, Light released a couple singles but eventually broke up. Grimm took a gig as one of the Four Seasons and, after heading off to tour with the group in 1971, left the bus in the care of Hieronimus at the Savitria commune, now the Ruscombe Mansion Community Health Center.
The search for the Volkswagen attracted the interest of David Allen, a humanities professor at State University of New York Maritime College, who is supervising a broader search for Woodstock vehicles in general, and later the assistance of documentary maker John Wesley Chisholm. However, by earlier this year — with the Volkswagen seemingly nowhere to be found — Chisholm and Hieronimus transitioned from searching for the original bus to locating an appropriate Volkswagen to serve as the basis for a replica of the original bus.
After raising $90,000 via Kickstarter earlier this summer; finding another 1963 11-window, non-walk-through Volkswagen Type II; and securing the services of East Coast VW Restorations in St. Augustine, Florida; the project is now underway. Once the bus is running and restored, Hieronimus intends to again apply the eclectic and esoteric blend of imagery to the new bus. The plan, according to Chisholm, is to take the completed bus to next year’s 50th-anniversary celebrations at Woodstock then later find a suitable museum to display it.
To follow the project’s progress, visit TheWoodstockVWBus.com.