Tag Archives: Grateful Dead

Ron McKernan “Pigpen”

Pigpen McKernanRon McKernan, known to his friends as Pigpen after the Peanuts character, was found dead in his California home on this day in 1973. McKernan was a founding member of the Grateful Dead and had been making music with Jerry Garcia since early 1965.

McKernan’s contributions to the Dead included vocals, Hammond organ, harmonica, percussion, and occasionally guitar. In 1994, Pigpen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the other members of the Grateful Dead.

In 1968 McKernan and Phil Lesh were both released from the band for their unwillingness to rehearse. For a short period the remaining members did a number of shows under the monikers Mickey and the Hartbeats and Jerry Garrceeah and His Friends, mostly playing Grateful Dead songs without lyrics.

Phil Lesh was soon brought back into the fold promising to step up his committment. McKernan finally relented and made the same promise to improve. In his absence Tom Constanten had been brought in on keyboards so McKernan took up the Congas on his return. It was an uncomfortable period for the young musician but he took the role with humility. When Constanten left the band in 1970, McKernan returned to the Hammond Organ.

While most of McKernan’s friends and bandmates were experimenting with LSD and other psychedelics, McKernan stuck to Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort. He had been a heavy drinker since adolescence. His taste for bourbon whiskey mixed well with his brief on again/off again relationship with Janis Joplin.

In 1970, McKernan began experiencing symptoms of congenital biliary cirrhosis. After an August 1971 hospitalization, doctors requested that he stop touring indefinitely; pianist Keith Godchaux was subsequently hired and remained a permanent member of the band until 1979.

McKernan rejoined the band in December 1971 to supplement Godchaux on harmonica, percussion, and organ. After theirEurope ’72 tour, his health had degenerated to the point where he could no longer continue on the road. He made his final concert appearance on June 17, 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles, California.

On March 8, 1973, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California. For Pigpen McKernan, the long strange trip was over. He was 27 years-old. Sound familiar?


Rock & Roll Saturday – Grateful Dead

“There is a road, no simple highway,
between the dawn and the dark of night.”
Ripple (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)

Rock and Roll Saturday’s has been committed to an in depth look at the songwriters and musicians that have not just influenced the sound but changed the landscape of music. You simply cannot have that discussion without putting a microscope on the Grateful Dead and fleshing out all the small nuances they contributed to the building of a genre. The Dead not only changed the landscape of rock and roll, they brought along a generation to help them do it.

“A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through.”
Box of Rain (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)

The circumstance that would plant the seed of the Grateful Dead happened on a late Saturday night when Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia came together for a session on The Midnight Special, a radio program at KFPA in Berkeley, CA. (Not affiliated with The Midnight Special, long time staple of WFMT, Chicago)

The Warlocks - 1964

Shortly after they met for that duet, Lesh joined Garcia’s band, The Warlocks, which included the remnants of a Palo Alto jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. The band changed its name to “The Grateful Dead” after finding out another band [Warlocks] had signed a recording contract. The first concert as The Grateful Dead was in San Jose on December 4, 1965, at one of Ken Kesey‘s Acid Tests.

The Grateful Dead were:

Jerry Garcia – Banjo and Guitar
Bob Weir – Guitar
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – Organ
Phil Lesh – Bass
Bill Kreutzmann – Drums

Lesh was the last member to join the Warlocks before they became the Grateful Dead. With the exception of McKernan, the core of the band stayed together for 30 years, until Garcia’s death in 1995. On March 8, 1973, McKernan was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, CA.

Many stories have circulated around bandlore about how they came up with their new name. You are free to pick yours, although I like the one where  Phil Lesh said, “Jerry found the name spontaneously when he picked up a dictionary and the pages fell open. The words ‘grateful’ and ‘dead’ appeared straight opposite each other across the crack between the pages in unrelated text.”

“She’s got everything I need. Takes the steering wheel when I’m seeing double,
pays my tickets when I speed.”
Sugar Magnolia (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)

With a few notable exceptions the lineup remained unchanged across the decades. Mickey Hart joined the Dead as the second drummer in September of 1967. He and fellow drummer Bill Kreutzmann became close friends and earned the nickname “the rhythm devils”.

After McKernan’s death new members rotated through the keyboards position one after another for several years, including singer/songwriter Bruce Hornsby between 1990 and 1992. For most of the later years  Vince Welnick, former keyboardist for The Tubes, was in for keyboards and vocals. He stayed with the Dead until Garcia’s death in 1995. Welnick committed suicide in 2006, becoming the fourth former Dead keyboardist to die.

“I will get by/I will survive.”
Touch of Grey (In the Dark, Grateful Dead – 1987)

Across the years The Grateful Dead achieved cult status. Their fans dubbed, “Deadheads“, could be found in small caravans traveling about the country following their beloved Dead like some Pied Piper. Little hippie cottage industries grew up around the Dead phenomenon as a circus like atmosphere surrounded every show. Between “Bear wear” consisting of tie-dyed tee-shirts, hippy beads, posters and pins, there was something for Deadheads of all ages. And just under the surface the marijuana business flourished.

In many ways Deadheads were the first social media.

“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.”
The Boys of Summer (Don Henley – 1984)

Jerry Garcia would have celebrated his 69th birthday on August 1st. Instead, Garcia died in a treatment center in Northern California nearly 16 years ago. Through the years we’ve lost so many musical icons you would think we would be used to it by now. But no – there is a void in my world shaped a lot like Jerry Garcia.

If he were here today he’d probably say somthing like….

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”
Truckin’ (American Beauty, Grateful Dead, 1970)


For a full lineup of the Grateful Dead for the thirty years between 1965 and 1995 go here.

For a comprehensive Grateful Dead setlist (1965-1995), go here.

Woodstock Nation

In August 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair took place on a dairy farm in Bethel, NY. Half a million people made the trek to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm to hear the leading and emerging performers of the time play over the course of four days (August 15-18).

Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Who, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were among the line-up. Woodstock is known as one of the greatest happenings of all time and –perhaps- the most pivotal moment in music history.

Over the month of August I will be dedicating my Rock and Roll Saturdays to Woodstock and some of the Artists who performed there.

Saturday – August 6 – The Grateful Dead

Saturday – August 13 – Woodstock

Saturday – August 20 – The Who

Saturday – August 27 – Janis Joplin

Forty years after the legendary festival in Bethel, N.Y., a photo of two lovebirds taken at Woodstock has become an iconic symbol of love. Having only met three months prior, the picture captures a young couple — Nick and Bobbi Ercoline, both now 60 — embracing underneath a dirty blanket, surrounded by exhausted concertgoers.