Ron 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?