Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was born Sept. 8, 1945 and died from alcohol abuse on March 8, 1973. His father had been a San Francisco radio DJ who played deep blues, soul and R&B, which greatly influenced his son. Ron had always had a wild streak, but was also known to be a really nice guy. He could definitely play harmonica and and sing the Blues better than most white kids. In fact, even growing up in the San Francisco Bay area he proved to be a true rebel, with an attitude and approach to the world that inspired many people (especially wanna-be hoods like me.) He thrived off of African-American culture – just like his contemporaries Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin did. In many ways, Pigpen is the forgotten Grateful Dead co-founder – just like Brian Jones became the forgotten founder of the Rolling Stones. Both were treated quite badly at the end by their respective band mates who were in their defense young and ambitious at the time.
Jerry Garcia was quoted saying that without Pigpen the band never would have made it. He was the the Dead’s front man because of his passionate voice and willingness to face the audience – while Garcia and Weir were still shy bout singing in public. He knew how to really work a crowd into frenzy. Like Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin he avoided psychedelics but drank more than he should have. He did quit drinking and ate well for an extended time before dying of cirrhosis. In the case of the early live Dead shows (pre-1972) Pigpen acted as an anchor to his flying off into space band mates (particularly during the early “acid tests” where the band played a lot of covers that Pigpen liked to sing. He also was, according to Jerry, “The heart and soul of the Grateful Dead.” This article collects and edits damn-near everything that is currently on the Internet – including media stories, song lyrics, quotes from Jerry and friends, as well as my enhancements of the best pix of Pigpen on the web. Enjoy and tell your friends because Pigpen deserves the same recognition that have been paid to Jim and Janis, not to mention while considering the history of the Grateful Dead. Click Below to learn about his contributions, roots, lifestyle, and unfortunate early death.
Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan was born on September 8, 1945 in San Bruno, California. His contributions to the Dead included vocals, keyboards, harmonica, percussion, and guitar.
The son of a Bay Area R&B and blues disc jockey, McKernan grew up in a predominantly black area and found a bond with the black music and culture. As a youth, McKernan began figuring out blues piano and developed a biker image that was to lead to the eventual cessation of his school career. In his early teens, McKernan was expelled from Palo Alto High and also developed a strong affinity for alcohol.
McKernan began hanging around coffeehouses and music stores where he eventually met Jerry Garcia. One night Garcia had McKernan hop on-stage and play his harmonica and sing the blues. Garcia was sold: He knew he wanted the man he now called Pig Pen to be the blues singer in all the local jam sessions.
Pig Pen was a participant in all incarnations of the Dead, beginning with the Zodiacs and then Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Bob Weir and Bob Matthews were added to the mix and evolved into the Warlocks. In fact, around 1965, it was Pig Pen who was urging the rest of the Warlocks to go electric around the time Phil Lesh would join and they became the Grateful Dead.
Pig Pen was the high-energy bluesman. He played blues organ as well as harmonica and vocals. Pig had an incredible ability to rant improvised lyrics incessantly. While his buddies were experimenting with LSD, Pig stuck to his old favorites, Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort. And Pig Pen added more and more signature tunes to the Dead’s repertoire, including some that lasted throughout their whole career such as Turn on Your Lovelight and In the Midnight Hour.
In 1967 and ’68, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten, respectively, were added into the band, causing it to take a drastic turn from the blues towards psychedelia. Pig Pen’s keyboard position was taken over by Constanten who would occupy that seat until 1970, but Pig stuck with the band, always bringing the shows to a climax with his intense audience-interactive raps.
At a time when these raps were really becoming great, Pig’s liver began having trouble keeping up with his drinking. Pig no longer played much, but was always present to get the crowd riled. By 1971, the Dead were rehearsing with Keith Godchaux on keyboards and Pig Pen vowed to quit drinking so he could still be a part of the band. After their Europe ’72 tour, Pig’s health had degenerated to the point that he could no longer tour with the Dead. On March 8, 1973, Pig Pen was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage.
Pigpen was the only showman of the Grateful Dead, a hard drinkin’ bluesman whose improvised blues raps equaled Jerry Garcia’s electric hillbilly guitar licks. Pig was an integral part of the Dead’s early incarnations. Ron McKernan selected cover songs, wrote words, music, and played piano, organ, harmonica, and sang.
Unlike the rest of the Dead, Pig wasn’t down with LSD, but he was reportedly dosed on two occasions. In 1966, he had a summer fling with Janis Joplin and introduced her to Southern Comfort, which soon became her signature booze of choice. As the Grateful Dead’s long, strange trip continued with psychedelic jams, Pig, who was more of a blues and rocker. Years of hard boozing soon took its toll and after a long period of illness Pigpen’s liver gave out in 1973. His epitaph reads “Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead.”
QUOTES ABOUT PIGPEN BY JERRY GARCIA
- “Pigpen was the only guy in the band who had any talent when we were starting out. He was genuinely talented. He also had no discipline, but he had reams of talent. And he had that magical thing of being able to make stuff up as he went along. He also had great stage presence. The ironic thing was that he hated it – it really meant nothing to him; it wasn’t what he liked. We had to browbeat him into being a performer. His best performances were one-on-one, sitting in a room with an acoustic guitar. That’s where he was really at home and at his best.”
- “Out in front of the crowd he could work the band, and he’d really get the audience going. He always had more nerve than I could believe. He’d get the audience on his side, and he’d pick somebody out (like a heckler) and get on them. He was the guy who really sold the band, not me or Weir. Pigpen is what made the band work.”
- “Pigpen grew up with that music in his ear, so it was real natural for him. I don’t remember hearing Pigpen’s dad on the radio, though it’s possible I did and just didn’t know who he was… His dad hadn’t been on the radio for a while by the time I met him.”
- “I spent a lot of time over at the Pigpen house, but it was mostly in Pigpen’s room, which was like a ghetto! I sat in his room for countless hours listening to his old records. It was funky, man! Stuff thrown everywhere. Pigpen had this habit of wearing just a shirt and his underpants. You’d come into his house and he’d say, ‘Come on in, man,’ and he’d have a bottle of wine under the bed. His mom would come in about once every five hours to see if he was still alive. It was hilarious! But yeah, we’d play records. I’d hack away at his guitar, show him stuff.”
- “When I first met Pigpen he was 14 or 15 years old. He was hanging around Palo Alto, and I was the only person around that played any blues on the guitar, so he hung out with me. And he picked up, just by watching and listening to me, the basic Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff. Then he took up the harmonica.”
- “Pigpen was mostly into playing Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff and harmonica… He wanted to play the blues, and I was like the guitar player in town who could play the blues, so he used to hang around; that’s how I got to know him. He took up harmonica and got pretty good at it for those days, when nobody could play any of that stuff.”
- “Pigpen’s father was the first rhythm & blues guy around here. Pigpen played piano for a long time, just simple C blues runs and stuff like that, and he’d sing… He was hanging around at the various scenes that were going on in Palo Alto. At that time I was sort of a beatnik guitar player. And he’d come around to these parties and I’d be playing blues, and he’d watch very carefully and he’d go home and learn things, all on the sly. And he took up the harmonica as well back in those days.”
- “He was deathly afraid to play in front of anybody. He’d been playing harmonica secretly for a long time, and one time he got up on stage at a folk music place and I backed him up on the guitar; he played harmonica and sang. And he could sing like Lightnin’ Hopkins, which just blew everybody’s mind!”
- “Our jug band was complete and total anarchy. Just lots and lots of people in it. Pigpen, Bob and I were more or less the ringleaders. We’d work out various kinds of musically funny material. It was like a musical vacation to get onstage and have a good time.”
- “The electric band was Pigpen’s idea. He’d been pestering me for a while; he wanted me to start up an electric blues band. That was his trip – because in the jug-band scene we used to do blues numbers like Jimmy Reed tunes, and even played a couple of rock & roll tunes, and it was just the next step… Theoretically it was a blues band, but the minute we get electric instruments it’s a rock & roll band. Pigpen, because he could play some blues piano and stuff like that, we put him on organ immediately; and the harmonica was a natural, and he was doing most of the lead vocals at the time.”
- “When we first started the Warlocks I thought, ‘Wow, Pigpen’s this guy who can play some keyboards, some harmonica, and he’s this powerhouse singer.’ He was the perfect frontman, except that he hated it; getting him to do it was really a bitch. I think he was just a shy person.”
- “Our earliest incarnation was kind of as a blues band, in a way. We were kind of patterned along the same lines as the Rolling Stones… Me and Pigpen both had that background in the old Chess Records stuff – Chicago blues like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and people like Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry. It was real natural for us, and we even did those kinds of tunes in the jug band. So it was an easy step to make it into a sort of proto-blues band. The Stones were already doing all the old Muddy Waters stuff.”
- “As early as when we were playing in the Zodiacs together, I discovered that Pigpen was not a guy who wanted to be a performer. I had to practically force him to perform. He’d always be out in the parking lot or somewhere when we were supposed to go onstage. He was a real reluctant performer, but once you actually got him onstage he was great.”
- “He never really performed at the top of his ability. He could have been really great – if he pushed himself, he could have been in the category of someone like Van Morrison, cause he really had it. But he had no drive and no ambition. He didn’t care about being center stage. It didn’t mean that much to him. He didn’t have the celebrity head.”
- “He had that magical thing of being able to make stuff up as he went along. He also had great stage presence. The ironic thing was he hated it – it really meant nothing to him; it wasn’t what he liked. We had to browbeat him into being a performer. His best performances were one-on-one, sitting in a room with an acoustic guitar. That’s where he was really at home and at his best.”
- “He’d make up songs with these hilarious words he’d make up on the spot… I have no idea where he picked up most of that stuff. Some of it was bits and pieces from old tunes that he’d pick up, and then he’d extrapolate.”
- “You’d go in there and there might be half a dozen hippies and some black people hanging out, drinking wine and listening to Pigpen… He was a real crack-up. People’d be hanging on his every word.”
- “Jorma [Kaukonen] and Janis and I met at the same time. They played at a place in Palo Alto I played at a lot called the Tangent. They came in one night and I just flipped out. Janis was fantastic, she sounded like old Bessie Smith records. Which would have instantly caught Pigpen’s interest.”
- “He was never too drunk to perform… He drank all the time – first thing in the morning, all day long. But you never saw him out of it…he’d just get more mellow… He was no stumbling drunk.”
- “It’s sort of like…the blues story, ‘cause Pigpen is sort of a guy who’s been a victim of the whole blues trip. It’s like Janis, in which you must die. That’s what the script says.”
- “At the time we just assumed it was all because of his drinking. But apparently he had this disease that was not diagnosed at the time that had to do with the enlarging of his organs. Apparently it’s in his family; it’s a genetic thing.”
- “When he went to the hospital in ’71 and we all gave him blood, they were saying, ‘That’s it. He’s not going to make it.’ So in effect we went through it – went through the pain. Then he came out of it for a while…and actually I thought he was doing pretty good. When he died he just snuck away.”
Pigpen was born Ron McKernan on September 8, 1945 in Palo Alto, California, where he also grew up. His father was a rhythm and blues disk jockey, so Pigpen got exposed to that type of music at an early age. Pigpen started playing in bands at an early age and was too non-conformist to deal with high school, so he dropped out. He was playing gigs at places like the Aztec Lounge, the Anchor Bar and the Boar’s Head at the age of 15 (around 1960). Since he was playing in all these bars, naturally he started drinking at an early age.
Many other San Francisco musicians got their start in Palo Alto, including Jerry Garcia. Palo Alto is a university town (Stanford) that had a bohemian area known as Perry Lane (where Ken Kesey lived). The LSD experiments conducted at Stanford University and at the Menlo Park Vets Hospital, which is located just north of Palo Alto. In 1959, both Allen Ginsberg (at Stanford) and Ken Kesey (at Menlo Park) were involved in these experiments.
In the summer of 1963, some greedy developer bought most of Perry Lane so he could tear down all the cottages and put in a yuppie shopping mall or something. That may have been when people first started migrating to San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury district, although they also migrated there from North Beach because the rents had become unaffordable. Pigpen and Jerry didn’t live on Parry Lane, so they stayed in Palo Alto. Kesey found a place in La Honda, which was closer to Palo Alto than San Francisco was. …
The band’s financial problems probably did more damage to Pigpen than to other member of the band. Pigpen’s Hammond organ got repossessed on several occasions, right before important gigs. Pigpen also had a new car that he really liked and that the band was supposed to pay for but they didn’t, and apparently, it got repossessed as well.
Pigpen probably gave the squares fits more than any other member of the band. He looked like a Hells Angel for one thing, and he even had Hells Angel colors. They had made Pigpen an honorary member, but on what occasion, I don’t know. I don’t know if he went on any runs with the Angels or not. Jerry came up with the name Pigpen for him, because he was always leaving empty beer cans and whiskey bottles all over the place, which didn’t go over too well with the squares – but all of the bohemian types really liked him.
For a while, Pigpen was the icon of the Grateful Dead. His picture is probably on more of the Grateful Dead concert posters than any other member of the band and he also is in many of the collages that the poster artists did. I don’t think that anyone who has ever experienced Pigpen will ever forget him. There wasn’t another person like him in all of the Haight-Ashbury, and when he died, the Grateful Dead became a different band.
I’m not sure exactly when Pigpen first got sick. The closest I can figure it was August, 1971, because the band didn’t do any gigs between August 26 and October 19. Pigpen had to go into alcoholism treatment and it seemed to be a major disruption for the band. This was also when the Grateful Dead got Keith Godchaux to tide things over. Pigpen did do some gigs with the band after that and I think he went on Europe, 72. The last time he played with the band was at the Hollywood Bowl on June 17, 1972. Nobody knows exactly when Pigpen died because it happened sometime in the night when nobody was around. The date of his death is given as March 6, 1973, but technically speaking, this could off by a day.
Pigpen may have known he was terminally ill, but he didn’t tell anyone in the band. He did tell his girlfriend that he didn’t want her around when he died, so she left about two months before he died. According to Bear: He had a liver problem, but it was a burst doudenal ulcer which caused his death from internal bleeding. He was buried at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto.
Just as I was about to publish this tribute to Pigpen, I came across the most extensive and informative article about Pigpen available (that is until now with this Tribute!!) It is posted on Deadessays.blogspot.com What follows is a lot of great information from this article – particularly full of details on Pigpens life, music and death. Be sure and click the link above to see the whole thing. It included a whole lot of quotes already lifted from various sources so I decided to include them in this article – however organized by who said the words. Of course I am the one who finds and “fixes” all the pix in my BLOG Tributes.
Born to the fanfare of World War II victory parades, Pigpen grew up listening to the blues. His father was a boogie-woogie pianist and R&B DJ on Berkeley radio in the early ‘50s, known as “Cool Breeze”. Pigpen said in ‘66: “I began singin’ at 16. I wasn’t in school; I was just goofin’. I’ve always been singing along with records – my dad was a disc jockey, and it’s been what I wanted to do.”
Garcia met Pigpen sometime in ’61, the first two Dead members to meet. Garcia said of Pigpen, “His thing is blues, almost nothing but blues. He’s got some interest in other kinds of music, but it’s mostly blues.” So when Pigpen first encountered Garcia, he was excited to find that Garcia could play acoustic blues-style guitar. Pigpen soon started hanging out with Garcia to learn some blues guitar from him.
Pigpen kind of had his feet in two worlds when he was in his teens. He liked to hang out at the black bars and blues clubs in East Palo Alto; but he was also part of the bohemian-folkie scene at the Chateau and Kepler’s bookstore. …
Peter Albin thought Pigpen might have met Janis Joplin when they were doing one of the Midnight Special radio shows in ’63, when Janis was in the scene. “I’m pretty sure that one time at the Midnight Special, Pigpen and Janis were both there the same night. She was up for about a year… She was certainly around a lot there for a while – and I know he was aware of her because when she came back with Big Brother he was definitely very friendly with her.”
Not much is known about Pigpen’s early days playing at folk clubs like the Boar’s Head and the Tangent. The people who saw him then make him sound like a prodigy, perhaps because there weren’t many other blues players in the area; or perhaps by the Dead years he’d lost some of his early confidence or was out of practice. …
Around ’63, Pigpen also fronted an electric blues band called the Zodiacs; Garcia sometimes played bass in the band. “The Zodiacs is where Pigpen worked out his harp playing and blues singing.” Though the band gave them some experience playing electric blues, and introduced Garcia to the Freddy King style of playing, Garcia and Pigpen were about to head in a different direction. …
Bob Weir had just met Garcia (as he says, on New Year’s Eve, 1963). “I think I first met Pigpen in Garcia’s garage in Palo Alto at the first jug band rehearsal. Garcia had said he knew this guy Pigpen who played real good blues; and even though he’d been around, I’d never really heard about him until that day.” With his knowledge of old blues songs and his ability to play them, Pigpen was a natural for the jug band. Weir said that in McCree’s, “Every now and again we would do a gig at a place that would have a piano and Pigpen would play some, but he mainly played harmonica and sang.” …
In August ’64, the Hard Day’s Night movie came out and made a big impact on Garcia and Weir (and, independently, Phil Lesh). Weir became quite smitten with the Beatles: “What we saw them doing was impossibly attractive. I couldn’t think of anything else more worth doing.” Also, Pigpen listened to the Rolling Stones’ first US album that year and supposedly said to Garcia, “We can do that!”
Before long, Phil Lesh came to see them play at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor. The rest is history; but it’s not often told that the first Warlocks song Lesh saw was a Pigpen song – King Bee. It was an impressive moment: Lesh said, “Pigpen ate my mind with the harp, singing the blues.” Though they were always diverse, the Dead’s shows in ’66 are certainly more heavily blues-soaked than later years; in some shows, almost every song is a blues or R&B cover. Pigpen correspondingly does a lot more singing than he would do later on.
Pigpen would have stood out in that bunch. He’s definitely a dominating figure at the Acid Tests with songs like King Bee, Caution, and Midnight Hour, and the famed “who cares?” rap, comforting a rattled audience. … In large part due to Pigpen, Grateful Dead shows became much like religious revivals at times.
Newspaper reviewer Tom Zito remembered “the magical ways the Dead could make the ambience of a rock concert more like a religious service.” He wrote about a July ’70 Fillmore East show: “The distinction between band and crowd dissolves as the Dead go into Turn On Your Lovelight. Pigpen lets loose with the lyrics, and the audience, providing accompaniment for the band by clapping, stamping, shaking tambourines and beating cowbells, answers back. Garcia’s guitar flies higher and higher. The whole Fillmore moves in time to the drumming… A cannon explodes.”
Blair Jackson, on a March ’70 show: “Pigpen got everyone to go absolutely crazy. He had us screamin’ and hollerin’ and carryin’ on. He even got the few deadheads who weren’t dancing to get up and join the fun.” Jackson described his first Lovelight: “Pig danced a little dance, and the band started building a ferocious R&B groove behind him. The jam rose and receded a few more times – and finally he led the band into a big, big buildup at the end, shouting and screaming and testifying. ‘Little bit higher! Shine on me! Turn on your lovelight!’ And on it went until it exploded into a blast of noisy chords and drumshots and feedback that just about ripped the top of my head off, leaving me sweaty and breathless.” …
Pigpen was actually more comfortable just playing for his friends at home. Lesh wrote that “Pig was the perfect front man for the band; intense, commanding, comforting; but I don’t think he enjoyed doing that quite as much as sitting on a couch with a guitar and a jug… Never was Pigpen more at home than with a bottle of wine and a guitar, at home or at some party, improvising epic blues rant lyrics, playing Lightnin’ Hopkins songs, and doing Lord Buckley routines.” Far from being a Hell’s Angels-type thrill-seeker, Pigpen’s life apart from the music was pretty quiet.
Pigpen lent his harmonica or organ playing to live blues sessions now and then. Lesh later made an interesting comment that “now we each know how to play well enough that we can play with other people; but for a long time it wasn’t true – except for Jerry, who had a head start on all of us, and Pigpen, who was the king.” One instance we know of was at the 9/2/68 Sky River Rock festival, after the Dead’s show, as reported in Downbeat:
“The pinnacle of the festival was reached in a soulful blues session led by Big Mama Thornton, accompanied by James Cotton on mouth harp, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (of the Grateful Dead) on organ, one of the Dead’s two drummers, and a guitarist. The session, late in the afternoon of the final day, seemed to define blues playing in a way that many of the rock groups had only been able to approach. The Grateful Dead, who preceded Big Mama and were very, very good in their usual bag, sounded square by comparison. Behind Miss Thornton, Pigpen comped and comped and comped – almost no solos.”
In 1970, audiences got to see a new side of Pigpen in the acoustic sets. But Pigpen was strangely reluctant to play acoustically, even though that was his main background; and he often seemed to avoid coming out. There are quite a few acoustic sets where he doesn’t sing at all – and when he does get pushed on, he rarely does more than one song. Not only that, but given his wide knowledge of blues songs, it’s disappointing that he mostly does the same one or two Lightnin’ Hopkins songs in each show.
Pigpen did the following Lightnin’ Hopkins songs in 1970:
- Katie Mae – the most frequent song, done 12 times
- The Rub – five acoustic versions from ’70, and six electric versions in ‘71
- She’s Mine – 5/15/70 and 7/12/70
- Bring Me My Shotgun – done only on 7/12/70 (when he did all these songs)
I believe Pigpen also did a few rare songs at the Hartbeats shows in April – Roberta (Leadbelly), The Flood (very likely John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo), Big Breasa, and Walk Down the Street. (Those last two are certainly not the actual song titles, so I can’t identify those songs. Sadly, with no tapes, we don’t know what Pigpen had to say about Big Breasa, but we can imagine.
When in the mood, Pigpen would sometimes play harmonica in various songs. For instance, there’s nice footage in the Festival Express film of him playing harmonica in New Speedway Boogie. Pigpen also started playing piano in the Dead’s sets that summer, a surprising development. He was only intermittently playing organ in the shows by that time; but the piano had actually been his first instrument, and it added a new dimension to the Dead’s acoustic sets. …
Though Pigpen’s quiet little song Operator wasn’t played very often, it marked a slight departure from his blues-heavy repertoire. For that matter, it was rare for Pigpen to be writing a Dead song at all. His last contribution had been writing a verse for Alligator back in 1967! Robert Hunter said, “Phil and Pigpen developed the song’s musical structure together, and Pigpen added the entire final verse: ‘Ridin’ down the river in an old canoe.’”
His first (and longest-lasting) song had been Caution, in 1965. Bob Weir remembered, “How the Caution jam developed is we were driving around listening to the radio…and the song Mystic Eyes by Them was on, and we were all saying, ‘Check this out! We can do this!’ So we got to the club where we were playing and we warmed up on it. We lifted the riff from Mystic Eyes and extrapolated it into Caution, and I think Pigpen just made up the words.” …
Pigpen limited his selections to a few numbers. For deep blues, he chose King Bee and It Hurts Me Too; for light shuffles, he turned to Big Boss Man and Next Time You See Me. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl was a frequent opener (until it became rare in 1970.) Turn on Your Lovelight became the inevitable closer; Midnight Hour and Smokestack Lightning were infrequent treats; Good Lovin’ and Hard to Handle were added in ’69 and slowly became monster jamming-songs over the next couple years; It’s A Man’s World was tried out in 1970 but only lasted a few months.
Pigpen was also fond of bands like the Coasters, and sometimes he’d sing their Hog For You Baby or Searchin’ with Garcia & Weir, or the Olympics’ Big Boy Pete, or Rufus Thomas’s Walkin’ the Dog. These were very rare group-vocal novelty numbers for the Dead, though.
In ’69 the band gave a new song to Pigpen, Easy Wind. Robert Hunter said, “I’d been listening to Robert Johnson and I was liking Delta blues an awful lot, so I sat down to write a blues a la Robert Johnson. I played it for Pigpen and he dug it, so he did it.” Garcia said, “He contributed a lot to the way it works, the way it feels. He understood how it was supposed to be; it wouldn’t have worked unless he did it.” Weir thought Easy Wind “was one of our coolest tunes. We didn’t play it that much, but I always liked it.” The band dropped it in early ’71, though. …
The Dead debuted Mr. Charlie on July 31 (a song Pigpen co-wrote with Robert Hunter), Empty Pages on August 23 (only played at three shows), Chinatown Shuffle on December 31, and Two Souls in Communion the next year on March 21. After being creatively left out of the Dead for some time, Pigpen now had the ability to contribute blues-based songs that fit well with their other new rustic-country-flavored material.
Garcia said, “I thought Mr Charlie was a great tune. I’m sorry we never got a chance to do that one in the studio.” As it turned out, they did put it on the Europe ’72 album; and another one of Pigpen’s new songs almost made it. In fact, Pigpen also wrote more songs that weren’t taken up by the Dead, and was starting to record songs at home.
I’ve heard only an hour of Pigpen’s home recordings, though more used to circulate on tape, and are reviewed in detail in the Taping Compendium. (The most common tape is labeled “Bring Me My Shotgun” or “Apartment Demos,” usually with wildly inaccurate dates. There was also a piano tape and several interesting-sounding original songs that unfortunately aren’t available digitally.)
Most of the tunes really don’t sound like songs being worked on for an album, more like Pigpen just fooling around. Almost no original songs are on this tape, just the usual tired old Lightnin’ Hopkins covers and familiar blues retreads: Katie Mae, Shotgun, She’s Mine, CC Rider, I Got Two Women, etc. His guitar playing is rudimentary considering he’d been playing this stuff for ten years, and the simple, repetitive acoustic-blues shuffles get dreary after a while. (There’s also a long tiresome harmonica solo, some narrative talking-blues, and a bit of authentic country-blues-style slide guitar.) The standout is the sad, slow No Tomorrow, the only piano song on the tape. It sounds much like Two Souls in Communion on piano, and illustrates how much Pigpen may have needed the rest of the band to make a solo album work. …
Pigpen had been a heavy drinker for at least ten years, and his health had slowly been failing for some time before the collapse. The band did their best to overlook this slight issue. Tom Constanten remembered that nobody ever tried to intervene with Pigpen’s drinking. “The doctor was the first to tell him. That was a time when everybody was doing so many things that the laissez faire attitude was, hey, who are we to tell him?” Bob Matthews also commented, “There was an attitude of, who are we to cast stones?” …
The Dead went out to Europe for a two-month tour, and Pigpen went with them. It’s somewhat remarkable that he went at all; but he contributed a lot to the music, adding not only his blues tunes but also some majestic versions of Good Lovin’ and Lovelight, and the surprise return of Caution. (It’s noticeable that he tends to be more active in the first sets than the second sets, perhaps running out of energy some nights.) This was also one of the Dead’s rare double-keyboard tours, with Pigpen on the B-3 and Keith Godchaux on piano.
Garcia remembered, “We were so delighted when he was able to come to Europe with us, cause he’d been so sick. And then when we were there he played and sang real good. He had a great time. He wasn’t as strong as he had been certainly, but he was there.” Pigpen was still quite far from well though. It was hard for him to rest on the road, and the long bumpy bus rides in particular were grueling for him, as he was struggling with hepatitis.
Pigpen’s last show was on June 17, 1972 where he played organ on the first Stella Blue, but didn’t sing anything. For the rest of the year, Weir would announce to disappointed audiences asking “Where’s Pigpen?” that Pigpen was staying home recovering from his “multiple and serious illnesses.” On August 21, it was Lesh who announced, “Pigpen is sick. He caught a little hepatitis when we went to Europe and that combined with his breakdown of the last year, got him kinda screwed up. So he’s got to stay home for six months and do nothing but cook vegetables. But we know that we can take your best wishes on home to Pigpen.” …
Nonetheless, his friends said later that they’d expected him to recover. Whether through disbelief, inattention or optimism, or because Pigpen put up a good front for others, they thought he was getting himself back together. As Garcia said, “Actually I thought he was doing pretty good…he kind of just snuck away.”
Rock Scully: “Pigpen was supposed to come back. All the reports I heard were very positive that he was getting better. He didn’t do anything to fuck up; it’s just that his body gave up.” Mountain Girl: “We all thought he was getting better. Pigpen wouldn’t tell anyone how sick he was.”
In the first week of March 1973, Pigpen showed up at a band rehearsal; but as McNally puts it, ‘the band didn’t want to be distracted’ and they brushed him off. Photographer Bob Seidemann, who drove him there, said that “they coldly put him down, turned him away;” so he went back home. He was found a few days later.
QUOTES ABOUT PIGPEN BY FRIENDS
- “A lot of people thought he looked like a real tough guy, but he wasn’t of course.”
- “Ron showed me a lot of his records and he’d say, ‘This is stuff my dad used to play.’ He had a fantastic collection, including a lot of old blues 78s.”
- “He would be around playing at different places or at a party or something. It was all pretty informal. He’d play guitar mostly, and harmonica, and he played with Garcia once in a while… When he would come over to my parents’ place he would tickle the ivories, and I thought he was pretty good – though I never thought he’d become a keyboard player for a rock & roll band. I thought he was an excellent harp player.”
- “It’s hard to describe his attitude toward performing back then. He definitely didn’t have the same kind of ambition that Janis had, for example. He would not go onstage with that kind of attitude: ‘I want to make people love me, I want to be famous, and I’m gonna do it by doing this, and here it is, everybody.’ Pigpen was just doing his shtick, his blues thing.”
- “Pigpen’s father was a blues DJ who went by the name ‘Cool Breeze’. Pigpen had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the blues artists, and Pigpen was a remarkable blues singer. The world never got to see the full measure of Pigpen. He could do so many things – he was so deep, so broad. I used to room with him on the road and I shared a house with him in Novato.
- I mean you’d look at him and see this Hell’s Angel sort of character who sings this narrow band of music, and he was really into so many more things. Pigpen had a different inner and outer image. While his outer image was kind of like Pirate Pete who would shoot his gun at your feet to make you dance, yet he was also the guy who brought a portable chess game along on the road because he liked to play.”
- “He knew the archive of the blues as well as anyone I’d ever known. Pigpen went way back with the blues…he had absorbed it.”
- “I think Jerry did some things to make Pigpen feel included, like featuring his songs and encouraging him. The perception I had was that Jerry was always encouraging him, and he felt that Pigpen’s thing should have a platform in the band’s context.”
- “I hate to say it, but he was a pretty normal guy. We’d play music, listen to music, talk, hang out.”
- “He was almost the exact opposite of his public image. He looked like a pirate who would run you through with a sword, but he was one of the sweetest gentlemen I’ve ever encountered.”
- “Pigpen was fine with gigs the size of the Fillmore, but he hated it when there were a lot of people, when it got beyond [where] you really can communicate with all of those people in that room… So somewhere in there it started losing it for Pigpen and getting more and more fearful, and in his case that meant more booze. Not so drunk that you can’t go out there and play your music without fucking up, but enough that you can blank it out because it’s really scary up there.”
- “He loved being up there onstage at the Fillmore. But I don’t think a ‘career’ in music was something that ever even occurred to him. I even saw him right before he died – he and I had a long talk – and even at that point…as far as going out and saying, ‘I’m gonna go out and blow my harp and make a lot of money and be a famous musician,’ somewhere in the back of his mind it might have occurred to him that it could happen. But he did it for the music; it was for the pleasure… I know he wasn’t in it for the money, and there really wasn’t any of that anyway.”
- “He had his harp in his pocket and he was doing that thing… He was kind of emulating the blues players of the time… He mainly drank sweet wine, following the blues singers’ lives.”
- Veronica Grant: “[At 710 Ashbury,] Janis would come over and they’d play til 4 in the morning. I’d go to sleep, and they’d just play. Elvin Bishop came by a lot; so did Vince Guaraldi. He was a close friend of Pig and the Dead.”
- “Pigpen was the musician in the Grateful Dead. When I first met the Grateful Dead, it was Pigpen and the boys. It was a blues band… Pigpen was a kind man. He looked so hard, but he was a kind, soft man. That’s why he had to look so tough, because he was so kind, he would get stepped on…
- If there was one black chick in the audience, he’d always go home with her. Somehow he’d always have her up by his organ…by the end of the evening, she’d be up sitting on his stool. He just loved black women…
- “Pigpen was a kind man. He looked so hard, but he was a kind, soft man. That’s why he had to look so tough, because he was so kind, he would get stepped on.”
- “He was just living the blues life: singing the blues and drinking whiskey. That’s what all blues guys did… He was the blues: he lived it, and he believed it, and he got caught in that web and couldn’t break out. And it killed him.”
- “He was a real scuzzy teenage kid with a terrible complexion. He must’ve been 16 or 17 when he started hanging around the Chateau. He had a scuzzy beard and he drank Thunderbird, and wore a fatigue jacket. He was the sort of guy that one would ordinarily discourage from showing up at one’s parties, except that he played a hell of a harmonica, and that was his passport. There weren’t many people at that time playing the kind of music he was, and I didn’t know any harmonica players at all.”
- “I had seen Pigpen play guitar and harmonica a bit at the Tangent and I was impressed with how good he was solo. Then he played with Mother McCree’s, of course, and he was seemingly the most professional of anybody in the group. He had his act down completely, very young… You could tell this was a guy who understood and could play blues.”
- “Ron was ‘good folks.’ You’d stop in his room, watch television with him, hang out. He’d sit around in his shorts drinking whiskey.”
- “Pigpen kept to himself on the road, staying in his room and watching television or reading. He liked science fiction.”
- “It’s hard to explain Pigpen’s magic to deadheads who never saw him perform, who never saw him work a crowd. Tapes don’t capture his essence, because a lot of it was the way he moved and the way the band grooved behind him… He had an incredibly powerful presence.”
- “Pigpen would play bottleneck guitar. He was pretty good at it too, though he never played it onstage.”
- “With Pigpen it started with Midnight Hour… The Grateful Dead gave him the opportunity to try it – what better vehicle could you get for stretching out? Pig wants to stretch out? Great. You’d find the rest of them right there giving him every opportunity and encouragement. He’d get encouragement from the band and from the audience… He started to create his own style; the audience picked up on that and really liked it.”
- “He was a homebody. He’d have weird friends from the old days come over. They’d sit around and share a bottle of Southern Comfort… He’d hold court. It was the Pigpen show; he’d be the host; they’d talk…Pigpen might play some music for them.”
- “I don’t know if the younger deadheads can get Pigpen, if they can really understand what was going on with him, because the documents aren’t really there… When you watched Pigpen playing the crowd – and he played the crowd very well in those raps – he did it in such a way that he evoked a very warm response.”
- “He just stayed in his room all the time and would never do anything… Sitting around and talking is what he liked to do more than anything.”
- “Pigpen was the only one back then who could sing well; and he was the only one who could really play. Jerry wasn’t that good on the guitar…and Pigpen really played the organ well.”
- “Pigpen was a stoned, crazy guy from the beginning. He’d get drunk and talk blues. You couldn’t help but love Pigpen. He was lovable and everybody liked him. He sang like an old blues singer.
- “Pigpen was very mysterious and stayed up all night a lot and drank cheap wine… The worst thing that happened was Pigpen keeping us up all night singing. We’d be stomping on the floor: ‘Pig, for crying out loud, shut up!’”
- “It was sure sad to lose him. We all thought he was getting better. Pigpen wouldn’t tell anyone how sick he was. The only person that knew something was seriously wrong was the photographer, Bob Seidemann. He was the band’s photographer. Pigpen invited him over and they went out for a drive, and Pigpen says ‘Wait, stop, get out and take my picture’ and he did, and it was the last picture ever taken of Pigpen. He died a couple days later.”
- “It was amazing how this guy could play Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff. There just weren’t that many people doing it then… He was so authentic.”
- “Pigpen was remarkable… Him being in the jug band made it really legitimate beyond belief. In that respect, we had something more than the Kweskin Jug Band. We were able to do those blues, and Pigpen did those harmonica parts exactly perfect. He didn’t copy it note for note; he had perfect feeling.”
- “Occasionally when the New Riders were on tour with the Dead, I’d go to Pigpen’s room late at night, and he would tell stories when he got to a sufficient drinking level. They were funny, too.”
- “His self-perception was the blues life. He kind of spoke black English vernacular, had a black girlfriend, played the blues, drank wine.”
- “I remember standing in front of Pigpen at this gig, and he blew my mind – he made me dance… He had an almost shamanic quality; kind of a revival tent-meeting type thing. I liked those grooves – Midnight Hour, Schoolgirl, Lovelight – kind of tribal, primal, great to dance to. He had a nice round voice and he played the crowd like a preacher.” (Talking about a 1966 Dead show)
- “When I first saw them, the Grateful Dead was pretty much Pigpen’s show… Pigpen was the driving force; he had the songs together; he was doing blues like Little Red Rooster. Basically, the Dead were a blues band in those days.”
- “Once we had the house, he rarely went out, except to sit on the front porch. But he loved sitting out there in the afternoon. He’d sit out on the stoop and talk to people – anybody who wasn’t afraid to stop and talk to him, that is.”
- “I don’t think any of us were that aware of what was going on at the time. We were all kind of spun out a little bit… We didn’t pay attention to it, mainly because we were all sort of fucked up ourselves… I wasn’t paying that much attention, and I was closer to him than some of the bandmembers.”
- “He was already an alcoholic when I met him. I mean, he drank all the time. But you never had a feeling he was abusing it because he could hold so much… He had a way of being able to drink a lot and not show it.”
- “That whole summer [in ‘66] we were living in Lagunitas, Pig and Janis had a big love affair. They’d stay up and drink Southern Comfort, and there was a piano… Pigpen would play piano and they’d sing, and they had their guitars out there too.”
- “On the Europe ’72 tour, he rode around on the back bench of the crew’s tour bus., “He got knocked off that bench five or six times. He rolled off that bench and a couple of times he really hurt himself. I could see it – he really hurt his kidneys and bruised himself. I’d have to help him off the bus.”
- “Jug bands were big at the time, and one thing that really gave us a leg up was that just after we formed, I was at a friend’s house and discovered his folks’ collection of old Bluebird race-record 78s, and it was a treasure trove of obscure down-home blues. There were no reissues then, so no one had heard this stuff, and that gave us a lot of material which none of the other guys were doing. Then we also discovered Jesse ‘Lone Cat’ Fuller… Someone came up with a [Mother McCree’s] live tape and we just put that out, but unfortunately it doesn’t contain many of the songs I’m talking about.”
- “Pigpen and I swept up in the music shop… Pigpen would work at the music store because he could hang out with musicians, but basically he didn’t want to work any more than he absolutely had to. But playing was different – that wasn’t like working, for Pig.”
- “Way back early we developed a whole lot of our blues chops from listening to the Rolling Stones, those first couple of albums. Then, right on the heels of that, we started digging a little deeper and listening to Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, that little quartet they had, and Howlin’ Wolf; and we started to develop some of those blues chops as well… If you listen to a lot of those old Chicago Chess recordings, there’s a fair amount of that [Dixieland style] going on in there. When you get somebody like Muddy Waters playing secondary support lines behind another guitarist, you get those nice counter lines. That’s a major influence on our little style of playing blues.”
- “The drinking might actually have helped his performances…because he used to drink and that got him loose enough that he could do his rap.”
- “He didn’t start off doing [raps] with us, though he was very good at it. He could sit there with a guitar and just make stuff up, take an old Lightnin’ Hopkins tune or something, do a couple of stock verses, and then he’d throw in other lines from who knows where.”
- Elvin Bishop: “What I liked about the Dead was Pigpen. We’d sit around and drink together and listen to blues and play blues. I hung out with Pigpen quite a bit.”
- John Dawson: “Pigpen really did have the beatnik edge. Pigpen was the real beatnik. Everybody else was imitation beatniks. Pigpen got brought up on R&B; that’s why he was able to play harmonica like a black guy. He’d go hang out in East Palo Alto with black hookers. One time Garcia said, ‘If you’re going to hang out with Pigpen, you’re taking your life in your hands.’ …Pigpen was drinking Ripple. Pigpen was able to buy when he was 16 because he looked that old. That’s what ruined his liver by the time he was 25.”
- Ned Lagin: “I was very surprised at who Pigpen actually turned out to be, given what I had seen of him… I thought Pigpen would probably be on the opposite side of the planet from me, blues tough, but he turned out to be a very sweet person. To him, I was one of those whiz-kid rocket scientist genius kids that he always wanted to meet, but was on a different school bus going to a different place… But we could sit together and play piano together and hang out together. I think there was a great sensitivity in Pigpen that was the opposite of his down & dirty Lovelight personality.”
- Eileen Law:, “When they came back from Europe, the rest of the band would go on tours, and Pig stayed home. Pig would call the office, and he was having a really hard time with the band on the road and him being out of that. He would call and just want to talk. We all felt really bad for him because here was this person I once thought was a Hell’s Angel, and now he was this little thin person. He had this thin, thin face, but he’d still have his little hat on. Pigpen was quite lonely in those days, living by himself, calling people over to play chess.”
- Bob Seidemann: “It was obvious to everybody Pigpen was dying. I photographed him a few days before he died and he was so weak he had to be helped from the front door of his place to the car. I wanted to do one more picture of Pig with the Dead, so I picked him up and we drove out to Bolinas where they were rehearsing. I said, ‘Look, I’ve got Pig here. Let’s go outside and do a picture.’ And everybody just said, ‘Uh, no, Bob. Thumbs down.’ So I put Pig back in the car and on the way back he said, ‘Seidemann, will you take my picture?’… It was a sad moment when those cats wouldn’t do it, and I had to drag Pig back to his apartment.”
- Owsley Stanley: “He was very shy and he had to drink a lot just to get up on the stage.”
- Sue Swanson: “In the beginning I was always a little afraid of Pigpen. He looked like a Hell’s Angel, big and scary… He wore those clothes and talked that talk, but he was a very soft, sweet and gentle guy. He just had this persona.”
- Alan Trist: “During that period when he wasn’t on the road with the band he was actually working on an album, working on songs. Around that time, the solo album thing really took off – Jerry was the first, then Weir, and Mickey, and Pigpen was right in there too. He was working up songs, planning it out. I remember going over to his house a couple of times and hearing odd tapes that he played. His way of projecting the blues through his singing was so soulful and authentic, whether it was with the Grateful Dead or by himself at home.”
Billboard’s report on the 11/27/70 Chicago show: “It was a religious experience…with Pigpen presiding as high priest… The Dead’s show was more of a religious happening than a concert. The group’s fans started dancing and shouting from the first chords of Casey Jones and didn’t slow down until the final shouts from vocalist Pigpen on Turn On Your Lovelight, which one person aptly described as the ‘closest possible thing to nirvana.’”
From his biker good looks to his gruff, dusty voice, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan managed to work that combination into one of the ’60s most encompassing jam bands. His love for gospel and blues led him to be one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead.
Born September 8, 1946, in San Bruno, CA, McKernan grew up in a black neighborhood and was thus exposed to the related music and culture. His father was an R&B DJ, which no doubt added to the musical inspiration that would propel McKernan to explore his talents. After being expelled from high school, he officially began his musical career by picking out tunes on the piano and playing in bars.
While making the rounds on the early-’60s coffeehouse circuit in San Mateo, CA, McKernan met up with the man who would give him the everlasting nickname of Pigpen: Jerry Garcia. In the next evolutional step in band formation, the two decided they could work together and picked up a few other musicians to form Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, with Pigpen mostly covering keyboard, harmonica, and vocals. The first genuine recording of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions was a self-titled release taped live in 1964. Musicians listed in the credits include eventual Dead stalwarts Garcia and Bob Weir, as well as Dave Parker, Tom Stone, Mike Garbett, and Pigpen, all of them getting credit for playing a variety of instruments, from kazoo to washtub bass. The release features early Dead tunes such as “The Monkey and the Engineer” and “Beat It on Down the Line.”
The next official grouping for Pigpen would be Warlocks, with Garcia, Weir, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh. The impending evolution into the Grateful Dead soon followed and drummer Mickey Hart was added to the mix. Studio efforts featuring Pigpen include a self-titled Warner Bros. release in 1967 and the seminal American Beauty in 1970.
This grouping of Pigpen, in his leather jacket and bandana, and the rest of the counter culture proved an interesting bridge between bikers and hippies. A photo of the band perched on the porch of a house on the famed Ashbury — complete with a shotgun-wielding Pigpen — only brought on more comparisons to outlaws. (The photo, coincidentally, was featured in the very first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in regard to a recent police raid and the arrest of some bandmembers on charges — not surprisingly — of marijuana possession.) Another intriguing relationship came about with the romantic pairing of Pigpen with Janis Joplin; the two blues singers had dueted a few times in concert, but nothing serious ever transpired either way.
With a segue from less blues to more psychedelia — and for Pigpen, a healthy liver to a troubled one — Tom Constanten and Keith Godchaux were varyingly brought in to take over for the ailing keyboardist. After the Dead toured Europe in 1972, Pigpen could no longer tour with the band. On March 8, 1973, he was found dead from a stomach hemorrhage stemming from health problems brought about by his dependency on intoxicating vices. His contributions to the band live on in live recordings released from that time and on the countless bootlegged tapes of Deadheads everywhere
I’m not a superstitious guy by nature, but how can I not help but believe that there was a Curse of the Grateful Dead Keyboardists? Four of the Dead’s six keyboard players died of causes other than stage fright: Vince Welnick, a 2006 suicide; Keith Godchaux, a heroin addict who died in a 1980 car crash; Brent Mydland, who succumbed to a drug overdose in 1990, and Ronald “Pigpen” McKernan, whose liver packed in 35 years ago today at the tender age of 27.
McKernan was on board from the beginning, a member of all of the Grateful Dead‘s precursor bands and the titular lead singer for eight or so years as the ensemble moved beyond its folk and bluegrass roots and coalesced around psychedelic drugs and the extended riffing for which it became legendary.
McKernan had a rough, often off-key voice and was a mediocre piano and organ player, but he packed more soul and attitude into the Dead than the rest of the band put together. And while he was the roughest-edged player in this eclectic menagerie he was nevertheless the gentle soul who brought the band and their rapt fans back to earth from their cosmic voyage at night’s end.
Pigpen (IN HIS OWN WORDS)
Title and Date Unknown.
“Can’t think what to write,
but there’s an ant hobbling around on this table.
Absquatulate with the funds, will ya?
Had any prune-tang lately?
There’s a broken helicopter outside the door,
looking bum-tripped after having fallen
down on Happy Land St. and
belonging to the people
who work in the hangar next door.
Poot, still at a loss.
I like fun and making people happy.
Sue just loves my blue bow.”
Ronald C. “Pigpen” McKernan (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973) was a founding member of the Grateful Dead. His contributions to the band 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.
McKernan was born in San Bruno, California, the son of a R&B and blues disc jockey. He grew up with many African-American friends and felt very strongly connected to black music and culture. As a youth, McKernan taught himself blues piano and developed a biker image. In his early teens, McKernan left Palo Alto High School by mutual agreement with the school principal. He also began using alcohol in his adolescence.
McKernan played blues organ as well as harmonica and vocals. While his friends were experimenting with LSD and other psychedelics, McKernan stuck to Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort. He steadily added more signature tunes to the Dead’s repertoire, including some that lasted for the remainder of their live performance career such as “Turn on Your Lovelight” and “In the Midnight Hour.” In 1967 and 1968 respectively, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten joined the Grateful Dead, causing the band to take a stylistic turn from the blues toward full-blown experimental psychedelia influenced by avant-garde jazz, surrealism, and world music traditions.
McKernan would achieve a new prominence throughout 1969, with versions of “Turn On Your Lovelight” (now the band’s show-stopping finale) regularly taking fifteen to twenty minutes. When the Grateful Dead appeared at Woodstock, the band’s set (which was marred by technical problems and general chaos) consisted mostly of a 48-minute version of the song. McKernan developed a close friendship with Constanten based on their mutual aversion to psychedelics and eventually served as his best man when Constanten wed. After Constanten’s departure in January 1970 over musical and lifestyle differences, McKernan resumed keyboard duties.
McKernan had a short relationship and longer friendship with Janis Joplin — a poster from the early 1970s featured them together. Joplin joined McKernan onstage at the Fillmore West in June 1969 with the Grateful Dead to sing his signature “Turn On Your Lovelight,” despite her dislike of the band’s jamming style. The two reprised this duet July 16, 1970 at the Euphoria Ballroom in San Rafael, California.
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. Ever restless, the ailing McKernan rejoined the band in December 1971 to supplement Godchaux on harmonica, percussion, and organ. Unfortunately, after their Europe ’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.
Pigpen was buried at the Alta Mesa Memorial Park (Plot: Hillview Section 16 Lot 311) in Palo Alto, California. McKernan’s headstone in the memorial park is right next to his parents: Frank McKernan 1891-1949 and Alice McKernan 1894-1973. Note that young Ron was only four when his father died. Little is known about his family or early life. His grave marker is shown in the cemetery context BELOW:
Like Janis Joplin, Pigpen fit right into the jam band approach to music. They both would make up poetry and lines on the spot. This would fire up the audience. Pigpen was most known for this on such now standard rock and blues songs as Midnight Hour, Good Lovin’, I’m a King Bee, Good Morning Little School Girl, and others. Pigpen liked playing matchmaker in Turn on Your Love Light.
To illustrate his early and innovative RAP style, the following is from the April 27, 1971 performance.
“I wanna ask everybody now – all you fellas standin’ around,
whatcha doin’ with your hands right now?
You have them in your pockets?
Does anybody have their hands in their pockets?
Alright, everybody raise your hands
so I can see there ain’t nobody got their hands in their pockets!
If I find somebody who do, you in trouble,
because I know you’re playing pocket pool.
I tell you what now, you keep your hands out of your pockets, fellas,
and I’ll tell you what you do with ‘em.
You might find some little lady standin’ next to ya –
all you got to reach over and say, ‘what’s your name?’
That’s all you got to do. If you want a little company this evening,
don’t stand around going like this… Ask some young lady,
does she want to do it for you!
Hey, does anybody around right down here
got a little young lady on their mind that’s right around ‘em?
Anybody standing down here got a young girl
they’d like to take home this evening?
C’mon, raise your hand, must be somebody.
All right – how would you like to go home with that chick?
Right, all you got to do is walk over and say, ‘hello, lady!’
Go on, go on! Just walk over, say ‘what’s your name?’
You pick out anyone you want.
Tell her Pigpen said it was OK.
Go get one – c’mon, you got to catch one.
You got one? Alright, what’s your name?
Chris and Marsha have just made it!
Now see, everybody ought to do that, man.
All you fellas just walk over to some girl
that you would like to get in bed with and say, ‘hello.’
And tell her Pigpen said it was OK.
And if her mother wants to complain,
tell her to write to her congressman!
Ain’t none of my business;
I’m just makin’ suggestions.
Robert Petersen (Phil Lesh’s friend & cowriter)
wrote a poem for Pigpen in 1973, here’s part of it:
& pigpen died
my eyes tequila-tortured
4 days mourning
lost another fragment
of my own self
the same brutal
night-sweats & hungers
the same cold fist
that knocked him down
now clutching furiously
at my gut
shut my eyes
& see him standing
on the stage of the world
the boys prodding him
egging him on
he telling all he ever knew
or cared to know
mike hand cocked like
head throwed back
stale whiskey blues
neon rainy streets
& wilderness of airports
thousands maybe millions
were fired instantly
into forty-five minutes of
but when he died
he was thin, sick, scared
like i said to laird
i just hope he didn’t hurt