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.”
Peter Albin: “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.”
Tom Constanten: “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.”
Garcia: “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.”
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.
Laird Grant recalled that “Jerry was really into blues back then and could play that stuff pretty well… One of the guys Jerry dug the most was Big Bill Broonzy.”
Pigpen soon started hanging out with Garcia to learn some blues guitar from him.
Garcia remembered, “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.”
Garcia gave several accounts of Pigpen’s early musical development:
“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!”
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: “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.”
Robert Hunter: “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.”
David Nelson: “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.”
Bob Matthews: “Pigpen would play bottleneck guitar. He was pretty good at it too, though he never played it onstage.”
Garcia: “Pigpen’s best shot was sitting around a room with his bottle of wine and an acoustic guitar, playing Lightnin’ Hopkins. He could improvise lyrics endlessly; that was his real forte.”
Pigpen once remembered, “We played Gert Chiarito’s Midnight Special on KPFA – me and Jerry did one. I played harmonica and Jerry did guitar.”
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.”
Garcia said in ’71, “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…
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.
Pigpen was briefly in a country-blues group called the Second Story Men, along with Peter & Rodney Albin and Ellen Cavanaugh. Peter Albin remembered Pigpen sitting in sometimes with the Liberty Hill Aristocrats in ’63 (the Albin brothers and Dave Nelson): “a bluegrassy kind of group. Ron fit in kind of oddly, because we didn’t really do blues, it was more old-timey music. But we played some stuff that was right for him, like Hesitation Blues – he played harp.”
Laird Grant said, “He was mainly into blues, of course, but he also loved the old-time and jug band stuff that was around then, because it had rhythm, it had a beat.”
There are a few fragments of Pigpen performing at the Top of the Tangent in ’63-64 (taken from a later radio broadcast on the early Palo Alto folk scene).
The first is a tape of Pigpen by himself in ‘63, performing ‘McKernan’s Blues’ on guitar (actually very similar to Katie Mae), then ‘Rocky Mountain Blues’.
Then there’s a tape from ’64 with Pigpen and Peter Albin, playing John Henry and Hoochie Coochie Man - Albin on guitar and Pigpen singing and playing harmonica.
And there’s a tape from ’64 of Pigpen with Jorma Kaukonen – Jorma plays an instrumental ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, then plays and sings ‘Betty and Dupree’ with Pigpen on harmonica. (Though known on tapes as ‘Diamond Rag Blues’, this is basically the same song the Dead would play in ’66, when Garcia sang it.)
Around ’63, Pigpen also fronted an electric blues band called the Zodiacs; Garcia sometimes played bass in the band. The bandleader says, “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.
Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band released its first album in ’63, and was quite a success among young folkies, sprouting numerous little short-lived jug bands in its wake. Kweskin’s band played at the Cabale in Berkeley for a week in January ’64 – Sara Garcia recalled that Jerry “practically lived in Berkeley that week.” Shortly afterwards, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions were born, playing their first show at the Tangent on January 25.
A lot of people drifted through the band (Bob Matthews, for instance, didn’t last very long), but Garcia, Pigpen, and Weir (on washtub bass and jug) formed sort of the lasting center.
Dave Parker said, “Jerry was definitely the leader. He pulled it together and made it the way it was. He went out and found the gigs. Jerry came up with most of the tunes, too, though Pig knew a lot of blues.”
Garcia recalled, “Our jug band was complete and total anarchy. Just lots and lots of people in it, and Pigpen and 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.”
Marshall Leicester, who’d often played bluegrass music with Garcia, saw the freedom that jugband music represented for him: “The jug band didn’t have the egregious discipline that bluegrass required. And there was no way to make a living playing bluegrass… Mother McCree’s was fun for him, and it allowed him to get in touch with musicians who had been on different paths. We’d known Ron McKernan for years, but aside from sort of playing Lightnin’ Hopkins backup to Ron at parties and the Boar’s Head and places like that, making him part of the same musical scene hadn’t arisen before.”
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 the McCree’s interview, Garcia announces, “Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, he plays harmonica and sings blues - quite well I might add.” (Unfortunately Pigpen didn’t stick around for the interview!)
Robert Hunter: “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.”
David Nelson: “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.”
Weir: “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.”
The surviving McCree’s tape from July ’64 has Pigpen singing Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub), a Lightnin’ Hopkins traditional-hokum song he’d do often later in the Dead; and My Gal (more of a ‘30s-hillbilly-type song).
The jug band lasted for a year. A few turning points happened mid-year, though – Garcia made a “bluegrass quest” trip back east in May/June to meet Bill Monroe and other bluegrass players; after his return, he realized that he could not make a living out of bluegrass, and only played a few more bluegrass gigs that year. 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!”
This is Weir’s account of Mother McCree’s:
“We actually became a fairly good jug band. People dropped out as the rehearsal schedule got a bit more rigorous. Then we became really popular around the mid-Peninsula area. Had work just about every weekend. We’d rehearse either in Garcia’s garage or in the music store. At one point Garcia left on a tour of the South, more or less to study bluegrass music. By that time I’d advanced on guitar to the point where he decided that I could probably [teach] his beginning and intermediate students. So I started working at the music store.
“All the time that we were first getting started, we were real happy playing jug band music, and we were getting real good at it. But we got to be real tight, and then started wondering what we were going to do. People started quitting the band, to go away to school or this or that. In the fall, we didn’t know what we were going to do. About that time, the Beatles started to become popular. Garcia had all along been playing in rock & roll bands, pretty much to bolster his income. He was playing guitar or bass, whatever was required of him. We started kicking around this idea of maybe firing up the old guitars and at least maybe playing some blues, Chicago-style or Jimmy Reed-style or whatever.”
At that time, “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.”
By early ’65, with the British Invasion going on strong, and the Beatles (and their copycats) all over the airwaves, the waves of rock music were crashing even on remote jugband shores. Garcia and Weir had been teaching guitar classes at Dana Morgan’s music store; Bill Kreutzmann taught drums there; Pigpen was the janitor there, and would sometimes tinker with the Farfisa organ after-hours. The electric guitars in the store window were too tempting for Weir & Garcia – Weir said, “we just knew an electric band was coming, and then Dana Morgan’s son picked up the bass… The son of the owner of the shop wanted to be the bass player, and suddenly we had a band – especially since…the shop could supply the instruments.” And so the Warlocks were born.
Mother McCree’s played their last gig in January ’65, and the new band set to rehearsing.
According to Garcia, 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.”
Laird Grant suggested that one reason for going electric was that “Pigpen wanted to get into playing the organ, and you can’t do that acoustically… I remember how excited Pigpen was when he finally got his Hammond B-3.” Peter Albin, on the other hand, later thought that “the band was stifling the guy… He could’ve developed [on harmonica] if they’d let him do his thing. But I guess the harmonica didn’t really fit in with a lot of the direction they were taking, so he played more keyboards.”
Bill Kreutzmann sniffed, “I wasn’t part of the jug band…never saw them play. I had played more rock than any of those guys. We started practicing at Dana Morgan Music, in a small room crammed with equipment. Pigpen was the lead singer on all the songs. They didn’t know much about rock music…”
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.”
(After that, Lesh wrote, “in my role as the new guy, it became my duty to get Pigpen out of bed for rehearsal every day.” This was quite a process, if the morning phone call didn’t wake up Pigpen: “He lived at home with his family in Palo Alto. We’d go there, and the guys would wait in Jerry’s Corvair, and I’d either knock on the window, or crawl through…and wake him up. He’d crawl out the window so he wouldn’t disturb anybody, and he’d bring his bottle of Southern Comfort. This would happen every day, seven days a week - 9, 10 o’clock in the morning.” Later on, as Bob Matthews says, “He didn’t come to that many rehearsals!”)
Bob Matthews felt “the Warlocks definitely started as a blues band.”
Rock Scully agreed: “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.”
Garcia also said, “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.”
Bill Kreutzmann also later said that in ’65, they “basically wanted to be the Rolling Stones…they just wanted to make blues records like the Rolling Stones.”
Weir had a slightly different view, saying to NME in ’72, “We didn’t consider ourselves a blues band, we thought of ourselves more or less as a bug-eyed rock & roll band. We did a lot of blues because Pigpen at that time was heavily into the blues.”
Weir told Blair Jackson in ‘92: “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.”
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.
Jon McIntire felt that in the early days, “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.”
As we have no Warlocks shows, it’s hard to tell what so impressed early listeners. By the time our tape record picks up, the rest of the band had become more proficient and many new songs were coming into the sets. Some of their blues and cover songs had already been phased out by ’66 – we’ll never know how Pigpen sang Little Red Rooster, or how Weir sang She Belongs To Me, or how Lesh sang Do You Believe In Magic. Judging by their ramshackle style in early ’66, though, the band must have sounded VERY primitive in ’65, and it’s easier to see how 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.
For the next few years, Pigpen subsumed himself within the Dead, rarely if ever playing music outside the band context. From being one of the leaders of the band in ‘65/66, his role steadily lessened as the band delved deeper into psychedelic jams - he did fewer blues numbers, his organ playing became marginalized, he was replaced in the organ seat in ‘68 by Tom Constanten, and he eventually just sat out long sections of the shows, playing congas sometimes and coming on when it was time for his number. (That said, his number was usually the big climax of the show, and in the public eye he was still the most important member of the band.)
Tom Constanten said, “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.”
Bob Matthews talked about Pigpen’s long raps: “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.”
In large part due to Pigpen, Grateful Dead shows became much like religious revivals at times.
Danny Rifkin on a ’66 show: “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.”
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.’”
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.”
By ’71 the big Pigpen raps had developed a bit – he would often tell a comic story in the Good Lovin’ jams, for instance in the classic 4/17/71 version (transcribed in Gans’ Playing in the Band book) or the perhaps even better 4/25/71 Good Lovin’ (released on Ladies & Gentlemen). He also liked playing matchmaker in Lovelight – one example is on 2/24/71, when he brings a girl onstage: “Do you have a man with you? Get up here… All right, now I’m lookin’ for a young man who would like to claim this pretty young thing. Just come up and get her! You want her? She’s yours! Come get her!… Say man, that was ten bucks.”
To illustrate his style, this is from the 4/27/71 Lovelight:
“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? [audience cheers] 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! [cheers] 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. [to band] I suggest you play your guitar.” And the band jams triumphantly…
Ironically, behind the bravado Pigpen suffered from stage fright.
Owsley: “He was very shy and he had to drink a lot just to get up on the stage.”
Weir: “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.”
Laird Grant: “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.”
Garcia often talked about how difficult it was to get Pigpen onstage:
“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.”
Although Pigpen had the performer’s instinct and was certainly not averse to adulation (Owsley said, “He was a rooster; he loved to strut his stuff”), he was described as unambitious and not really too interested in a music career.
Garcia: “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.”
Peter Albin: “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.”
Laird Grant: “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.”
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.” (Several people including Lesh, Garcia, Jon McIntire, Laird Grant, and David Nelson remembered Pigpen’s Lord Buckley routines with fondness.)
Garcia: “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.”
Weir: “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.”
Garcia: “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.”
Far from being a Hell’s Angels-type thrill-seeker, Pigpen’s life apart from the music was pretty quiet.
Blair Jackson: “Pigpen kept to himself on the road, staying in his room and watching television or reading.” (He liked science fiction.)
Jon McIntire: “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.”
Rock Scully: “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.”
Bob Matthews: “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.”
Garcia: “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.”
David Nelson: “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.”
Robert Hunter: “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.”
Tom Constanten: “I hate to say it, but he was a pretty normal guy. We’d play music, listen to music, talk, hang out.”
Pigpen became close friends with Tom Constanten, sharing rooms on tour (and sharing a house with him in 1970). “We had roomed together on the road and we got along great, and then it just sort of happened that we lived together.” Constanten remembered an episode “at the Woodstock festival, when Nicky Hopkins came to Pigpen’s and my hotel room – they instantly had a lot to talk about. They’d bring up [piano] players going back decades, sharing stories and impressions with a glowing zest for the music. It was the first time I’d heard some of the names… Pigpen subsequently turned me on to the boogie-woogie masters like Albert Ammons and Pine Top Smith.”
Pigpen may have occasionally 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.
For instance at the end of the 5/1/70 acoustic set after Uncle John’s, Weir asks the crowd, “You wanna hear Pigpen?” But Garcia interrupts: “He doesn’t wanna do anything.” More often than not, Pigpen made himself scarce.
Weir would sometimes work the crowd up to give Pigpen a big fanfare, as in the 3/21/70 late show: “You guys wanna hear Pigpen? Well let him know about it! I don’t think he hears you, maybe you ought to shout a little louder! Here he is folks - Pigpen!”
The way Rock Scully remembered it, “We’d been pushing him…and finally he got loose enough and comfortable enough to go out and do it. He went out on the stage and sat down in a chair and played bottleneck guitar. He had a honey in the crowd, and he sang Katie Mae for her.”
Actually Pigpen had been doing Katie Mae from the earliest acoustic sets, but he was probably quite nervous doing it. Pigpen often gripes and grumbles a little bit before he starts playing, saying things like, “Here I am, stuck once again… Can you hear the guitar?…I got weak fingers…I forgot the song…It’s the only song I know…I might make a lot of mistakes…” etc.
Pigpen did a few Lightnin’ Hopkins songs that year:
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)
In the summer Pigpen started doing his own song Operator – first played on 8/18/70, four performances survive.
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.
Pigpen played piano in:
6-13-70 New Speedway Boogie
8-18-70 Truckin’, Ripple, New Speedway Boogie
8-19-70 How Long Blues, Candyman, Ripple, Truckin’, New Speedway Boogie
9-17-70 Truckin’, Brokedown Palace, Box of Rain
9-20-70 Truckin’, Brokedown Palace (and probably organ on To Lay Me Down)
Though Pigpen’s quiet little song Operator wasn’t played very often on our tapes, 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.”
From 1966, we have a couple songs of his, the catchy ‘50s-flavored You See a Broken Heart, and Tastebud (aka Come Back Baby), a traditional blues takeoff. (He may have helped out with Keep Rolling By, as well, since he raps in it and it was based on one of his beloved Stones songs.) Given how few shows we have from that year, it’s hard to say how many times they were performed live.
But Tastebud, at least, almost made it onto a Dead record – they recorded it at the Scorpio sessions in June ’66, and again for the first album sessions in Feb ’67. But it was left in the vault. (Tastebud on our ‘1970 outtakes’ tape is actually the outtake from the first album, as released on the CD reissue.)
It’s been wondered who played piano on Tastebud - David Lemieux reports, “It’s Pig playing piano on it. I brought Weir into the vault and I said, ‘Bobby, who’s playing this?’ He said, ‘That’s Pig. He could play piano, but he didn’t like to.’”
(Another song omitted from the first album, Alice D Millionaire, was oddly sung by Pigpen, though I’m not sure how he was involved in the writing. They also tried out Smokestack Lightning and Who Do You Love at some point in the studio, but those still haven’t been released.)
Between Alligator and Caution, Pigpen was well-represented on side B of Anthem; but of course he was entirely absent from Aoxomoxoa the next year. Though his songwriting efforts stopped for a few years, he always got plenty of stage time, with a smattering of traditional ‘50s/60s blues tunes in the live shows. For whatever reason, Pigpen limited his selections to just 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; the great Same Thing sadly didn’t last past ’67; Schoolgirl was a frequent opener (until it became rare in 1970), and Lovelight 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.
There is also a mystery studio tape from ’69 where Pigpen dabbles in country!
I’m a Lovin’ Man is a slickly produced country song sung by Pigpen and Weir. Garcia plays pedal steel, and John Tenney plays fiddle.
Also circulating on tape was an instrumental version of Buck Owens’ song I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) - named “Buckeye’s Theme” in the Taping Compendium - again with Garcia on pedal steel and Tenney on fiddle.
John Tenney, whose memory is fortunately very good, gave an account of the session. (I’ve edited for clarity.)
“In late 1969 I played fiddle on a song called ‘I'm a Lovin' Man’ for a proposed Pigpen solo album. Jerry, Pigpen and Weir were playing. The bass player was Dennis Parker (on my recommendation), then with a SF band called Allmen Joy. The drummer was Scott Morris. The song was written by Clancy Carlile, a novelist, songwriter and honkytonk guitarist/singer with whom I was playing in a country band. (He was involved in the production.) The session was at Pacific High Recording. My recollection is that Pigpen's album was maybe going to come out on Mercury or its subsidiary Smash. Mercury had a strong presence in San Francisco at the time, with its own studio. The producer I think was one Bob Serempa, a local A&R man with Mercury. I don't know why he used Pacific High for the recording, except that the Mercury studio was very busy with people like the Sir Douglas Quintet at the time. I also recall a guy named Bill Freeman (whose exact involvement I forget) being at the session in some sort of executive capacity.”
There are a couple things to note here. One, Bob Serempa was not just an A&R man – he had been the director of West Coast operations for Mercury Records, and in ’69 he was the head of the newly built Mercury Studios on Mission Street. So this seems to indicate a more than casual interest from Mercury Records.
Also, the Dead were regulars at Pacific High Recording. They had finished recording Aoxomoxoa there earlier that year; and in 1970 they would record Workingman’s Dead there. (Garcia would fall into the habit of anonymously doing work on other people’s albums, so possibly this was intended to be a ‘stealth’ recording session.)
The big question here is, why would Mercury Records want an album of country songs done by members of the Warner Bros. psychedelic group the Grateful Dead? Why, for that matter, would Pigpen sing an album of country songs? (You can be pretty sure doing a Buck Owens tune wasn’t his idea.) And where was the rest of the band?
Though these questions are unanswerable, I looked for another connection, and amazingly, found a mid-1969 event in which Garcia, Serempa, Carlile, and Freeman were all involved.
From Billboard’s 4/19/69 issue:
“Two weeks of seminars and workshops on contemporary music begin June 8… The 50 free seminars, which range from rock guitar technique (taught by Jerry Garcia) to creation of a commercial sound (Bob Sarempa of Mercury Records), are the pilot project of the San Francisco College of Contemporary Music. The seminars will be held at Mills College in Oakland… Teachers, to be paid $100 a week, also include John Handy, Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel, Big Black, Roland Kirk, and Phil Lesh. The College of Contemporary Music was founded (at least as a full-time venture) last December by Leonard Sheftman (half-owner of the Both/And jazz club); Clancy Carlile, a songwriter and producer; and Bill Freeman, band manager and producer. As yet there is no permanent site for the college, and no classes will be scheduled until [the workshops] are over, but the college has commitments from artists to do the teaching. The school hopes to solicit funds from the music industry and foundations. Bill Graham has already donated $1000, which went for office equipment…”
As far as we know, these seminars never actually happened, and plans for the college fell through as it never actually came into existence! (You can imagine the disappointment of those hoping to be taught “rock guitar technique” by Jerry Garcia…)
It is striking, though, that not only did members of the Dead agree to teach classes for the college, but they also participated in a country-music session produced by a couple founders of the college (and another one of the teachers) later that year. Coincidence? I feel there has to be an untold story here….but for the moment, unless someone asks Weir about it, that’s all we know.
If this ’69 session was the first step towards a Pigpen solo album, it was premature – the next we hear about solo Pigpen is in 1971.
The Dead kept themselves busy through ’69-70, staying constantly on the road and playing close to 300 shows in those two years. But after the April ’71 tour, the band basically took the next three months off.
Their only shows were: the May 29-30 Winterland shows; the hastily arranged June 21 gig in France; the July 2 closing-of-Fillmore-West show; and a July 31 show at the Yale Bowl. (Traveling to the east coast to play just one show was unusual by this point.)
After the little August tour, the Dead then took a break for two more months, playing no shows between August 26 and October 19.
This is an unusually long break for the time. One might think some shows were canceled due to Pigpen’s declining health or other reasons, but it seems the vacation had actually been planned. Broke and hungry, they had toured themselves ragged back in 1970, and Garcia had said during the long eastern tour of late ’70, “To work all the time is to make yourself hate it. So we try to balance out the schedule.” In ’71 they finally had the chance.
Blair Jackson says, “What allowed the Dead to play fewer shows was their increased popularity, which led to bigger paydays in larger venues.” And Dennis McNally also writes, “The band’s rising popularity and Cutler’s more systematic booking policies had resulted in something no one had ever expected – free time. The years when they would take any gig were behind them.”
Garcia said in the summer of ’71: “Right now we’re in the process of stopping all our agency tours, and stopping all our activities… We’re finally out of debt, and we’re finally out of the past, and after all this time (3 or 4 years), we’re at a place now where we can decide what to do instead of just working for something we already did. One of the things we decided was that we didn’t want to do that kind of [exhausting] tour – we want to try and pick our gigs carefully, if possible; put them on by ourselves and generally determine what we’re going to do, rather than have that 6-months-in-advance plan.”
They had been recording shows on their spring tour, and sometime between May-August they assembled a ‘live’ album. The live tapes were given extensive overdubs in the studio, and more organ tracks were needed. But the Dead apparently didn’t want Pigpen to do the job.
Rock Scully observed, “In the studio, he was always a little reticent. He was a guy who really came alive in front of an audience; the studio was not his forte…When we’d record, he’d bring his cooler and kind of keep to himself. He was kind of complaining in the studio a little bit. He didn’t dig the atmosphere. He’d find a couch and hang there til he was needed… I think he was bored there.”
So Merl Saunders was brought in to do organ overdubs on some songs. He remembered, “I got to be very close friends with Pigpen. We discussed doing some double keyboard work together. He was very fond of my organ playing, because it was similar to the early rock & roll-blues style he was familiar with.”
Now that the Dead had some time to spare, solo albums were in the air. Billboard reported the Dead’s spring tour plans in their 1/23/71 issue, along with this news:
“Jerry Garcia is starting to think about doing his own album, and Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann are recording an album in the new studio in Mickey’s barn. Pigpen is also working on his own album. All will be on Warner Bros.”
As Hart left the Dead after 2/18/71 and had his own new studio, he was able to devote himself to recording whenever he felt like it. Garcia used the tour break to record his album in July ‘71. (Weir wouldn’t take up the challenge until the next January.) The surprise here is that in early ’71 Pigpen was thinking of going the same way. Given his limited song output so far in the Dead, one wonders what his plans were for a solo album.
In the break after the August ’71 shows, there’s more evidence that Pigpen may have been thinking of music activities apart from the Dead.
A September 8, 1971 Oakland Tribune newspaper listing says: “Ron McKernan, better known as ‘Pigpen’ of the Grateful Dead, will make his first solo performance in concert at the Gold St. Club in San Francisco tomorrow night at 9:30.”
The Gold Street Club seems to have been a little out-of-the-way back-alley joint - perhaps Pigpen knew someone there. As far as we know, he hadn’t performed in public by himself since the old Palo Alto folk-club days. We don’t know if Pigpen actually played here, considering he was in poor health at the time. If he did show up, though, it may have been similar to his earlier acoustic appearances, with lots of Lightnin’ Hopkins-style blues. But it’s likely Pigpen would have had a few new songs to offer as well: he was on quite the writing streak that year.
Garcia mentioned in ’71, “He’s come up with a lot of tunes lately.”
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.
David Lemieux said of Two Souls: “Incidentally, that’s not the title of the song; it’s called The Stranger… That song was actually slated for inclusion on Europe ’72. The reason we know that is because everything that was originally going to be included on the album was put onto these sub-reels. That song, and BIODTL of all things, were going to be included but didn’t make it. On some of the tape boxes it’s called Pig’s Tune, and on the rest of them it’s called The Stranger.”
In fact, Pigpen also wrote more songs that weren’t taken up by the Dead, and was starting to record songs at home.
Bob Matthews: “In the last couple of years of his life he was being encouraged to do an album by both the band and the record company. I had him set up with my own little portable Ampex half-inch 4-track machine and a little Ampex 2-channel, 4-microphone mixer…it allowed him to overdub. But I never heard any of the stuff he did with it.”
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.”
Weir said in ’72, “Pigpen, if health permits, will be coming up with some surprises pretty quickly. His album is still in the future. It’s not a concrete reality yet. He’s written some very good songs, but…he’s not ready to do an album yet.”
According to Rock Scully: “I don’t think it was really going to be a solo album. I think the way he looked at it was it was going to be part of a Dead album. He wanted three songs on a Dead album. A couple of them were beautiful. He didn’t have enough for a whole album; he wanted [to be on] a Dead album again. He’d worked up a couple of really nice songs. They were a little sad, but with Jerry’s influence I think they could have worked beautifully with the Grateful Dead.”
It’s said that he worked on his solo album to the end. Tapes were found in his apartment after his death - but there’s no telling when they were recorded, and there seems to be very little material available, considering the year or two Pigpen had to record demos.
David Lemieux wonders, “Pigpen’s album – I don’t know what ever got done with it; it was just little bits and pieces that are out in trading circles.”
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.
My feeling is, while there was a lot of talk about a Pigpen solo album, he did not put much work into it. Given the evidence – the lack of many original demos, Weir saying in ’72 that Pigpen wasn’t ready, Scully saying he had just “a couple” good songs, Lemieux’s puzzlement – it seems like Pigpen wasn’t close to starting a solo album, even if his health had improved. But perhaps more Pigpen tapes will surface in the future with some surprises.
At any rate, the solo club show on 9/9/71 could have been the start of an interesting new direction for Pigpen. But if he had been thinking of doing any more solo gigs in September ‘71, his plans would soon have been cut short.
McNally writes: “On September 17, Pigpen went into Novato General Hospital with a perforated ulcer and hepatitis. Ironically, his drinking had already slackened considerably, after he had reached the point of sweats, faintness, and incipient DTs. He had lost an enormous amount of weight.”
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.
Rock Scully: “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.”
Garcia also observed, “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.”
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?”
Alan Trist: “I heard talk that there was a real serious problem with Pigpen, but there definitely was an attitude that every man could look after his own health, and to try to be positive about things. To introduce negative thoughts or worrisome thoughts or anxieties was not a good thing… When you’re young, you don’t expect your friends to be deteriorating, so you don’t put a lot of energy into either worrying about it or taking care of them.”
Rock Scully: “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.”
But changes were evident. Scully said, “He started turning very pale. His cheeks started getting sunken in… Pig started getting listless and losing weight and looking sallow. And you could just feel that there was no enthusiasm. One thing Pig always was was enthusiastic; he was very up about things. And he started to turn kind of sour.”
According to Jon McIntire, at some point, “I remember one day Garcia coming into my office and saying, ‘Look, I’m really worried about Pig; I think his life is in danger, and I want to do whatever we can. The band’ll pay for everything. Let’s see if there’s anything we can do.’” McIntire searched around and found a good liver doctor at UCSF, “so we slotted Pig with him… He stopped drinking and he learned all the things about nutrition he could. He really tried, but it was just too late.”
McIntire said, “When we did Chateau d’Herouville in France [6/21/71], Pig made it for that and it was just really great that we could go to Europe with Pig. He wasn’t in very good shape then… After a while, his doctors decided that he couldn’t go on the road… I remember his doctor telling me at one point that there wasn’t much hope. But I don’t think I believed him.”
Garcia also said, “When he went in the hospital in ’71 and we all gave him blood, they were saying, ‘That’s it, he’s not going to make it’… We thought he was going to die.”
But Pigpen pulled through. Garcia said later that year: “He’s pretty sick. But he’s living. He was really, really, extremely sick – I don’t know how sick, because I never hung out at the hospital that much, although I did give him a pint of blood. We all did. He was really fucked up; his liver was full of holes and he had some kind of pulferated ulcer…”
Diagnosed with advanced liver disease, Pigpen was too ill for now to go on tour. Much of the next year and a half would be spent resting at home and getting weaker, his party days behind him. He tried switching to a healthier diet, and stopped drinking for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, the Dead had an upcoming fall tour to consider. By fate, though, a new player dropped into their laps that very month. While Pigpen was in the hospital, Keith Godchaux joined the Dead – his first rehearsal with them may have been that same week.
The Godchauxs went to see Garcia at one of his Keystone shows with Saunders. Garcia played the Keystone on August 31 and September 16; so it would have been one of those dates that they met. “The next week, we were at Grateful Dead rehearsal,” Donna said. “Keith and I didn’t know that Pigpen was sick or anything.”
Donna elaborated: “The coming Sunday the Dead were having a rehearsal and Jerry told us to come on down, so we did. But the band had forgotten to tell Jerry that the rehearsal had been called off, so Jerry was down there by himself. So Keith and Jerry played, and we played him some tapes of songs that I had written and was singing on. Then Jerry called Kreutzmann and got him to come down, and the three of them played some. Then the next day [Monday] the Dead practiced, and by the end of that day Keith was on the payroll.”
It’s certainly possible that Godchaux joined the Dead just a few days after Pigpen was hospitalized. The prospect of Garcia and Kreutzmann jamming away with someone on Sunday the 19th, while Pigpen lay dying, seems just a bit too callous to believe, though! So I’m inclined to think the meeting happened on one of the other Sundays that month, perhaps even the 26th. (Our first taped rehearsal comes from September 28.)
The Dead went on tour in October, leaving Pigpen at home. Garcia said, “For the time being he’s too sick, too weak to go on the road, and I wouldn’t want to expose him to that world. I don’t think it’s good for him at this point. It would be groovy if he could take as long as it takes to get him to feeling right, and then to work on his solo album, and get himself together.”
With hindsight, Lesh thought “it would have been better for Pig if we’d just canceled the tour and let him recover all his strength at his own pace… It was agreed that Pig would rejoin the band when he felt up to it. Without realizing it, we put a lot of pressure on him to hurry up and get better.”
Pigpen returned to the road in December ’71 – perhaps a little sooner than was wise for him. Lesh wrote, “We were all delighted to hear that Pigpen was flying out to rejoin the band onstage in Boston, but I was shocked when I saw him – he was shrunken and fragile-looking.”
The Taping Compendium review of 12/5/71 notes, “The lack of organ playing throughout the show is not due to a poor mix; Pig was just not playing. He was standing and/or sitting behind the organ looking kinda down until it was his turn to take a lead vocal.”
Pigpen does play organ on other shows that month, though. He had some catching-up to do, as the Dead introduced a lot of new music on this tour! Many of his best old songs were sadly dropped after his return – there were no more King Bees, Hard to Handles, Easy Winds, Midnight Hours, or Alligators. But he did do Good Lovin’ once that month, and Lovelight twice, and even revived the almost-forgotten Same Thing at the New Year’s show; Smokestack Lightning returned a few times, and he sang Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run at most of the December shows for the holiday crowds.
A few months later, 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 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.”
Scully said, “He couldn’t drink, but his temperament was real good, even though everyone around him was drinking. He was real positive; he loved Europe.”
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.
Annette Flowers said, “He was sick…we stayed behind in Munich together for a few days [after 5/18] and caught up with the rest of the band in Zurich; the two of us flew alone… It was difficult for him to travel and he was in some pain… But his mood was always pretty good… He was a trouper; he didn’t complain.”
When they were back home overdubbing the ‘live’ album, I haven’t checked if Pigpen did vocal overdubs on his songs; but Merl Saunders was called on again to provide organ parts: “I played on four or five tracks of Europe ’72. Bob Weir was a great help to me; he wrote out the changes, and gave me the color they were looking for.”
Pigpen’s last show was on 6/17/72, where he played organ on the first Stella Blue, but didn’t sing anything.
An audience member on the Archive reports: “We wanted to see Pigpen do his numbers, but after a few songs it was obvious something was wrong. For most of the show he was slumped over, nodded out and not moving at all. A few times one of the band members would bump into him to wake him up, but not much action at all out of Ron.”
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.”
Eileen Law remembered, “When they came back from Europe the rest of the band would go on tours. Keith went out and Pig stayed home. Pig would call the office – it was just a skeleton crew – and he was really having a hard time with the band being on the road and him being out of that. He would call and just want to talk.”
Pigpen would tell Laird Grant when he visited, “I’m workin’ on some tunes, and the doctor says I can go out on this next tour as long as I’m cool behind it. But it’s really cold out there, me bein’ sick and shit. It’s just not the same, man.”
Jon McIntire believed, “It must have been scary as hell for him… And he didn’t have the cushion of alcohol to hide in.”
Laird Grant was saddened. “God knows what kind of emotional shit he went through near the end, between trying to keep up with the band and keep up with that alcoholic jones that he had. When it got down to where he couldn’t drink, that really knocked him for a loop because then he was in a total void; he had no place to hide… It was like being shuffled off to the side track and watching the freights go by.”
Grant felt that the band didn’t treat Pigpen very well when he was sick. “They were down on him for boozing all those years, and they gave him a lot of shit and a lot of hassle, while here are people doing coke and calling the kettle black. When he got sick and couldn’t perform, I saw people kind of turning their back on him, like he wasn’t there.”
McNally reports, “Increasingly tired and weak, he spent most of his time in his apartment.” Lonely, he would invite Girl Freiberg over to play chess.
Scully said, “He looked just terrible.” Laird Grant mentions him looking “pretty wan, pretty gaunt;” Eileen Law was surprised to see him turn into “this little thin person;” Danny Rifkin said, “I saw him at his house. He had edema, swelling of the legs…he became very quiet.”
Tom Constanten also noticed, “He was obviously having a lot of problems. He was on this no-sodium diet. No alcohol; things were quite different. He had a medicine chest full of medications. But his attitude was pretty good. He kept reading and playing music, keeping his mind active.”
Nonetheless, they all 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.”
Tom Constanten: “I visited him at his house about a week before he died, and he wasn’t very well, but I was still surprised when I heard that he’d died.”
Sue Swanson: “Even though everyone knew he was really sick, it still seemed sudden. I think everyone wanted to believe that he’d make it in the long run.”
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.