A Rockapaedia Obituary
Ron "Pigpen" McKernan
Ron "Pigpen" McKernan died aged twenty-seven on 8th March 1973, of gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California, U.S.A. He was buried at the Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California.
Ronald Charles McKernan was born on 8th September 1945, in San Bruno, California, U.S.A. He came from Irish ancestry, and his father, Phil McKernan, was an R&B and blues disc jockey, who had been one of the first white DJs on KDIA, a black radio station. Ronald grew up with African American friends and enjoyed black music and culture. As a youth, he taught himself blues piano, guitar and harmonica and developed a biker culture image. Ron moved to Palo Alto, California, with his family, where he became friends with musician Jerry Garcia at the age of fourteen.
Ron McKernan began spending time around coffeehouses and music stores, and worked at Dana Morgan's Music Store in Palo Alto with Jerry. who, one night invited Ron McKernan on stage to play harmonica and sing the blues. Jerry Garcia was impressed and Ron McKernan became the blues singer in local jam sessions. He was initially nicknamed "Blue Ron" before settling on "Pigpen". The band biographies say he got the nickname owing to his similarity to Pig-Pen, the permanently-dirty character in the comic-strip Peanuts.
Ron McKernan's alcohol abuse had begun to affect his health by his mid twenties. By the early 1970s, he also began to experience symptoms of congenital primary biliary cholangitis, a rare autoimmune disease which was unrelated to his use of alcohol. After being hospitalized in August 1971, doctors requested that he stop touring indefinitely. Pianist Keith Godchaux was subsequently hired and remained a regular member of the Grateful Dead until 1979. Ron McKernan rejoined the band in December 1971 to supplement Godchaux on harmonica, percussion, and organ. Although manager Rock Scully alleged that Ron McKernan passed out in front of his Hammond organ at one show during this period, Garcia biographer Blair Jackson has lauded the quality and frequency of his instrumental contributions on the Europe '72 tour. However, Ron's health soon deteriorated again to the point where he could no longer continue to perform. He made his final concert appearance on 17th June 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. After that he broke off all personal relationships with the band, explaining that he didn't want them around when he died.
Along with Jerry Garcia and second guitarist Bob Weir, Ron McKernan was a participant in the predecessor groups leading to the formation of the Grateful Dead, beginning with the Zodiacs and Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann was added and the band evolved into the Warlocks. Around 1965, Ron McKernan urged the rest of the Warlocks to switch to electric instruments. Bassist Phil Phil Lesh joined soon after, and they became the Grateful Dead. The group were keen to involve Ron McKernan in the band, as he was the group's original leader and was considered the best singer and frontman.
The Dead's early sets centered around blues and R&B covers chosen by Ron McKernan. By the end of 1966, Jerry Garcia had improved his musical skills and wanted to assert himself more as a leader and musical director, changing the band's direction and reducing Ron McKernan's contributions. In 1967, drummer Mickey Hart joined the Grateful Dead, followed by classically trained keyboardist Tom Constanten in 1968, further changing the group's style. Constanten often replaced Ron McKernan on keyboards in the studio, as Ron McKernan found it difficult to adapt to the new material that Garcia and Phil Lesh composed for the band.
In October 1968, Ron McKernan and Weir were nearly fired from the band after Garcia and Phil Lesh believed their playing was holding the band back from lengthy and experimental jamming. Garcia delegated the task of firing them to Rock Scully, who said that Ron McKernan "took it hard." Weir promised to improve, but Ron McKernan was more stubborn. According to Garcia biographer Blair Jackson, Ron McKernan missed three Dead shows before vowing not to "be lazy" any more and rejoining, while Kreutzmann objected to replacing Ron McKernan and said the event never happened. Following his discharge from the United States Air Force in November 1968, Constanten officially joined the band, having only worked in the studio while on leave up to that point. Road manager Jon McIntire commented that "Pigpen was relegated to the congas at that point and it was really humiliating and he was really hurt, but he couldn't show it, couldn't talk about it." He then began to take Hammond organ lessons and learned how to use the various drawbars and controls.
After Constanten's departure in January 1970 over musical and lifestyle differences, Ron McKernan nominally resumed keyboard duties. He contributed instrumentation to only two tracks (Hammond organ on "Black Peter" and harmonica on "Easy Wind", the latter as lead vocalist) on Workingman's Dead in 1970, the band's breakthrough studio release. On the follow-up album 'American Beauty', keyboard parts were handled by Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, along with session musicians Howard Wales and Ned Lagin. The 1971 live album Grateful Dead featured three overdubbed organ parts from Merl Saunders in addition to Ron McKernan's contributions on "Big Railroad Blues", "The Other One", and "Me & Bobby McGee". While Garcia expressed frustration at Ron McKernan's missed rehearsals and his inability to keep up with new material, Phil Lesh was more forgiving, opining that "it was okay for Pigpen to lay out ... we kept wanting Pigpen to be there because he was 'one of us.'
While in the Grateful Dead, Ron McKernan sang and played blues-influenced organ and harmonica. He initially played an indeterminate Farfisa combo organ before switching to the more elaborate Vox Continental in 1966. He began to alternate between the Vox Continental and the Hammond B-3 in June 1967, usually reserving the former instrument for outdoor and impromptu concerts, including the band's performance at the Columbia University protests of 1968. During Tom Constanten's tenure with the group, Ron McKernan occasionally played his bandmate's double-manual Vox Super Continental on select songs (most notably "Death Don't Have No Mercy") through May 1969. With the exception of select acoustic sets in 1970 in which he played acoustic piano, he used the Hammond exclusively thereafter.
Ron McKernan sang lead on several standards he wanted the Dead to cover, such as Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart" and Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour", with the latter serving as one of the band's main improvisatory vehicles from 1966 to 1968. Unlike fellow vocalists Garcia and Weir, he sang lead without playing any instrument except harmonica and actively interacted with the audience, occasionally walking out into the crowd. During the band's first year when they played straightforward blues, Ron McKernan performed the majority of lead vocals, attracting an early audience that came specifically to see him sing and play harmonica. He took on early management duties in the band, ensuring they would be paid and promoted properly for gigs.
Though Ron McKernan's garage rock style was appropriate for their early recordings, it was less suited to the group's later psychedelic and jamming styles. He went from contributing to every song and singing lead on all of side two of 1968's 'Anthem of the Sun' to little more than sporadic appearances on the following year's 'Aoxomoxoa'. He continued to front the band for long stretches during their live performances and suggested new material for the Dead's concert repertoire, including Redding's "Hard to Handle" and James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
Ron McKernan achieved a new prominence in 1969 covering "Turn On Your Love Light"; initially introduced in 1967, the song gradually evolved into the band's show-stopping finale, often taking fifteen to thirty minutes to complete. He improvised lyrics over the band's accompaniment, using phrases he had heard from African American friends, such as "rider" (slang for "lover"), "she's got box-black nitties" (referring to female underwear) and "boar hog's eye". When the Grateful Dead appeared at Woodstock, the band's set (which was marred by technical problems and general chaos and described as one of their worst shows) ended with "Turn On Your Love Light". Even as his instrumental contributions waned, Ron McKernan's vocal performances remained an integral part of the band's live set; by early 1971, their cover of the Rascals' "Good Lovin', initially performed by the group as early as 1966 and featured at shows at the Fillmore East later released as 'Ladies and Gentlemen... the Grateful Dead' began to emerge as a secondary showcase of his improvisatory talents alongside "Love Light."
Ron McKernan was not a prolific songwriter, preferring to concentrate on blues covers and improvised lyrics. He composed the infrequently performed "Operator" for 1970's American Beauty. Several new songs emerged from a creatively fecund period coinciding with his health problems in 1971, most notably "Mr. Charlie", a collaboration with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The song appeared on the live album 'Europe '72', his last with the group.
After Ron McKernan's death, a number of recordings were found in his apartment, which have appeared as the bootleg recording The Apartment Tapes. This included two songs recorded in 1964 with future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. On the bootleg, Ron McKernan played acoustic guitar and piano, instruments he seldom used with the Dead.
Ron McKernan was close friends with American singer-songwriter Janis Joplin due to common musical influences and lifestyles, particularly a shared love of alcohol over other drugs; a poster from the early 1970s showed them together at 710 Ashbury. Janis joined Ron McKernan on stage at the Fillmore West on 7th June 1969, with the Grateful Dead to sing his signature "Turn On Your Love Light", reprising this duet on 16th July 1970, at the Euphoria Ballroom in San Rafael, California.
Ron developed a close friendship with fellow keyboardist Tom Constanten based on their mutual aversion to psychedelics and eventually served as best man at Constanten's first wedding. While his bandmates and friends were using cannabis, LSD, and other hallucinogenic drugs, Ron McKernan preferred alcoholic beverages such as Thunderbird and Southern Comfort. Ironically, Ron McKernan was arrested and fined after a cannabis bust in November 1967, at 710 Ashbury Street, the Dead's communal home, even though he did not use the drug. The event was covered in the first issue of Rolling Stone, where the reporter noted Ron McKernan had a substantial rifle collection and Ron McKernan's picture appeared on a contemporary report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In the early years of the Grateful Dead, Ron McKernan was easily recognisable by his biker image, making him a minor celebrity. In 1969, the band's record company, Warner Bros., ran a "Pigpen Look-Alike Contest".
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music: 'It Hurts Me Too' by Grateful Dead