Monday, March 8, 2010

Ron "Pigpen" McKernan

Founding Grateful Dead member Ron McKernan passed away on today's date in 1973.

Starting a rock band was actually Ron McKernan's idea, and he was its first front man, delivering stinging harmonica, keyboards, and beautiful blues vocals in the early years of the Warlocks/Grateful Dead. Nicknamed "Pigpen" for his funky approach to life and sanitation, he was born into a family that was generally conventional, except for the fact that his (Caucasian) father was an R & B disc jockey. And that sound put Pig's life on the rails of the blues from the time he was 12. Liquor, Lightnin' Hopkins, the harmonica and some barbecue - it was an unusual life for a white kid from San Carlos, but it was Pig's life. And the hard-drinkin' blues life began to catch up with Pig by the very early '70s. He played his last show with the band in 1972, and on March 8, 1973, he died of internal hemorrhaging caused by his drinking.

"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."
~ Jerry Garcia

Here's Robert Petersen's poem for Pigpen, written in 1973:

& pigpen died

my eyes tequila-tortured
4 days mourning
lost another fragment
of my own self
the same brutal
night-sweats & hungers
he knew
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
a boxer's
head throwed back
stale whiskey blues
many-peopled destinations
neon rainy streets
& wilderness of airports
thousands maybe millions
loved him
were fired instantly
into forty-five minutes of
midnight hour
but when he died
he was thin, sick, scared
and alone

like i said to laird
i just hope he didn't hurt
too much

+++++++++++ RIP Pigpen

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