I was reading Grateful Dead lyrics once, and the song was attributed to “Ron McKernan.” Who’s that? I asked. My friends told me that was Pigpen; Ron McKernan was his legal name. Who knew? Obviously not me.
Today is the anniversary of Pigpen’s birth. He would have been 71 today, if he hadn’t died when he was only 27.
According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_%22Pigpen%22_McKernan,
Dead.net (http://www.dead.net/band/ron-pigpen-mckernan) says,
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.
The aforementioned Wikipedia articles continues,
McKernan grew up heavily influenced by African-American music, particularly the blues, and enjoyed listening to his father’s collection of records and taught himself how to play harmonica and piano. He began socializing around the San Francisco Bay Area, becoming friends with Jerry Garcia. After the pair had played in various folk and jug bands, McKernan suggested they form an electric group, which became the Grateful Dead. He was the band’s original frontman as well as playing harmonica and electric organ, but Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh‘s influences on the band became increasingly stronger as they embraced psychedelic rock. McKernan struggled to keep up, causing the group to hire keyboardist Tom Constanten, with McKernan’s contributions essentially limited to vocals, harmonica and percussion from November 1968 to January 1970. He continued to be a frontman in concert for some numbers, including covers of Bobby Bland‘s “Turn On Your Love Light” and the Rascals‘ “Good Lovin’“.
Unlike the other members of the Grateful Dead, McKernan avoided psychedelic drugs, preferring to drink alcohol (namely whiskey and wine). By 1971, his health had been affected by alcoholism and liver damage and doctors advised him to stop touring. Following a four-month hiatus, he resumed touring with the group in December 1971 but was forced to retire from touring altogether in June 1972. McKernan was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on March 8, 1973, aged 27 and is buried at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto.
I know Bob Weir is generally considered the Grateful Dead’s pretty boy, but I think Pigpen was the sexiest one in the band. What can I say? I guess I like ’em a little bit dirty.
I never saw Pigpen perform, but I love the songs I’ve heard him sing. He had a charisma that comes through in the live recordings, a presence that’s survived despite the loss of his physical self.
I miss Pigpen!