PIGPEN: GRATITUDE FOR THE DEAD
What do you say about a 27-year-old drunk who died? Well, perhaps a thing or two. When I heard that the body of Ron "Pigpen" McKernan had been found in his Marin County apartment, I immediately remembered a Greateful Dead concert of a couple of years ago. For sheer energetic joy I still think it is the best rock concert I've ever been to, and Pigpen was the star.
The concert was in February of 1970 at a marvelous neo-Babylonian movie theater in St. Louis called the Fox. It was, I believe, the first rock concert to be held there; theretofore, management had always resisted rock's barbarian incursions, but as one of America's worst ghettos closed in on midtown St. Louis, they had decided, I think, to get as much money out of the place as possible before the whole fabric of Mid-Western Civilization went ping. They had spades, why not hippies?
The ambience of the theater had a lot to do with making the occasion so memorable. The lobby of the theater was about the size of the Boston Garden and it was decorated with what appeared to be all the artifacts left over after David Wark Griffith finished "Intolerance." There were waterfalls everywhere, lambent over limestone, so that the place had the cool feel and the fresh, gritty smell of the Carlsbad Caverns. There were huge porcelain elephants stationed at either side of a flowing marble staircase - well, it looked like marble - enormous bulbous (pun intended) chandeliers and huge phony torches jutting out from the walls, held by swags. That place was a motherfucker.
So the people who came to the concert were already in a state of wonder even before the music started. Plus - remember, this was the Midwest, and not really all that far from the South - it was even at that late date one of the first signs that there was this enormous community around St. Louis of the sort of people who go to Grateful Dead concerts. I hadn't realized that there were that many freaks in Missouri, thousands of them, as if you had shaken every commune in the Ozarks and in the rich Missouri bottomland around Columbia, dumped the contents into Volkswagen buses, and given them all a shove down I-44 and I-70 towards St. Louis. A lot of them probably hadn't seen each other since (a) Woodstock; (b) Jimmy Driftwood's folk festival in Mountain View, Ark.; (c) the Kansas pot harvest. It was like a reunion; the whole hip scene was on the verge of turning into an overbearing drag or worse in the wake of Altamont and the psychedelic hard-sell, but there was a lot of untapped innocence lurching hairily around the Fox Theater in St. Louis that night three years ago.
The concert started about two hours late. The Grateful Dead had been busted for possession of marijuana a couple of days before in New Orleans and the seven tons of equipment that they hauled around the country had been impounded in lieu of bond or something. A lot of it had just arrived and had been too hastily assembled and besides the PA wasn't working very well, so Owsley Augustus Stanley III, keeper of the ohms, was hopping around kicking various pieces of heavy electronic equipment like a rube at a used car lot.
Owsley was sending various roadies and quippies scurrying after parts and tools and cursing everybody from Thomas Alva Edison on. For a while, it looked like things would never start because Owsley was in charge and things had better be JUST RIGHT for him because he was sensitive to the slightest untoward wiggle in the holy vibrations the Dead were going to send up to the sky, thence to fall like manna on the hungry ears of earth. I mean, THIS WIRE DOES NOT BELONG HERE.
Finally, though, Owsley was appeased and after a brief set by a warm-up group, the Dead came out. In those days, they were just getting into the sweet country harmonies that showed up under the influence of David Crosby and Graham Nash, and they opened the set with three or four numbers in the "Workingman's Dead" manner. If I tell you that was the first night I heard "Uncle John's Band," their most exalted song, and it turns out they actually didn't do that one until later in history, put it down to the memory striving Platonically for perfection but do believe me, I remember the last half of the concert very clearly.
After a long and not entirely satisfactory trip down tape-loop lane, the music slowly evolved to a vaguely familiar chord and the trace of a melody began creeping through, somewhere in the interplay between Garcia's guitar and Lesh's bass line. There was a pause, and the three stringed men leaned into their microphones and sang into the silence:
"St. Stephen with a rose,
In and out of the garden he goes..."
At that, a kid in the front row yelped and leapt to his feet as if someone had jabbed him in the ass with an ice-pick. Then everyone was up, and the band took off. There was boogie in the aisles and romping in the balcony, and it wasn't any of your half-assed obligatory Led Zeppelin kind of boogie, nor any of your Seconal and Sopors Black Sabbath stumble-fucks, this was joyous aisle-stomping. It kept up for half an hour and the band never let up, as they sometimes do, never let the beat dwindle away, and toward the end the music was building to a huge vibrating crescendo. People were screaming and bouncing around and hugging each other, whole aisles were dancing with their arms around each other like rock and roll Rockettes.
And then...along came Pigpen. He had been shaking a tambourine in a bemused sort of way, holding it up by his ear as if it were a seashell and he was listening for the ocean, but now he put it down on top of a speaker and walked to the front of the stage, with Garcia, Lesh, and Weir stretched out behind him. He was wearing a big-brimmed cowboy hat with the sides rolled up, and the hat band was actually a swash of colored cloth that hung down in back by his long pigtail.
With the band rocking along behind him, he picked a microphone off a stand and held it out in front of him the way a knife-fighter would. He made a dagger gesture with the mike and, even though he didn't move his feet, his body seemed to make a little rush forward at the audience. He poked again at the audience with the mike and the band cut back on the volume and left him a hole. Glaring at the audience as if he had just caught the whole bunch of them in bed with his old lady, but with a thin smile at the corner of his lips, he stepped forward and then began to sing:
"Without a warning...you broke my heart."
His body began to rock back and forth, the band came in louder and stronger than ever and buddy, that was all she wrote. Pigpen shouted and growled and screamed, he made little rushes across the stage, he did his Big Mama Thornton routine and his Otis Redding routine and his Little Richard routine and the place just went crazy as he hopped around the stage, screaming again and again, "Turn on your lovelight... Turn on your lovelight." As the concert came to a close with explosions of drums and shrieking of guitars, and the applause and cheers began swelling up from the audience, a tall black woman with the biggest Afro in town jumped up on stage and began hugging and kissing Pigpen, swinging him around like a doll. Pigpen just went limp in her arms and, for the first time all night, he grinned.
In those days, Pigpen gulped down staggering quantities of cheap wine and liquor, but for the last year and a half of his life, he drank no alcohol at all. Since 1971, when he first went into the hospital with problems in his liver, stomach, and colon, he had appeared less and less with the Grateful Dead. There was the sense, at least from the outside, that the band had grown away from his kind of music anyway, the simple, raucous harp and organ rhythm and blues riffs he had absorbed through his father, a Berkeley R&B disc jockey in the Fifties. Jerry Garcia credited Pigpen with turning an acoustic group called Mother McCrees Uptown Jugband toward the electric blues in the early days in Palo Alto.
Rock Scully, who became the manager of the band in 1966, about the time they discovered there already was a group called the Warlocks and stumbled on the words "Grateful Dead" in Phil Lesh's dictionary, told me, "Ron will be sorely missed; he was our bluesman." Scully recalled that, when he first met McKernan, "He was about the funkiest looking dude in the world - even the Angels were clean looking compared to him."
But, Scully said, "He was really a quiet, introspective dude, he generally kept to himself."
Last April, Scully recalled, Pigpen joined the Dead for a two-month tour of Europe. "It was his first outing with the band in eight months. He had been sick and operated on in the upper colon, and he had ulcers and I guess a hepatetic liver, but he said he was back on his feet and ready to work.
"We traveled in two buses, and for some reason he insisted on hanging out in back of one of the buses. The buses bounced around a lot and I guess it was really bumpy back there over the rear wheels. He got thrown on to the floor a few times, and I'm sure all that bouncing didn't do his liver any good. But he seemed to be in good spirits.
"At the end of the tour, he came directly back to California, and about five days later we heard he was in the hospital and they had opened him up again. He hadn't drunk anything for almost a year, but apparently it was too late. He had what is called a terminal liver, we found out later, and he had developed pneumonia and he was just in terrible shape.
"In mid-June, he made the Hollywood Bowl concert, that was the last one. He still looked just terrible and we said, 'Hey, go back in the hospital.'"
McKernan did go back to the hospital and later moved in with his parents in Palo Alto and lived a quiet life, seldom leaving the house. "As far as we knew he was getting better," Scully said.
He did seem to be feeling better and around the first of the year he moved into his own apartment in Marin County, where the other members of the Dead live.
Scully said, "He came to the Dead office maybe 12 hours before he died. He died Tuesday night or Wednesday morning sometime, and during the day on Tuesday [March 6] he came to the office in San Rafael and said the doctor didn't see any reason why he shouldn't go back to work with the band. We were overjoyed. We were going into the studio in April to record, and we thought he was going to be with us.
"So it was a terrible shock when we were told his body had been found. And we still haven't figured out if he knew all along that he was dying and just didn't want to lay that on us."
(by Harper Barnes, from the Real Paper, Boston, 4 April 1973)
Lovelight from 2/2/70 was released on Dave's Picks 6.
See also Barnes' original show review: