September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973 (27 years old)
Ronald C. "Pigpen" McKernan was a founding member of the Grateful Dead. McKernan contributed a blues element to the group, regularly performing such songs as "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", "Easy Wind", and his trademark song "Turn On Your Love Light"— a Bobby Bland cover that served as the finale for many Grateful Dead concerts.
A heavy drinker since his teenage years, McKernan was diagnosed with liver damage in 1970, which eventually forced him to stop touring in 1972. He died the next year. In 1994, McKernan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the other members of the Grateful Dead.
McKernan was born in San Bruno, California, the son of an R&B and blues disc jockey. He grew up with many African-American friends and felt very strongly connected to black music and culture. As a youth, he taught himself blues piano and developed a biker image. In his early teens, McKernan left Palo Alto High School by mutual agreement with the school's principal. He also began using alcohol in his adolescence.
McKernan began spending time around coffeehouses and music stores, where he met Jerry Garcia. One night Garcia invited McKernan onstage to play harmonica and sing the blues. Garcia was impressed and McKernan became the blues singer in local jam sessions. A high-school friend named Roger gave him his nickname based on his "funky" approach to life. However, in an essay included with the Grateful Dead box-set The Golden Road (1965-1973) it is claimed that a girlfriend of McKernan's gave him the nickname, owing to his similarity to the permanently dirty character in the comic-strip Peanuts.
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. Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann were added and the band evolved into the Warlocks. Around 1965, McKernan urged the rest of the Warlocks to switch to electric instruments. Around this time Phil Lesh joined, and they became the Grateful Dead.
McKernan played blues organ as well as harmonica and vocals. While his friends were experimenting with LSD and other psychedelics, McKernan stuck to Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort. He steadily added more signature tunes to the Dead's repertoire, including some that lasted for the remainder of their live performance career such as "Turn on Your Lovelight" and "In the Midnight Hour."
In 1967 and 1968 respectively, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten joined the Grateful Dead, causing the band to take a stylistic turn from the blues toward full-blown experimental psychedelia influenced by avant-garde jazz, surrealism, and world music traditions. Constanten often replaced Pigpen on keyboards. In October 1968, McKernan and Weir were nearly fired from the band because of their reluctance to rehearse. Ultimately, the task of firing them was delegated by Garcia to Rock Scully, who said that McKernan "took it hard." The remaining members did a number of shows under the monikers Mickey and the Hartbeats and Jerry Garrceeah and His Friends, mainly playing Grateful Dead songs without lyrics. Weir asked repeatedly to be let back into the band, promising to step up his playing, and eventually the rest of the band relented. McKernan was more stubborn, missing three Dead shows; he finally vowed not to "be lazy" anymore and rejoined the band. In November 1968, Constanten was hired full-time for the band, having only worked in the studio up to that point. 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."
McKernan achieved a new prominence throughout 1969, with versions of "Turn On Your Love Light", now the band's show-stopping finale, regularly taking fifteen to twenty minutes. When the Grateful Dead appeared at Woodstock, the band's set (which was marred by technical problems and general chaos) consisted mostly of a 48-minute version of the song.
In 1970, McKernan began experiencing symptoms of congenital biliary cirrhosis. After an August 1971 hospitalization, doctors requested that he stop touring indefinitely; pianist Keith Godchaux was subsequently hired and remained a permanent member of the band until 1979. Ever restless, the ailing McKernan rejoined the band in December 1971 to supplement Godchaux on harmonica, percussion, and organ. After their Europe '72 tour, his health had degenerated to the point where he could no longer continue on the road. He made his final concert appearance on June 17, 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles, California.
On March 8, 1973, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California. Contrary to the popular belief that he died from cirrhosis caused by excessive alcohol consumption, he in fact succumbed to Crohn's disease which also claimed the life of his brother Kevin. McKernan is buried at the Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California.
McKernan had a short romantic relationship and longer friendship with Janis Joplin; a poster from the early 1970s featured them together. Joplin joined McKernan onstage at the Fillmore West in June 1969 with the Grateful Dead to sing his signature "Turn On Your Love Light," despite her dislike of the band's jamming style. The two reprised this duet July 16, 1970, at the Euphoria Ballroom in San Rafael, California.
McKernan was good friends with fellow band member Tom Constanten, based on their mutual aversion to psychedelics. He eventually served as best man when Constanten wed. After Constanten's departure in January 1970 over musical and lifestyle differences, McKernan resumed keyboard duties.
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