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The Day the Grateful Dead’s Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan Died

Michael Putland, Getty Images
Michael Putland, Getty Images

On March 8, 1973, Ron McKernan passed away at age 27. Better known as Pigpen, he was considered by many to be the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead, especially in the band’s early days. The idea of starting the group was his, and soon the Warlocks were playing their first shows.

His love of real blues was a driving force for the band early on. His soulful vocals, organ and harmonica playing gave authenticity to the band, eventually known as the Grateful Dead. Even with their tendency toward wild experimentation, he kept those blues roots strong. His father had been an R&B disc jockey and introduced the young Ron to a whole other world of “liquor, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the harmonica and some barbecue” according to the Dead’s website. Meanwhile, his nickname came from what they call his “funky approach to life and sanitation.”

Despite the band members immersion in the LSD culture, Pigpen was not a fan; he preferred his trips to be alcohol-fueled. By the time of the band’s second album, most traces of traditional blues and folk were being buried under hallucinatory influences.The band were changing musically, and the addition of a second drummer (Mickey Hart) and a second keyboardist (Tom Constanten) meant Pigpen’s role was being diminished.

Despite the internal strife, however, his presence was always made known in the band’s legendary live performances. His lead vocal performance on “Turn on Your Lovelight” was always a signature highlight of their live shows.

Pigpen’s health took a turn for the worse in 1970 and doctors told him he should stop touring. He listened, and temporarily stayed off the road, but would rejoin the band in late-1971. After their famed Europe ’72 tour, things got worse and he was off the road once again. He made his final appearance with the band at the Hollywood Bowl in June 1972. Pigpen’s love of the blues was equaled only by his love of alcohol, a demon he couldn’t shake. And after years of hard living and hard drinking, it finally did him in. He died on March 8, 1973. of internal hemorrhaging caused by his drinking.

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