'Pigpen' McKernan Dead at 27

A look at the life and death of one of the Grateful Dead's founding members

Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan of American rock band The Grateful Dead on April 4th, 1972. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty

CORTE MADERA, Calif. — Ron McKernan — better known as Pigpen — was found dead in his apartment here March 8th. The organist and singer, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, was 27.

The body was found at about 9 PM by his landlady. She had noticed that for a couple of days his car had been in the garage, the lights in the house left burning and the back door open. McKernan was found lying on the floor beside his bed, half-dressed as if about to get into bed. He had apparently been dead for two days.

At press time the Marin County Coroner's Office had not issued a final autopsy, but the suspected cause of death was hemorrhaging of blood vessels around the liver and the point where the esophagus enters the stomach. He had been under a doctor's care for cirrhosis.

The coroner said McKernan had been "following doctor's orders exactly to the letter. There was a chart beside his bed showing what he was eating and the time he was to eat it."

McKernan had been living alone in a modified ranch-style place overlooking San Francisco Bay. A long-time friend of the group, in going through the apartment on Saturday, discovered a tape cassette McKernan had apparently recorded in the last week of his life. On the tape he plays slow, gospel/blues piano and sings in an eerie, frail voice. One of the songs is extraordinary for the way the lyrics and phrasing shift in and out of stanza form, and the melody likewise seems to be making its own way independent of any repeating pattern.

"It's hard to say," suggests the discoverer of the tape, "who the song is addressed to. Some places I'm sure are directed to individuals in the Dead family. Some of it clearly, maybe all of it on some level, is to everybody." The imagery of the lyrics is of separation and departure:

Don't make me live in this pain
no longer

You know, I'm gettin' weaker, not
stronger

My poor heart can't stand no more
Just can't keep from talkin'
If you gonna walk out that door,
start walkin'

I'll get back somehow
Maybe not tomorrow, but someday
I know someday I'll find someone
Who can ease my pain like you once done*

*Lyrics copyright 1973

* * *

Ronald Charles McKernan was born September 8th, 1945, in suburban San Bruno, California, on the San Francisco Peninsula. His father, Phil McKernan, was a disk jockey who had a daily blues program on radio station KRE in Berkeley from 1951 to 1956. In 1966 McKernan told an interviewer, "I began singin' at 16. I wasn't in school, I was just goof-in'. I've always been singing along with records, my dad was a disk jockey, and it's been what I wanted to do."

His parents and his young brother and sister, Kevin and Carol, followed his career with the Grateful Dead and, according to Kevin McKernan, "attended every concert the Dead played on the peninsula."

"You can quote me as saying this," Kevin also said: "I plan to follow in his footsteps."

Ron left school at 16 and started hanging out at a Palo Alto club called the Chateau, where he met a young guitarist and banjoist named Jerry Garcia. In 1964 the two of them formed Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions with Bob Weir. The jug band became the nucleus of the Grateful Dead.

Garcia credits McKernan with the idea of playing rock & roll: "He'd been pestering me for a while, he wanted me to start up an electric blues band. That was his trip . . . because in the jugband scene we used to do blues numbers, like Jimmy Reed tunes." When the group went electric, McKernan switched from harmonica to organ, and his singing, which owed something to Chicago blues, something to Lightnin' Hopkins, was featured.

With the addition of Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzman on drums, the Warlocks were born. The group changed the name to the Grateful Dead in 1966, after long association with Owsley Stanley, the acid chemist, and Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, and became a mainstay of the San Francisco ballroom scene.

With his long black hair in an Indian headband, his striped shirts, his black leather jacket covered with medals and a Hell's Angels patch, his biker's cap and often a couple of days' growth of beard, "Pigpen" was the most visual member of the group. But for all the rowdy appearance — he rode a BSA and was an honorary Hell's Angel — McKernan was known as a gentle, introverted soul.

"He was a warm, lovable cat," says Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld. "Unlike many rock & roll stars, he never projected an image of skulking evil." Ironically, McKernan was one of two members of the Dead arrested in a famous 1967 bust; of the group he was by far the least into drugs.

In 1971 McKernan first fell ill and for about a year seldom played with the Dead. He joined the group for its European tour last summer, reportedly against doctor's orders, and when he returned, his condition was diagnosed as anemia. Last year, for the first time, he didn't join the Dead to sing "Midnight Hour" or "Love Light" at the group's traditional New Year's Eve concert.

Dusty Street, a disk jockey at KSAN-FM in San Francisco and a veteran of the pioneer underground FM station KMPX, remembers McKernan from a long time back: "I knew Pig from when we were both 15 or 16 in Palo Alto," she said. "We used to sit around and drink together.

"Well, he drank himself to death. Toward the end, he was real skinny — real skinny, man his arms were skinnier than mine. He was down to about 126 pounds, and in his prime he was 180.

"He drank junk — Ripple and Thunderbird, even Thunderbird mixed with raspberry Kool-Aid. And even after he was making some money, the highest-grade lush he ever drank was Bourbon Deluxe. He was never quite sober, even when he woke up in the morning; he'd wake up drunk.

"To make it worse, he used to drink and not eat. We all were telling him not to drink, for years. Then he got sick, and he couldn't drink any more. Ironically, about that time we all started to drink."

The funeral was held March 12th at a modernistic, cinder block-and-stained-wood funeral home half a dozen blocks from where McKernan lived. About 200 people attended, nearly all of them friends from the Acid Test and Dead family scene, including Ken Kesey and head Merry Prankster Ken Babbs. At least a dozen Hell's Angels, including New York Angels president Sandy Alexander, attended. There was also a tiny handful of conservatively dressed older people in attendance at the traditional Roman Catholic funeral.

"His family really blew our minds, man," said Dead manager Rock Scully. "They had him laid out in an open casket — dressed in his leather jacket and his brown cowboy shirt, with his hat on the pillow." The funeral service did not include a eulogy, but the Rev. James Healy delivered a short, impersonal sermon on the importance of music "as an instrument for good in interpreting the voice of the future and the young." The body was buried at Alta Mesa Memorial Park on the peninsula.

The night before the funeral there had been a wake, held at Bob Weir's home. "There were tons of people there," said Dusty Street, "maybe 75 or so. Lots of people I haven't seen in years, like Jason, the eight-year-old orphan of the Haight, whose mother lived with the Dead. There were lots of roast fowls around, turkeys and other kinds; and ham, roast beef, salad. The chicks knocked themselves out on it. There was lots of booze and no reminiscing. People sat around and listened to music and talked and got drunk.

"It's what he would have wanted. It was a good party. I'm glad I went."