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
You know, I’m gettin’ weaker, not
My poor heart can’t stand no more
Just can’t keep from talkin’
If you gonna walk out that door,
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
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