After Pigpen’s death we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead.—Jerry Garcia.
Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan was just 27 when he was found dead on March 8, 1973, of a gastointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, Marin County, California.
Band members were devastated. Pigpen had been living alone in a ranch-style house overlooking San Francisco Bay. After he died, a friend found a tape cassette in the house that Pigpen recorded in the last week of his life.
On the tape he plays slow piano and sings in a frail voice: Don’t make me live in this pain / no longer …
Pigpen was a founding member of the San Francisco band and played organ and harmonica in the group from 1965 to 1972. “He was the musician in the Grateful Dead,” said Mickey Hart.
“With his long black hair in an Indian headband,” wrote the Rolling Stone in his obit, “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.”
Pigpen became close friends with Janis Joplin. They performed together along with the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West on June 7, 1969, and sang his signature ‘Turn On Your Love Light.’
While other members of the Grateful Dead were getting off on psychedelic drugs, Pigpen was drinking whiskey.
As early as his mid-twenties, the alcohol had messed up his liver and doctors told him to quit drinking and to stop going on gigs with the band.
“He was never quite sober,” said a friend, “even when he woke up in the morning, he’d wake up drunk.”
Pigpen’s health kept getting worse until he could no longer perform. He made his final concert appearance on June 17, 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl.
With his days numbered, Pigpen broke off all personal relationships with the band. “I don’t want you around when I die,” he told them.
“God knows what kind of emotional shit he went through near the end,” said Laird Grant. “When it got down to where he couldn’t drink, that really knocked him for a loop because then he was in a total void; he had no place to hide. It was like being shuffled off to the side track and watching the freights go by.”
Ron McKernan was buried at the Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“He was the sweetest guy anyone had ever met,” said band member Bill Kreutsmann.