There are many thousands of freak-card-carrying Dead Tribesmen out there who never listen to a show past 1972. You will not find them on the Dead & Co. circuit. They weren’t roasting in Chicago for the 50th anniversary. They weren’t in the minor league baseball stadium lots for the Further experiment. These lost souls spent the threadbare Deadland late-’70s and the world-conquering ’80s wandering Shakedown Street with long, lost faces, holding up pictures of a certain long-deceased Dead keys man to the throngs of disinterested spinners and trippers and weekend warriors and dealers and needers of miracles like followers of a well known but seldom worshiped saint. You see, to this handgog faction the true heart of The Grateful Dead went out with the first keyboardist death in their history, that of the ultra-gritty urban blues force of nature, the lover of Janis Joplin, the equal parts gruff and vulnerable, the distillery-guzzling anti-hippie born as Ron McKernan but monikered for posterity as Pigpen.
So how is it conceivably possible that a prime Grateful Dead member, a band born from Flower Power and whose most enduring logo is a tie dyed dancing bear, was an anti-hippie? In order to understand this intriguing fact one must first understand the original concept of the hippie. In its truest and purest 1966-69 form, a hippie was not some fanny-packed Kumbaya Head tossing Frisbee golf on a day pass from their tech startup. The original outriders of the apocalypse that sprang from the heavily populated fringes of the mid-’60s were all about a thing called “freedom”, and by definition “freedom” can be a bit of a tricky prospect when actually put into practice as opposed to just strumming an acoustic and singing about it. To the original hippies “freedom” actually meant dropping out of society, torching that draft card and heading off the grid completely, goin’ on up the country to try your luck at some obscure commune. It’s easy to forget today, when the jam band touring circuit generates billions in Live Nation ticket sales and when “taking the summer off to follow Gov Mule” is a parent-accepted institution, that in 1969 having hair that sprouted just an inch over the tip of your ears could get your head bashed in anywhere outside Frisco city limits.To the original hippies “freedom” and doing ones’ own thing was tantamount in a way that would be inconceivable under the roving eyes of today’s tone/lifestyle/thought police. Freaks of all stripes were welcome, including those elements which veered dangerously into biker/meth freak/occultist territory, all the way to the slinky menace of the Altamont-beasting Hell’s Angels and the flashy slasher allure of the Manson Fam.
Lumpen Hippie Mugshot From Back In The Day
At the time these loose factions, these lost and snarling fringes of the fringes, were known as lumpen hippies. And our dear Pigpen was the ultimate lumpen hippie, swilling earthbound whiskey instead of space skying on the tabs, drawling raw two chord death dirges like a man allergic to psychedelic flights of fancy, and sticking to hard livin’ mammas like Janis instead of those willowy, granny-glasses-and grilled-cheese flower child commune girls so coveted in those years. Pig was proudly and bravely “uptight” at a time when being so was the hugest sin you could possibly commit, clad in biker leather and draped in American flags and wild west ephemera in the face of an imposing sea of bell bottoms and fringe.
Janis & Pig: The Ultimate Hard Livin’ Couple
Although this outsider-amongst-outsiders stance is a major part of the Pigpen legend and arguably a leading contributor to the man’s entry into the 27 Club not long after the ’60s wrapped, it was nowhere near his most defining aspect, nor was it what made him so essential to the early, primal version of The Dead. You see, Pigpen was a full-blown fucking STAR, by far the closest thing to a cultural celebrity The Dead produced until Jerry somehow mud-walked unwillingly into the spotlight in the late ’80s. Back in the late-’60s land of the Ego Death, Pigpen wasn’t afraid to step to the front of the stage, take the mic, and make an arena shake with a 25-minute version of “Lovelight”. While the rest of The Dead always seemed to wish to vanish behind their instruments and the intricate notes they weaved, kind of an early version of shoegazing, The Pig loved nothing more than to step out from behind that unwieldy organ and scream into the floodlights, hoping he reached every hair on the thousands of halo heads out there soaring in the AM Fillmore dark. See, it wasn’t Jerry or Bobby who served as the designated centerpiece/face/star of the Early Dead, it was Pigpen, and it has been, and will continue to be, argued that Mr. Ronald McKernan is mostly responsible for this otherwise unassuming shag heap of a band’s rise from coffee house bluegrass sideshow to a cultural force on par with The Stones.
Without Pigpen and his call-and-response soul show shenanigans, The Dead would have peaked at the same popularity level as Jefferson Airplane.
While the showstopper audience participation numbers may have solidified The Dead’s ascendant stardom within the already moneyed-up FM station “underground”, few PP Devotees would argue that the beefy organ man’s real heart lived with the gritty blooze. This is not by any means the stately, intricately-woven Allman Bros. version of da blooze, the laid back, stretched out pentatonic scales that were taking hold within the Ballrooms and Fillmores. Pigpen walked a path in the opposite direction, a gut-punching workingman’s blooze, stripped of all traces of grandeur or nuance, tightly wound and prowling any sleazy back alley it could find. More controversially, it was punk as fuck, blues to fight in the streets to, not to smoke out in front of a Lava Lamp. It was a sound The Dead would sadly never quite capture again even though they tried, off-and-on, for decades.
A prime example of what pre-’73 headz refer to as the “Primal Early Dead”, quite possibly the most savage Pigpen-fronted offering, is “Easy Wind” from Workingman’s Dead which, if cranked and given a chance, should put a definitive end to the oft-repeated misconception that The Grateful Dead couldn’t rock.
For a bonafide star serving as a key member of one of the counterculture’s fave bands, there lived within Pigpen the disposition of a born outsider, complete with the resulting loneliness and extreme vulnerability. As much as his Dead Brethren clearly loved him and wished that he would keep his shit together, there is little doubt that Pig was an outcast within the expanding Dead constellation of the late-’60s/early-’70s. He was on different intoxicants. His disposition fell nowhere near flower power. He actually ran with bikers while Jerry and Phil simply sang their praises. Most importantly, Pigpen never really meshed with the 27-minute “Darkstar” sprawls that were slowly taking over the band’s sets, often sitting them out altogether. Poor Pigpen must have seen the writing on the wall, must have sensed the direction his band was destined to sprawl in, and not only did he not want any part of it but he technically didn’t have the chops for it. And while alcoholism is a hell of a disease, these factors certainly didn’t help tick Mr. Pigpen back from that “Doomed” category, if they didn’t directly contribute to the painful, 100-proof death The Dead’s most recognizable dead keyboardist ultimately suffered.
Those wandering Pigpen Sadhus of the ’80s stadium parking lots were completely right on in their praise for their Pig Saint. There was a grit and urgency, indeed a rampaging post-apocalyptic spirit, to that version of The Dead that they never even came close to re-conjuring after the P Man checked out of town. Of all the Dead Deaths, even rivaling the Ultimate Dead Death of Jerry himself, this is by far one of the most tragically conflicted, and it has rightly haunted each surviving member of the original Grateful Dead ever since.