All of the many Grateful Dead keyboard player deaths are full-scale tragedies, but easily the saddest and most haunting would be that of the Dead’s final keys man, the Hawaiian-shirt-rocking former Tube Vince Welnick. For while most of the dead Dead keyboardists achieved their entry to the afterlife through various tried-and-true rock dude misadventures (drinkin’, druggin’, fast drivin’), Mr. Welnick escaped this mortal coil by his own hand. His ending was truly horrible, and his final words are about as sadly plaintiff as any that have ever been uttered in that crossover moment and serve to separate this strangely un-celebrated musician from the rest of the pantheon of boomer rock bro deaths. It wasn’t a fatal party dose that did this troubled and talented soul in. It was a broken heart.
Look, many thousands of wanderers out there took the death of Jerry Garcia very, very hard. Some are still staggering from it. Some haven’t accepted it. Some live in a bubble of archive tapes and vintage tees. Others move from parking lot to parking lot each summer all these decades later, projecting their fantasies onto Jerry replacements (John Mayer, John Kadlecik, Trey). The heart of Dead Tribe, all these years later, is still noticeably stunned by Jerry’s tragic, though not at all surprising, exit from this realm.
On the flip side, the former Dead band members all seem to have handled it rather smoothly, moving on to solo albums and money-spinning Dead cover acts and overarching Godhead Status on the “Nugz, maaaaaaaaan” circuit/lifestyle, not to mention those ideal hippie palaces in those golden and inaccessible counties surrounding San Francisco, the younger earth mamma wives, and the overall sage-like elder statesmen auras.
Except for one.
Vincent Leo Welnick is easily the least worshiped deity in the sizable Dead pantheon, although his ascent into what was, at the time, one of the largest stadium acts in the world is nothing short of inspirational. After years of toiling in theaters and wee hour MTV rotation with San Francisco multimedia quasi-porn weirdos The Tubes, Welnick hit absolute paydirt by acing an audition to replace Brent Mydland in the keyboard role for The Dead. Unlike Brent before him, who toiled for years in the Dead minor leagues (Bobby’s solo career) before being called to The Big Show, Welnick had no strong Dead World ties other than a San Francisco address. In beating out the eternally awesome Ian (Mac) McLagan, apparently all Vince needed was his naturally high harmonies and ability to ease comfortably into extended 2nd Set jams. To imagine what that phone call from Bobby or Phil or even Jerry himself must have stirred in this obscure, aging musician, just remember that The Grateful Dead at that time could sell out any football stadium anywhere in the country for as many nights as they wished to play it, and on each of those nights many thousands more ticket-less individuals would crowd the parking lot just to hang out. This was easily the most popular, and weirdly populist, band in the world and they were only a couple of years off their dancing skeleton video glory of the late 80s at the time he was accepted. With just one audition, Welnick went from “background member in The Tubes” to “card-carrying Hippie God playing in front of 90,000 people per night.” This was a rubber stamped ticket to immortality. This was a guaranteed foothold in a rapidly expanding history about to be shot through lighting speed with the dawning of the internet. This was good times and good jams and a slot in one of the most revered bands to ever exist on God’s green earth. This was millions upon millions of dollars.
But how was Vincent to know?
How was he to know that the Grateful Dead were teetering on the cusp of the nadir of their musical existence? A time when instantly dated synths were being introduced to the live sound? A time when Jerry refused to book shows in any city where he didn’t have a solid smack connection? A time when coliseums full of people who only knew “Touch Of Grey” would turn their backs on “New Minglewood Blues” to engage in drug transactions? A time when the number of people getting gone in the parking lot far outmatched the show’s attendance? A time when 25-minutes versions of “Iko Iko” would fade out on bum notes? A time that would lead, over just a handful of moon cycles, the the ultimate bum note in The Dead’s discography: The death of Jerry Garcia. Although close followers would have had the clues to tie together to predict this most ominous of horizons, there is little evidence that Vince Welnick, prior to being anointed a member, was a follower of anything other than the Dead’s musical output. And though he very well may have known, and was definitely informed if he did not, that every Dead keys man prior to him had become a dead Grateful Dead keyboard player, the offer was just too insanely delicious to pass on. This was instant fame, instant legacy, instant Marin County hippie dream house. It all must have seemed so vivid and new. It must have seemed like nothing could possibly go wrong.
And while things most certainly did go wrong, it cannot be overstated that Vince Welnick is the most unjustly ridiculed player in the history of The Grateful Dead (Sorry, Donna). Poor Vince tends to be associated with those somewhat (but not always) dire and draggy 90s summer runs, but was it really his fault? Judging by both the footage and the absolute heater of a show at the Philadelphia Spectrum I was blessed enough to witness as a 14-year-old in 1992, it wasn’t Vincent’s fault even in the slightest. The simple fact of the matter is that The Dead were tired, there were bad drugs in the way, and the whole unwieldy empire had grown so large that it was just about ready to topple and fall even if Jerry had managed to hang on. For while he may be forever associated with The Great Downfall, here are some doses of real deal evidence that proves the man was straight fiyah on those keys:
“Eyes” with Branford Marsalas, Oakland, 1990
“Wang Dang Doodle” with Nick Hornsby on awesome duel keys, DC, 1991
“Bird Song”, Ohio, 1992
“Corrina”, Chicago, 1995
Other than being fresh and eager, talented, not burnt out, and not addicted to the hard stuff, another very important aspect Vincent brought to the table during those dark Dead times was a sense of humor. Certainly the other Dead members, and indeed the entire inner circle, weren’t laughing all that much during the Welnick era, but Welnick himself was, as can be attested in a hilarious anecdote from Chris Robinson about the time The Black Crows opened for The Dead. While wandering around the immense backstage area of whatever monolithic stadium the circus was passing through that night, Robinson happened to stumble across an intense Grateful Dead band meeting/confrontation. The focus? Why, it was Jer Bear’s continuing chasing of the dragon, which at that point had no doubt become a minute-by-minute occupation. And there, in the midst of this most stone faced of meetings, sat Vince Welnick at his organ, picking out the melody line for Velvet Underground junkie-rock classic “Heroin”. Inappropriate? For sure, but it demonstrates that Vince had not lost that Tubes sense of humor, nor had he allowed the intensifying Dead drama of those ’90s summer slog tours get him down.
Captain Trips was down and out, so a new and much needed joker emerged in the final days of The Dead.
While his fellow Dead members had long been out of the loop on any new sounds emerging in their slipstream, Welnick consistently kept his ear to the tracks and picked up on scenes such as the paisley underground and the new generation of psych bands flourishing in San Francisco and LA at the time. He wasn’t adverse to lending a helping hand either. His nephew, Ricky Maymi of Brian Jonestown Massacre, recalls the help his famous uncle lent the band in their early days:
“Vince bought me a bass amp when the band was first starting and he funded our trip to the UK when we were shopping the BJM demo for what became Methadrone. There was even some talk of trying to get BJM to open for The Dead.”
Now just sit back and imagine, if you will, The Brian Jonestown Massacre opening up for The Grateful Dead at Candlestick Park in the early ’90s. These are the types of dreams Vince Welnick tried his whole life to conjure.
“He played on the Smallstone album I did with Jeff Davies and also played on the Tipsy album I played on with Tim Digulla from The Imajinary Friends. Vince was always super supportive.”
So when did this kind and giving goofball with the cat tees rocking the keys for the single biggest band on the planet turn dark? It would seem that the troubles started with the death of the leader of that band, Jerry Garcia. Of course this death hit hard for anyone in Dead World, from the band to the inner circle to the followers, but it seems that the man who had played with him for the least amount of time took it the hardest.
Bobby Weir’s reaction was to hit the road, touring hard with what was now his main band, Ratdog, one of the key members of which was now Vince Welnick. And this seems to be where the trouble started. In an incident which seemingly got him banished from The Dead’s infrastructure, Welnick made his first known suicide attempt on the tour bus.
“That December, on the RatDog tour bus before a show in Santa Barbara, Welnick spilled out the contents of a Valium bottle and counted 57 pills. He took them all, climbed in his bunk and waited to die. The tour manager accompanied him to the hospital, while the rest of the band played the show. After he recovered, Welnick sought psychiatric treatment and began taking antidepressants. He never played with RatDog again.”
Years later, a more reflective Weir had this to say:
“I wish I could have helped. I tried, but I failed. The people closest to him wish they tried, but they failed. He tried himself and failed. That’s the story and it’s a sad one.”
In the years following his near-deadly Valium dance, it seems that our hero further alienated himself from The Dead empire by bombarding the head office with phone calls demanding reunions and by composing music for previously published Robert Hunter lyrics, for which he received a friendly cease and desist note. Plus, a one-sided feud broke out between Welnick and Bill Kreutzmann, who had decamped to Hawaii and had effectively ended any association with The Dead at that time (It should be noted that Welnick continued to enjoy a solid relationship with the other Dead drummer, Mickey Hart, whom he did one tour with in 2002). Vince Welnick was well and truly cut off from his former band, not allowed to use any of the many still-held rehearsal spaces for his new projects or to borrow equipment. During the Only Ones shows at Alpine Village in 2002, the exiled former card carrying member of The Grateful Dead was reduced to playing a local Thai restaurant side gig.
For the remainder of his time on Earth, Welnick toiled in a variety of Dead cover bands with names like “Jack Straw”, playing small clubs for door fees. For a guy who had become used to playing for 90,000 per night for five years straight and singing the National Anthem at major league baseball games, this must have been quite the jarring juxtaposition. He continued to be snubbed from any and all Dead-related reunions or functions. Vince himself assumed this all had to do with the Ratdog tour bus suicide attempt, but it most likely ran a lot deeper than that. After all, players like Phil Lesh and Weir had played with Jerry for over 30 years. So why was the new guy freaking out more than them? Add to this the sad fact that Welnick was noticeably unstable and tough to work with in these later years, and you have all the makings of a permanent exile.
All this isn’t to say that Welnick’s post-Dead existence was completely terrible. This was, after all, a former member of The Grateful Dead, and this type of stardust doesn’t wash away easily. Vince and his wife enjoyed a ten acre spread in Sonoma County, complete with home studio, grand piano, and reportedly dozens of free-roaming cats. Plus The Dead weren’t the only notable band he had played in, and there were many rumors of a Tubes reunion in the works at the time of his death. Plus, one cannot simply be expunged from a corporation such as The Grateful Dead, and it is a matter of public record that Welnick was bought out of his interest in the band for an undisclosed amount somewhere along the line.
But no amount of money or hippie clout or sunny Cali property can cure a broken heart.
And it was this broken heart which eventually killed Vince Welnick. The poor guy just never recovered from the death of Jerry, the death of his band, the death of his big break, the pain of his ostracism from the inner circle. In his final years he was suffering from health issues (and refusing to give up pot), while still writing letters to Dead management hoping for a reunion.
Which brings us to June 2, 2006.
On this day the final Grateful Dead keys man awoke in the morning and announced to his wife and father-in-law, who was staying at the house, that he had slept quite well. Less than an hour later his wife discovered an illicit bottle of liquor, which Vince wasn’t supposed to be consuming, and went looking for him. This would be Welnick’s final toast. She found him ascending a hill behind the house. She called his name. He turned and, with no hesitation, cut his throat. When she reached him, he could still talk, and he begged of her one last request.
“Just let me go.”
It was all too much for Vince Welnick. Five years in the greatest circus on Earth had fried his circuits. He hadn’t had the time to grow jaded as the others had, and his freshness and positivity were devastatingly cut down by the death of both Jerry Garcia and of The Grateful Dead. To be sure, he suffered greatly in his remaining years, right down to his very last breath on a sunny morning hillside on Sonoma County.
He suffers no more.
Due to the subject matter of this article and in light of yesterday’s absolutely tragic death of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh guitarist (and much more) Neal Casal, we will leave the below for any Deadheads out there who may need it.