By 1972, three members of the Grateful Dead had released solo albums. Jerry Garcia was the first to debut Garcia in 1971. The following year, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart each released their own solo albums, ace And rolling thunder, respectively. But there was probably going to be a fourth studio album: that of keyboardist and vocalist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.
Pigpen was one of the band’s founding members, performing with Garcia and Weir in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and inspiring a shift from acoustic jug band music to electric rock and roll. Pigpen was a bluesman at heart, pushing the Dead to play classics by Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed in their early days. Pigpen himself often took the lead, singing and blowing on his harmonica.
As psychedelia began to take off in San Francisco, Pigpen was initially ready for change. Although he never liked LSD, Pigpen focused on keyboards and provided the band with a heady lead instrument that clashed with Garcia and Phil Lesh. Pigpen still got their blues numbers, and the Dead began to make a name for themselves as San Francisco’s craziest rock band.
It didn’t take long for Pigpen to start slipping away. As the band’s direction became more experimental, Pig’s blues songs no longer had a place. Although he became the lead singer of songs like “Alligator” and “Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)”, Pigpen was lagging behind in terms of musical evolution. His addiction to alcohol rather than hallucinogens separated him from his bandmates and, along with Weir, Pigpen was even fired for a brief period in 1968.
By the time the dead reached 1970, they had exhausted themselves in psychedelic experimentation. Seeking to return to their roots, the band wrote and composed acoustic material that eventually turned into albums. The worker is dead And american beauty. Pigpen fits well into this setting, singing Robert Hunter’s “Easy Wind” on Worker and his only solo writing credit, “Operator”, on American beauty.
1972 represented both the highest peak and the lowest valley in Pigpen’s life. Health issues began to take their toll on his ability to perform, but as the Dead planned to embark on their 1972 European tour, Pigpen was determined to go. It was probably because he had a big collection of new songs that were ready for the stage.
Between 1969 and 1971, Pigpen had made very brief attempts to record his own material. Although it doesn’t seem likely that there was any intention of making a solo album at this time, the possibility seemed more real when his bandmates made plans for their own LPs in 1972. Europe 72 tour, Pigpen could be seen with a notebook next to his organ, likely filled with songs in progress and lyrical fragments that needed to be fleshed out.
This has never been officially confirmed, but it seems likely that had Pigpen remained healthy, there would have been a real possibility that he recorded his own studio album. He certainly had enough gear to pull it off, and chances are his bandmates encouraged him to do so. So what would this hypothetical solo album have looked like?
Most of the clues come from his final contributions to the Europe 72 visit. Throughout this tour, Pigpen would often swap songs with Garcia and Weir during the opening set, also contributing as third lead vocalist. As always, his songs were mostly covers, but there were a few original songs that had appeared in Pig’s repertoire during his later years.
At each concert of Europe 72 tour, the Dead played a new Pigpen song, ‘Mr. Charly’. Co-written with house band lyricist Robert Hunter, the track was an edgy blues rock number that allowed Pig to embody the same ancient spirit he embodied in his blues tunes. ‘M. Charlie’ eventually became Pigpen’s only contribution to the finale Europe 72 album, but he would almost certainly have appeared on a solo album as well.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pigpen began to revive some of his early blues covers. The Dead briefly played acoustic sets in 1970 and revisiting their folk roots, Pigpen reverted to some of their old ways. Made famous by Junior Wells, “Next Time You See Me” was first performed by the Dead in 1966 and was shelved during their psychedelic days. Pig revived it in 1969 and played it constantly throughout the final show of Europe 72.
Another of Pigpen’s favorite covers was “Good Lovin”. The Rascals’ number one hit in 1966, ‘Good Lovin’ represents the Dead’s beginnings as a party band, in line with other contemporary classics they covered, such as ‘Dancing in the Street’. With “Turn on Your Love Light,” “Good Lovin” became the birthplace of Pigpen’s famous raps, where he improvised lyrics and spoke directly to audiences.
Speaking of “Love Light,” there remains debate as to whether Pigpen’s signature song would have appeared on a potential solo album. “Love Light” was strongly associated with Pig, but it was also a song that came to life exclusively in the live setting. A song like “Good Lovin” would have been an easy addition to a traditional solo album, especially one that replicated the more truncated style the Dead used for their studio work at the time. “Love Light” probably wouldn’t have fit that mold, so it’s ruled out here. Still, that’s not to say Pigpen wouldn’t have insisted on recording a proper studio version of the track.
Pigpen was constantly working on ongoing music during the Europe 72 visit. One song that made the leap into the band’s repertoire was a song called ‘The Stanger’ or ‘Two Souls in Communion’. A soulful ballad, the track was a noticeable change from Pigpen’s famously hardened and gruff exterior. Instead, the song was about her softer side, the one friends and bandmates often saw. “The Stranger” was performed six times before the band headed to Europe and only saw seven appearances during the tour, with just 13 total performances of the song.
When it came to rave-ups, it was hard to get funkier than Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” Reflecting Pigpen’s love of R&B, which can also be heard in the Dead version of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”, “Hard to Handle” gave Pigpen a chance to break loose with the band. The track had come out of the band’s live sets in 1972, but it seems almost impossible that Pig hadn’t at least tried it while collecting songs for his solo debut.
Of all Pigpen’s “lost” songs from the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, “Empty Pages” remains one of the most legendary. Performed only twice in 1971, ‘Empty Pages’ was halfway between the emotional appeals of ‘The Stranger’ and the haunting gospel blues of ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’. As one of the few originals Pigpen wrote and performed with the Dead, it would seem logical that ‘Empty Pages’ would appear on a Pigpen LP.
When Pigpen did his first solo recording session in 1969, he had help. Garcia and Weir joined him at Mercury Studios (or Columbia Studios) with violinist John Tenney. Together, they recorded a song of questionable origin titled “I’m a Lovin’ Man”, which represented Pig’s vast expertise in the country music genre. The idea that “I’m a Lovin’ Man” might have appeared on a Pigpen solo album from the 70s is probably unlikely, but as things stand it’s worth including, wouldn’t it. to show that a potential Pigpen solo project had been percolating for years.
Unlike most of his other blues tracks, Pigpen never stopped singing “It Hurts Me Too” by Elmore James. From the very first known performance of the song in 1966 (and probably before) to the last concerts of the Europe 72 tour, Pigpen constantly took to the mic to sing “It Hurts Me Too”. It was the most frequent platform for his harmonica chops, and there’s no universe (parallel or otherwise) that wouldn’t have featured an attempt at “It Hurts Me Too” for an album. Pigpen solo.
The last original Pigpen trotted for Europe 72 was ‘Chinatown Shuffle’, a pounding beat that was played at almost every show on the tour (apart from the second night at the Empire Pool in London and the band’s performance on the beat the club program in Germany). An upbeat, upbeat boogie, ‘Chinatown Shuffle’, would have made the perfect ending to a pure Pigpen album.
Of course, all of that speculation became null and void once the band returned from Europe. After performing (but not singing during) one last concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Pigpen largely isolated himself from the outside world as his health continued to deteriorate. From statements made at their concerts, it seemed like the dead fully expected Pigpen to return once he regained his strength. Instead, on March 7, 1973, Ron McKernan died at the age of 27 from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage not directly related to (but likely exasperated by) his alcoholism.
Would Pigpen ever have recorded a solo album if he had remained healthy? It’s impossible to know for sure: Pigpen was notoriously reluctant to be considered a rock star, and his lack of ego likely helped make his solo LP a non-starter from the start. But with a wealth of material and a singular quality that helped diversify the Dead experience, Pigpen probably would have done something big if given the chance. Sadly, all we can do is guess what it would have looked like.
Potential Pigpen Solo Album Tracklisting:
In front of
- ‘M. Charly’
- “Next Time You See Me”
- “Good love”
- “The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)”
- ‘Difficult to manage’
- “Blank Pages”
- “I am a loving man”
- “It hurts me too”
- “Chinatown Shuffle”
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