Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's house, Santa Catalina Street, Palo Alto, CA

"Being at Kevin McKernans house when all of the original Grateful Dead were there playing music with PigPen (Ron McKernan)."(1)

Garcia remembered, “I spent a lot of time over at the Pigpen house, but it was mostly in Pigpen’s room, which was like a ghetto! I sat in his room for countless hours listening to his old records. It was funky, man! Stuff thrown everywhere. Pigpen had this habit of wearing just a shirt and his underpants. You’d come into his house and he’d say, ‘Come on in, man,’ and he’d have a bottle of wine under the bed. His mom would come in about once every five hours to see if he was still alive. It was hilarious! But yeah, we’d play records. I’d hack away at his guitar, show him stuff.”

Garcia gave several accounts of Pigpen’s early musical development:
“When I first met Pigpen he was 14 or 15 years old. He was hanging around Palo Alto, and I was the only person around that played any blues on the guitar, so he hung out with me. And he picked up, just by watching and listening to me, the basic Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff. Then he took up the harmonica.”
“Pigpen was mostly into playing Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff and harmonica… He wanted to play the blues, and I was like the guitar player in town who could play the blues, so he used to hang around; that’s how I got to know him. He took up harmonica and got pretty good at it for those days, when nobody could play any of that stuff.”
“Pigpen’s father was the first rhythm & blues guy around here. Pigpen played piano for a long time, just simple C blues runs and stuff like that, and he’d sing… He was hanging around at the various scenes that were going on in Palo Alto. At that time I was sort of a beatnik guitar player. And he’d come around to these parties and I’d be playing blues, and he’d watch very carefully and he’d go home and learn things, all on the sly. And he took up the harmonica as well back in those days… He was deathly afraid to play in front of anybody. He’d been playing harmonica secretly for a long time, and one time he got up on stage at a folk music place and I backed him up on the guitar; he played harmonica and sang. And he could sing like Lightnin’ Hopkins, which just blew everybody’s mind!”

Pigpen kind of had his feet in two worlds when he was in his teens. He liked to hang out at the black bars and blues clubs in East Palo Alto; but he was also part of the bohemian-folkie scene at the Chateau and Kepler’s bookstore.
Peter Albin: “He would be around playing at different places or at a party or something. It was all pretty informal. He’d play guitar mostly, and harmonica, and he played with Garcia once in a while… When he would come over to my parents’ place he would tickle the ivories, and I thought he was pretty good – though I never thought he’d become a keyboard player for a rock & roll band. I thought he was an excellent harp player.”
Robert Hunter: “He was a real scuzzy teenage kid with a terrible complexion. He must’ve been 16 or 17 when he started hanging around the Chateau. He had a scuzzy beard and he drank Thunderbird, and wore a fatigue jacket. He was the sort of guy that one would ordinarily discourage from showing up at one’s parties, except that he played a hell of a harmonica, and that was his passport. There weren’t many people at that time playing the kind of music he was, and I didn’t know any harmonica players at all.”
David Nelson: “It was amazing how this guy could play Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff. There just weren’t that many people doing it then… He was so authentic.”(2)

Tom Constanten:
"Pigpen's father was a blues DJ who went by the name 'Cool Breeze'. Pigpen had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the blues artists, and Pigpen was a remarkable blues singer. The world never got to see the full measure of Pigpen. He could do so many things - he was so deep, so broad. I used to room with him on the road and I shared a house with him in Novato. I mean you'd look at him and see this Hell's Angel sort of character who sings this narrow band of music, and he was really into so many more things. Pigpen had a different inner and outer image. While his outer image was kind of like Pirate Pete who would shoot his gun at your feet to make you dance, yet he was also the guy who brought a portable chess game along on the road because he liked to play."

Ned Lagin:
"I was very surprised at who Pigpen actually turned out to be, given what I had seen of him... I thought Pigpen would probably be on the opposite side of the planet from me, blues tough, but he turned out to be a very sweet person. To him, I was one of those whiz-kid rocket scientist genius kids that he always wanted to meet, but was on a different school bus going to a different place... But we could sit together and play piano together and hang out together. I think there was a great sensitivity in Pigpen that was the opposite of his down & dirty Lovelight personality."

Like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, Pigpen was a character and a talent that will always leave everyone wondering what the hell he would have become had he not chosen the hard drinking and partying lifestyle. "If he had survived in good health," grieved Catanese, "he might have helped plot a bluesier direction for the Dead. Or some think he might have gone off and fronted his own blues band."(3)

Dave McQueen, who was one of the East Palo Alto crowd that befriended Pigpen, tells a nice story about the teenage Ron McKernan: "I had an 'in' with the owner of the Choo-Choo Inn, a black honky-tonk on the tracks in San Mateo, through Lester Hellums, who would sit in with the house band. T-Bone Walker was going to play there and Ron heard about it from one of the corner kids. Ron was spending more time in East P.A. than he was at home at that point. Anyway, he came to me like any normal rotten teenager when he really wants something he can't scheme on alone, so I talked to the owner and got him a table right up front. T-Bone stood there and played right in front of him the whole night. Ron was in heaven! At the end he said to T-Bone, 'See you in 20 years, Mr. Walker!' He talked about it for weeks."(5)


Ron's grandparents were Frank McKernan 1891-1949 and Alice McKernan 1894-1973.(4)
His father, Phil, was a DJ known as "Cool Breeze" at KRE Berkeley in 1951 until 1956. He was born on March 26, 1920, died April 4. 1992.
His mother, Esther Elvera McKernan was born January 5, 1917, died October 16, 1989.
Little is known about his family or early life. (4)
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was born Sept. 8, 1945 and died from alcohol abuse on March 8, 1973.

Jerry rehearsed here in
1961-1962 Ron "Pigpen" McKernan


1.)^ Rice, Bob, 2008-01-01, http://www.paloaltoonline.com/square/index.php?i=3&t=551#add_comments
2.)^http://deadessays.blogspot.com/2011/04/pigpen-solo.html
3.)^ Singh, Gary, Metro, 2003-03-13 thru 19, http://www.paloalto.net/history/pigpen.shtml
4.)^Dr. Tom, Pigpen was the Heart and Soul of the Grateful Dead, 2011-06-28, http://hiphappy.me/2011/06/28/pigpen/
5.)^Jackson, Blair, Garcia: An American Life, pg. 51.
6.)^Pringle, Colin, 2001, http://wild-bohemian.com/pigpen.htm

3 comments:

  1. The McKernan family home was on Santa Catalina Street in Palo Alto, right off of Oregon Expressway and near Highway 101. I knew someone in school who lived next door to them. Santa Catalina was in relatively easy walking distance to East Palo Alto, if you were young and willing to cross the Bayshore Freeway (101).

    Are you sure about the birth and death dates of the McKernans? It seems more likely that the dates represent his grandparents (I doubt his mother had Ron at age 52).

    I'm pretty sure Ron's dad was a dj on stations like KSOL in the 50s and 60s. That's how Ron got access to all the blues and r&b records. Dad got them from the radio station (or direct from the record companies), and Pig and Jerry got the benefit.

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  2. Thanks for the address...I am not certain about the parents/grandparents dates...but...
    Ron--

    He's buried about two miles from where I am now in Palo Alto, CA, at Alta Mesa Memorial Park. It's a small metal plaque on the ground (next to his parents, incidentally) that reads something like:

    ____________________________
    RON McKERNAN
    1945-1973
    Pigpen was and is now forever
    one of the Grateful Dead.
    _____________________________

    There are usually beads or incense or some pennies that kind heads have left...I sometimes wonder how they find it...you would never know unless you were looking for it.

    --Dan

    ############

    For anyone wishing to visit, just take 101 south from San Francisco, head west on Page Mill (just past Palo Alto) to El Camino, take a left for a couple of blocks to Arastradero Road, where you take a right. Alta Mesa Memorial Park is on the left about a mile down the road. Pig is off Almond Road inside the park, Hillview section 16. You'll see the flowers...

    Pigpen's grave is in the Hillview Section, Section 16 on the right side of Almond Dr.
    The plot along the road is labeled "Ramirez" and "Lien". Pigpen is two rows in from there.

    nyway he resides is plot 311 and his grandparents (I believe it's his grandparents anyway--their names on the placard are Frank McKernan 1891-1949 and Alice McKernan 1894-1973) are next to him. The cemetery is one of those with no raised tombstones. All the placards are flush to the ground (hence the 'park' in the place's title I guess).

    Craig O'Leary
    ctoleary@ix.netcom.com

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