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Saturday, August 6

The Hot Seat: The Grateful Dead's most dangerous gig and the cast of characters who occupied it.

 The Hot Seat: The Grateful Dead's most dangerous gig and the cast of characters who occupied it. 

The first and most influential, though not the longest, serving keyboard player didn't start playing with the Grateful Dead. He started with Mother McRee's Uptown Jug Champions.

Ron"Pigpen"McKernan, was one of the original members of the core group. He was friend's with Jerry and worked at Dana Morgan's Music Store. Bob Weir and Billy Kreutzmann joined in and shortly after, Phil Lesh rounded out what became the Warlocks. "Blue Ron", his nickname before Pigpen was the son of a Bay Area DJ therefore had access to tons of blues records and was considered to be the leader,frontman and singer of the nascent Grateful Dead. Pigpen was an early proponent of the switch to electric instruments and was already a hard drinker. His drug of choice was alcohol which didn't fit in with the rest of the group. He didn't partake in psychedelics and by 1966, Jerry was asserting himself more and the material was quickly advancing beyond Pigpen's skill level. Through the late sixties, he played Vox organ and contributed songs such as"Midnight Hour" show stopping "Lovelight" He came down with biliary cirrhosis of the liver (which was congenital and not related to his drinking) which kept him off tour in 71' and his last show with the band was June 17,1972. He passed away from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on March 8,1973. At the funeral, Garcia said," After Pigpen's death, we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead".

Tom Constenten has always been a kind of enigmatic genius.  He joined the Air Force because the draft was in full swing and used his leave passes to come play with the band. He played prepared piano, keyboards, and most notably harpsichord. To hear his magic, listen "Mountains of the Moon" on Aoxomoxoa. He was never given a security clearance because of his communist leanings and used that time to eat LSD. He basically stepped off an air base and onto the stage. He played on Anthem of the Sun and knew what Weir meant when he said, he needed the sound of "heavy air" but T.C. had stopped doing drugs and joined a burgeoning movement called Scientology that he wanted to tell people about. The reason he never made a huge footprint, in his eyes, was that tonally, the keys just couldn't stand up to the amplified string instruments. He would go on to say a piano would've done wonders because that's what he learned to play and all those other instruments each had their own actions. Pigpen and him became good friends because they both eschewed drug use. He was also well-liked by Billy the K but Billy also said in his memoir "he had this thing where, for whatever reason, he would perform at rehearsals pretty darn well, but then, when we'd be in front of an audience, it was like he froze or something. He couldn't let go.  His first show was Nov. 23, 1968 but left when the band started to explore their folk and country roots in the seventies. He is also the only keys player still alive besides Bruce Hornsby.

Everyone knows the story of how the band put out the call for a new pianist(which included Merle Saunders and Ned Lagin) but Keith was too shy to ask so Donna marched up and said, "Here's your new keyboard player" His first show was Oct. 19, 1971. Keith was well-versed in jazz and boogie woogie piano and at his audition the band threw every curveball they could at him and he knocked them out of the park. Onstage he used a Steinway grand from 72-74 to which he added a Fender Rhodes electric piano in 1973. That was the sound of Wake of the Flood. He used this setup until mid-77, then switched models but always stuck to the acoustic piano. This was part of the reason he was beginning to get pushed out of the band. Keeping his piano tuned was a full-time job and his piano was the reason the Giza Pyramid shows were shelved for so long.  Exacerbated by a growing heroin addiction and epic fights with his wife. The most famous of these was the time they had a demolition derby, driving into each other at Club Front. This was annoying but tolerable but by 78, he committed the one unpardonable sin and that was mimicking Jerry's lead lines instead of playing his own melodies. No matter how well he fit, he couldn't stay. It didn't help that his wife Donna, was wailing all over the songs. Shortly after he left, he cleaned up and after playing some JGB gigs he started the Heart of Gold band. He passed away in an automobile accident in 1980.

 Brent Mydland was aiming to be a band teacher when he started playing in rock and roll bands. Ironically, he covered "Morning Dew" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" with his early bands. He played his first gig with the Grateful Dead on April 22,1979 after two weeks of rehearsal. He was the longest-tenured keys player in the band's history. Unlike Godchaux, Mydland was all about finding new sounds. He played many different instruments but the one he was most famous for was the Hammond organ. He played the B-3 with ten rotating Leslie speakers and his instrument was played at the Fare Thee Well shows by Jeff Chimenti. The main thing about Brent was he never got over the "new guy" phase and Weir would tease him mercilessly. For a sensitive soul it was a little too much. What is less known about Brent was his songwriting contributions. He wrote or co-wrote songs such as "Far From Me", and "Easy to Love You" on Alabama Getaway. On In the Dark, he co-wrote "Hell in a Bucket" along with "Tons of Steel".  The next album saw more mature themes such as on "I Will Take You Home". He penned the environmental song,"We Can Run" and "Just a Little Light". He also had songs that were never recorded but he firmly made his presence felt with," Never Trust a Woman" and co-wrote the song"Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues" with Phil and his childhood friend Bobby Peterson.  Mydland's high, gravelly voice fit in perfectly with the other vocalists to create three-part harmonies and his voice added gravitas to "Let the Good Times Roll". He would make up new verses during"Little Red Rooster" and sang lead on covers such as "Hey Pocky Way", "Dear Mr. Fantasy, "Hey Jude" and most famously,"The Weight". Creepily, the last time he ever sung with the band his last line was "I gotta go but my friends can stick around".  He was known mainly as a drinker but began turning to harder drugs due to severe depression. He had a court date for a DUI coming up and was afraid of going to jail but he died of a speedball on July 26,1990.
"... He rode hard, he drank hard, he played with the Dead. He also played with death and lost. He will be conspicuous in his absence."-Robert Hunter

After Brent's death, the band was in dire straits. After auditioning several other players, they picked Welnick. Mostly because of his ability to sing high harmonies. The first show he played he almost locked up until fans put him at ease with signs like,"Yo, Vinnie" which he named his publishing company after. His had some good songs and he had some bad songs, whichever you floats your boat. Bathrooms did start overflowing during "Samba in the Rain" but I thought "Way to Go Home" could rock, if Jerry got behind it. He was joined by Bruce Hornsby for about one hundred shows before he got the hang of it by himself, which some would say he never did. He was diagnosed with cancer and emphysema right before the 1995 tour but decided to do the tour then get surgery. After Jerry died, Vince toured with RatDog and tried to commit suicide on the tour bus on the road to Monterey,CA. After treatment and therapy, he joined Second Sight with Bob Bralove and Missing Man Formation. He was also in one of the first iterations of Phil & Friends in 1998 and the Mickey Hart Band. After the Grateful Dead Family Reunion, to which he was not invited, he went into a tailspin. It was billed as "all the surviving members of the Grateful Dead". He couldn't come to terms with getting no invitation and after battling depression he killed himself by cutting his own throat( very symbolic to me) on June 2, 2006.

Needless to say, each member had their strengths and weaknesses. They all brought different things to the table and together these men, all fell in the line of duty serving the music. The Grateful Dead was a demanding mistress that would claim Jerry too. And for the record there were some people who played keys that are still alive. Namely T.C. and Ned Lagin but those are the exception to the curse of the "hot seat".  Many people, including the band, felt like it was never the same without Pigpen. Those were their golden years. Some claim Keith and others who got on the bus in the Eighties will stand behind Brent forever. It's all subjective. The one thing that isn't is that  there would be no band without Ron"Pigpen"McKernan and he was the band's contribution to the "27 club" Well, whoever you love, "if you get confused listen to the music play."

Written by:Greg Heffelfinger

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