June 05, 2006

Yet Another Grateful Dead Keyboardist Dies

The keyboard position for the Grateful Dead has long been considered cursed. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, their original keyboard player and the first cultural icon of the group, died in 1973 at age 26 of a gastric hemorrhage brought on by alcoholism. His death, coming after years of diminishing musical contributions, consolidated the band's decline, which continued for another two decades. His gravestone says: "Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead."

Pigpen's performance as front man in a show-closing "Turn On Your Lovelight" at a free concert in Central Park on June 22, 1970 remains the single most thrilling rock concert experience of my life.

Pigpen's replacement, Keith Godchaux, died in 1980 in a car crash. Brent Mydland, the best musician among the casualties, died of a drug overdose in 1990. Even the keyboard player for the best-known Dead tribute band, Scott Larned of the Dark Star Orchestra, died last year -- a heart attack. (He was born in 1969, the year I saw my first Dead concert at the Fillmore East.)

Now Vince Welnick, keyboard player during the band's last phase, has died at age 51. Cause has not been released; there is speculation about suicide. Apparently he had been depressed ever since Jerry Garcia's death in 1995.

May they all rest in peace. "Death don't have no mercy," but may life be more merciful to us than it was to them.

Keyboardist Tom Constanten, a member of the Dead during the late 1960s and responsible for many of the avant-garde sounds on "Anthem of the Sun" and "Aoxomoxoa" (prepared piano, celesta claves, etc), remains alive, as does piano player Bruce Hornsby.