The Grateful Dead formed in San Francisco in 1966 when love and acid hit that city in a big way. From their 1967 self-titled album onwards, The Dead were hailed as lords of acid rock and the leaders of a tribal lifestyle mythology.
Renowned for long improvised numbers and performances lasting up to five or six hours, the band became more country influenced after their 1967 album, particularly on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (both released in 1970).
But where The Dead fired up was onstage, and live albums like Skull and Roses (1971) and Europe ’72 seamlessly blended homespun tunes and old-style jams in marathon sets.
In September 1971, Lenny Hart (father of drummer Mickey Hart and former manager of the band) was arrested after a lengthy search initiated when the Dead discovered he had pilfered $70,000 from the band in 1970.
New manager Jon McIntire said at the time; “You wouldn’t think that he’d fuck his own son”.
In 1972, the band took a sabbatical over the summer while Jerry Garcia released his first solo album, Garcia. Bob Weir and Mickey Hart also released albums (Ace and Rolling Thunder respectively).
Keyboard player Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan was less productive, though, as he was forced to rest and give up drinking after a serious liver complaint was diagnosed.
He died of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage on 8 March 1973 at the age of 26, brought on by years of alcohol abuse.
Unsteady from the start, the band lost what little grounding they had when Pigpen died and the Godchaux’s hopped on board. The pair turned out to be so bad that even the other members of the band realised they had to go.
In September 1977, The Dead played three dates in front of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Cairo in an event scheduled to coincide with a total eclipse of the Moon.
Brent Mydland joined the group in 1979, replacing Keith Godchaux and becoming the band’s fourth keyboard player. He made his recording debut on the album Go To Heaven (1980) and contributed numerous songs to the group’s repertoire, including I Will Take You Home, We Can Run (But We Can’t Hide), Tons Of Steel andEasy To Love You.
Mydland was found dead at his Lafayette, California home on 26 July 1990. There was no evidence of foul play or suicide, and the Coroner’s office eventually ruled he had died of a drug overdose. Toxicology tests showed lethal levels of both cocaine and morphine and the autopsy revealed a puncture mark on his left arm consistent with recent intravenous injection.
Jerry Garcia was arrested in San Francisco on 18 January 1985 and charged with possession of narcotics after a policeman found cocaine and heroin in the guitarist’s BMW.
When Jerry Garcia died in 1997, his widow complained that he had left her broke. “We only have a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank,” she explained. Who doesn’t feel the pinch when you get down to your last few hundred thou?
Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan
Keyboards, vocals, harmonica
Donna Jean Godchaux