Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pigpen Solo Projects 1969, 1971, 1973 (Why?)

The vast scholarship on the music of the Grateful Dead is deeply entwined with the emotional investment of its scholars. Their feelings about the Dead's music play an essential role in the way the band's musical legacy is interrogated. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan is a foundational part of that legacy, and yet, for all his importance, The Pig remains just beyond the edge of accessible. Sure, we have plenty of tapes of his performances, and some photos and video, but Grateful Dead scholars treat him with a reverence that is not accorded to other band members.

The Grateful Dead had a relatively small audience in the 1960s, so not that many people actually saw Pigpen in concert. Those that did were often fairly young, and just figuring out the Dead on their own, so however impressed they may have been, they often didn't quite grasp all that Pigpen brought to the table when he busted out of a difficult "Dark Star" jam with a blazing "Turn On Your Lovelight." Even the members of the Dead themselves, an unsentimental lot on the whole, turn mystical and rhapsodic when the subject of "the mighty Pig"--as Phil Lesh called him--is invoked. So Pigpen, though revered, remains oddly unexamined.

Everyone who knew Pigpen said that he was the least interested of any of the band in being a "rock star." In Jerry Garcia's words, Pigpen didn't have "the celebrity head." Pig loved music, worked hard, was loyal to his mates, but on some level he wasn't really interested in success. Interested in music, yes; interested in not having a real job, yes; but interested in being a revered icon? No. So why then were there Pigpen solo projects? There were two or three, depending on how you want to count, and they are at odds with everything we know about Pigpen. So it is time to examine the not-unknown but still ephemeral Pigpen solo projects from 1969, 1971 and 1973 to see what they can tell us about Ron McKernan and his relationship to the Grateful Dead.

Heavy, Iron Butterfly's 1968 debut album. Lead singer Darryl DeLoach had left the group before the hugely successful Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida was released later that year
Pigpen and The Grateful Dead
In the early 60s, rock and roll was a strange, rebellious enterprise. The few people who were interested in such a thing hardly knew anyone else who cared, or had a way to connect to them. Most mid-60s rock bands were initially formed as a group of like-minded friends, often with widely varying talent. The original bassist for The Beatles, for example, was John Lennon's best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe. He was a talented artist, apparently, but no musician, so Paul McCartney had to switch over from guitar. That worked out ok in the end, fortunately. The Warlocks bass player was the son of the music store owner where much of the band worked, but he was no bassist either. In this case, a friend was drafted as much for like-mindedness as musicianship, and certainly Phil Lesh had never played guitar, or bass. Still, that too worked out in the end. Most 60s rock bands had such stories in the early days, of musicians hired for their haircut or suitable attitude.

However, rock music changed dramatically from 1965 to 1968, and that led to another series of changes in plenty of bands, even ones who had records. Since a lot of bands were mainly a group of friends that stuck together, they played whatever music they liked, rather than having any sort of plan. But that sometimes meant that a band changed so much that original members didn't fit in. Many mid-60s "British Invasion" style bands were modeled on groups like the Rolling Stones, with a lead singer trying to emulate R&B singers. Yet within a few years, extended jams and long solos were more typical, and lead singers were more dispensable. Many lead singers found themselves pushed out after an early album or two. To name just one example, the original Iron Butterfly featured lead singer Darryl DeLoach, and he was on the band's first album, Heavy. However, as the band evolved into playing longer songs, the other band members could cover the vocals, and DeLoach was nudged aside. Thus by the time Iron Butterfly had a 1968 smash with "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida," one of the biggest hits of all time, DeLoach was just another struggling singer in LA without a band.

Pipgen very nearly followed the path of Darryl DeLoach. Pigpen was essential to the Warlocks and the early Grateful Dead, as a singer, an organ player and a personality. By the beginning of 1968, the Grateful Dead were playing some difficult music, and for all that Pigpen had been musically ahead of most band members at the beginning, he had largely fallen behind. All Deadheads know that there was a famous Summer '68 band meeting when Pigpen and Bob Weir were all but fired from the group. Both of them managed to hang on, but Pigpen's role was hugely diminished. His role as organ player was taken over by Tom Constanten, and while he still sang some key rave-ups, like "Turn On Your Lovelight," the 1969 Grateful Dead played far fewer blues covers, which had been the bulk of Pig's stage repertoire. It was a credit to both Pigpen and the Dead that Pigpen was not simply forced aside, like Darryl DeLoach. Weir could have sang "Lovelight," and everyone else would have been sharing Pigpen's piece of the financial pie. So there is some reason to think that for all the band's personal loyalty to Pig, he had a peculiar adjunct status that no other band member did. Thus the recurring idea of a Pigpen solo project fits in with Pigpen's musical contributions: part of the Grateful Dead, but not quite the same.

The Sir Douglas Quintet's second album for Mercury (on the Smash imprint) was Mendocino, released in April 1969. The success of the hit single and album justified Mercury's investment in numerous SF bands at the time
1969 Sessions for Mercury Records
The first and most mysterious of the Pigpen solo projects is the 1969 recording, ostensibly from Mercury Studios. Nothing is really known directly of this project, but LightIntoAshes, as always, has done stellar work in finding out the details. "I’m a Lovin’ Man" is a slickly produced country song sung by Pigpen and Weir. Garcia plays pedal steel, and John Tenney plays fiddle. Also circulating on tape was an instrumental version of Buck Owens’ song "I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)"  again with Garcia on pedal steel and Tenney on fiddle. LIA contacted the violinist on the session, veteran Bay Area musician John Tenney, who recalled:
In late 1969 I played fiddle on a song called ‘I'm a Lovin' Man’ for a proposed Pigpen solo album. Jerry, Pigpen and Weir were playing. The bass player was Dennis Parker (on my recommendation), then with a SF band called All Men Joy. The drummer was Scott Morris. The song was written by Clancy Carlile, a novelist, songwriter and honkytonk guitarist/singer with whom I was playing in a country band. (He was involved in the production.) The session was at Pacific High Recording. My recollection is that Pigpen's album was maybe going to come out on Mercury or its subsidiary Smash. Mercury had a strong presence in San Francisco at the time, with its own studio. The producer I think was one Bob Serempa, a local A&R man with Mercury. I don't know why he used Pacific High for the recording, except that the Mercury studio was very busy with people like the Sir Douglas Quintet at the time.
Bob Serempa, as LIA points out, was not just a Mercury A&R man, but their Director Of West Coast Operations. Mercury Records, though late to the party in San Francisco, had come in hard to SF and had signed a dozen bands in 1968. They had even opened their own studio on 1340 Mission Street, and indeed Dan Healy was doing a lot of contract work for Mercury. However, another scholar queried Dan Healy for me, and Healy corrected the record somewhat:
This is too much for me to write about now but I will sit down with you when we have a chance and you can get my info about it. That version of "Lovin' Man" was written by Doug Sahm and it wasn't PHR, it was Columbus Recorders (basement ot the Flatiron on Columbus Ave) owned by Frank Werber and the Kingston Trio. The story goes on, but not here. Serenpa was the West Coast Mercury "director," but not really a so-called A&R guy.
Yet this still leaves the question, raised by LIA, as to why was Pigpen recording not only country music, but recording for Mercury when the band was signed to Warner Brothers. We can do nothing but speculate, but a few key factors come into consideration. As always, the key to unlocking inexplicable Grateful Dead activities can be turned with a simple question: where's the money? Why would Bob Serempa, a senior Mercury Records director, pay to record members of the Grateful Dead for a solo project, when the band was under contract to another label? And why would Mercury use an inferior studio, when they had their own studio right there in San Francisco?

The only answer that makes sense is that the recordings were demos for a future project, and that Mercury expected to be able to sign the Grateful Dead, or at least Jerry Garcia. The band members themselves were fairly naive about their contract status in 1969, but in fact manager Lenny Hart was negotiating with Warner Brothers for an extension, without telling the band. Otherwise, the band might have been free agents. Serempa and Mercury may have known this--indeed, Lenny Hart may have told him--and Serempa may have wanted to evaluate the Dead in the studio while also building up some good will with Jerry Garcia. Thus hiring old buddy Dan Healy to engineer the sessions was smart business, and using the somewhat inferior Columbus Recorders was ok, since the sessions were not necessarily going to yield an album. Calling the sessions a "Pipgen solo album" would have provided a little bit of polite cover in case Warner Brothers heard about it.

Keep in mind also that Garcia, Weir and Pigpen would have been paid for the sessions, probably about $90 for a three hour session. Whoever was designated the "leader" got $180. So if the band members spent a couple of days in the studio, doing four 3-hour sessions, for example, they would have ended up with several hundred dollars. Did they cash the checks? Lenny might have, and not told them. This would also explain why the other band members could be safely left out of the payday, if Lenny had arranged some peculiar pay scheme. Certainly Phil Lesh has alluded to the fact that the 1969 Dead members were not good at playing with non-Dead musicians. Dennis "Funky" Parker, a great bassist, would have been a far better choice in 1969 than Phil Lesh, who by his own admission, was completely idiosyncratic.

Why would Mercury go to all this trouble? It's easier to ask why they wouldn't. Record companies were making money hand over fist in 1969, and signing the right artist could be a gold mine. Warner Brothers, for example, has certainly benefited over the decades from the fact that Lenny Hart extended the Grateful Dead's deal in 1969 for three more years, rather than letting it expire. It was common practice for record companies to throw money around to favored artists, in the hopes of merely getting them to consider signing with them at a later date. Columbia's Clive Davis essentially signed the New Riders Of The Purple Sage (who in the end made a lot of money for CBS) in order to get in Garcia's good graces. This did not pay off until around 5 years later--although just for Clive Davis, not for Columbia--, when the Dead finally signed with Davis and Arista. At the same time, Warner Brothers signed Mickey Hart to a three-album deal. Once the Dead went independent, however, Warners rejected Hart's last two albums. 

Mercury Records had come into San Francisco late and big. By 1968, all of the legendary bands from the city had been signed. Nonetheless, Mercury signed pretty much anyone with long hair, and ended up with a dozen bands on their roster. Some of them are awfully obscure--raise your hand if you have ever heard the Fifty Foot Hose album--but one of them was a giant success. Doug Sahm, exiled from Texas and pop stardom due to an untimely 1966 pot bust, was an Avalon back marker when he signed with Mercury. He reformed his Sir Douglas Quintet (some original band members had finally gotten off probation from the bust) and they had a giant hit with "Mendocino." The money Mercury made on "Mendocino" made up for all the other bands, by a huge margin. Mercury thus got as much Return-On-Equity as Columbia, Warners, Capitol or RCA, even if the Fifty Foot Hose barely sold anything. Dropping a few thousand in the hopes that there could be a play in the future for Jerry Garcia or the Grateful Dead? No problem--he could have had a sixty-foot hose, if he had wanted one.

Yet what about Pigpen? Pig apparently had a good feel for honky-tonk style country music, and Doug Sahm usually wrote in a bluesy style, so that fits. Buck Owens seems to be a Jerry touch, but certainly Buck owed plenty to R&B and Chuck Berry, even if Buck didn't wear it on his sleeve. At the very least, Mercury seemed to be using a song by its own artist, perhaps in the hope of getting some publishing money out of a future deal. The session actually makes musical sense, but it's hard not to see Jerry as the driver, rather than Pigpen. The fact that so little is known or recalled about these sessions suggests some Lenny Hart maneuvering. Dan Healy may be the last one who remembers what was actually intended, and hopefully he will tell the story sometime. In any case, it does not seem that there was an actual Pigpen album really intended, since there was neither a signed contract nor a plan. 

It made sense for Warner Brothers to release a Jerry Garcia album, but not a Mickey Hart one. No matter--Warners released it anyway, because that's how record companies worked back then
1971--The Year Of Solo Albums
By 1971, Sam Cutler had the Grateful Dead ship sailing in safer waters. The Dead had toured hard in 1970, and they had also recorded two FM-friendly albums on time and under budget. The Dead weren't rich rock stars yet, but they had graduated from all living communally on a ranch, nor were they just driving leased Ford Cortinas. Band members were starting to see the middle class, if it was still a bit down the road. However, with the first trappings of success, the Dead would also have started to see how the early 70s record industry distorted their individual finances.

The Grateful Dead covered their expenses and made payroll thanks to their extensive touring. However, touring itself was expensive--plane tickets, gear, road crew--so it was hard to get a really big payout just from playing every college gym on the Eastern seaboard. Since Workingman's Dead and American Beauty were good selling records, the band members would have been starting to see some money from them. However, the money would initially have been skewed towards the songwriters rather than the band members.

All 60s record contracts basically required the band to pay back the expenses of recording the album before the band saw any money. Thus an expensive record like Aoxomoxoa would not see any royalties for many years. An album like Workingman's probably broke even fairly quickly, but of course any other advances had to be paid back as well, and in any case the Warner Brothers accountants were not going to do the Dead any favors either. So royalty money probably just trickled in to the general ledger.

However, songwriting royalties came from the publishing company, which in the case of Ice-Nine was ASCAP. Actually explaining how ASCAP royalties were generated is too much of a diversion, even for this blog--notwithstanding you wouldn't believe it--but in general the revenue came from a portion of radio station ads that went to the music publishers like ASCAP, who in turn sent some to the writers. Thus, as soon as Workingman's Dead started to receive substantial airplay, Ice-Nine Publishing and the individual songwriters would have started to get money, long before royalties from Warners, since the band would not yet have recouped the costs. Ice-Nine money went into the general ledger, but Garcia and Robert Hunter had written all the songs for Workingman's, so they would have gotten the most money the quickest.

It doesn't take Fernand Braudel to figure out that the next Grateful Dead album would feature songwriting credits for more than just Garcia. Hunter wrote all the lyrics for American Beauty, but Weir, Lesh and Pigpen wrote music. Hunter, in fact, wrote the lyrics for "Operator," and may have written some of the music, too, but at Pigpen's request he assigned the copyright to Pigpen. Hunter has never regretted giving away the credit, but the fact that Pigpen asked means that he was acutely aware of the financial benefits of composing a song on a hit album.

Over the course of relentless touring in 1971, the members of the Grateful Dead were writing songs in anticipation of various future recording projects. These songs would turn up in the live repertoire as the band found time to rehearse them. All of the band members were preparing for an unscheduled but forthcoming Grateful Dead studio album. However, because the Dead chose to go independent, no studio album was recorded, and live versions of the band's new songs were put on Grateful Dead and Europe '72.

Pigpen was no different than Weir or Garcia, in that he must have seen that the direct path to income was including songs on forthcoming albums. Pigpen wrote four songs that were actually performed by the Grateful Dead, "Mr. Charlie" (with Hunter, debuted Jul 31 '71), "Empty Pages" (debuted Aug 23 '71), "Chinatown Shuffle" (debuted Dec 31 '71) and "Two Souls In Communion" (aka "The Stranger," debuted Mar 21 '72). No such studio album was ever recorded, to the disappointment of Robert Hunter (not to mention the rest of us), but if it had, Pigpen would have surely had a track or two. In any case, "Mr. Charlie" made it onto Europe '72, released in November of that year.

The other dynamic for both the Grateful Dead and the record industry as a whole was the rise of the solo album. By 1971, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had shown that fans could appreciate solo albums without thinking that a band had "broken up," so record companies encouraged solo albums by band members under contract. In many cases, these solo albums were considered part of the band's deal with the record company. Bob Weir's Ace, for example, was considered a Grateful Dead album per the Warners contract. Of course, there were numerous other attractions to solo albums, both for the record company and the artist. Record companies found it easier to deal with and promote a solo artist, thus avoiding band politics, and artists in turn found that they could get more money and have considerably less hassle. Both Garcia (July 1971) and Weir (May '72) had released solo albums, and a Pigpen album made perfect sense. Pigpen had some original tunes, and along with some covers and maybe some help from the ever prolific Hunter, a pretty cool album could have materialized.

Oakland Tribune, September 8, 1971
The most tantalizing hint of such a project was a little known advertisement for a Pigpen solo gig, at an obscure bar in San Francisco, which I first unearthed some years ago. As near as I can tell, The Gold Club was at 56 Gold Street, an alley in North Beach, near Jackson Street, between Montgomery and Sansome. I think the Gold Club was the former Assay Office back in Gold Rush days, and the alley and the club got that name. I believe it was a gay bar in the 80s and 90s, and it is currently Bix Restaurant. While I am sure the building has been remodeled, current pictures on the link gives us an idea of the contours of the interior.

The idea, apparently, was that Pigpen would sing and play harmonica, backed only by Merl Saunders on organ and piano. Regular contributor LightIntoAshes found a quote from Merl Saunders, who explained the genesis of the idea:
I started hanging out at this club with Jerry and that is where I first met Pigpen. We only lived four blocks from each other... I had heard about Pigpen but I had never met him.I was into Jimmy Smith and the Hammond Organ sound. Jerry and I started playing The Keystone in Berkeley and Ron and the rest of the guys would come down. Ron would sit in with us and I was always trying to get him to play keyboards. He would say “No, I just want to play my harmonica behind your organ playing.” That is how we got it going. We had actually discussed doing a thing together with piano, organ and harmonica. There was a little club off of Broadway in North Beach that was going to hire us, but unfortunately it never happened.
Leaving aside, for a moment, the tantalizing subject of Pigpen sitting in with Garcia/Saunders at Keystone Berkeley--hitherto unknown to us--Merl's remark gives us a hint to what might have been considered. The key to me is not imagining the Merl and Pig show, cool as that would have been, but the idea of Pigpen as a solo performer.

By September 1971, Jerry Garcia had released his Warner Brothers solo album, and the Ace project for Bob Weir had probably been agreed to in principle. Given the record industry at the time, a corresponding Pigpen solo project would have made a lot of sense. If Merl Saunders was on board to shepherd the execution, it could have been a cool album. We know Pigpen was working on his own material, Hunter could have been counted on for a song or two, and there would have been an infinite universe of covers to choose from. If Merl was running the sessions, Jerry Garcia would surely have been there, and Bill Kreutzmann wouldn't have been far behind.

However this was conceived, it never happened. The most important issue, of course, was that Pigpen's health was in serious jeopardy, and he stopped playing with the Dead until December of 1971. Secondarily, there's no evidence that Pigpen himself wanted to make a solo album. It would have made a lot of sense to Jon McIntire, but not particularly to Pig. Garcia and Weir both had the "celebrity head," and were interested in what they could do without having to conform to the tastes of other band members. Pipgen, by contrast, never evinced such interests. Certainly, Pigpen wanted to have the financial rewards of his own song (or two) on the next Dead album, but little did he know that it was some ways away. A Merl Saunders produced album by Pigpen was a great idea, and Warner Brothers surely would have financed it (they financed a Mickey Hart album, after all),  but it wasn't in Pigpen's head. So no such thing happened.

Wake Of The Flood was recorded in August 1973 and released in November
1973-The Last Go Round
We all know the story. Pigpen had to go off the road in Fall '71, while Keith Godchaux became the piano player. Pig reappeared in December of 71, but his health still wasn't great. Supposedly, he was told that going on the Europe '72 tour in the Spring would endanger his health, but Pig went anyway. After the tour, and one final appearance at the Hollywood Bowl (June 17 '72), where he didn't even sing, Pigpen went off the road for the last time. Everyone in the band thought it was liver problems from his extensive drinking, but in fact it was an auto-immune disease (the liver problems were triggered by the auto-immunity failure, apparently). The assumption, however, was that if Pigpen "got healthy" by staying off the road and not drinking, he would be OK--whatever that meant. By all accounts, he did make a genuine effort to be as healthy as possible.

Given the record industry at the time, a Pigpen solo album seemed like a logical choice. The band was regularly quoted to that effect (via LIA)
Bob Matthews: “In the last couple of years of his life he was being encouraged to do an album by both the band and the record company. I had him set up with my own little portable Ampex half-inch 4-track machine and a little Ampex 2-channel, 4-microphone mixer…it allowed him to overdub. But I never heard any of the stuff he did with it.”
Alan Trist: “During that period when he wasn’t on the road with the band he was actually working on an album, working on songs. Around that time, the solo album thing really took off – Jerry was the first, then Weir, and Mickey, and Pigpen was right in there too. He was working up songs, planning it out. I remember going over to his house a couple of times and hearing odd tapes that he played. His way of projecting the blues through his singing was so soulful and authentic, whether it was with the Grateful Dead or by himself at home.” 
Weir said in ’72, “Pigpen, if health permits, will be coming up with some surprises pretty quickly. His album is still in the future. It’s not a concrete reality yet. He’s written some very good songs, but…he’s not ready to do an album yet.” 
This is the story that is repeated over and over. Pigpen wasn't a working member of the Dead, but he was "working on a solo album." Various tapes have circulated with labels like "Pipgen demos." It's a nice story. But there seems to have been a lot of wishful thinking attached to it. Pigpen didn't want his own project--he never did. Merl Saunders would have been happy to work on album with him, and it would have been good, but Pigpen never initiated that. I think the band members comforted themselves about Pipgen's exile by saying "he was working on an album." That had worked for Mickey Hart, who didn't lack for drive and ideas, but that wasn't Pigpen. He still saw himself, now and forever, as one of the Grateful Dead.

Rock Scully, always a complicated figure in Grateful Dead narratives, nonetheless seems to have hit the nail on the head (via LIA)
According to Rock Scully: “I don’t think it was really going to be a solo album. I think the way he looked at it was it was going to be part of a Dead album. He wanted three songs on a Dead album. A couple of them were beautiful. He didn’t have enough for a whole album; he wanted [to be on] a Dead album again. He’d worked up a couple of really nice songs. They were a little sad, but with Jerry’s influence I think they could have worked beautifully with the Grateful Dead.”
Remember, in Fall '72, the Grateful Dead had abandoned their contract with Warner Brothers, and refused to sign with Columbia or anyone else, because they had chosen to go independent. For the likes of Jerry Garcia, this meant he could release solo albums and projects to his heart's content. No doubt the original architecture of Grateful Dead and Round Records included an idea for a Pigpen solo album, but I don't think it was shared by Pigpen. He wanted to sing on the next Dead album, whenever that was.

In late 1972 and early 1973, while Pigpen was still alive and apparently "doing well," the Dead had rehearsed a batch of new songs. By February 1973, most of those songs were in the live repertoire. Although the band still owed one more album to Warner Brothers--Bear's Choice covered that--they would soon be free. Plans must have been afoot for the recording of the next Grateful Dead studio album. I have to think Pigpen wanted to be in on that.

And really, it would have been fun. In early '73, the band members probably realized it was going to be a long time, if ever, before Pigpen could have more than a limited studio role with the Grateful Dead. Of course, they didn't know how sick he really was, but hindsight is 20/20--at the time, they would have thought that Pigpen just needed a couple of years off the road. If they were planning a Fall '73 album on Grateful Dead Records, it would have been cool if Pigpen was on board to sing a song. I have to think that it was at least generally on the band's mind, even if they don't talk about it now.

My own opinion, unsupported by any evidence, is that if Pigpen's health had allowed, he would have had a song on Wake Of The Flood, but it wouldn't have been "The Stranger" or any of his other songs. I think it would have been "Loose Lucy." The song was written and rehearsed in early 73 with a much slower arrangement, and it seems custom made for Pigpen. To be clear, I can't remotely prove this. However, Hunter had facilitated Pigpen before, with "Easy Wind" and "Operator"--why not "Loose Lucy"? Pig could have put his own inimitable stamp on it, probably a lot more bawdy than Garcia's, and both songwriters would have cheerily added the mighty Pig to the writing credits.

It wasn't to be. Pigpen died on March 8, 1973, to the shock of his friends and bandmates. They thought he was in ill health, but had been cleaning up his act. Little did they know that his auto-immune disorder was the problem, not particularly his history of excessive drinking. The band moved on. "Loose Lucy" dropped out of the rotation. It re-appeared a year later, much faster, at a tempo that suited Jerry but not Pigpen. but that hardly mattered anymore.

Ron "Pigpen" McKernan is a touchstone of Grateful Dead philology, but few of the Grateful Dead philologists have ever seen him in person. Given Pigpen's importance in the band's history, we all take at face value his critical importance to the Grateful Dead. Yet at times, we refuse to see the evidence in front of us. In an era when even drummers got to record solo albums, Pigpen--a vibrant singer, a pretty good songwriter and a knowledgeable blues enthusiast--regularly refused every opportunity to go out on his own. The band members and family members hoped and wished that Pig would make his own record, but he never showed any inclination. More's the pity. The history of would-be Pigpen solo projects tells us more about the band and their wishes for their friend and bandmate than about the subject himself.