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Music

Revisit the final Grateful Dead show with Pigpen

The Grateful Dead were truly hitting their stride in the summer of 1972. Having just returned from their first major tour of Europe, which would later be immortalised on the Europe ’72 album, the Dead had a number of new songs, tight arrangements, and lots of new fans. Thanks to shakeups in management, the Dead were playing bigger venues and actually pulling in decent amounts of cash. While there was plenty to celebrate, there was also an unmistakable fact that no one wanted to acknowledge: Pigpen was dying.

Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan had been struggling for a number of years with health issues that negatively affected his performance. By that time, the band had largely moved away from the blues covers that Pigpen favoured anyway, making him the odd man out. However, on the Europe ’72 tour, Pigpen had debuted new songs like ‘Mr. Charlie’, ‘The Stranger’, and ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ into the band’s repertoire. Eagle-eyed fans could even spot a notebook sitting on top of Pig’s organ than housed potential song ideas.

Had he been healthy, Pigpen could have carved out a unique niche within the band’s setlists as he had in Europe. Instead, when the band returned to California, Pigpen was once again beset by liver issues that were exacerbated by his alcohol addiction. When the Dead played their first show back on US soil on June 17th at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Pigpen was on stage, but he wasn’t singing.

Relegated to percussion and occasional keyboard contributions, Pigpen didn’t sing any songs of his own at the Hollywood Bowl show. The concert was an otherwise spirited affair, with the Dead busting out the live debut of future classic ‘Stella Blue’, but it was hard to ignore the ghostly presence that Pigpen was projecting over the band in real-time. Rail thin, sickly, and frail, Pigpen was clearly struggling to simply keep it together.

Pigpen never officially left the Grateful Dead, but when the band played their next show a month later in Hartford, Connecticut, Pigpen was no longer a part of the lineup. For the next few months, the band would occasionally reference Pig’s absence by explaining that he was resting up and gaining his health back. Calls for Pigpen classics like ‘Alligator’ and ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ were ignored, with the band sheepishly claiming that they had forgotten how to play them.

From the tone of their concert interactions whenever the topic came up, it seemed as though the band were optimistic that Pigpen would return when his health improved. Privately, however, Pigpen began to sever relationships within the Grateful Dead family, not wishing to be around his friends in his final days. Nine months after his final appearance with the Dead, Pigpen would be dead himself.

Listen to audience audio from Pigpen’s final show with the Grateful Dead down below.