1970 represented a major turning point for the Grateful Dead. With two high-selling albums in Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, the Dead were finally able to assuage some of the debt they owed to their record company, Warner Bros. More importantly, with a greater public profile and a new tour manager, Sam Cutler, the Dead were able to tour beyond California consistently for the first time. October of that year saw some triumphant gigs, but the band had to schedule a last-minute return to San Francisco in the middle of an east coast run. The reason why was tragic: their close friend, Janis Joplin, had just died.
Joplin had a cosy relationship with the Dead. Both were products of the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, and the two artists represented a rougher and rowdier version of the nascent hippie scene that was coming up. Joplin enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, with the pair preferring alcohol over the psychedelic drugs that the rest of their peers were indulging in. The two were reportedly a couple for a short time, but even if their romance was brief, their connection would last for the rest of their lives.
The Dead crossed paths with Joplin in the live sphere as well. During an appearance at the Fillmore West on June 7th, 1969, Joplin hopped on stage to duet with Pigpen on the band’s showstopping R&B rave-up ‘Turn On Your Love Light’. This particular concert started off gently with acoustic renditions of ‘Dire Wolf’ and ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’ but kicks into gear once the band plug in for an exploratory version of ‘Dark Star’. By the time the Dead bust out a hectic version of ‘The Eleven’, they’re firing on all cylinders. After a twangy ‘Me and My Uncle’, the familiar opening bass notes of ‘Lovelight’ filter in. During the 20 minute version of the track, Joplin goes back and forth with Pigpen on a shared improvisatory rap, matching the licks of the instrumentalists with their own loose rapport.
When Joplin died in early October of 1970, part of her will stipulated that a party would be thrown in her memory. That’s what Garcia and the rest of the band flew back to San Francisco for: to celebrate the life that Janis had lived. The exact date of the party differs from source to source, with the wake seeming to have occurred on either October 26th, November 1st, or November 2nd. If it was November 1st, then that must have been a particularly bittersweet day for the Dead, seeing as how American Beauty was released the very same day.
It took the band a while to fully come to terms with the loss of their friend, but roughly a month after her wake, the Dead began incorporating a new cover into their set to pay tribute to Joplin. That was ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, the Kris Kristofferson song that Joplin recorded only a few days before her death. Featured on her posthumous 1971 LP Pearl, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ rose all the way to number one in America, giving Joplin her only number one single.
There remains some debate within the Dead community about whether ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ was a direct tribute to Joplin or simply another cover integrated into the band’s ever-growing repertoire. The band only started playing the song after Joplin’s death, but Joplin’s own version didn’t come out until January 1971. Whether it was a direct acknowledgement or not, it was nearly impossible for the band to play ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ without most listeners thinking about Joplin.
The Dead got a solid 100 or so performances of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ out before Bob Weir grew tired of singing the song. After 1974, the song laid dormant before the band busted out three performances of the song towards the end of 1981. After that, the Dead never again performed ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, although Weir has busted out the cover occasionally on both his solo tours and his Ratdog shows.