To celebrate “Operator,” the fourth song on American Beauty and the first Grateful Dead song written solely by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, we examine his life and offer an extremely rare look into the Pigpen archives, a collection of journals, letters, and more inherited by an old family friend.
Operator supplementary notes
By Jesse Jarnow
“Operator” was Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s first completely original contribution to a Grateful Dead album. He died less than three years later in 1973 at the age of 27. That brief span included a brief burst of songwriting by Pigpen. Some songs were performed by the Dead--including “Empty Pages,” “Chinatown Shuffle,” and “The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)”--but many more weren’t.
Pigpen rarely gave interviews, never released any solo material, and remains an enigma to generations of Deadheads. The wonderful Golden Road zine did an incredible oral history in 1993, but there’s a lot more to learn.
For our “Operator” episode, we were joined by Jim Sullivan, an old neighborhood friend of the McKernans who is now the possessor of Pigpen’s archive. Specifically, Sully was close friends with Pigpen’s late younger brother, Kevin, who played in the band Osiris. Sully recently digitized a track from the band’s demo reel.
Jim frequents the Cult of Ron McKernan on Facebook and has posted some incredible documents.
There are bits of McKernan family history, including this excellent photo of Pigpen’s parents, Phil and Esther McKernan. There’s also this great shot of Phil, who spent much of the ‘40s as the chief DJ and engineer at KRE in Berkeley, notably hosting a drive-time blues show. (Update: Though many histories assert that Phil McKernan DJ’d R&B under the name Cool Breeze, Carol McKernan says that he only used his own name.) There are some photos of young Ron and slightly-less-young Ron. Sully also inherited a fair bit of Pigpen (and Phil’s) record collections, including this LP of Lord Buckley in Concert, an important influence. Fascinatingly, there is also Ron’s letter to the Palo Alto Times, publicly proclaiming himself to be a conscientious objector. There are multiple pieces of early writing, too.
There are some incredible documents related to the very early life of the Dead, including a draft for a flyer advertising an appearance by an unnamed artist at the Top of the Tangent, a Palo Alto folk club. On the back is what seems to be--in Pigpen’s handwriting--an early list of potential songs for the Warlocks. Also in the collection, on a sheet of staff paper, are the Dylanesque lyrics for “Can’t Come Down” in Jerry Garcia’s handwriting, the first fully original Dead tune.
And there are also documents from a bit later on, including this letter home from Paris during the Europe ‘72 tour, Pigpen’s last. (It’s misdated as April 3rd, it’s actually May 3rd.) Finally, there are a few bits of his last songs, including this fragment.
Both Dead Essays and Lost Live Dead have examined Pigpen’s solo non-career and the various bootlegs in depth. But there’s lots more that hasn’t been bootlegged or discovered, too. We haven’t heard the last of the Pig.
Howdy! Random question, when/where is the "They Love Each Other" from the outro on the Good Ol' Grateful Deadcast? I love it when they did it upbeat!
Fantastic podcast, in general! Love the Operator episode!