The catalogue of songs spearheaded by Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan didn’t completely die out once the man himself shuffled off the mortal coil in 1973. The original Grateful Dead frontman famously had a difficult time adjusting to the psychedelic turn that the band made around 1967, but he was still an essential part of the Dead’s appeal. Pigpen was on the first Grateful Dead T-shirt, appeared prominently in their first news and magazine articles, and was even the inspiration behind a look-alike contest spearheaded by the band’s record company, Warner Bros.
Pigpen picked out the Dead’s original repertoire, favouring blues classics like ‘I’m a King Bee’ alongside contemporary pop hits like ‘Dancing in the Street’. Once jamming and LSD became an essential component of the band’s identity, Pigpen accepted a reduced role, often playing congas or not playing at all during songs like ‘Saint Stephen’ and ‘Dark Star’. But by the end of the 1960s, Pig had enough keyboard and singer/songwriter chops to be a full contributor to the Grateful Dead once again.
On Workingman’s Dead, Pigpen took the Robert Hunter composition ‘Easy Wind’ and gave it life. That same year, his solo composition ‘Operator’ was featured on American Beauty, giving Pigpen his one and only solo songwriting contribution to the Grateful Dead studio canon. By 1972, Pigpen had a host of new songs like ‘Mr. Charlie’ and ‘The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)’, along with his classic covers like ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ and ‘Hard to Handle’.
When Pigpen passed in 1973, most of his material was permanently retired. It came at a pertinent time: with pianist Keith Godchaux and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux in their ranks, the Dead angled closer to jazz fusion than the straight blues that Pigpen favoured. Whether it was grief or disinterest in reliving the past, the rest of the band honoured Pigpen’s memory by keeping classics like ‘Alligator’ and ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ out of their setlists.
But when the 1980s came around, Bob Weir began to look at Pigpen’s material with an interest in reviving some of his songs. Jerry Garcia’s health had taken a downturn starting in the late 1970s, leaving him more lethargic as a stage presence. Weir responded by becoming more animated, taking on more high-energy rave-ups that would excite the crowd. While Weir had his own songs that could do the trick, like ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and ‘One More Saturday Night’, he began to play older Pigpen songs like ‘Lovelight’ and ‘Good Lovin’ more frequently as well.
When Weir was interviewed by The Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast to talk about ‘Operator’ in 2020, he expressed an interest in reviving the track in his current shows, “In recent years, we’ve brought that back around in the various bands that I’ve been playing in,” Weir observed. “I never sang it. Maybe I should take a crack at it. But it merits something because if there’s a story there, it’s tight. Everything about it is tight: the imagery is tight, the music is just fine.”
Check out ‘Operator’ down below.