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By the time the calendar flipped from 1969 to 1970, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the Grateful Dead’s original keyboardist and frontman, was all but expelled from the band. It was McKernan who had originally urged the Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and the gang to pick up electric instruments and jam on blues and R&B songs, but in the subsequent years he’d been left behind as the Dead ventured into more experimental music. More experimental drugs, too. As LSD and weed became the lubricants of choice for his band, McKernan, who eschewed psychedelics in favor of good old fashioned booze, fell further out of the loop and further into debilitating liver problems. He’d been replaced as the group’s primary keyboardist in 1968 when the classically trained Tom Constanten was hired. At that point, Pigpen was relegated mostly to secondary percussion and singing, memorably as always on his signature song, “Turn On Your Love Light,” a cover of a 1961 singe by Bobby Bland that the Dead made their own.
Then, on Jan. 30, 1970, the entire band was infamously busted for possession of various drugs in New Orleans, leading Constanten—also a drinker and not a tripper—to quit, and leaving Pigpen alone at the keys again. The show we look back to today occurred in the lead-up to all that craziness. Pigpen, then 24, was still making due with his limited role, and would only live another three years before his hard drinking caught up with him. On Jan. 2, 1970, the dead rolled into the Fillmore East in New York, where Pigpen shone on a 23-minute “Love Light.” A month later, he’d attempt to take the lead on keys again, but it wasn’t long before his body failed on him. Forced to leave the band a year later, he died on March 8, 1973. It would be nearly a decade before the Dead performed “Turn On Your Love Light” again.