What I Got Baby

The Grateful Dead song ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ has lyrics and music written by Ron McKernan and it was performed many times on the Europe 72 tour.  For a while, Pigpen was the leader of the Grateful Dead, and those who were privileged enough to see him play will never forget what an incredible musician and performer he was, because he was able to capture the attention of his audiences through his ability to entertain, singing from deep down in his soul, touching the hearts of all those who knew him.  In 1971, McKernan first fell ill after a concert at Gaelic Park in the Bronx, and he took a three-month hiatus from the band.  He joined the group again for their European tour, reportedly against the doctor’s orders, and the long, bumpy bus rides punished his liver.  When he returned, his condition was diagnosed as anemia (shortage of healthy red blood cells resulting in adequate oxygen being delivered to the rest of his body).  The Europe tour was Pigpen’s last hurrah, and ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ was his swan song.

Ron was born in 1945, his father Phil worked as a disk jockey under the name of Cool Breeze where he was the only white Disc Jockey to spin the blues at an all-black radio station in the Bay area.  Phil had a daily blues program on radio station KRE in Berkeley from 1951 to 1956 which exposed Ron to R&B at an early age.  Growing up alongside many African American friends, Ron felt very connected to African American music and culture.  He refused to take music lessons, and he taught himself how to play the blues piano and developed a biker image and a nasty habit for heavy drinking, having his first drink at age twelve.

Pigpen was first known as “Rims” like the rim on a wheel, because had a motorcycle chain permanently bolted to his wrist.  Ron enjoyed crossing over to the wrong side of the tracks where he learned the blues, drank Thunderbird wine.  Ron was given his nickname Pigpen from his girlfriend Vee who he met in 1966, because of his dirty appearance resembling the Peanuts comic strip character.  This black lady named Veronica was the main love of his life, and some people said that her name was Veronica Grant, while others said she was Veronica Barnard.  Vee moved in with him at 710 Ashbury, and later moved to Novato with him in 1966 onto a ranch at Olompali, which was then the former Boy Scout camp in Lagunitas.  They were said to have had one of those on-again, off-again relationships, but it was mainly on and this was the only long-term relationship that Pigpen ever had.

In the fall of 1968, the Dead played some concerts without Weir and Pigpen and there were rumors that they were both fired, McKernan for not showing up to practice and fights about Bobby’s guitar playing.  Further investigation shows that Veronica had a stroke in October ‘68, and Pigpen went to be at her side devoting himself to her, as she couldn’t walk or talk for quite a while.  She got back on her feet after her surgery, and the band gathered around in support, with Jerry and Bobby coming into her hospital room with guitars and a duo performance.  Pigpen helped her pull through, and then later she stuck by him when he was having health problems.  Pigpen and Veronica stayed together for years until November ‘72, when they fought and split.  Many people feel that Pigpen sent Vee away, knowing how sick he was and not wanting her around when he died.

Towards the end of 1962 Pigpen got a part-time job at Swain’s Music Store in Palo Alto and in 1963 he was in was a short-lived group called The Second Story Men.  Swain’s Music Store was run by a guy named Troy Weidenheimer who had ideas about forming his own rock ‘n’ roll band.  Troy knew Pigpen, Pigpen knew Garcia, Garcia knew Kreutzmann, so they formed a band called the Zodiacs that played frat parties and other dances.  Troy played lead guitar, Pigpen was on harp, most of the time Bill Kreutzmann played drums, and Garcia would sometimes join in on bass guitar.

Take it, you can have it
What I got baby I can’t hold
If you find the secret
Tell me how to build a mold

And I can’t handle your problems
So don’t try to handle mine
Get yourself a shotgun a pocket full of shells
And we can while away the time

Look up at the wall, do it right
If you make a mistake, you’re gonna pay for it twice
But if you need it, got to have it
Get yourself a shotgun and bring it back home
Look up at the wall, you know you gotta crawl
Before you start crawling get ready to fall
And if you fall in my direction
Don’t expect no help at all

Get it right, do it nice
But if you make a mistake you’re gonna pay for it twice
But if you need it, gotta have it
Get yourself a shotgun and bring it back home
Look up the walls
You know you gotta crawl
But if you start calling you’re ready to fall
And if you fall in my direction
Don’t expect no help at all
Don’t expect no help at all
Don’t expect no help at all
And if you fall in my direction
Don’t expect no help at all

Written for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie MM Music challenge She’s My Baby.

6 thoughts on “What I Got Baby

  1. I knew about them talking about firing both of them but I never knew what Pigpen was doing. The song is really good and love the history. I wonder what became of Veronica?
    Great post Jim.

    Liked by 1 person

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