The curse of the Grateful Dead keyboardists rolls on: Vince Welnick, who tickled the ivories and gave fans a little light during the band’s final five years, is dead. Welnick, 55, was found grievously injured yesterday at his home in Forestville, CA; he died a short time later at a local hospital. Mercury News reports that, according to an “unofficial spokesman at the Welnick home… “It looks like he took his own life.” That conclusion is only speculation at this point.
Update: On June 7, the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office indeed confirmed that Welnick’s death was a suicide. At the family’s request, no other details were released.
David Gans’ KPFA-FM show, “Dead to the World,” paid tribute to the late artist on June 14 and 21; the audio files are available at the “Grateful Dead Hour” site.
On June 30, the San Francisco Chronicle shone some light on the details in Welnick’s backstory that may explain his tragic end (do read the whole thing; be prepared for details both gory and sad):
Welnick’s suicide caught many of his more casual friends by surprise. A fixture in the Bay Area music scene for nearly 40 years and known to thousands of fans of the Dead — and in the ’70s, the Tubes — Welnick was always an upbeat kind of guy, with twinkly eyes and a lopsided smile. But his cheery exterior was deceptive. Those who knew him better recognized that even during the last years of the Grateful Dead’s long strange trip, Vince Welnick was veering along the edge and battling demons that would eventually alienate many musical colleagues. …
After an earlier suicide attempt about 10 years ago, Welnick started taking antidepressants, but lately, he had been telling friends the pills didn’t seem to be working anymore. When he died, according to friends, he was trying to wean himself from the old medication and begin a new drug regimen.
Nobody knows whether there was a direct link between his suicide and the change in his medication, but two years ago the Food and Drug Administration asked antidepressant manufacturers to add a warning on pill bottles about potential suicide risk during changes in dosage. …
Only days before departing for the final 1995 Grateful Dead tour, Welnick received a double diagnosis from his doctor. He needed an operation for throat cancer that could possibly affect his singing voice, and he had emphysema. He postponed the surgery until after the tour. When Garcia died Aug. 9, shortly after the band returned home, and the band members announced that they would no longer continue to perform as the Grateful Dead, Welnick felt his world collapse and he sank into depression.
That December, on the RatDog tour bus before a show in Santa Barbara, Welnick spilled out the contents of a Valium bottle and counted 57 pills. He took them all, climbed in his bunk and waited to die. The tour manager accompanied him to the hospital, while the rest of the band played the show. After he recovered, Welnick sought psychiatric treatment and began taking antidepressants. He never played with RatDog again.
The Grateful Dead has always been very much a man’s world with a strict code of behavior, carefully developed over the many years of the band’s history. Many insiders privately found Welnick’s dramatic grieving out of proportion for someone who had belonged to the band as briefly and late in the day. The other four members had been with the Dead since the beginning, more than 30 years before. Welnick was the last “new man,” the sixth player to the keyboard slot.
He bombarded the Dead’s office with phone calls, proposals to put the band back together, always with himself on keyboards. He wrote new songs to already published lyrics he found in the book by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. He reserved special anger for Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who moved to Hawaii right after Garcia’s death, effectively removing himself from the scene and barring any reunion efforts, in Welnick’s mind. …
Welnick was frustrated at every turn. He could not use the band’s rehearsal hall for his group. He was not allowed to borrow equipment from the Dead when he went into the studio to record some demos in April 2000. … But an announced reunion of all four remaining original members of the Dead at a two-day rock festival in Alpine Village, Mich., in August 2002 sent Welnick overboard. He fixated on certain phrases — “Grateful Dead family reunion” and “surviving members of the Dead” — wondering how he could have been excluded, according to his friend Mike Lawson. Welnick went to the festival, Lawson said, played the night before at a local Thai restaurant and performed a campground show the night of the event, hoping there would be a last-minute call that never came. …
The members of the Dead were uncomfortable with Welnick and his obsessive behavior. There were certain kinds of craziness the Dead circles would not tolerate. “It was getting bigger and bigger,” Weir said. “We could all feel that and we chickened out. Yes, we did. We all had lives to lead and we all had bands to play with.
“I’m sorry,” he continued. “I’m sorry for Vince. But stuff doesn’t always work out the way people want. And he became more and more difficult to work with as his disease progressed.” …
Weir spoke about Welnick with the shell-shocked tone of someone still trying to make sense of something that ultimately will never add up.
“I wish I could have helped,” Weir said. “I tried, but I failed. The people closest to him wish they tried, but they failed. He tried himself and failed. That’s the story and it’s a sad one.”
Welnick’s death caps another period of loss for those surrounding the Grateful Dead. Three other members of the band’s extended family have died since May 17: roadie Lawrence “Ramrod” Shurtliff, guest drummer Hamza El-Din and road manager Jonathan Riester.
Phoenix native and classical-piano student Welnick earned many of his rock-and-roll chops while playing keys for a group called the Beans that moved to San Francisco in 1971. There, the band changed its name to the Tubes and scored the 1975 classic cult fave “White Punks on dope” and a 1983 hit record, “She’s A Beauty.” After the band’s breakup, Welnick landed a gig working with Todd Rundgren. In 1990, Grateful Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland died and the band invited Welnick to audition for the vacant spot.
The morbid among us may know that Grateful Dead keyboardists have a history of shortened lives. Tom Constanten, who played alongside pianist, organist and blues harpist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan from 1968 to 1970, is still among us, but “Pig” was not so fortunate: McKernan left us in 1973. Only 27 years old, the hard-drinking pal of Janis Joplin died from a stomach hemorrhage exacerbated by alcohol-fueled liver damage. The next keyboardist to accompany Pigpen was Keith Godchaux, who remained with the band until 1979; he died in a car accident the following year. The aforementioned Mydland replaced Godchaux and holds the record for the longest stint as Grateful Dead keyboardist. His 1990 death was the result of a drug overdose.
The looming specter of McKernan’s, Godchaux’s and Mydland’s demises apparently didn’t dampen Welnick’s joy at being chosen for the gig in 1990.
Welnick told an interviewer with the Vermont Review that the tryout was exciting. Before he played, the band sent him tapes and CDs, but he didn’t have a CD player. He practiced in the hayloft of his barn and then waited for two weeks before he heard he was in.
“That fact that I screamed a lot as a child paid off and got me into the Grateful Dead,” he told the paper…. “I was somewhat paralyzed playing at first. I remember… thinking to myself: ‘Come on fingers, let’s get unstuck. Let’s get loose here.’ Then I heard this ripple in the audience and there was a kid who yelled, ‘Welcome Brother Vince!’ and there were stickers that said, ‘Yo Vinnie’ stuck to the side of my keyboard. The crowd was very forgiving.”
He told the interviewer that he’d never seen the likes of such music, friendship and spirit and did not know if he ever would again.
In 1995, Welnick’s world came crashing ’round him. He was already putting his health in jeopardy: Before that year’s Grateful Dead summer tour, the musician was given a cruel double diagnosis: lung cancer and emphysema. Still, he took to the road with the band for a tour that turned out to be inordinately stressful and often unkind. A month after the tour came to a merciful close, Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s driving force and Welnick’s dear friend, died after years of heroin abuse.
As tragic as all that was, things were to get worse.
The following comes from Mike Lawson, webmaster of VinceWelnick.com:
Vince never got over the cruel way that the Grateful Dead band members treated him after Jerry died. He never got over the sorrow of losing Jerry, facing his own demons without his friend and could not understand how the remaining fellow band-members treated him like shit the past several years.
I cannot possibly describe to you the hurt and anguish he felt when “The Dead” decided to have a “Family Reunion of the SURVIVING MEMBERS” of Grateful Dead, a band that he was no mere sideman for its last five years, but a full member of by order of Jerry Garcia. How damned insulting was it to have a “surviving members family reunion” and not invite your new brother? He was the proverbial red-headed step-child to them. Did it occur to you how that hurt him, Bill, Bob, Phil, Mickey? The truth is that you selfish bastards did not care if it hurt him. He’s a big boy, he just had to get over it, right?
I remember seeing Todd Rundgren at the “Walk Down Abbey Road” show in Concord, CA, around the same time when that “Family Reunion” was booked. He asked how Vince was, and I told him about this “family reunion” concert of SURVIVING MEMBERS and how Vince was specifically not invited, but in fact was playing a gig at a campground not far from the show. Todd said, “Uh, Vince isn’t dead, isn’t he a surviving member?” He got the irony. I got the irony, but I also saw the hurt like none of you can believe. Vince kept a brave face about it, trying to remain cheerful, hoping that somehow, someday the tide would turn, the phone would ring and it would be Bob Weir calling him. Calling just to say, “How are you, Vinny?” Something. Anything.
I remember the “Family Reunion” and at that time wondered aloud to the spouse why Vince Welnick wasn’t on the bill along with Weir, Lesh, and the rest. Shortly thereafter, a newspaper interview appeared in which Welnick talked about how there was a scheduling conflict and that he really loved the guys and hoped to make music with them again. Then, I figured he was following his own road, leading the Missing Man Formation and down the road, playing briefly with Weir’s band Ratdog and with an assortment of jambands (most recently Gent Treadly).
In the end, those brothers had kind words for Welnick. From GD.net:
The wheel is turning almightily fast. Life is loss, but our times have turned sorrowful indeed. It is with very heavy hearts that we must tell you that Vince Welnick passed away today, June 2, 2006. His service to and love for the Grateful Dead were heart-felt [sic] and essential. He had a loving soul and a joy in music that we were lucky to share. We grieve especially for his widow Lori, his sister Nancy, and the rest of his family. Our Grateful Dead prayer for the repose of his spirit. May the four winds blow him safely home.
Can’t help but wonder whether things might have ended differently if those sentiments had been expressed sooner. The likelihood is that they had been expressed and felt – the story, as the Chronicle June 30 demonstrates, is a complicated one and misunderstandings occur often in the course of human relations.
Welnick, by all accounts, had been depressed and self-destructive for a long time. I believe his compatriots cared about their colleague and friend but were unqualified to deal with what ailed him. Surely you’ve had a friend in trouble so deep that there was nothing you could do to help. In any case, it is clear that Welnick felt abandoned and unvalued.
If it’s any comfort, for as long as it stands, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH, will include among its inductees all the official members of one magical (if not so love-and-peace-y as many believed) improv-minded band of musical pirates: Tom Constanten, Jerry Garcia, Donna Godchaux, Keith Godchaux, Mickey Hart, Robert Hunter, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Brent Mydland, Bob Weir… and Vince Welnick. If anyone questions Welnick’s worth or doubts the legitimacy of his membership in the Dead Family, fact and the annals of rock history state his position quite clearly.