Former Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick died in his home on June 2, 2006, at the age of 55. The cause of death is believed to be suicide. Welnick, who played keyboards in the Grateful Dead from 1990 through 1995, cut his teeth performing in the California shock-rock band the Tubes in the 1970s. During his tenure with the Grateful Dead, Welnick contributed a number of original songs to the group's canon, most notably "Samba in the Rain." Bruce Hornsby helped usher Welnick into the Dead, playing piano by his side through 1991. While Welnick did not participate in any of the Dead's studio sessions, his work can be heard on both the experimental live albums Infrared Roses (1991) and Grayfolded: Transitive Axis , as well as a handful of Dick's Picks releases.
Following the passing of Jerry Garcia, Welnick urged the group to continue on, though his bandmates ultimately decided to retire the Grateful Dead name. While Welnick did not participate in tours under the Others Ones or Dead monikers, he did perform in both RatDog and the Mickey Hart Band. He also formed his own group, the Missing Man Formation, which featured Steve Kimock (guitar), Bobby Vega (bass) and the Tubes' Prairie Prince (drums). More recently, Welnick clocked in time with Dead-inspired outfits Gent Treadly and Jack Straw. He is the fourth Grateful Dead keyboardist to pass, following Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland.
Welnick, who was set to play a number of festivals and solo dates this summer, leaves behind a wife, Lori.
(The interview below originally ran in the February/March 2003 issue of Relix magazine. By Richard Thomas.)
Vince Welnick has a 30-some year history playing keyboards. He first gained national fame in the ‘70s with the flamboyantly weird but arena-filling band The Tubes, a predecessor to current acts such as Marilyn Manson and Mushroomhead, which rely on theatre as much as music. Welnick later migrated to the relatively low-key but much-loved Grateful Dead, filling in after Brent Mydland’s death in 1990, until the band broke up after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. In between he worked with Todd Rundgren for two albums. Post-Dead, he has played with Bob Weir’s band RatDog, drummer Mickey Hart’s band, his own project Missing Man Formation, and Motown greats The Persuasions, who made an album covering Grateful Dead songs. These days he’s a busy man, with gigs around the country.
As one of the original members of The Tubes, how did you develop that whole theatrical shock rock act?
We went down to Mexico and we played a thing called The Beans y Los Radar Mente Uranus; that’s when we started breaking out our space odyssey set. Fee, whose real name is John Waldo Waybill, was our quippy, our road guy, and then he became the singing roadie. All this was going down the same time as Alice Cooper—who was not even called Alice Cooper yet, they were The Nads or The Spiders or something—were just starting to do show stuff. The Tubes, or what was to become The Tubes, and Alice were about the first people to be doing this theatrical thing.
I remember when The Tubes first became popular. I was 14 or so and everyone at school was talking about this band with a song called “Don’t Touch Me There” and in my Boy Scout troop kids were marching down the trail chanting “White Punks on Dope.”
That was a huge anthem. That was in the top 10 most-requested FM tunes of all time, right up there with “Free Bird” and “China Grove” and “Stairway to Heaven.” We couldn’t play a show without putting “White Punks” in there.
Did you ever think you were pushing the envelope too far?
No, we figured equal opportunity offender, no joke too small; it would have gotten a lot weirder if the record company had put out all the songs. We had songs that made the songs you heard on the radio seem tame by comparison.
How about the scene backstage and on the road?
Totally decadent. For one thing a lot of The Tubes’ career was before AIDS, so there was nothing to keep us from total sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—unleashed, unbridled, total debauchery, there was nothing stopping us there.
Groupies and everything?
Everything all the time, 24 hours a day, it was a kick. We’d go to Studio 54, we wouldn’t have to wait in line. We’d call ahead and say we’re The Tubes, we’re coming to 54, and they’d part the crowds. We’d be hanging out with Andy Warhol and people like that, hanging in the men’s room, just like the movie, all the girls and guys are hanging in the men’s room, taking drugs and having sex with each other. People would show up at our gigs just because we were so cool. Mick Jagger wanted to come hang out with us. Al Pacino, Cher, all these people would turn up just to get near the scene cuz it was so much fun.
But the scene with the Dead was relatively laid-back?
Everyone was on the McDougal Diet and freshly cleaned up from drugs. Cocaine was no longer a part of the deal, for which I was glad. I stopped doing cocaine years before, when I was with Todd Rundgren. [With the Dead] it was very trippy and more spiritual, it wasn’t always as much fun, but there was stuff that would bring me to tears, it would move me so much. Like at a Grateful Dead gig you look out in the audience and see a six-foot-six biker crying his eyes out like a baby, just moved that much by the music.
Did you have misgivings about the Dead’s keyboard player curse? Three of your predecessors really were dead.
I thought to myself, “I could die doing this, but I’m dying of boredom now, so I’ll give it a shot.”
Some Deadheads have been asking on the web why you weren’t invited to the Dead reunion at Alpine Valley. Was there a snub there?
There’s been a snub for some time. To be totally honest with you, back in ‘95 I tried to kill myself on the RatDog bus. In the winter of ‘95, after Jerry died and after the band broke up, and after I’d been diagnosed with cancer and emphysema and all this shit, I figured it was pretty much over for me, and I tried to kill myself by taking 57 10-mg. Valiums and bouncing up into the bunk of the RatDog bus. So that’s something that’s not gone down too well with Bobby.
What was so bad at the time? You mentioned cancer and Jerry’s death...
The last straw was when the band broke up, which was December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. They pulled us off the fucking road on our day off, flew us all the way back up to San Francisco, had to drive over to Mill Valley, got in the board meeting, just to tell us the band was breaking up. At that point I even asked the Dead’s lawyer, Hal Kant, right there, I said, “Is my insurance covered for suicide?” And he said, very matter-of-factly, “Yes, it is, it’s been in force for over two years, so you’re covered.” So I thought at this point I’m such a veg and so worthless and useless and I don’t have long to live, I got advanced emphysema and this, that, and the other thing. And then my mind had snapped. That’s the thing about severe depression, it only has one conclusion, and that is death. And that’s why Van Gogh and all these people, it’s no surprise to me why they did it, because I was there, and that’s the only conclusion you come to.
But at the time you were the keyboardist for RatDog, which is a position a thousand keyboardists out there would love to have.
I know, I couldn’t believe I would do that to Bobby, and of course, it’s changed our relation for all time. That’s my penance.
What was going through your mind at the time?
That it had to be, it was gonna be, and there was no question about that, and now is the time because I was, like, one gig away from being back at home. It was right around Christmas time, and insane and demented as I was, that I would so selfishly try to check out at that time, that just showed how insane I was. But still in the back of my mind I knew that I didn’t want to leave myself for Lori [his wife] to find me when I got home. I stood there in the hallway, everybody was asleep, and the bus was kind of rolling back and forth and I held a bottle full to the top with Valiums. I got the water, I didn’t give it more than about five minutes of like looking at it and wondering, and I gulped it down like two gulps, whole bottle, and crawled up to my bunk. I said, well, I’ll take my chances in the afterlife, cuz nothing, not even the possibility of the karmic thing, could be nearly as bad as what I’m going through now. The last thing I remember thinking was, “That’s funny, I don’t feel a thing.” And then I woke up that night being taken out of the emergency room and transferred over to the looney bin. I was locked up.
Wasn’t the breakup of the Dead to be expected? How could you continue without Jerry?
The revolving chair. We had Dave Hildalgo, Carlos Santana, everybody... basically the very thing they’re doing right now with The Other Ones. I’m sure this is not what Jerry had in mind. If that were to be the case, then they would have broken up after Brent Mydland died; if that had been the case they would have broken up after Pigpen died. He was the frontman, almost the leader before Jerry, and they thought about breaking up after that, but they didn’t. I don’t think it should have happened. Ever.
How have you been since?
I’m never gonna be over Jerry, but suicide’s no longer an option. I went to the funny farm for a while, and I got out, and I didn’t think there was anything left of me to give, but I sat at the piano and stared at it for days on end, and eventually two songs gave me hope, came to me. One of them’s “True Blue” and the other one is “Golden Days”; it’s my tribute to Jerry on the Missing Man album. I hadn’t written complete songs, all the lyrics, all the music, all the everything; I just collaborated here and there, mostly musically on all The Tubes songs, like bits and piece of everything but never a whole thing. So actually I’d come out of the experience with a kind of character-building thing that got me a more complete person; what part of me that didn’t die came back big time.
How’s your health now?
I’m free [of cancer], I’m going over five years and my emphysema is new and improved, but I think singing is the cure for emphysema. Instead of sitting around sucking on a tank of air I just go out and sing, and it hasn’t kicked my ass when I’ve been up on stage. So it’s cool. I think I’m a better singer and a better player than I’ve ever been in my life, and one thing I know is I’ve never loved playing and being in front of people and doing what I’m doing, never loved this more than I do now.
So you had a brush with the keyboardist’s curse?
No question there. But the band died before I did. Curse be gone. Yeah, definitely it’s been nothing but better since then, and my love for music is greater now than it’s ever been. It’s just something about having come out the other side of that.
Do you ever think you could lose your love of music?
Oh yeah. Depression can kill all the joy in music, and it did. I didn’t want to hear anything. I’d hear a song and it would make me sad, make me afraid... But it’s like what Jerry and I talked about before he died, he said [raspy Jerry voice], “There ain’t no retirement, we ain’t never gonna quit this shit,” and that’s the way I feel about it. I’ll die, hopefully, after having done a really great gig sometime. I’m doing this ‘til I drop and I’m loving it more every minute. Cherish it.