I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Vince Welnick, the 4th and final full time keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. His tenure is not my favorite time with the Dead and his song Samba in the Rain is one of my least liked Dead songs. But when I started listening to The Dead, I remember Vince had the notorious distinction of surviving the curse of the Grateful Dead keyboardists. And although that was ultimately not the case, for someone like me who felt they had missed the party he was a living relic.
The more I listen to Vince’s work, the more I like him for his work with The Tubes. I can only think of a handful of bands that can be labeled as quasi-pornographic on their Wiki page. The Tubes spanned from the early pure punk ‘White Punks on Dope’, to peaking with the top-10 hit ‘She’s a Beauty’ produced by Toto’s Steve Lukather. In 1980 they were also featured in Xanadu with Olivia Newton John. They were a progressive experimental rock group with a wild live show. The band with literally something for everyone.
Aside from his infamous first band, he was a great keyboard player. He was classically trained and was a great fit for a band as funky and hard sounding as The Tubes. Continuing down that path, Vince could have been a great sideman. His post Tubes career saw him working with the producer Todd Rundgren but unfortunately Todd did not not tour enough to pay the bills. So somehow Vince found himself auditioning for the Grateful Dead.
Previous to Vince joining the band, the keyboard spot was held by Brent Mydland. Brent had joined in 1980 after piano player Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna decided to depart the band to regroup their marriage. Brent brought the band through a revitalization. He was already playing with Bobby when he was called up and immediately changed the tone of the band playing electric piano and organ. Though only in the band for 10 years, he is third behind Jerry and Bobby in song credits and his vocals are easily picked out on any Dead recording.
Brent died of a heroin overdoes in 1990. He was the third Grateful Dead keyboardist to die young. His death was a huge blow personally, musically, and possibly professionally. Despite their share of tragedy, Brent was the first current member to pass away. The Grateful Dead had also been touring nonstop since 1976 and felt they could not stop at the risk of putting many of their friends out or work. To not cancel their upcoming fall tour the Dead immediately went about finding a replacement.
The details about Vince’s audition are murky. But after the death of Brent, the story is the auditions were small and quick. Vince was hired because he could sing third part harmonies and had a wide vocal range. The Dead were very generous towards Vince’s membership. He was given a large signing bonus and was listed as a full member upon starting. The Dead was a money making operation in the early 90s and Vince saw the profits. It was a huge turnaround from someone living in a barn considering a life off of the grid.
Vince played with the Dead from 1990 until the last show in 1995. I don’t think he ever hit his stride. The first couple of years as he learned his parts he was supplemented with pianist and long time Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby. Bruce left the group during the summer of 1992 leaving only 3 years for Vince as the solo keyboard player. It’s also been rumored that like Brent and Keith before him, Vince was asked not to play in the style or tone of his predecessors and instead find his own sound. Vince’s choice of keyboards is a point of contention. His tone is one of the reasons many Deadheads site him as their least favorite keyboard player. Again, given more time I would have liked to have seen where he ended up.
After Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Vince joined Bob Weir’s Ratdog. Battling depression from the loss of his friend and a cancer diagnosis, Vince attempted suicide around Christmas of that year while on tour. He was immediately dropped from the band and never played with them again.
Vince recovered, got into rehab, and was put on anti-depressants. He seemed to be in a good place starting his own band The Missing Man Formation and recording his own material. In his post recovery years Vince discussed how his suicide attempt understandably put a rift between him and his former band. He sites being barred from using the Grateful Dead rehearsal space and studios as a result. But there are conflicting reports to how manic and obsessive his desire to play with his former band. Rumors of him calling the Dead offices obsessively with ideas for reunions and wrote music to unreleased lyrics have been mentioned.
Vince would play with both Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart in the late nineties. But in 2002 when the Dead hosted a family reunion with all Dead associated band and the four other members reunited, they excluded Vince. There are two distinct different omissions here. First, the four original members excluded Vince from their touring reunion. Second, they omitted him and his band from the family festival entirely.
I can’t fault the band for the decision to not include Vince in the band. They went with Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti. Both were logical choices. Bruce was once a touring member and his style fit with The Dead. Jeff grew up in the school of the Grateful Dead and comparing him to a minor league player getting called up to the majors isn’t too off. Though Vince did hold the piano bench last, he never truly gelled with the band. There just wasn’t enough time to see what would have developed.
The omission from the reunion was rather brutal. Bobby and Billy have been pretty public about their issues with Vince. I can’t remember which one said it, but the sentiment was along that lines that if he was allowed backstage, he would have walked out there with them and forced himself on stage. That may be the case, you never know he was never given the chance. I can speculate what conversations were or were not had but at the end of the day it’s either that they were harsh and possibly vindictive or that Vince was so manic that a clean break was the best decision. Either way it’s sad to watch.
I’ve read books on the band, watching interviews and hearing stories I get that the band had a history of letting people deal with their own problems away from everyone else. It was an unwritten rule of deal with your own problems privately. It started as a tradition when Pigpen cut ties with the band when he was dying and why Keith and Donna left when they were having trouble. It’s how Phil found his wife and sobriety and why it took a coma to get Jerry clean. Vince didn’t play by those rules. He was too new and too needy to continue to be included.
In hindsight, Vince’s membership was a bit too hasty. Brent had big shoes to fill. He had the longest tenure of anyone at the piano bench and arguably contributed more than any other keyboardist. I think they should have asked Bruce to do his temporary stint and figured it out from there. Perhaps they would have found someone who was a better fit. Regardless, I’m not entirely sure Vince would have stayed on if Jerry had lived. It’s easy to point to Jerry’s death as a start but it really could have been anything.
Vince committed suicide in one of the most horrific ways possible in the summer of 2006. Bobby and Phil gave heartfelt tributes. I believe that they sincerely wished they could have done more. They were really pushed into an inescapable association with someone who had demons they weren’t equipped to deal with.
In his last years, Vince floated around between his own band and sitting in with Grateful Dead cover bands, and the festival circuit. I’m curious what Vince liked so much about the Dead that it became his focus. It’s hard to believe he found any kinship with anyone aside from Jerry. The music was outside of Vince’s wheelhouse and though he played it a lot, it was a short time to his overall career. Was it the fame? It’s possible. I’m sure Vince received more accolades during his time in the band than any other point in his career. I’m just surprised that a tumultuous 5 years with a band filled with stress and personal problems would want to be the basis for the rest of your career.
Regardless whether he should have been there or whether he was mistreated, he was there and his alienation is self evident. I’m sure that by now, I would have seen him and been one of the many Deadheads who thanked him and been able to walk away with a story about his kind spirit. That’s a common thread when researching Vince, he was always kind.