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San Francisco Chronicle
Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
Published 4:00 am PDT, Friday, June 30, 2006
When Vince Welnick signed on to play keyboards for the Grateful Dead, some people said it probably saved his life. He had five good years with the band, five fat years. But then Jerry Garcia died and the Dead was no more. Welnick spent the next 11 years dreaming that the band would reunite, with him, once again, at the keyboards.
That dream died on the cloudless morning of June 2, when the 55-year-old musician stood on a hillside behind his Forestville home and drew a knife across his throat in front of his wife.
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.
In the weeks before his death, several old friends who hadn’t heard from him in a while were surprised by phone calls from a cheery, optimistic Welnick, talking about plans for the future. On June 1, the day before he killed himself, he called pianist George Michalski, who invited Welnick to join him at his weekly restaurant job in San Francisco that weekend. The two had debuted their four-handed piano act in February at Mardi Gras in New Orleans and had just received an invitation to return next year.
“He was all excited about it,” Michalski said. “And he told me he was going to come by the restaurant and jam Saturday night.”
But Michalski had also seen Welnick’s dark side and knew he was a troubled soul, especially in recent years as he struggled with deep depression over the demise of the Dead.
Michalski said Welnick talked about committing suicide in February when they flew to New Orleans. “He told me he was going to kill himself,” Michalski said. “That’s all we talked about all the way to New Orleans. He had no qualms about it.”
Grateful Dead computer programmer Bob Bralove, one of Welnick’s closest friends, traveled the country playing improvisations with Welnick and another former Dead keyboardist, Tom Constanten. They appeared together last month in Las Vegas.
“He was very, very depressed,” said Bralove, “even though he was headed for a gig, which usually cheered him up. We were talking. He said he couldn’t stop the bad feelings. He was looking for some way this would change. I guess it didn’t. He had hoped to pull something off.”
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.
Welnick was not in the best health anyway. Just before the start of the Dead’s final summer tour in 1995, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and emphysema. He beat the cancer, but the respiratory disease left him increasingly weak and often out of breath, although he continued to smoke cigarettes and pot. He carried inhalers with him wherever he went. “He was on the spray can all day long,” said one associate.
Welnick was born and raised in Phoenix, Ariz., where the scene in the late ’60s was so small, everybody knew each other from hanging out at the VIP Room, the town’s sole rock club. Welnick moved to Los Angeles to make it in music, but wound up paying his rent selling office supplies over the phone. Guitarist Bill Spooner brought him back to Phoenix and formed a group called the Beans. Relocating to San Francisco in 1970, the Beans merged with another band of Phoenix refugees and renamed themselves the Tubes.
The Tubes would become one of the few authentic San Francisco rock phenomena of the ’70s. Although the band never earned similar acceptance outside of town, the Tubes could draw capacity crowds at Bimbo’s 365 Club for weeks-long runs. Known for outrageous staging, tungsten-hard progressive rock and elaborate set pieces for songs such as “Mondo Bondage,” “White Punks on Dope” and “What Do You Want From Life?,”the Tubes drew deeply from the decadent San Francisco demimonde of the day. But they were never hippies. Welnick was regarded by his bandmates as a highly skilled musician, the most musically trained of the group, and a relaxed, agreeable colleague. He dressed neatly, often wearing satin shirts and even ironed his T-shirts.
“I can see him sitting around in those wraparound shades, that orange suit, a joint hanging out of his lips,” said Tubes vocalist Fee Waybill.
The Tubes recorded eight albums and finally scored a Top Ten hit with “She’s a Beauty” in 1983. By that time, however, the group had been reduced to a laboratory for experiments by Hollywood session musicians and producers such as David Foster and Steve Lukather. Todd Rundgren, who produced “Love Bomb,” the final Tubes album, took drummer Prairie Prince and keyboardist Welnick for his own band when the Tubes broke up in 1985. Welnick toured with Rundgren’s band and can be heard on two Rundgren albums, “Nearly Human” and “Second Wind.”
When Welnick auditioned for the Dead in 1990, he was sleeping in a barn, separated from his wife, their home rented out, and planning to move to Mexico and homestead. The Dead, in the band’s singularly dysfunctional manner, tried out just four or five candidates for the job vacated by Brent Mydland, who died of a drug overdose. Only a handful of keyboard players who lived nearby were called in for the million-dollar post. All the auditions were held in a single day at the Dead’s San Rafael rehearsal hall.
“I remember Vince sitting waiting his turn when I got out,” said Pete Sears, then fresh off the Starship. “I think the decision had already been made.”
Welnick’s keyboard skills did not win him the job with the Dead, though; it was his ability to hit the high harmonies on vocals.
“We had no stomach for the amount of work it would have taken to find the right guy,” said Dead guitarist Bob Weir. “We took the guy who could sing high and had pretty decent chops. That was good enough.”
Bruce Hornsby, a longtime Dead fan who stepped in at piano on an interim basis, put his own thriving solo career on hold for a year to stay with the band while Welnick found his footing. The famously egalitarian band offered Welnick almost full participation in the concert revenues, merchandise and other partnership holdings, rather than simply taking him on as a sideman. At the time, the Dead was the most popular rock group in the country, pulling down more than $50 million a year at the box office. His earnings soared. He started wearing tie-dye. He bought a Mexican vacation home.
He met his future wife on a photo shoot for Rolling Stone magazine in the mid-’70s in Los Angeles. During their first date at the ’70s San Francisco fern bar Henry Africa’s, the stunning half-Blackfoot model and Welnick decided to spend their lives together. Theirs would be a turbulent relationship. Guests at the Mexican vacation home overheard all-night battles. The Tubes once put the couple out of the tour bus on a Texas freeway because they wouldn’t stop fighting. People in the Dead crew remember Lori Welnick as a terrified flier. “She was a real contentious person,” said Tubes guitarist Spooner.
“They saw themselves as this epic romance,” said Michael Cotton of the Tubes, who interviewed the couple last year for a planned Tubes documentary.
Lori Welnick declined to make a statement about her husband’s death, although she did say one thing for the record. “You say one foul thing about me,” she said, “and you’ll regret it the rest of your life. I have been nothing but good to the only man I ever loved. And you can put that in the newspaper.”
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 (Mydland, his predecessor, was still known as “the new guy” 11 years after he joined the band). 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. Tubes drummer Prairie Prince found him depressed and miserable in early 1996.
“He was moping around,” Prince said. “I took it on myself to bring him around.”
Prince and Welnick went into Cotati’s Prairie Sun Studios to work on one of Welnick’s new original songs, “True Blue,” about friends who stayed the course and others left behind. The sessions evolved into the Missing Man Formation, a band that featured Dead acolytes Steve Kimock on guitar and Bobby Vega on bass. The band made its debut in July 1996 at the Fillmore Auditorium before a packed house of Deadheads. Before long, Kimock and Vega were gone and Prince and Welnick, friends since Phoenix, had a falling out. All were replaced by a new set of musicians.
“We lost touch with each other,” Prince admitted. “It wasn’t a really pretty scene when we broke up. I distanced myself a little bit from Vince and Lori.”
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. He did play a summer 2000 tour with the Mickey Hart Band on the condition that his wife stay home. “He never went crazy on my watch,” Hart said.
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.”
Welnick was reduced to playing as special guest with Dead cover bands such as Gent Treadly, Jack Straw or Cubensis, performing for small crowds at holes-in-the-wall where he was sometimes paid with bad checks. “He hated it,” Lawson said. “He was miserable because it was embarrassing.”
He attended the annual board of governors’ awards dinner of the local National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences chapter last year, at the insistence of friends. Hart was there as well. “Should I go over to him?” he said to his booking agent, Linda Yelnick, who watched as Welnick walked across the room, shook hands with his former bandmate and returned.
“It probably lasted all of 10 seconds,” she said. “I felt bad. I tried.”
When members of the Dead and their extended family gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Garcia’s death in September at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, Welnick again found himself excluded. “If he came out onstage to play,” said Weir, who served as music director for the event, “I don’t know how we would have got him off. He was unstable.”
The Dead bought out his interest in the band and he reclaimed what little music he wrote with the band from its publishing company. He and his wife lived on a 10-acre parcel of land with a small three-bedroom home worth less than a million dollars, according to Web sources, in Sonoma County. He kept a prized Bösendorfer grand piano in his music studio and a couple dozen cats wandered the place. The couple’s home was covered with memorabilia from his days with the Dead, but contained little or nothing from his much longer stint with the Tubes.
The Tubes, in fact, had been planning a full-scale reunion and Welnick was enthusiastic about it, according to his former bandmates. He played in the band’s impromptu Santa Cruz reunion last year.
But getting back together with the Tubes wasn’t enough. He still brooded over the fate of the Grateful Dead. He was convinced that his suicide attempt on the RatDog bus was the only thing that kept his former bandmates from bringing him back. The phone calls to band management began again. As recently as a week before he died, he posted a note on his Web site about his continued hopes for a reunion, saying he had discussed the issue with band management.
“Here and now,” Welnick wrote, “I want to appeal to the other members of GD to come together for such a worthy cause. Hope you all will pass the message onto the rest of the guys. More then ever, the world needs love and the Gratefuldead!”
According to friends and band insiders who spoke with family members, Welnick woke the morning of June 2 and told his father-in-law, who was staying at the house, that he had slept well. A little later, when his wife found a prohibited bottle of liquor, she went looking for him. She spotted him in the backyard climbing the hill and called his name. He turned and cut his throat. His shirt turned red, she told friends. She tried to stop the bleeding, but he told her to let him go. He also reportedly resisted recovery efforts by his sister-in-law, who was also staying at the house.
An ambulance was summoned at 9:30 a.m. by the Sonoma County sheriff’s dispatcher. Welnick was still alive when it arrived. An hour later, he was pronounced dead at the emergency room of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, according to the Sonoma County coroner’s office.
Friends say Lori Welnick initially directed her rage at the Grateful Dead. Weir brought his family to visit. “When I was with her, it was different,” he said. “Someone in that state of grief can be reaching for reasons that may or may not exist. She was in that kind of pain.”
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.”