Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Wharf Rat"
By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
“My name is August West…”
So begins the second verse of “Wharf Rat,” a song I have long considered to be a key song—one that helps to unlock the whole body of work Robert Hunter created along with Jerry Garcia.
The shape of the story told by the song is recursive—a sort of passing-of-the-torch for the down-and-out. The narrator whose voice frames the story is well on his way, from the sound of it, to being out there on the street, looking for spare change. In fact, he already doesn’t even have a dime; all he has is some time to listen. (Brings to mind the old saying, “I’m so poor, I can’t even pay attention!”)
Hunter and Garcia both had a certain amount of experience to draw on in writing and singing about being homeless, on at least semi-indigent, living in cars in their early years of first acquaintance, crashing where they could. The fact that Hunter has Garcia sing a song, one of whose characters is named August, seems possibly significant in light of Garcia’s birthday: he would have been 71 years old this week—born on August 1, 1942. There are other examples of songs in which Garcia sings lyrics, crafted by Hunter, which seem like personal cautionary tales: “Althea,” for example. So is this August West a character Garcia might have become had he not made other decisions?
“Wharf Rat” was first performed by the Dead on February 18, 1971, at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY. This is another of those shows that included a number of firsts: “Bertha,” “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Loser,” and “Playing In the Band.” This is the beginning of the songwriting period in which Hunter and Garcia collaborated on a series of great story songs set in an America peopled by outlaws, the down-and-out, and a range of more or less disreputable characters. The song was never given full studio treatment, although the version released on “Skull and Roses” did benefit from some studio enhancement, with Merl Saunders’s organ track overdubbed after the fact.
The song was an extremely solid member of the rotation, appearing nearly 400 times (393, according to DeadBase X), making its final appearance on June 25, 1995, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Back to the arc of the story. The song’s initial narrator seems to be a relatively young man who is wandering down by the docks of the city. He encounters a panhandler, August West, who then tells his story to the listening young man. August professes love for his “Pearly Baker,” apparently a girlfriend.
Two things here, both fascinating, both probably without any particular bearing on the song.
There were historical figures named August West and Purley Baker.
From an article about a historical plaque dedication in 2003 in Greenfield, Ohio:
In 1837 a runaway slave named Augustus West arrived in the Greenfield area and along with local farmer Alexander Beatty, authored a story that has become a part of both the area's and the nation's history. To raise money to purchase his own land, West and Beatty devised a scheme to travel back south, sell West back into slavery, help him escape and then split the profits. On at least three documented occasions the two employed this money making scam and their story became the basis for a 1971 Hollywood film, The Skin Game, starring James Gardner and Louis Gossett, Jr.
West used his profits to purchase land near the intersection of Bonner and Barrett Roads in Fayette County. Some distance from the road he built a "mansion" and the dirt road leading up to his front door became known as Abolition Lane.
In the years that followed, at least twelve cabins were constructed on West's land and these became temporary residences for other runaway slaves who needed a place to live and work as they stole their way further north to freedom.
Historically, Purley Baker was a man—the head of the Anti-Saloon League, which was an anti-drink temperance organization in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. This is one of those wonderful occurrences in Hunter’s lyrics of a name that carries a weight that might go completely unnoticed—who has heard, these days, of Purley Baker or his organization? It came to my attention thanks to a reader sending a contribution to The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics website. And I think someone sent me a photo once of a bar ironically named “Purley Baker’s.” Possibly in upstate New York. Anyone?
So, in this song, Pearly Baker becomes the idealized woman of August West’s dreams and of his past. He feels betrayed by all those who told him he would come to no good—Pearly believed them. (Italics Hunter’s.)
He spends his life drunk or in jail—doing time for the crime of someone else (either “some other fucker” or “some motherfucker,” not sure which—Garcia’s singing often sounds like the latter). But in the song’s amazing middle, one of the great Garcia bridges moves the time signature into waltz time, and August West avows that he will get back on his feet, if the good Lord wills it. (Though earlier, he had already stated bluntly that his maker was no friend of his—a key moment.) Moving back into march time, the music frames West singing what seems to be an extension of the bridge: “I’ll get up and fly away…”
In my book and on my website, I compared these lines to the song “I’ll Fly Away,” which I incorrectly identified as a folk song. In fact, it was written as a gospel song composed in 1929 by Albert Brumley. However, I do feel somewhat justified by my further reading about Brumley’s composition of the piece, since it, in turn, was inspired by an old ballad, “The Prisoner’s Song,” with this line: “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly.” The folk process is a wonderful thing.
Such a sad moment in the song—you know, listening, that August West will never get back on his feet again, much less fly away, and even less that Pearly has been true to him to his dying day. Does the narrator’s response: “I’m sure she’s been…” strike you as sincere? Is he being reassuring, or self-satisfiedly sarcastic?
Sad enough—but it gets worse.
Our initial narrator now returns to the song, getting up to wander around, with no particular place to go—just hanging around. And he, too, has a girl, and he, too, is sure that she has been true to him. So sure that he repeats himself. “I know she’s been, I’m sure she’s been true to me.”
The song always seemed to me to be partially aimed at the Deadheads. As a group, we were perhaps more in danger of falling victim to our addictions than mainstream society. And the fact that our own 12-Step group, of which I am a proud participant, calls itself the Wharf Rats, speaks volumes.
I never tire of this song. It makes room for some of Garcia’s most impassioned singing and soloing; the harmonies often soar; and the repeated suspended A chords beg for resolution that will never be granted.
So, it’s August, and today, August First, is Jerry Garcia’s birthday. Happy August. Happy birthday, Jerry!
I have had this song going through my head in recent days. I kept thinking "All of my life" was part of the lyrics but I didn't know what song it came from. Then this morning, Wharf Rat came on GD Radio, almost as if it was answering my question. Then I looked up the lyrics. The music is beautiful, and the lyrics are sad and powerful. There is additional power these days, given all the innocent people being released from prison and death row who were wrongfully convicted.
Wharf Rat is a feeling to me. Listened to it a hundred times a hundred years ago. Rainy miserable day yesterday and I took off work and played old music on you tube all afternoon. Played wharf rat first time in years. Decided to wikipedia the song for insight and stumbled upon your BRILLIANT literary analysis here. Well done. Bravo. Thanks. I actually logged in and got an account here just to send you this random note of thanks. Your remarkably intelligent post has inspired me and I wish you well
I a little less than a month shy of my 15th birthday and had been into the Dead in that fanatical and obsessive teenage way for about a year. My father, who had stopped seeing the band after seeing cops beating kids at an American University show in the early 70s (perhaps the free 9/30/72 show???) Anyway, when I asked him if I could go to the RFK show, he certainly knew better than to let me run amock with the heads, so he decided that he would accompany me to the show. We went with my step-brother and his girlfriend, (now wife of 15 + years -- the met in line for JGB tix!) both of whom had been on the bus for years. Walking in from the lot, my step-brother asks what I wanted to hear at my first Dead show... my response, which I had thought of for weeks leading up to this night, was immediate - "Wharf Rat" and "Ship of Fools." He chuckled, and said "Yea... good luck with that" (or something to that effect.) Both songs, second set, and a Shakedown opener! My dad got to hear Mama Tried, one of his all time favorite tunes, and today, he is not only on the bus again, but I think he may be driving some of the way! Anyway, not really about WR, but I know that it was one of the tunes that hooked me from the beginning, and I haven't looked back since!
I’ve always taken the line “spent doing time for some other f’ers crime” to mean that August was paying for his own poor youthful decisions. Decisions made by him, but a person he no longer is, hence the “other” and not that he spent time in jail as some kind of victim or martyr. And the thought that August is in fact Jerry in a life that could have been in the sense that “but for the grace of God there go I” is reinforced by the fact that Jerry drew a well known piece of art titled “August West” that is thought by many to be a kind of self portrait. It is well documented that Jerry reached out to those marginalized by society and actually seemed to be attracted to them. In any case this is a great song that I can listen to over and over.
Wow. Some great posts here. Thanks to all!
Pearly Baker's in Easton PA. The Bar often has LIVE music and great beers on tap. It's a Fun place with a nice atmosphere. Here's a little history from their website.
Built in 1869, 11 Centre Square, the building which houses Pearly Baker’s Ale House, has been a restaurant for nearly 70 years. Originally built as Easton’s first YMCA, the building was converted into a GE store in the early nineteen hundreds before opening as the Manhattan Club in the Forties. It was during this time that 9,000 hand-cut lead Czech crystals were fabricated by the Easton Lighting Company into the dining room chandelier. In the Eighties, Charlie’s Bar took over the building & operated until 1994, when Pearly Baker’s Ale House was established.
Reading your post has given me renewed energy.
Jack London was a brilliant writer, and his prose is quite evocative. But I believe Neil Young said it more succinctly – “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”.
I always wake early in this desert town of 20,000. Just this morning 5AM I have my first cup of coffee and step out into the cool pre-dawn air. So around to the front of the house I see yet another cold hobo asleep on the front porch. Two days ago in the drizzling rain I meet my friend Tom a Vietnam Vet, cheap vodka killing his pain. His nephew helps him to steady up. I offer Tom a ride to his Hogan but no he wants to sleep in his camp towards the edge of town. Decades of broken glass reflects broken treaties and broken lives. The halfway house closed down for two months now and over 70 homeless souls wander to other sources of food, drink and depression. Come winter it hits below zero on some nights. Exposure takes some to a cold end. I thank my lucky stars for my work, for a warm place to live. A few good breaks can help a man make a decent life for himself. One bad break or bum steer can ruin a person. So you may ask, what the hell does this have to do with Wharf Rat, Jerry sings with conviction and soul to heavens and cries out the warning to the bowels of hell.(Hells of our own making) I think of Jack London, born in Oakland, a street tough who lived as an oyster pirate in his youth. His spirit of survival and passion for life burned bright. We may conquer our demons or we may be consumed by them. And to quote Jack , "I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."- Jack London
Thanks for another very good post. I have really grown to appreciate these posts as they have given me a deeper appreciation for the songs. I have always been more attuned to the music with the lyrics in the background-- I can actually sing along with many songs (not just GD, but all artists), but don't pay much attention to the story arc behind them. So, many thanks for delving deep.
Wharf Rat has always been one that I followed, though. Great son with a great story line. Someone on one of Blair's blog posts awhile back wrote that of the many GD songs, he/she felt that Wharf Rat was the one that stayed most consistent over the years. Other songs went through various tempo and other changes, but Wharf Rat remained pretty consistent. I agreed with that assessment.
Anyways, thanks for bringing life to many of the Dead's songs.