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 never considered this song in the context of Hunter and Garcia's relationship.
Now I will likely always looks at them as the characters of this tragedy.
Like a Twilight Zone episode where a young Jerry gets wrongfully accused and thrown in jail for half a life time.
Then there would have been no composer to set Hunter's words to music...no resulting fame and fortune to which both were blessed...just a sad twist of fate.
it makes me shudder.
Sorry to say it took me a while to develop an appreciation for this song.
I found it long and monotonous and heavy.
The title Warf Rat is so UnAttractive and the tale is one of misery.
Yet I have come to love it more and more.
The opposite of a Pop song that is terrific at first and then grows old and tiresome.
Warf Rat keeps getting better and better with each listen; both lyrically and musically.
I especially love the middle where the band summons a renewed determination to break out of the miserable state they are in and fly away to the better place where Pearly waits -faithful and true.
Then we are left to wonder if the success was ever achieved..but there is a bit of added enthusiasm as the song comes to a close with two sorry bums with no money and no place to go.
I have to think the black slaves who had a dream of making their way to Purley Baker's Abolition Lane would feel the same sense of dispair mixed with encoragement to keep on keeping on in hope of a dramatic reversal of fortune.
An Epic Tale of finding the way to Pearly's Place.
Thank you for another great story. The story about Augustus West and Alexander Beatty is one of the coolest stories Ive heard in a while. Stick it to the man! One show at a time...of course.
From my perspective, Mission In The Rain is "part 2" of this wonderful, bleak, depressing tale from Robert & Jerry. From the first time I heard Wharf Rat when Skullfuck was released, I was riveted by the story and multiple narratives by the two characters. To this day, I consider it one of the finest Hunter-Garcia creations. For me Mission In The Rain is told from the narrative of either August West or the 2nd character in WR. The notion of wearily trudging the rainy, cold streets of the Mission District, reminds me of the
"...Wandered downtown, nowhere to go just to hang around..." line in WR.
In Mission the verse:
I must turn down your offer
but I'd like to ask a break
You know I'm ready to give everything
for anything I take
to me is directly related to the WR lines:
asked me for a dime--
dime for a cup of coffee
I got no dime but
I got time to hear his story
I get the same emotional, raw, empathetic picture of loneliness and down-and-out drudgery in both and have often listened to these as a pair. Both songs bring a human dimension to the face of homelessness and those living on the streets.
David, thank you for Greatest Stories - what a wonderful way to explore, share, and think about the complexities of the bands music and the prolific words of Hunter and Barlow. Now that I FINALLY can log on to the site I can contribute! :-)
I've always felt that Wharf Rat was one of the very best songs written by the Hunter-Garcia Tag Team. And the story of the collaboration was quite interesting, with Robert giving Jerry the song and Jerry G finishing his part that same day. Amazing. Don't know how long Robert worked on it, nor do I know how much and what Jerry added to it but it was a one day thing from what I've read.
It's such a heavy a personal story, one character to another character, full of despair, hope and contradiction. And it makes me wonder if the other song I mentioned in the title of this train of thought was supposed to be a 'part 2' of this one from another songwriting team in the band, intentional or not.
We can only hope for the best for the "August West"ies that we all know. We can only do so much for them to help themselves. We are the captains of our own ship. Ultimately it's up to ourselves as individuals to make the first step and live one day at a time.
And now I'll get up and fly away. To bed for a good night's sleep.
Tomorrow's another day.
"Some other fucker" who committed the crime August did time for might also be his own past self, or could surely have been himself one and the same and he's just absolving himself of it, or smearing it away from him, by saying that.
The song's all ambiguity, sure, except August's description, the facts of the encounter, and the given circumstances of these fellows ("nowhere to go but just to hang around," and so on). But there's no evidence in the song, is there, that Pearly hasn't been true to August, in some manner, if only internal to him. There's such strength to that, in the lyric, that "you know, listening" differently, cannot negate.
I named my adopted cat August back in 1994 and he just turned 20. His kidneys have been failing for a couple years, possibly from the burgundy wine, but I give him fluid injections every other day and he is still a happy camper and full of life. He probably thinks he'll get back on his feet again some day, but he's already there. The song has given me a lot and my buddy Gus has given me more.
I started going to see the Boyz again after my crash and restoration to sanity in 1980 I was delighted to find out about the Yellow Balloons and the WR community. Made the next years so much better. Still goes along at Furthur gigs. Never had a problem with the break noise myself. This song has a special place in my head and heart. Best to Cosmic Charlie all the folks who meet at Holy Innocents in SF on Thursday nights. Happy to be here now and there then.
I always love to hear this song. And my girlfriend's name is "Bonnie Lee", so even better!
I had heard Wharf Rat performed a few times live by the Grateful Dead, but the words never came into as clear a focus as they did when I heard Robert Hunter perform the song at a small club in NYC (I'm pretty sure it was The Other End). I hung on every word, following the tale of these two characters that didn't know how much alike they really were. The story just unfolded as it never had before for me. Hunter has done this for me on a few of his and Jerry's tunes over the years, but his performance of Wharf Rat was indeed an epiphany, and the song was (for me) no longer just another mellow tune coming out of Space.
when i heard it shortly thereafter on S&R, it was an instant favorite.
I'll get up and fly away