Day 81: Wharf Rat, 11/14/71

Grateful Dead Road Trips 3.2 album cover artwork

Wharf Rat is the tale of down and out sot. I assume that the song’s protagonist is a parent. In my 2+ years of being a parent I’m convinced that the genesis of alcohol consumption is in some way tied to children, especially those in the 2-4 year range. At the end of most days you feel like you need a drink or two, and at the same time you always tell yourself that things will improve, even if you can’t see the finish line yet. That said, the vibe of Wharf Rat fits as either a good song to start the day because it functions as the calm before the storm, or at the end of the day where it’s generally laid back delivery helps to soothe the psychic abuse one takes during the day.

While we’re on the subject of youth, at this point Wharf Rat was still new to the Dead’s catalog (this is performance 20 of 395). Clearly I’m drawn to protean versions of songs as I find it fascinating how they evolved and changed over the years.

I will add that I’ve always liked Wharf Rat but it never seems to be one of those songs that jumps out at me from a show. If someone asked me what my favorite Wharf Rat was I wouldn’t have a default answer, and that’s a bit surprising to me. Not that I have a favorite version of EVERY Dead song in my mental rolodex, but rather this is one of those songs that it would seem like folks might have a list for.

Suggestions for other great versions? I’m always game. Leave them in the comments.

(Note: If you’re looking to procure a copy, this track was on the bonus disc for this Road Trips release.)

As per usual, Wharf Rat starts out kind of slow and lazy. No one is in a rush here. The guitars sound full and Phil’s bass is fat and warm. Jerry starts to spin a tale of a down-on-his-luck sot. Bobby contributes a lot of nice runs and Phil’s fills are poignant and well-placed.

The bridge brings the song way down. The whole enterprise just seems very frail and fragile, not unlike the psyche of the song’s protagonist.

As we get up and fly away, so too does the pace and vibe of the song. Once we learn that Pearly has been true the jam starts, but not before a slight Phil bomb. Jerry is mixed a bit low, but plays with a twang that just seems appropriate for this Texas show. When in Rome indeed….

Keith, who seems to have been buried in the mix or just laying back for much of the song starts to emerge a bit in the jam section, which is nice to hear. This is especially true right before the 9 minute mark. The song winds down with a few accents from Phil before seguing into Sugar Magnolia.

Complete Setlist 11/14/71

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  1. Lunchbox,

    Wharf Rat, for me, is one of those great songs from the dead that in many ways is a good one, but not one that often gets me to excited. However, with that said, my revisit or reintroduction to the band was this song. It just seemed to be the right song at the right time for the mood of the moment.
    My favorite is the version from To Terrapin in 77. Just reread an article today from the NY Times article about the 77 Box release from last year. Interesting that they quote a band hand being blown away with that Hartford version. He mentioned how he was so impressed with the tightness and professionalism of the band at that point, while still being able to able to tap into the creative rawness that was present from the early years.
    That version did the same for me as it went places that were far beyond my expectations of the band. Again, not being that into the band at that point, it had me searching for stuff I never realized was being produced.

  2. Wharf Rat is one of my favorites and IMO it is Robert Hunter’s best work, and that’s saying a lot.

    Without question, my favorite version of this song is from Boston Garden 5-7-77. The drum build up around the 5:33 mark is dramatic and the band nails their reentry seconds later as well as in any rendition I’ve heard. (The Half Step from that same show ranks as my favorite version as well.)

    I always thought it was odd that the term wharf rat never appears in the song. Apparently Hunter’s original opening line was, “Wharf rat down,” and Jerry, for whatever reason, chose to sing, “Old man down.”

    I think it was Blair Jackson who wrote some interesting things about Hunter’s effort on this one. The listener can’t hear any quotation marks, obviously, but is still able to tell who is telling what part of the story as it changes from the narrator to August West and back to the narrator again. Bob Dylan tried to do something like this on Tangled Up in Blue but I think most listeners didn’t realize it until he disclosed that the song was about three people, not two. I still like my original interpretation of that song better that his (Dylan’s).

    Joe, maybe I’ll give To Terrapin another listen this weekend after reading your post, it’s been awhile.

  3. Thanks for the comments gentlemen. Good stuff all around. I’ll definitely have to give the 5/28/77 Wharf Rat a listen as well.

    Mike – I’d never thought too deeply about Tangled Up In Blue, but I may have to re-assess that one now.

  4. Mike,
    Thanks for your heads up on the Boston 77 version in a while, but do remember it being a larger (if that’s the right word) version than most I’ve heard. Wife’s outa town for the week, so I do get a chance to fire up the big speakers tonight with the old Garden show first on tap. Love that show and laugh every time with the technical, tuning and hammering repairs that popped up so often. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Without much ado, Jerry begins the story of August West, a fictional wino on the docks of San Francisco. The verses are sung with full meaning and the band nails all of the dynamics. The quiet middle section finds the players each inserting only the most minimal parts as Garcia emotes heavily. He stumbles on a word and never looks back, just lost in the delivery. It’s a really good version! Once the stomping beat returns, it gets even better. Pearly is extolled as a faithful partner and the subtext is deep with doubt about that. The band noisily adds a coda to this thought that is progressively turned by Bob Weir toward another musical key. He stops that pressure and the jam bleeds down to a quieter space. Weir strikes the A-chord a couple of times suggestively as the heat cools, toying with the idea. Then he goes ahead and does it. And by “it” I mean he plays the unmistakable intro to “Sugar Magnolia”.

    • Dave has said that 5/19/74 has been a candidate for release for a while. I hope it comes out sooner rather than later. That’s an amazing show. David Gans did a guest post on the back end of the second set from that show here.

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