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The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat”

Photo: Mary Ann Mayer via Grateful Dead Facebook

“Wharf Rat” is one of the darker, more introspective numbers in the Grateful Dead songbook. While never given a full studio treatment, the song was introduced to the band’s live set on February 18th, 1971, relatively early in their career.

That night it was played in the first set, nestled right in the middle of “Dark Star.” From then on it was played between 10 and 30 times a year right up through the end in July of 1995. Today it is regarded as a staple in the Dead’s extensive catalogue.

Mostly played in the second set, rising from of the peaks of a jam or the depths of space, “Wharf Rat” often comes at a critical moment during a show, bringing a needed dose of self-reflection to the setlist.

With lyrics penned by Robert Hunter and music by Jerry Garcia, the song depicts a lost and drunken sailor who wanders the docks of the city, searching for courage and a new beginning.

“Wharf Rat” resonated with so many Deadheads who struggled with their own sobriety that they in the early 1980s they formed a group called the Wharf Rats, whose focus is enjoying the music without the influence of drugs or alcohol.

While the Wharf Rats certainly started in the Dead scene, the idea has since spread to other areas of the jam and general live-music-loving community under different names.

If you’re at a show and you want to find them, simply look for the yellow balloons flying high above the crowd.

For Phish, they’re called The Phellowship, for Widespread Panic The Gateway, The Jellyfish for The String Cheese Incident, Much Obliged for Umphrey’s McGee, Happy Hour Heroes for moe., the Digital Buddhas for The Disco Biscuits, Better Than Before for The Werks, The Hot Tea Party for Goose, and the Sunny Bunny Recovery for Ween.

Each of these groups offer sober support at concerts, and many of them even host a twelve step style sobriety meeting during set break. However they are not officially affiliated with Narcotics Anonymous, AA, or any other twelve step program.

It’s clear that “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead has had an impact on the scene, and it all stems from the story being told in the lyrics.

“Wharf Rat” Lyrics Meaning

Let’s take a closer look and see what Hunter was up to with this one, starting with the first verse:

Old man down
Way down, down, down by the docks of the city
Blind and dirty
Asked me for a dime, a dime for a cup of coffee
I got no dime but I got some time to hear his story
My name is August West, and I love my Pearly Baker best more than my wine
More than my wine
More than my maker, though he’s no friend of mine

First verse to “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead.

In the opening lyrics, our narrator, encounters an old man while out wandering the city docks, who is soon revealed to be named August West. This man is blind and dirty, and asks for some money to buy a cup of coffee.

The narrator doesn’t have any money, either, but he does have plenty of time to chat.

August explains that he loves a woman named Pearly Baker, even more than he loves his wine. More than God, or his “maker”, too, though he concedes that he’s no friend of the father.

It has been suggested that the name Pearly Baker is a reference to Rev. Purley Baker, a leading figure in the era of Prohibition, who spearheaded the Anti-Saloon League of America.

Some have also suggested that August West is a representation of Jerry Garcia, considering that Garcia was born in August. However, Garcia was never known to be a drinker, and during the time that Hunter wrote “Wharf Rat”, Garcia had yet to develop a serious substance abuse problem.

“Althea”, on the other hand, may in fact be written about Jerry.

The drunkard’s story continues in the second verse:

Everyone said
I’d come to no good, I knew I would Pearly, believe them
Half of my life
I spent doin’ time for some other fucker’s crime
The other half found me stumbling ’round drunk on Burgundy wine

Second verse to “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead.

August says that everybody told him that he would never make anything good of himself, but he knew that he would, and he’s perhaps worried that Pearly believed what others were saying about him.

He then says that he spent half of his life locked up in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit, and the rest of his life he’s spent drunk and stumbling around.

It’s not clear whether he actually committed the crime that he speaks of, but there is the undercurrent of this August West being a good man who has made some poor choices in his life, and continues to do so.

In the third verse, August talks about how he hopes to turn it all around:

But I’ll get back on my feet again someday
The good Lord willin’
If He says I may
I know that the life I’m livin’s no good
I’ll get a new start, live the life I should
I’ll get up and fly away,
I’ll get up and fly away, fly away

Third verse to “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead.

August says that he’s determined to get back on his feet, as long as the Lord lets him. Remember from the first verse, however, when he said that he and the good Lord aren’t such good friends.

He acknowledges that he’s not living a good life, and he plans to get a new start, and live the life that he knows he should be living.

August wants to fly away, like an angel, from the life he’s living. This part may be a reference to the classic folk song “I’ll Fly Away”.

In the fourth verse, he talks about Pearly again:

Pearly’s been true
True to me, true to my dyin’ day he said
I said to him
I said to him, “I’m sure she’s been”
I said to him, “I’m sure she’s been true to you”

Fourth verse to “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead.

He knows that Pearly has been true to him, and she’ll always be true to him until the day he dies. The narrator offers comfort, sayin that he’s sure that Pearly has kept him in mind all these years.

Finally, in the final verse, our narrator parts ways with August, and continues on his merry way:

I got up and wandered
Wandered downtown, nowhere to go but just hang around
I’ve got a girl
Named Bonnie Lee, I know that girl’s been true to me
I know she’s been, I’m sure she’s been true to me

Fifth verse to “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead.

With nothing going on, the narrator figures he’ll head downtown and continue his wandering.

Much like August West, he also has a woman on his mind. Her name is Bonnie Lee, and he’s sure she’s been true to him, too.

This brings the story full circle, and suggests that the narrator is homeless and downtrodden just like August West, except he’s much younger and he hasn’t yet realized his predicament.

The message of “Wharf Rat” is touching, and suggests that it’s never too late or too soon to make positive changes in your life, despite what everybody tells you. Yourself included.

Enjoy a few of my favorite versions of “Wharf Rat” by the Grateful Dead below.

“Wharf Rat” (4/26/71)

“Wharf Rat” (12/31/78)

“Wharf Rat” (7/7/89)