Friday, June 28, 2013

Kind Tune of the Moment

Wharf Rat, Grateful Dead

Every Deadhead has their favorite big Jerry ballad, and there are many great choices. The cosmic face-melting and anguished cries of Stella Blue. The psychedelic guitar-shredding of Morning Dew. The cathartic howl of Standing on the Moon. The country death-bed lament of Black Peter. The list goes on. And in the last few years of the Dead, when Jerry and the band were really struggling, you could always count on the post-space Jerry ballad to deliver the goods. Those were the highlights of the shows that I saw, including an otherwise terrible show on 7/8/1995 in which Jerry brought down the house with a stunning Visions of Johanna. I didn't attend the next show, but the So Many Roads played that night has since been released on the Dead's box set of the same name, So Many Roads. Those shows of course would turn out to be the last for the Grateful Dead, and the last time we would hear those bittersweet notes and that emotive howl. 

Allow me to make the case for Wharf Rat as the greatest of all the aforementioned ballads. Excerpted from a piece I wrote some time ago:

Of all the Jerry ballads, in my mind this one takes the cake. The music is so well composed, beautiful, almost Dark Star-esque in some passages, and intensely dramatic and powerful in others. The story, and the verses, mirror the music. This is almost a ballad version of A Day in the Life, like two songs mashed together, but intensely related. Two different narrators, telling different stories, yet a profound moment of empathy. The centerpiece of the song being the gospel bridge, with perfect church keyboard accompaniment by Keith, breaking it down for the vocal climax:

But I'll get back 
on my feet someday 
The good Lord willing 
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

The song finishes off with a jam that finds the band scaling the walls of heaven, busting down the pearly gates.  Dig it!

On this date 22 years ago, the Grateful Dead performed a version of Wharf Rat, which seamlessly drifts in and out of Dark Star for a few minutes. I've always thought these two were cut from the same musical cloth. Dark Star more abstract and otherworldly. Wharf Rat harnessing the psychedelia into an archetypal tale. Check it out for yourself:

When first performed, it was flipped from the version above, appearing in the middle of a Dark Star sandwich. A Dark Star birth, as foretold by the prophets: "He will be the one to lead us to the Promised Land." (A letter from Hunter to the Deadheads, Ch. 1, v. 1).