Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: January 10, 1978 (Listen Now)

I’ll get a new start, live the life I should.

By The Deadhead Cyclist

For Week


Our essential human nature as storytellers typically involves one coin with two sides to select from. On the “tails” side are the scenarios we must beware of for their harmful potential: those that are tainted with negative judgments and deceptions that infect our beliefs in ways that can lead us to act wrongfully. Fortunately, on the “heads” side is a clean slate upon which we can write inspirational stories that can shepherd us in the direction of our highest selves. Choosing wisely on which side to stake your claim is a critical key to success.

Turning the calendar from December to January represents a unique opportunity to take stock of ourselves and to write a new, better chapter on that clean slate. It is common, almost automatic, to identify the stroke of midnight on December 31 as a moment of transformation; a line of demarcation that separates the parts of ourselves that we wish to leave behind from the vision we have for our future. 

If only it were that simple.

The idea that a new year in and of itself will result in significant change is an illusion. January 1st is, in reality, a random date to which we’ve assigned significance. Yet, New Year’s resolutions aside, every year when we wake up on January 1st we find the same suitcase of issues we packed the night before waiting for us at the foot of the bed. Changing the final digit of the year does not result in a lightening of the weight of the bag, but the dawn of a new year might inspire a new set of intentions that take form in the new possibilities we envision for ourselves. Whether at the beginning of a year or at any other time of our choosing, this dynamic can be powerful in its transformational capacity. Change can come about, but only through our authorship. 

Among the many stories told in Grateful Dead songs, I can think of none more relevant – or more poignant – than the one depicted in the verses of Wharf Rat, which appears late in the second set of my pick for T.W.I.G.D.H., 1/10/78 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, CA

The protagonist of the story, August West, has no shortage of reasons to tell a tale of woe about his miserable life. We learn that he is old, “blind and dirty,” and all indications suggest that he is homeless. He is a penniless beggar who nobody’s ever believed in, who’s become an alcoholic. Perhaps most telling is his narrative that he’s spent half of his life “doin’ time for some other fucker’s crime.”

Who among us has not felt the sting of injustice that comes from wrongful accusations of which we are innocent? Virtually every one of us has had a parent, sibling, employer, teacher, lover, business partner, or casual acquaintance who has treated us unfairly, trying to lock a ball and chain around our leg. If we take that part of the Wharf Rat story as metaphoric, perhaps the entire August West character can be interpreted as the worst story we could possibly tell ourselves about our lives when things just aren’t going our way.

We can’t change our life and become the man or woman we are capable of being unless we shed the prison of victimhood, take responsibility for our life, and stop blaming “some other fucker” for what’s gone wrong.

There’s an August West in each of us who has felt like a victim, and consequently there’s an overwhelming temptation to create a story in which our victimhood is the central plot, thereby providing an alibi for what isn’t working in our life. If we’re suffering (“doing time”) through no fault of our own (“some other fucker’s crime”), we never have to take responsibility. It’s a perfect story! Understand this, though: That story is written on the wrong side of the coin, and can only lead to more suffering. 

But just as every coin has two sides, each individual has two sides, and for August West the moment of reckoning has arrived. Our hero is about to take responsibility for his life and has begun to write a new story. Understanding that the only key that could ever unlock the shackles of victimhood lies in his belief in himself, August West is now ready to discard the hand he is holding, “get a new start,” and “live the life” of his own choosing. In the person of August West, Wharf Rat represents both the depths of despair and the pinnacle of hope. Every soul has access to both versions of August West – the one ruled by the injustices that have been visited upon us by others, and the one in which our life is defined by the way in which we overcome those injustices.

Among all of the “Lightbulb” jokes I have heard, one has always been my favorite:

How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

But wanting to change – even really wanting to change – isn’t enough. The missing ingredient is commitment, and in order for our tale to have a happy ending we must believe in and be true to ourselves. Whether August West succeeds in this is never told, but there’s a clue in the second verse in the name of Pearly Baker. Clearly, this is a reference to Purley Albert Baker (1858-1924), a Methodist minister and abolitionist who served as the head of the Ohio Anti-Saloon League. In a tale rife with symbolism, it appears that “Pearly Baker” represents August West’s ultimate devotion, not to a female object of his affection, but to himself, above all else, including his wine. In the beginning of the story “Pearly” believed those who said August would “come to no good,” but by the end of the story “she” had become true to him, suggesting that August West had learned to believe in and be true to himself.

In this pivotal moment of the story, August West declares his commitment – “I’ll get a new start, live the life I should” – and presents the prescribed action in dramatic terms:

I’ll get up and fly away.

This simple phrase covers both sides of the coin: letting go of the false, self-limiting narrative, and embracing a truer, more expansive one. 

There’s a powerful lesson in this story: We all have a desire to be the architect of our own life. And each of us grapples with what’s gone amiss along the way. We can only change our life and become our best self when we shed the prison of victimhood, take responsibility for our life, and stop blaming “some other fucker” for what’s gone wrong. If you’re truly committed to living the life of your deepest desires, be devoted to yourself above all else, and write a story that you can be true to, “true to your dying day.”

Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: January 10, 1978 (Listen Now)

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