Saturday, July 5, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 186): "THE WEIGHT" (1968) The Band

Manuel, Hudson, Helm, Robertson, Danko
Today’s birthday boy is Robbie Robertson (71), guitarist and chief songwriter for The Band. He’s done lots of other things since The Band first disbanded in 1976, but that’s what he’s on here for. And today’s song is one of the great staples of late Sixties music, a progenitor of much “roots rock,” a mainstay wherever folk-based tunes are prized. Folk tinged with gospel, bluegrass, rockabilly. The Band had their fingers in every pie—organist Garth Hudson could even get classical—and Robertson’s songwriting took wing from the legendary time spent with Bob Dylan hanging out in a couple houses in the vicinity of Woodstock, NY. The songs Dylan cooked up then, with his buddies from The Band, have gone on to be prized as a window into what rock critic Greil Marcus calls “Old Weird America,” but even if you aren’t so concerned with the predecessors of what Dylan and The Band came up with, you should see how essential that music is for much of what goes by the name of “indie.”

This song is The Band at their best, on their landmark first LP, Music from Big Pink—the interplay of the musicians and the way their voices work together, especially in the singing and drumming of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel’s harmonizing and piano playing, sets the standard for what musical camaraderie should sound like.

In writing “The Weight,” Robertson was truly inspired. It’s a strange little tale, an odd slice of Americana that gets just right the fortuitous, the random, the seemingly fated, the cryptic, the occasional, and the colorful. A guy hits town—a town called Nazareth—and has a series of encounters. When he’s had enough, he tells us he’s leaving. You might think of Dylan’s own “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” where a guy, “lost in the rain in Juarez,” gets increasingly strung out, then says, in closing, “I’m going back to New York City.” Here, the “going back” is to Miss Fanny, and the big reveal is that she “sent me here with her regards for everyone” in the first place. And that parting line, at the end of the last verse, gives new weight (heh) and meaning to the chorus: “Take a load off, Fanny / Take a load for free / Take a load off Fanny / And you put the load right on me.”

Now, how you write and say that changes—and the chorus gets sung different ways—but I take it as, initially, saying to Fanny: take a load off (relax), take it easy; then switches to say, “Take a load off, Fanny, and you put the load right on me”—which says that he’s carrying her load for her. When we learn that she sent him with her regards, that purpose comes to seem the “load.”  The Weight, then, is the task, the obligation, the burden of having to go and visit in her stead. But the line at the end also acts as a “hail and farewell”—I’m going, but y’all got my regards.

If that’s not enough—the arrival and the departure in the same song—to fix your attention, mull it over as an aspect of the tune itself which is bright and optimistic. It feels like it wouldn’t ever speak ill of anyone, and doesn’t quite. But as verse after verse piles up—five in all—we feel how the strain increases so that the “load” of Fanny becomes, in part, retaining some of that warmth and regard without turning bitter. And there’s a nice stress—particularly Rick Danko’s backing vocal—on “Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one” who sent regards to this god-forsaken town. It’s the situation of the traveler who, in a new place, will talk dirt about the people he encountered in the last place. That’s not to say that this place is going to be visited with fire and brimstone, or that its inhabitants should don sackcloth and ashes, but it is in keeping with the question in the Gospel of John: “Can anything good come from (or out of) Nazareth?”

The answer to that question in the Bible is: yes. Jesus “comes from” or “comes out” of Nazareth. He may have been born there; in any case he seems to have been raised there, where, it seems his mother Mary was also raised. Indeed, the names of one of the gospellers—Luke—as well as Moses (Miss Moses) appear in “The Weight,” almost as cameos for the rich tradition behind Nazareth and Jesus. The question becomes then: are the people depicted in Nazareth Christian in their behavior? Nazareth is the place darkly thought of in the phrase, applied to Jesus: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own home”—indicating that JC’s hometown refused to believe he was all that. With that in mind we can see why our traveler’s reception in Nazareth leaves so much to be desired.

First, he arrives, “feeling about half past dead” (a great phrase) and only wants to find a bed (or “a place to lay my head”—which flirts with a tomb); he addresses some passer-by with his request and gets a simple “'No,' was all he said.” The guy can’t offer a place nor direct him to a place. It’s a flat rebuff. Not exactly neighborly.

Next, he sees someone he recognizes—Carmen—and invites her to go “down town” (a phrase that here seems to mean, let’s “go to town” and have some fun, but which can also mean, “let’s go to the police station,” in which case (possibly either case) Carmen can be taken to be a prostitute, particularly as she’s accompanied by “the devil.” Carmen demurs saying she’s got to go, “but my friend can stick around.” A way of saying that the only invitation our traveler meets with is temptation, or to hang out with the devil. Niiiiiice. (“Carmen” as in the novel and the opera derived from it refers to a Gypsy or Romani woman of ill-repute and perhaps occult associations.)

The next verse gives us “Go down, Miss Moses, there ain’t nothin’ you can say”—an allusion to “Go Down, Moses,” a spiritual that links the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt with the eventual freeing of blacks from slavery in the U.S.—and “It’s just old Luke, and Luke’s waiting on the Judgement Day.” The lines can be inferred to suggest that our hero is feeling like he’s needing an Exodus from this cursed place and, like Luke, he wouldn’t be averse to seeing God wreak some vengeance there. But—before we go about ending the world and this whole cursed farce—“what about young Anna Lee?” Don’t go yet, Luke implores, asking a favor, “stay and keep Anna Lee company.” At this point we might say that we’ve found the saving grace of Nazareth, Anna Lee. Leastways, it seems that one thing that might be worth sticking around for—and someone who shouldn’t meet the damnation assumed in the Judgment—is Anna Lee. (Robertson has said he picked up some of the details of the song on a visit to Levon Helm’s hometown in Arkansas, and claims some of the characters—like Anna Lee—are from Helm’s past.)

Then we get “Crazy Chester” in the verse memorably sung, with his best shaky tremble, by Rick Danko. Chester follows the speaker and “caught me in the fog.” He says he can offer him a solution (“fix your rack”) in exchange for taking care of “Jack, my dog.” Somewhat incongruously, it seems, the speaker says “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.” Chester says “That’s OK, boy, will you feed him when you can?” This verse is perhaps the most cryptic as there is no clear reason for the speaker to respond with the “peaceful man” line, generally used when someone has been insulted or when an implication that one will take violent offense is present. Taking the dog could be a figure for something unpleasant—animal behavior, violence, greed, lust—so that taking on the burden of the dog may be a further figure for temptation. Indeed, it’s not too hard to see that lust is the main temptation that has beset the speaker in Nazareth—with Carmen and the devil, with Anna Lee (perhaps keeping her “company” isn’t as wholesome as it may have seemed), and now with the dog that must be fed. It’s even possible to see this taking of the dog as having a homosexual implication, a come on that a stranger to town might meet with, in certain quarters.

So now a picture begins to emerge of Nazareth as rather “godless”—a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah perhaps. But what about the speaker—is he blameless? To me, the issue has always been one of “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Sure, you can condemn Nazareth—you out-of-towner, you—but it’s all in your own eye. The devil, the Judgment Day, the dog—in each case a favor is asked or implied and refused (only in the Anna Lee verse is no definite answer given), all which might suggest that our speaker is refusing favors because of the initial rebuff he met with. But what if that rebuff was due to the fact that our hero is a bit unwholesome himself?

Time to get back to Miss Fanny—who, for some reason, if only because of the singalong uplift of that great chorus, we assume to be a decent person—letting us know that she asked him to go there with her regards. Even that might be a way of saying that this was their last chance to show their true natures, the folks of Nazareth. But it could also be that Miss Fanny expected him to fit in somewhere. Has he passed or failed “the Nazareth test”?

It all comes down, in the end, to the burden of “the weight.” Which we might say, in Sartrean fashion, is other people. You come to town, you join up with some group, you find yourself among a population somewhere on this earth: do you make nice or do you rebuff; do you accept whatever is offered; do you do favors; ask favor; share; trade; exchange? Do you trust? Do you help? Do you blame? Do you leave or stay?

That, my friends, is the weight.

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