The Band that holds under the weight of time
Throughout my high school years I used to walk to Brighton High in Adelaide’s beach suburbs with my mate Andy Durant. Andy and I liked walking because we could smoke a ciggie or two and talk about music.
Andy went on to become, all too briefly, one of Australia’s most promising song-writers, penning tunes for a South Australian band, Stars, until cancer took him at the ridiculously young age of 25. There was a brilliant memorial concert for Andy in Melbourne featuring a stellar line up including Richard Clapton, Broderick Smith, Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss, Glyn Mason … you get the idea.
Among Andy’s enduring legacy was helping a young kid who came from a home without much music discover the delights of rock, blues, folk and country songs.
Andy had an older sister who was in a very folkie vocal group – she had a stunning voice – and she would get access to the latest LPs from the United States, including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Paul Siebel and Tom Rush.
But it was one day in 1968 that I was exposed to something that caused my jaw to drop in wonder. Andy said there was a record by the group that backed Dylan, simply known as The Band, and I should wrap my ears around it.
We sat in the back room and listened as Jamie Robbie Robertson’s deliberately slow paced guitar was fed through some black box (at the time we didn’t know about this contraption built by keyboardist Garth Hudson to give the instrument a back porch quality). Soon there was Hudson’s organ on top of it and Levon Helm’s organically swampy tom tom drums. It was not at all like anything else we’d heard – certainly not like British pop-rock or blues and nothing like the emerging American rock sound.
However, nothing prepared us for track five, The Weight. It was a genuine revelation - a moment that captured the time and felt like we were hearing someone who saw the world just as we did.
Every time I listen to The Weight I remember times I’ve heard it before, places and people including that first time with Andy.
It wasn’t a song that you could understand at first listening. It’s the story of a man going to Nazareth – not, as we found out later, the Biblical town but the home of the Martin guitar – “feeling ‘bout half past dead”. This was up there with the great, arresting openings of any song. Where is this going, you thought.
It soon becomes clear that the story is as old as song writing and poetry. The searcher is on a quest, even if we don’t know who it is or what he’s after. He meets people along the way, the mysterious Miss Fannie who lays a burden on our hero – what it is, is almost irrelevant. We just know it’s a weight to carry that will guide the song’s central character for his remaining days.
When we get to the second verse we are given the big clue to this song:
“I picked up my bag, I went lookin’ for a place to hide;
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin’ side by side.
I said, ‘Hey, Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown.’
She said, ‘I gotta go, but m’friend can stick around.’”
When you see the Devil pop up in a bit of southern country blues your mind goes to one place. That spot is when Robert Johnson had his legendary encounter at the Crossroads – on the outskirts of Clarksdale, Mississippi where Highways 61 and 49 meet – with the Devil. Johnson, a boy with a guitar, sold his soul to the Devil in return for the ability to make timeless music of beauty and strength.
Robertson, who wrote the song, has managed to weave the classic searching ethos of American music with the mystery of trading with the Devil and getting by.
By the last stanza we are left with the pleasure of a story well told but the wonder of what it all meant, although relieved by the hint of redemption:
“Catch a Cannonball, now, t’take me down the line
My bag is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time.
To get back to Miss Annie, you know she’s the only one.
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone.”
Throughout this brilliant story, this group of musicians – Robertson on guitar, with Helm and Hudson as well as Rick Danko on bass and Richard Manuel on piano – chug their way across the history of America, told and untold. It’s rollicking hills music with the blues of the dirt streets of country towns and the gluey gump of the bayou.
And there was the swapping vocal - Helm takes the first three verses before Danko takes over for the fourth and they both jump in for the last stanza. They harmonise on the chorus with Manuel who also adds that ethereal falsetto fade at the end.
As a youngster I wondered how and why Helm would push the beat along in regular time and then drop it, only to pick it up again halfway through the next line. “That’s called syncopation,” Andy told me, recommending I listen to some modern jazz to find some more. I did.
The Weight stands as one of the greatest songs of the ages, as timeless as it is breath-taking. I only found out years later, when reading Rob Bowman’s brilliant history of The Band, that Robertson wanted to create a song in the style and mode of a Luis Bunuel film.
“He did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood,” Robertson told Bowman, adding the song was about people trying to do good in situations where it was impossible to do good.
Robertson says that as the narrative rolls along, the central character thinks “Holy shit, what has this turned into? I’ve only come here to say ‘hello’ for somebody and I’ve got myself in this incredible predicament.”
The Band hasn’t played as originally assembled since they performed The Last Waltz in 1976 but their music, particularly songs like The Weight, will never die.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…