Wednesday, April 25, 2012
It Ain't Heavy, It's "The Weight"
Levon Helm's passing last week has sent many a fan to YouTube to post their favorite version of the seminal classic by The Band: "The Weight". It's one of those songs that everyone wants to cover, because you (almost) can't go wrong with it. The folk parlor harmonies, the enigmatic lyrics, and that undeniable chorus have made the song irresistible to everyone from Aretha Franklin and Cassandra Wilson to Waylon Jennings and Joe Cocker.
Of course, while myriad cover versions do the song some sort of justice, it was always Levon's voice coming in on that very first line - "I pulled in to Nazareth, I was feelin' 'bout half past dead" that hooked you. A voice some say sounded aged in a whiskey barrel, smooth and knowing, assured us that the journey ahead was going to be an unforgettable one.
The four and a half minutes that followed were just that. A traveler wandering the streets of a town populated by offbeat characters who either cannot help him, or seek help from him. The ever-elusive 'load' heralded in the chorus. The inkling of Biblical allusions. Levon said the characters in the song are based on friends of The Band. Robbie Robertson who, right or wrong, gets writing credits for the composition, says the song was inspired - in part - by the work of filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
However, the reason "The Weight" works for me, at its highest level, is precisely because the writers (Plural. Let's be honest here, Robbie) were smart enough to give us as listeners room to impose our own meaning on this mythic journey. This song - perhaps more than any other - has kept me up nights wondering what the hell it meant, and imagining my own stories around the seeds planted within its verses. That's what great art does. It invites you in, but lets you fill in the gaps. It's why I like abstractionists and surrealists over guys like Monet and Rockwell. Great art has the capacity to mean one thing to its creator, and something else altogether to its audience. In fact, the more meanings the work can culminate, perhaps the greater testament.
For me, the song was a catalyst to a short story I wrote a few years ago called "Free Refills (50 Cents)" about a philosophy professor who sits in a diner, contemplating his stubborn agnosticism and the futility of life. He looks to the waitress that night for a single act of kindness, something to make salvation seem somehow tangible. He receives it only to realize that's still not enough. His last act is to leave his car keys on the table as a tip for the financially strapped woman, as he walks onto the freeway. "You put the load right on me", indeed.
My interpretation may never win a Pulitzer, but the fact that thirty fledgling artists could listen to "The Weight" and come away with thirty different manifestations of what the song might mean - on the canvas, on the page, in dance, in a monologue or short film - speaks to what a seemingly simple song can do. Miles Davis once lamented lyrics because they told you what to think. "The Weight" doesn't do that. It just opens the bottle, and lets you decide whether there's whiskey, a note for help, or maybe a genie inside.
Levon Helm has been rightly praised this past week for the unforgettable high husk of his voice, his influential drumming style, and his role as the backbone of a band that influenced scores of contemporary artists. Without this quintet, and maybe Gram Parsons, much of the music many of us listen to today would never have been created. But, for me, I'll always be indebted to Levon and The Band for the road trips and time travel they have allowed me. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" does in three minutes what "Gone with the Wind" took four laborious hours to do, "Up on Cripple Creek" took me down the Gulf of Mexico to meet a girl, both quirky and familiar, who reminds me of no one so much as my sweet wife. Their cover of Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is pure ascension.
Then there's "The Weight".
Talk about painting a masterpiece.