I’m sure this song has been written about and reviewed and criticized nearly to death. As it should be. But it never grows boring or old. On the contrary, it rises again, and again, and again, to new and greater heights.
Someone needs to pay it proper homage, though I’m not sure any of us ever can, me least of all.
If there’s a heaven, it will probably greet us with Robbie Robertson’s multi-neck guitar intro from The Weight — The Last Waltz version. Levon Helm will be playing drums, right shoulder at his ear, left shoulder dipping down with the beat, head cocking toward the sky between lyrics, as he sings with his southern mouth and soulful eyes. And of course, The Staples Singers will accompany The Band as they perform one of the greatest songs in music history. Mavis will grace our ears and hearts with her giant voice and joyful clapping.
Yes, it is beautiful, we will whisper with her when the song is over, and we will cry out uncontrollably, for more.
Is it rock ’n’ roll? Country? Country rock? Roots rock? Folk?
Does it matter?
To me, this 1968 song — widely accredited to Robbie Robertson of The Band — defies genre, and it doesn’t need one. I hear country and I hear rock and I hear blues and I hear folk. More importantly, though, I hear, and feel, some distant homeland I never knew but desperately want to.
Apparently set in the American south, where Levon Helm grew up, and Robbie Robertson visited when he was young and impressionable, the song is about a lone traveler’s encounters with several interesting characters in a town called Nazareth, while on a mission to send regards for a woman named Fanny.
The Weight is filled with soothing instrumentals, biblical undertones and exchanges between the traveler and the town’s characters that leave one wondering. It is masterful storytelling paired with one of the most memorable musical sounds of our time.
I have listened to The Weight hundreds of times, at least. This morning, as I set out to gather another ounce of inspiration, the song brought tears to my eyes — not the first time to happen.
What is it about this song? I have asked myself this question many times over the years.
I can’t be sure when I first heard it. It’s been around longer than me, and it undoubtedly filled the speakers of my childhood home and vehicles. My parents loved music, and played. And even if they never got into The Band, I’m sure they were somehow influenced by them. I’m sure everyone was.
I first remember really paying attention to The Weight when I heard it during my college years. I worked at a Starbucks in southern Orange County, to get myself through undergrad. I remember hearing it while working, several times. And I remember the feeling I got while listening.
It drew me in and made me pay closer attention. In a place and time during my life when I was focused on getting more — material goods, institutional knowledge, fabricated outer beauty — it invited me to pause, and wonder at another time, and another place, and another way.
A few years later, an ex-boyfriend introduced me to The Last Waltz. We snuggled together on my couch and turned the lights down. He was thrilled to share the film with me, and I was even more thrilled by how much he appreciated music.
About 40 minutes in, as I watched The Band and The Staples Singers perform The Weight, I looked at him and asked, “Where have you been all my life?” As mentioned, I had already fallen in love with the song before then, but there was something about this version that worked my soul on another level.
Since that time, I have watched The Last Waltz and listened to The Weight many times. I’ve shared them both with friends, and I’ve continued to marvel at the magic they contain.
See, and hear, for yourself.