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"The Weight" is probably The Band's greatest song, and is certainly the most memorable track off its greatest album, Music from Big Pink. Some of rock's biggest names have covered the song. And just about every garage band and folk group, as well as many church choirs, has worked up versions as well.
But does anybody outside of The Band fully understand it? Does anybody even know all the right words? Is it Annie or Fanny who's handing over a load? Who is that walking with the Devil – Karma or Carmen? Does Crazy Chester catch him in the fog or the fall? And does Chester promise to fix his rags or his rack?
More elaborate liner notes and printed lyrics would have helped us puzzle out these questions. But Band guitarist Robbie Robertson objected in principle to printing lyrics on record covers and sleeves. Perhaps leaving the words and their meanings obscure was part of "Weight" writer Robertson's craft. Or perhaps this sort of indecipherability is what you get when you mix Arkansas and Canada. What do y'all think, eh?
From The Hawks to the Pink House
First, let's get to the bottom of this strange mixture. The Band originated as a sort of Razorback-Maple Leaf fusion. Arkansas rockabillies Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm traveled north—way north—with their band The Hawks in the late 1950s. In Canada they connected with Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. The Canuckified band enjoyed considerable success until Hawkins took off on his own in 1963. After that, the Hawkinsless Hawks hacked around Canada and the American northeast for a few years before connecting with Bob Dylan. In 1965, they joined the recently electrified folkster as his back-up band until a motorcycle accident forced Dylan to take some time off near Woodstock, New York. The Band rented a house nearby—a big pink house—and in 1968 cut the album that bore their home's name and Dylan's cover art.
Surprisingly, the most well-known of The Band's songs made its way onto this breakout album almost by accident. They recorded "The Weight" with virtually no rehearsal and weren't originally sure if they would even use it. But when the album was released to far greater critical than popular success, the under-rehearsed afterthought was the album's closest thing to a hit.
But what is the "weight"?
We know what you're really waiting to hear about. Who is Crazy Chester and what the f-anny does it all mean?
A lot of people think this song is loaded with religious significance. You have a traveler who can't find a bed in Nazareth. You've got the devil, Moses, Judgment Day—clearly this is some sort of Biblically-spun parable, some modern-day Messiah turned away from the inn, dealing with temptation, redemption, and a hungry dog.
But minor discrepancies aside (Mary and Joseph couldn't find a bed in Bethlehem, not Nazareth), Robertson and Levon Helm have said that all of the characters in the song were more real than otherworldly. (A side note about songwriting: Helm was the band's drummer, and he has suggested that many of the songs were more collaborative than Robertson acknowledged.) Nazareth was Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the home of Martin guitar; Luke was former Hawks guitarist Jimmy Ray "Luke" Paulman; Anna Lee was an old friend from Turkey Scratch; and Crazy Chester was the cap-gun toting self-appointed sheriff of Fayetteville.
This does not mean, however, that the song is devoid of religious meaning. In fact, Robertson has said the song is about the "impossibility of sainthood." But he took his inspiration less from the Bible than from Luis Buñuel, the Spanish filmmaker and master of surrealism who, for half a century, poked fun at the hypocrisies of religion, patriarchy, and middle-class culture.
Robertson was intrigued, in particular, by films like Nazarín (1959) and Viridiana (1961), which deal with people who try, but find it impossible, to do good. "The Weight," Robertson says, explores the same theme. "Someone says, 'Listen, would you do me this favour? When you get there will you say "hello" to somebody or will you give somebody this or will you pick up one of these for me?' . . . So the guy goes and one thing leads to another and it's like 'Holy s--t, what's this turned into? I've only come here to say "hello" for somebody and I've got myself in this incredible predicament.'"
From its very conception, then, "The Weight" taps into both the spiritual and the real. It chronicles the increasingly complex trip of a sainthood-seeking errand boy—a do-gooder pilgrim who finds his progress hindered by a cast of curious characters. But these characters were pulled from the streets of Fayetteville and Turkey Scratch, not from the New Testament. The temptations, complications, and growing burdens of the narrator's errand were proffered not by visitors from the other side, but from the common-yet-fantastic characters who walk life's very real streets.
Inspired by Buñuel but populated by Arkansans, the song is most simply about the burdens we all carry. The "weight" is the load that we shoulder when we take on responsibility or when we try to do good. But it's also the heaviness that presses down on us when we fall into "sin" or wrestle with "temptation." It's a song about a universally human dilemma. But, just as the writers drew from their own pasts in fleshing out their cast, it's conceivable that they also drew from their own experiences in conceptualizing the "weight." Perhaps the song refers to the very real loads shouldered by Band members, the very real burdens that resulted from the good and the bad in their own lives.
Some Band hardliners argue, for example, that "weight" refers to the uncomfortable price paid by the band members for their wild days on the road. In this analysis, which we think is, um... a bit strained, weight means load, which means dose, which means venereal disease. Adding further grit to this interpretation is the fact that "fanny" is British slang for female genitalia. "Take the load off Fanny," in other words, would mean just the opposite of doing a favor for a friend.
A second and more reasonable analysis hovers around The Band's association with notorious groupie Cathy Evelyn Smith. Years before she hooked up with John Belushi, and even longer before she administered the Saturday Night Live legend a fatal dose of heroine, she traveled with The Hawks-turned-Band. Only sixteen when she met them in Ontario in 1963, she soon became pregnant. She was certain that Levon Helm was the father, but it was Richard Manuel who stood up and offered to share the burden of the pregnancy.
None of The Band has ever cited this episode in explaining "The Weight," and Robertson never alluded to the more personal possibilities crowding the streets of Nazareth. But there is a certain Buñuel quality to the Smith story: it's a coarse, all too human situation that defies easy categorization in terms of good and bad.
More on Luis Buñuel
In the classic Buñuel film Nazarín (1959), Nazario, a dedicated priest, is forced to take flight after befriending Andara and Beatriz, a knife-wielding prostitute and her psychotic sister (not exactly the kind of subject material you find in most 1950s American films…). Nazario's attempt to do good has forced him to the road, but everywhere he goes he stirs up trouble—violence, superstition, jealousy. By the end of the film, Nazario has been beaten and imprisoned, and he suffers from a crisis of faith captured succinctly by his chronically criminal cellmate: "Look at me, I only do evil... But what use is your own life really? You're on the side of good and I'm on the side of evil. And neither of us is any use for anything."
Nazario is shattered by this devastatingly accurate summation. Still, the tiniest shred of hope lies in the hint that Nazario has touched, albeit imperfectly and perhaps only temporarily, at least one life. Beatriz struggles with her feelings for Nazario. Hoping they are pure but fearing they are carnal, she ultimately is thrown into another psychotic frenzy and back into the clutches of her abusive husband. But at one point, she reaches out to the cursed priest and offers to take on his burdens: "If I can carry your load on my back, I will."
It may be a bit too tidy to say that this is where "The Weight" found its inspiration. But it really doesn't matter. This song is more about the mess of life than the neatness; it's about the trials that come with trying to do good, the burdens that accompany acts of kindness and the kindness that, sometimes, flows weirdly out of sin. Life takes a toll, and a simple trip into Nazareth may leave a person's bag "sinkin' low." The closest thing to hope, the closest thing to any sort of redemption, lies less in absolute clarification or relief than in the occasional extension of a helping hand. "Take the load off, Fanny (or maybe Annie), and put the load right on me."