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The Weight: Testimony to the artistry of Robbie Robertson

Updated: May 5, 2020

Neil Morton

Bob Dylan’s prolific songwriting was always bound to have an impact on Robbie Robertson. As the lead guitarist in Dylan’s touring band, The Band, recalls in his riveting, revealing 2016 autobiography, Testimony, the great man could never be distracted from his muse.

‘I hung out with him sometimes at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, watching him pound away on his typewriter into the night. Bob wasn’t someone who went off into a corner to seclude himself during his creative process. He did it right in front of you. Lyrics came flying out of that machine; it was a feat to witness. The radio could be playing, television on, someone on the phone – Bob never looked up, just kept typing away.’

Toronto-born Jamie Royal Robertson, half-Mohawk, half-Jewish, had told his mother at the age of nine on the Six Nations Reserve that he wanted to be a storyteller. He was true to his dream. The Weight (1968) and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (1969) provide the testimony, full of mysterious characters and evocative of place, time, mythology and history, and two of the finest singalong songs in rock history.

Rolling Stone ranked The Weight at No41 in their 500 greatest songs of all time, describing it as ‘an oddball fable of debt and burden driven by an indelible, infectious chorus’. Rarely has the word and been put to more effective use in a refrain…

Take a load off Fanny

Take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And… and… and you put the load

You put the load right on me

There is a golden creative age for musicians and songwriters, and for Dylan, Robertson and his Bandmates Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson it came in the basement of a pink ranch house in West Saugerties, New York, near Woodstock, in the wake of Dylan’s well-documented motorcycle accident. The music generated there would furnish The Basement Tapes and The Band’s debut album Music From Big Pink. Dylan handed the words for Tears Of Rage (that hot typewriter again) to Manuel and said: ‘See if you can do something with this.’

Robertson explains: ‘Richard nailed the perfect melody and chords… Bob sang it good and we ran through it a couple of times, but Richard’s treatment and vocal made it his own. This was a breakthrough for Richard’s writing and it set a high bar that I wanted to live up to.’ They had all ‘completely fallen under the spell of this atmosphere of devil-may-care creativity’.

You Ain’t Going Nowhere, Caledonia Mission, Million Dollar Bash, Katie’s Been Gone, Chest Fever, I Shall Be Released… the songs from Dylan and friends kept coming. ‘The material wasn’t meant to reflect our lifestyle or the times we were living in. It was really just about trying to write an interesting song. In the Tin Pan Alley tradition, we were showing up at songwriting headquarters, seeing if we could come up with anything of merit.’

Robertson, who is at pains to say he was not the leader of The Band even if most people assumed he was, kept himself in the background vocally and in the main had Helm, Manuel or Danko in mind to sing particular songs, sometimes alternating two of them or even all three. Manuel and Danko were soulful heartbreakers as well as brilliant harmonisers and Helm’s rasping tenor drove The Band as thrillingly as his drumming did.

The author reveals how he wrote The Weight in one sitting in his bedroom one night. ‘I sat with a little typewriter, a pen and legal pad, and a Martin D-28 guitar that said Nazareth, Pennsylvania on the label inside the sound hole. I revisited memories and characters from my southern exposure and put them into a Luis Buñuel surreal setting.’ This is a recurring theme: Robertson’s passion for the cinematic. One of the Spanish film-maker’s works dealt with the impossibility of sainthood, and this is echoed in the song. ‘Levon could sing the hell out of that one, I thought.’ He sang the heavenly into it too. ‘I wanted to write a song that he could sing better than anyone.’ Danko’s bravura vocal cameo is memorable too.

I pulled in to Nazareth

Was feeling ’bout half past dead

I just need some place

Where I can lay my head

Hey, mister, can you tell me

Where a man might find a bed? He just grinned and shook my hand,

‘No’ was all he said

The listener, struggling to decipher the lyrics, cannot help think of Nazareth in biblical terms but this appears a dangerous town for our world-weary traveller to be pulling into and there are references to strange backwoods characters such as Carmen and the Devil, Miss Moses, Luke who is waiting for Judgement Day, Anna Lee, Crazy Chester in the fog and, of course, Fanny.

In her excellent Huffington Post blog, Anne Margaret Daniel captures the essence of the song. ‘The Weight’s Nazareth seems to me the next town over from Dylan’s Desolation Row. It’s a nightmare circus place, to be escaped the very next time the phantom Wabash Cannonball, or any train at all, slows down close to town long enough for you to hop a ride.’

Helm claimed in his own 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, that The Band wrote The Weight as a group and he wanted a split of the publishing. Robertson goes to great lengths to say how important his friendship with soulmate Helm was from their Hawks days but the tension over publishing rights would have a lasting damaging effect. Helm refused to sing the song years after the break-up, finally relenting to climax many of his famed Midnight Ramble shows.

Daniel's piece continues: ‘The Weight is not folk rock or what Time magazine called country rock. It is gospel music. Every performance of it I was lucky enough to hear at Helm’s home in Woodstock made you feel like you were in church… I heard The Weight live a hundred times and more, with Helm behind those drums, and never did it sound the same to me. Sometimes I beamed as I sang along; sometimes I wept. Often I did both.’

The Big Pink producer John Simon asked Robertson what the song was about. ‘I’m not too good explaining lyrics,’ he was told. ‘Basically, it was all I could think of at the time.’ The enigmatic response was positively Dylanesque. ‘As a songwriter, The Weight was something I had been working up to for years. The images, the stories I had been putting away in my imagination’s attic, had been brought out into the light.’

When they replayed some of the finished tracks for his ears only, Dylan asked: ‘This is fantastic. Who wrote that song?’ He was referring to The Weight. Robertson told him. ‘He shook his head, slapped me on the arm, and said: “Damn! You wrote that song?” What a joy it was to push Bob’s button.’ Dylan was just as complimentary about their treatment of Tears Of Rage and I Shall Be Released. ‘Coming from a dear friend, one of the greatest songwriters ever, and our fearless leader, Bob’s enthusiasm meant the world to the boys and me.’

For the Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which appeared on their highly acclaimed eponymous second album, Robertson had studied the history of the civil war at the library and wrote it for Helm to sing as he had done with Up On Cripple Creek and Rag Mama Rag. As an Arkansas native and the only non-Canadian in The Band, Helm played the role of a fictitious Tennessee farmer and Confederate soldier Virgil Caine in the conflict’s dying days, seeking to uphold the honour of the South: ‘You take what you need and you leave the rest/ But they should never have taken the very best.’

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train ’Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again In the winter of ‘65, we were hungry, just barely alive By May the tenth, Richmond had fell

It’s a time I remember, oh so well

The chorus with its succession of ‘la, la, las’ or ‘na, na, nas’ turns the song into an anthem. The best verse is to come…

Like my father before me, I will work the land Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand He was just eighteen, proud and brave But a Yankee laid him in his grave I swear by the mud below my feet You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat

The Guardian praised Robertson for his remarkable nuance: ‘The lyrics are not an expression of sympathy or support for the Confederacy, much less slavery; they’re the lament of an ordinary man who knows he’s on the wrong side of history.’ Twilight, Acadian Driftwood, Forbidden Fruit and Ophelia attested to the burgeoning stature of Robertson’s writing talent and made North Lights-Southern Cross in 1975 one of their most mature albums. The Band’s music was Americana before the label was born.

Drink, drugs and ‘dancing with the devil’ would eventually drive a wedge between the brothers-in-arms, Robertson claiming Helm had lied to him about his heroin abuse. ‘This was the first time writing songs was painful for me. I wrote The Shape I’m In for Richard to sing, Stage Fright for Rick and The WS Walcott Medicine Show for Levon – all with undertones of madness and self-destruction… A distance grew between Levon and me that I don't know we were ever able to mend. It wasn’t about the drugs. It was about the betrayal. About disrespecting the brotherhood and our partnership.’

The Weight, a jewel in the soundtrack for the 1969 cult movie Easy Rider, would be one of the standout moments of The Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell extravaganza in San Francisco in 1976 which was filmed for a rockumentary directed by Martin Scorsese and released two years later. Has there been a finer rock film?

As they prepared for their Winterland finale, Robertson reflected on the inevitability of the highway’s end: ‘Somewhere along the way we had lost our unit and our passion to reach higher. Self-destructiveness had become the power that ruled us… I loved these guys beyond words until it hurt inside. But this beast was wounded, and we were unsure of its recovery.’

The guitarist's description of the lavish show is alone worth the price of the book. ‘I don’t know if I’d ever heard Levon sing and play The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down better than that night. I saw the horns behind him looking like some kind of glorious funeral procession. His truth in that vocal could tear your heart out, and when we hit the final chorus the roar of the crowd felt like it helped us lift the stage a foot higher.’

After four hours of music and roll-on guests from Dr John, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison with Dylan and the encores still to come, the wait was over for The Weight. ‘When I played the introduction the crowd let out a roar like they had just arrived.’ For the film and its three-album soundtrack a new version with The Staple Singers was recorded, and the gospel-soaked contributions of Helm, Danko, Mavis and Pops Staples were glorious, raising the goosebump count.

Robertson’s chronicle of life with rockabilly veteran Ronnie Hawkins (as a 16-year-old upstart guitarist), The Hawks and The Band with and without Dylan is stunningly vivid, given the ever-present threats to his recall. If you remembered the 60s and 70s, you weren’t there, the joke goes. But the author obviously looked after himself; his anecdotes of the Dylan ‘Judas’ electric tour when The Band were still The Hawks, the interaction with disparate figures from Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol to Marlon Brando and David Geffen, with musicians from The Beatles and Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix, Morrison and Clapton, offer an opportunity for self-congratulation – he cannot resist disclosing that someone had told him he was the late Duane Allman’s favourite guitarist. But Robertson was that good, that influential.

His account of the incident on the last night of that 1966 tour when he effectively saved an exhausted Dylan from drowning in his London hotel bath while The Beatles waited outside to chat with him is the eye-popping revelation of the memoir. It is just a shame that Testimony should use the Last Waltz in 1976 as its cut-off point; while The Band played on in various guises without him until Manuel and then Danko departed life's stage, Robertson enjoyed a successful solo and film score-writing career. The rift with Helm was not reconciled until shortly before the drummer's death from cancer in 2012. The fractured friendship cast a lingering shadow but we aficionados prefer to remember the magical times.


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