What’s With “THE WEIGHT?”

Jun 21

whatsthe_weight.jpgWe all love the song “The Weight” by The Band. It’s #41 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time, and makes my personal Top Ten List. I first wrote about it in 2010 and have thought about it often since then.

I still have no idea what it means.

But after what seemed like an eternity staying in place with Covid, and in an effort to ignore the widening woes of the world, I tried again to uncover the hidden meaning of The Weight.

So here goes:

I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ about half past dead;
I just need some place where I can lay my head.

Okay, for starters I always thought that Nazareth was Biblical, but it turns out (according to Wikipedia) that it’s a town in Pennsylvania. Go figure.

We do get that the the guy’s tired, but “half-past dead.” How brilliant is that?

Then he finds someone who he hopes can help:

Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand, and “No!”, was all he said.

Okay, it’s clear that Tired Guy is looking for a place to stay, and he’s getting no for an answer.

But then comes the famous chorus, where the plot begins to thicken . . .

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fanny, And (and) (and) you can put the load right on me.

I always heard it as “Manny,” not “Fanny” or”Fannie” as it’s sometimes written, but that’s a minor detail. I also assumed that “take a load” was a hit off a joint (Hey, this was from the sixties!) but most people think it just means: You help me out, I’ll help you out. Whatever. Anyway, now it gets really complicated:

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.”

Who the hell is Carmen? And why is she walking with the devil, and is she telling the traveler to go to hell or just being friendly?

In the next stanza we meet two or three more characters: Miss Moses (Miss Carmen Moses? Or are they two different people?) and Luke (this must be Biblical), plus our new BFF, Anna Lee.  Listen up:

Go down, Miss Moses, there’s nothin’ you can say
It’s just ol’ Luke, and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgment Day.
“Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?”
He said, “Do me a favor, son, woncha stay an’ keep Anna Lee company?”

After the chorus (featuring Fanny/Fannie or Manny again), yet another character is introduced:

Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog.
He said, “I will fix your rags, if you’ll take Jack, my dog.”
I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can.”

Whoa, Nellie. Aside from the questionable fog/dog rhyme, which we’ll overlook, now we’ve added Chester (wasn’t he in Gunsmoke?) not to mention his dog, Jake. And we have the lovely non sequitur about feeding the dog (because he’s a peaceful man?)

And then, in the next part, we get Miss Annie, who I suspect is the aforementioned Anna Lee, but who knows:

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.

Miss Annie? Fanny? Manny? Anna Lee? Crazy Chester? Jake? Luke?, Carmen? Miss Moses? The Devil!

Forget Top Ten for music, The Weight has GOT to hold the World Record for “Most Characters In A Single Song.”

And what, by the way, is a Cannonball?  A train? A bus? A jump in the pool? Not another character I hope (jazz musician name of Adderley)?
I am so confused.

robbier.jpgSo let’s ask Robbie Robertson, he should know.

Robbie says that the song was inspired by the “surrealistic films of Bunuel and  deals with the impossibility of sainthood.”

Well, that certainly clears things up, doesn’t it.

But wait. The delicious Mr R also says that the song is about “the difficulty of doing something simple, like saying hello to someone while passing through a new town — without getting yourself into an incredible predicament.”

Others say all sorts of things: “The Weight” is the burden we all feel to deflect sin and become more . . .  saintlike. Really? We do? Or that it refers to the afterlife, where the traveler lays down the burdens of the world. Or a place between life and death. Or the journey of life (I like that one.) Or a hooker named Fanny. Or a hooker’s fanny. Or the clap. The South. The Civil War. Star Wars. The 60’s. Life Itself. Nothing at all. Maybe you just have to be stoned.

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to take the lyrics so seriously, but it’s been analyzed to death on the Internet, trust me. And yes, it’s entirely possible that no one, not even The Band, or maybe especially The Band, really knows what it all means.

But you can’t blame a girl for trying. And maybe you know something I don’t know . . . Or not.

See you on You Tube:

 

 

21 comments

  1. John /

    As someone who wasn’t into Rock, I’m pretty useless as to
    the meaning of the lyrics.
    But I did realize rather early that sainthood was not an achievable goal.

    Also – Is Bethlehem, PA anywhere near Nazareth?
    That might be another clue.

  2. Another clue! What’s a girl to do with all this. Just enjoy the music, I guess.

  3. Alex /

    This was a quirky fun one Chief.
    I knew the song. Or at least remembered it.

    But I never thought about the lyrics. Now I’m more perplexed in my senior years than I need be.

    But as I said, it was quirky fun.

    • Dear Perplexed: I say take your fun wherever you find it, quirky or not.

  4. Sharon /

    I know exactly what it means but I’m sworn to secrecy !

  5. There are ways of getting you to talk. . .

  6. Charles /

    I always liked the song. Never knew what it was about. Now I know why. If I think of anything more weighty, I’ll add it later.

    • I’m getting the feeling that this post has rendered most readers uncharacteristically speechless.
      Oh well,hope you all enjoyed the song.
      I always do.
      And I listened to it many, many times to do this post.
      Or was it “Manny” times. Or “Fanny,” or “Annie?”
      We’ll never know.

  7. Lou Venezia /

    Very cool. I did not know the song. I suspect that the lyricist wrote down a bunch of words, names of his friends and said “this will make people crazy and they will ask me about the song and I will make stuff up and laugh all the way to the bank”

  8. If you follow the lyrics to the song (and who can) the writer may have laughed all the way to the bank of the river Styx. OTOH: The Band did sell a lot of records!

  9. Gary Fortunato /

    Lyrics like these have to have been written while under the influence of
    A. Alcohol
    B. Marijuana
    C. LSD
    D. Mescaline
    E. Some of the above
    F. All of the above

  10. All of the above.
    And it helps if the listener has enjoyed at least some of these substances.

  11. Caroline /

    I can’t help U figure it out but enjoyed your theories!

    • As I said, I don’t think anyone can help. Although I’d love to meet Robbie Robertson and ask him in person.

  12. Well Robertson is Canadian so it’s a polite song. Take the load off someone else. You know help people.
    I would be interested in your analysis of “MacArthur Park”. Both songs were released in 1968 but “MacArthur Park” did come earlier. So maybe this is sub genre of obscure lyrics.

  13. That’s another song that no one remembers by its title.
    MacArthur Park? Huh? What? No, we know it from these particular lyrics:
    “Someone left the cake out in the rain
    I don’t think that I can take it
    ‘Cause it took so long to bake it
    And I’ll never have that recipe again.”
    To me, the message, unlike that of The Weight, is pretty straightforward. They had what they thought was their one great love, but they messed up.
    They will have other loves, but not like that one. Sigh. Maybe I’ll do a line by line interpretation some time (Why is the wine warm? Why is the icing green? Why are the pants striped?), but the message of love lost is very strong and resonated with a lot of people, me included. And the image of a cake left out in the rain is a powerful metaphor.

  14. Marc /

    Like pretty much everyone I know, I love The Band, and “The Weight” in particular. I’ve never understood the narrative either, but the music was something very new. And although they probably thought that they were above such concerns, the song is “catchy” beyond belief. In fact, it’s been rattling around my brain (a lot of empty space up there) ever since I saw that it was the subject of your blog.
    In a related thought about indecipherable classic rock lyrics, I’ve often wondered whether anyone would notice if you swapped the lyrics of “Whiter Shade of Pale” with those of “Knights in White Satin”. More proof that it’s the melody that mattered during my misspent youth!

  15. I’m going to have to get back to you on that, Marc.
    Will require listening to both songs back to back and then seeing if the lyrics are indeed swapable. But I have a feeling you’re on to something.

  16. Colleen /

    Well that sure was fun!

    • Pat /

      And educational! Although what I learned is not to take any of these lyrics too seriously and just enjoy.

  17. Pat /

    As a result of posting this and reading the comments I decided to watch The Last Waltz again. Great film! And I still think that Robbie Robertson is delicious.

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