The crossroads are a strange wilderness area in life. Things inhabit, grow, and often thrive at the point of corssroads that don’t seem to exist anywhere else. Case in point – everyday I drive on Highway 527 from Mill Creek through the city of Bothell and I come to the end of the road where I must choose to go right or left. At this particular crossroads is the location of the Washington State Ferret Rescue and Shelter. Every morning I take that right hand turn and my peripheral vision catches the weather-beaten sign hanging half shackled to an abandoned apartment building identifying the locus of Ferret advocacy for the Pacific Northwest. Anywhere else this beaten up sign with its bizarre mission statement would seem out of sorts – but not at this place-between-places.
In short – strange things are made normal at the crossroads.
I had a similar experience last week when I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1978 rockumentary “The Last Waltz.” I had been meaning to watch “The Last Waltz” for quite a while and finally took the dive after seeing a $5 DVD of “The Last Waltz” in a bargin bin at Safeway. In so many ways, The Last Waltz lives up to the hype – it really is one of the best rock-n-roll films bar none. As many of you know, the film chronicles the last concert at the end of the last tour of The Band – Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rickey Manuel, and Robbie Robertson – one of the best late 1970’s acts to grace the stage. The film begins rather Tarantino-esque by starting with the end – an encore of a Marvin Gaye cover “(Baby) Don’t Do It.” From there the movie progresses through some standard “rocumentary” asides with members of The Band waxing lyrical about their careers, relationships and various luminaries from rock history – Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters, and Emmylou Harris to name a few (watching Neil Diamond sporting shades that are now back in fashion is dead brilliant) – take the stage to send them off to pasture.
What is particularly great about the film is Scorsese’s use of 35mm film and multiple camera angles to create a lush, deep feel to the visuals as well as 3 staged pieces that showcase 3 classic songs from The Band’s catalogue. These set pieces feel like a larger-than-life operetta – something obscenely grand in scope and large in feel – imagine a rock video framed with the care of a 1940’s MGM productions such as “Gone With The Wind”. Scorsese shot these scenes on huge sound stages and fills the visuals with soft light gels and eerie dry ice effects so you are not sure where you are in time and space. Of the 3 set pieces, the visual and sonic production of The Band’s classic “The Weight” is noteworthy. Scorsese invited The Staples Singers to join The Band for the song and the addition is magical. Mavis Staples continues to be one of the great voices in Blues and Gospel having sung with Bob Dylan and many others. There is just something distinctly “other” about this paring of a southern-flavored bar band and three Gospel singers finding a home around a song that speaks of putting burdens on and taking burdens off.
Robbie Robertson speaks of writing “The Weight”in this way:
“When I wrote ‘The Weight’, the first song for ‘Music From Big Pink’, it had a kind of American mythology I was reinventing using my connection to the universal language. The Nazareth in ‘The Weight’ was Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It was a little off-handed – ‘I pulled into Nazareth’. Well I don’t know if the Nazareth that Jesus came from is the kind of place you pull into, but I do know that you pull into Nazareth, Pennsylvania! I’m experimenting with North American mythology. I didn’t mean to take sacred, precious things and turn them into humour.”
However, listening to “The Weight” backed by the Staples Sisters sounds like a strange crossroads convergence of worlds layered – American trucker mythos drawn into New Testament typology – there is “no room at the inn”, but this Nazareth is set both in an American landscape and a backwater Middle Eastern village. The guy of the Manger past and Honky Tonk present is a-skinnin’ and a-grinnin’, but has zero to offer. The song offers a crossroad and overlapping of worlds with a repeating theme that transcends time and place – it might be that a rock musician pulls into Nazareth, Pennsylvania but if so, Nazareth warps itself into the biblical town then into a western town before his eyes.
I pulled into Nazareth
Was feelin’ about 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
And ‘no’ was all he said.
This “crossroads” of American myth and the Biblical landscapes is certainly a part of rock music and something that people instinctivelyconnect with. Why the church needs to be so overt at making connections to the faith tradition when people’s imagination seems hardwired to make these connections remains a mystery to me. If rock musicians understand this – why can’t the church?
We all seem to live at the convergence zone of our past, present and future lives akin to a Quantum Leap episode. This convergence offered by Scorsese shows that living at the crossroads is always more interesting than getting to where you are going. The crossroads of the Band’s last hurrah brought a transcendent wrinkle to a familiar tune and carried it to another level.
Whether saving ferrets or getting the load off our brother’s back, the crossroads continues to be an interesting place…