Friday Morning Download – "The Weight" by The Band

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…

9 Comments

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  1. So, Emmylou Harris, eh? (twice?)

    Great film, great songs, great post. I can’t believe you just finally saw that movie! Should be required viewing for any rock and roll fan (heh – this coming from the guy who still has yet to see “Gimme Shelter” and “Don’t Look Back”).

    I agree that in some ways we, as people, seem hardwired to make these sorts of connections, and yet I wonder how much, without the church, the “culture” is able to realize the connections? I’m bothered by the overt-ness of much contemporary ecclesial efforts in this area – we don’t need praise bands covering “Carry on my wayward son” or rocking out to “Jesus is just alright” (although hearing Ashley Cleveland cover the Stones’ aforementioned “Gimme Shelter” at a homeless benefit at Nashville’s episcopal cathedral seemed just alright with me, and probably was with Jesus, too)…but maybe we do need the church to make such connections explicit, to any who wish to come in and participate, commune, communicate, and thereby deepen the spiritual significance of even their “secular” practices and experiences.

    To paraphrase Jay Farrar, we (the church) may be lost and need to find another paradigm – but if we did (and did it right), would we then be “out of the picture” – that is, unnecessry?

  2. OK – had a sleep and now back in the saddle (man, those Anglicans can wear you out!)

    To your query – “I agree that in some ways we, as people, seem hardwired to make these sorts of connections, and yet I wonder how much, without the church, the “culture” is able to realize the connections?” – I agree in part. My only push back (just a nudge actually…) is the essential nature of the Church as the hermeneutic key for authentic engagement with Christ. On side of my brain says “selah! selah!” and other scratchs my wee pate and wonders if the “body of christ” is still more dynamic than the Church as realized in our present lives. What I was proposing in the FMD was whether we just intuit God’s ‘vocare’ through Balaam ass or Levon Helm’s Animal/muppet-like presense on the drum kit whilst singing “The Weight” – still small voice being clear enough without our exegetical cluttering. True, we need the affirmation and confirmation of the Church and the hospitality to welcome and support the “wayward son”, but should we be working sooooo hard to make sure that the listener makes the connection: nazarth=jesus’ home town?

    Just wondering…

  3. no, we shouldn’t feel the need to work so hard to make those connections explicit, methinks.

    I believe, and agree with you that “the “body of christ” is still more dynamic than the Church as realized in our present lives” – but I believe that whatever that more dynamic element is must find its advent in and derive its life’s blood and sustenance from the Church – in other words, it starts there, does it not? And somehow always comes back to there, too – that is, the Lord’s Table (which might be distinct from “The Church” as the community gathered around that table, but I find it difficult in practice to distinguish between the two).

    And anyway, what are you doing hanging around w/ Anglicans and going to Compline? Dig that! This past Sunday’s Evensong was our first performance w/ St. Mary’s choir – that service is a strenuous exercise, vocally and otherwise. (Also, we get to be on BBC’s “Songs of Praise” with them in Nov, singing in Rosslyn chapel! Given this, needless to say I find this strangely apropos.)

  4. My friend Tim was here for 48 hours on his way to NZ. Being the grunge boy Anglican that he is, we did the rounds of St Marks, St James et al in addition to the Dylan exhibit at EMP – a busy but spiritually fulfilling time.

    My question: are you listening to Russ Taff’s “Table in the Wilderness” again? 🙂 You seem pretty locked on the Eucharistic epicenter here – and while I agree with you that (in some respects) all roads lead us back to the bread and cup, it has to be more than this to “work” While I love Zizoulous and his followers (present company included) I feel it is a radical response that overextends the Last Suppers event horizon. In short, Church = Table is a bit too limited for my reading, but then again… I am a Presbyterian and probably need to amp up my sacramental theology a notch, eh?

  5. i agree that it overextends and overspills and infuses our lives radically beyond that event at the altar/table. but for me nothing else “as” Church (or the Church “as” anything else) makes any sense apart from that starting point. okay, i’m not saying church=table in the strictest and most exclusive sense, but my view would be that anything *but* church=table inevitably becomes too limited. it is the church as table (and table as altar) that enables that overspilling into all of life.

    I’m telling ya, you’ve got to read Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. It’ll rock your face.

    Speaking of which, I’m going to a conference on Radical and Eastern Orthodoxies at the end of the month down at Cambridge. Might be good.

  6. Well, at my first SST as a way-too-green masters student someone posed a similar challenge after my sacramentally-oriented paper (and also about the Salvation Army), and the response that emerged (not from me – I didn’t know what to say at the time – but from someone elder and wiser who attended my paper) was to point out that the Quakers don’t call themselves a “Church”, they’re a “Society of Friends.” Likewise, the Salvation Army isn’t a Church per se, but rather (shudder) an “Army.”

    Now, of course I consider both groups (and I would guess that they consider themselves) a part of “the Church” as the “Body of Christ” in the world, but I think this distinction is not just a coincidence, nor an easy cop-out answer. There is something intrinsic about the eucharist to any community that calls itself “Church”, and if there isn’t, there should be.

    Unfortunately, I’ve not yet dug into Quaker theology (which I should do, as every online belief selector quiz I ever take tells me that I should be Quaker, probably because of my convictions re: pacifism), but I suspect that Quakers still have some notion of “sacrament” (even if they don’t use that word) and their practices which allow them participation in the means of grace – silence being one such practice which I greatly admire.

    Then again, Quakers don’t believe in creeds, or in the authority (spiritual or otherwise) of ordained clergy. So here again they part ways with pretty much every other body called “Church” (which is not to say that they shouldn’t be considered part of “the Church”).

    I think Quakers “get” the orthodox “all of life is sacrament” position, perhaps better than the rest of us. What I think they don’t get is “sacrament as public witness”. By shunning anything that smacks of “ritual” (which isn’t entirely true – their worship, in silence, is just as much their “ritual”, their “liturgy” – they just don’t want to be associated w/ the traditional rituals of the Church and use such terminology), they have in some ways not only created a certain disunity in the Body of Christ that perhaps need not exist, but also have kind of “de-clawed” their visible presence in the world – part of that is intentional (i.e. pacifism), but their radicalism in this regard looks to most, I suspect, as insularity and withdrawal from the world.

    However, thinking through it just now, I think this dissention does more good than harm, for “The Church”, that dogmatic monolith, needs a few of the faithful who dare to be odd and refuse to toe the line, for we need to be reminded that the sacraments, while in many ways definitive for us here and now, are not limits we can put on God OR the Church – maybe this helps us realize that we need to accept Quakers as part of Christ’s Body, even though they don’t participate in the visible eucharist, just like we need to accept Catholics (or any other “closed table” group) as part of Christ’s Body, even though they don’t allow the rest of us to participate in their eucharist.

    Maybe this subtle reminder from the Quakers can help us remember what an open invitation there is at the Table and just how radically inclusive God’s grace is, after all.

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