The Weight of Robbie Robertson

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“The Weight” came to me when I was sixteen in 1968, from a Sony transistor radio tuned to KMPC-AM and its top forties programming that reached throughout Greater Los Angeles.  From its first notes—Robbie Robertson’s haunting and funky, Japanese koto-like intro on acoustic guitar giving way to the deep thunk of Rick Danko’s bass and Levon Helm’s big bass drum locking together as the rhythm kicked in under the melody—I felt in my guts something this was something special, a song from the roots of humanity, a long, hectoring sadness plaintively expressed, and a simultaneous resolve to keep going through travail.  But, though I’d thought vaguely I wanted to become a writer, I didn’t have these kinds of words for it then.  I just knew there was the universe in it speaking to me through Levon’s country voice singing the lead, calling for me to concentrate, to learn devotion, to begin a journey.

I pulled in to Nazareth. I was feelin’ ‘bout half-past dead. I just need to find a place Where I can lay my head.

I was in Gardena, the South Bay suburb full of Japanese Americans living in tract homes, and it was midnight in the tiny bedroom I shared with my younger brother, himself already becoming a blues guitarist, and Robbie’s song and The Band’s performance of it made a chain of paper stars arching from the radio across the brown coverlet of my bed, crept up the dreary yellow wallpaper peppered with roses like treble clefs.  The very walls seemed to weep and the floor thunk like tin buckets of blood kicked by a tramp.  I was arrested by the sound.  And have been for fifty-five years.

It wasn’t long after that I got in my mother’s Chevy Nova II and drove to Torrance and the nearby retail palace of Wallich’s Music City where I could flip through the bins of new LPs and take a few to a listening booth at the back.  I think I gathered up Music From Big Pink, Blonde on Blonde, and The Association—a troika of funk to flirty reflective of my adolescent tastes.  Dylan’s cover was louche and rebellious, the Association’s clean-cut and commercial, but The Band’s was like a high school litmag’s—naïve and almost primitive, a child’s painting of a rock band in primary colors and big, blockish strokes, an elephant tossed in for charm.  Only later did I find out it was painted by Dylan himself, a mentor and neighbor to The Band while they all holed up in Woodstock, stewing up the complex roux of their music that constituted the initial trace of a genre that came to be known as “roots rock” or Americana.  Spinning the Band’s LP back in the glass-walled room of the store, I heard sounds that hit like no others, an aural tapestry reminding me of spirituals and hymns, country and English ballads, a square dance rondo, even a Japanese ondo with its herky calls-and-responses between the band and festival dancers, but not like any one of them either for the fat streak of rock and funk running through them all.  I bought Big Pink and took it with me off to college in Claremont out on I-10 toward San Bernadino.

Away my freshman year, in addition to my classes in German, English lit, and Botany, I made a quiet apprenticeship in my dorm room to the songs of Robbie Robertson and The Band.  Evenings, I found myself staring repeatedly at inner foldout of Big Pink’s gatefold cover.  It displayed a group photograph of country people (labeled “Next of Kin”) dressed in motley–everyday and Sunday best clothes–and my heart reached out to them as my own.  I re-peopled that photo with the Hawaiian plantation workers of my ancestry, men dressed in bib overalls or denim pants, women in gingham shifts, boys in short pants and girls in muumuus.  Robertson’s songs of Westward immigration, old folks dispensing wisdom, and pilgrims wandering the countryside resonated with the scant little I knew of my own family’s immigration and hard work in the sugarfields.

When The Band’s eponymous second album came out later that year, I twinned myself to the outsider, downtrodden ethos of their decidedly eclectic music, full of strange harmonies, startling stories of suffering and endurance, and the imagery of work, rejection, and desperate love.  I sang the songs to myself as I crossed campus mornings going out to my classes, calming my fustian soul with melodies and narratives, images of old rocking chairs, raucous lovers, elders dispensing proverbs and predictions.  I got a bounce in my step from the country and rockabilly rhythms, a pang in my heart from the blend of plangent voices.  I felt an historical ache for my own barely known ancestral past rooted in rugged, agrarian lives like The Band’s own kin.

In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus’s wonderful and penetrating book on Sixties rock ‘n’ roll, he celebrated Big Pink, reveling in its acknowledgment of the obscurities and oxbows of the Continental past—the perdition of slavery, the defeat and beat-down of the South, and the psychic liberation from regional and racial oppressions.  “There’s no need to slave. // The whip is in the grave,” he quoted—a brilliant couplet from “We Can Talk About It Now.”  Reading Marcus, though I fell into an agreement with his trajectory of praise, his reveling in The Band’s esoteric re-awakening of repressed histories absent from the mainstream naiveté of American consciousness, I had a tugging nag of disagreement too—that a unformed darkness still threatened.  This was the early Seventies and the war in Vietnam, though it had wound down, was still fresh in our minds.  My generation had grown deeply suspicious of government and, after the rock riot at Altamont and the Manson murders in the Hollywood Hills, we’d even become disillusioned with the excesses of counter-cultural rebellion.  Dread was as much a part of things as any joy.  So The Band’s whirling galaxies of music came at me like the circular dancing of Shiva, creating and destroying worlds with opposite hands, on the one Sweet Jemima and on the other Old Jawbone the village thief, recognizing a do-si-do between birth and its simultaneous destruction.

But the whole of The Band exceeded any critique, bending genres from country hymns to roadside blues, indulging in lyrics steeped in both comedy and tragedy, their artistic production full of cultural counterpoint.  The musical tapestry Robertson and his bandmates created was richer, fuller in thread-count, interwoven with both blood and gold, tramped upon by dirty boots and bare feet washed mercifully in a pewter bowl.  Instrumentally, they might seem a straightforward quintet of guitar, drums, bass, piano, and organ but, in the studio, augmented and layered upon these were mandolin, accordion, saxophones, clavinet and synthesizer, trumpet, tuba, and trombone, and the distinct timbres of three different singing voices—Helm’s biting country tenor, Danko’s high lonesome tenor-to-falsetto, and Richard Manuel’s mournful bari and plaintive countertenor.  And Bach and rockabilly backbeats all part of the mix.  Tocatta and funk.

Sophomore year or maybe it was the spring of my freshman, I convinced three classmates to join me to catch them in concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, in those days, about a thirty-minute drive from Claremont.  We sat in balcony seats and I took in the show like an acolyte studying his masters, concentrating on every note and mustachioed glance among them, how bassist Danko backed away from the mic-stand on the outro to “When You Awake,” how Helm’s face was in profile as he sang into a boom mike over his drum kit, how Robertson played guitars both acoustic and electric, how Manuel and Garth Hudson seemed to preside on keyboard daises to stage-left and center stage-rear above the other three.  Their performance was note-for-note almost identical to the albums but with the value-added apparitions of their bodies on stage imparting a recital of angelic images onto my memory as well.

I confess I was less enthusiastic about Stage Fright and Cahoots, the latter turning me off with its racist “Shootout in Chinatown” that indulged both in stereotyped images of Chinese people and a chiming, faux-Oriental theme interwoven through its melody.  For a couple of years, I put those records away deep to the rear of my collection and started listening to the Grateful Dead’s acoustic albums.  But I hadn’t completely lost confidence in The Band, though, and I stuck it out as a fanboy, brought back into the fold with Islands and Southern Cross/Northern Lights.  I was sitting in a rock kissa in Kyoto during my post-graduate year when I heard “Acadian Driftwood” piped through the choice stereo system of the café.  Its story, about the British expulsion of French-Acadians from their settled lands in colonial Canada, gripped me as I thought immediately of the forced evacuation of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II.

They signed a treaty And our homes were taken, Loved ones forsaken [. . . .] Try to raise a family, End up an enemy.

The song was infused with an historical sadness–the long lonesomeness and regret of having been wronged and that wrong having been forgotten by most of society.  And the way that Robertson strummed and plucked his acoustic guitar mimicked the catch in the throat I got every time I thought of it, the brief duet between session man Byron Berline’s fiddle and Hudson’s screechy organ was like the silent cry I’d witnessed from my own elders when they recalled internment times in the deserts of America as, like Acadians, castaways of history.  “Make a man want to leave the only home he’s known….”  It was a song of remembrance and praise for a people wronged and hounded away to the outskirts and badlands by history.  But The Band did not forget them and their song perfected my own resolve that I would not either—neither their Acadians nor my own people.

Years later, I was in graduate school, just having passed exams for the M.F.A. in Creative Writing at UC Irvine under the guidance of my teacher, Tennessee poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Wright.  I wanted a celebration to mark the occasion and found in the local paper that The Last Waltz was playing in a late night revival show at the movie theater down the peninsula in Newport Beach where I was living.  I phoned my classmate, African American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, and invited him to join me.  We met outside the box office and bought two-dollar tickets to the show—a movie I’d missed as it came out when I was living in Japan a few years before.  It was a spectacular one—including not only The Band but a lineup of Sixties and Seventies rock icons from Joni Mitchell to Neil Young, Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan himself.  I remember, near the film’s climax, how director Martin Scorcese’s camera took a long, close-up pan down from the peak and past the brim of a big pink cowboy hat.  Underneath it was the scruffily-bearded Dylan singing the opening verse to “Forever Young,” his valedictory and blessing that we each preserve our youthful ideals.  It seemed to share a sentiment with a poem I’d just written about for my exam—James Wright’s “Saint Judas,” telling a quick tale of a failed suicide’s desperation and horror, one devastated man running towards another struck down in the street for no reason.  Its last two lines were “Flayed without hope, // I held the man for nothing in my arms.”  It was about the sharing of human compassion—a thing of faith that might save us even in our worst despair.  Again, I felt it twinned with Dylan’s song and the whole damn flick I’d just taken in.  Robertson dueling Eric Clapton on a blues number, Mitchell’s soprano voice harmonizing and tailgating with Young on “Helpless,” Robertson playing the opening notes to “The Weight” on guitar just before the Staple Singers styled it into gospel.  My heart leaped up.

Just a couple nights before Robbie died, I had the strongest urge to listen to “Acadian Driftwood” and study its lyrics. I don’t know why.  And then to “Christmas Must be Tonight” from Islands.  I sang along as the LP spun on my ‘table as I’ve always been moved to, thinking it one of the most genuinely spiritual of tunes. I’m not Christian, but I love the verses, especially these that Rick Danko sings with such sombre devotion:

A shepherd on a hillside, where over my flock I abide, On a cold winter night, a band of angels sing.

At “sing,” the melody drops to a lower note and Danko and Levon lock bass and drums together on its root. So moving. The song had come to me late, while I was running a theater group in Seattle a few years after leaving Irvine. I was living in a three-room flat and had only a boom box for a stereo and the album was on cassette. But from then on I’ve felt I’ve been its apostle.

Even before poetry found me in my confused adolescence, the songs of Robbie Robertson were my inspiration to keep going, to have faith, to believe that mourning might be the start of redemption.  His lyrics and storytelling tutored me through the finer tone of their burnished recollections and rugged acts of homage.  He taught me that there were stories beyond their tellings, that a fine and considered harmony might capture our souls and fill them with a light that is the repossession and restoration of our common humanity.  Kumu mele…. Mahalo pumehana…