First, I have to say that I think The Band was a great rock and roll band and The Weight is one of my favorite songs by them, just in case anybody thinks I’m criticizing or mocking them or the song. But every time I hear it, I have to ask (not my wife; she’s made it pretty clear that she’s sick of this whole rant) just what this song is about? I have thought about it for probably 30 years (mostly when I was supposed to be working) but haven’t come any closer to figuring it out. So, let me break it down, verse by verse and you can tell me if I’m missing something.
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, "No" was all he said
OK the song opens pretty straight-forwardly. Dude pulls into some little town somewhere and needs to find a motel to get some rest. He doesn’t tell us his name so we’ll call him Gary (I was thinking about calling him Jesus, since it’s Nazareth, but maybe a bit too on-the-nose). Maybe he’s a long-haul trucker or something and he doesn’t know the town very well. He asks somebody he assumes is a local about it and, even though the guy is friendly enough, he seems pretty clueless about how to get to the nearest Days Inn. So far, the lyrics seems pretty innocuous, but, as we’ll see, you get more questions than answers as we go along in this song.
Take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And (and) (and) you put the load right on me
So, this is where things start to get fuzzy. At first, you might think he’s offering to take something heavy, the load, off of somebody named Fanny. Is she a friend? Lover? We don’t know. As we’ll see, Gary is a little short on details throughout the whole song. Apparently Fanny’s not a resident of Nazareth, as we’ll find out at the end. We also don’t know what the load is. Is it a real thing, like a load of bricks she’s carrying around for some reason, or is it metaphorical, like “I’ve just got a load of shit on my mind right now” and he’s offering to listen to her troubles and help her feel better? But then it gets muddier. He tells her to take a load for free. Not take THE load, or take the load OFF for free. Just take A load for free. So, now he’s trying to give her a load of something and he’s not going to charge her? Maybe he’s got a load of something on his truck and he just wants to get rid of it. Maybe it’s a load of manure. No, that doesn’t seem to be it because then he says she can take that load off and put it on him. Whatever the load is, and whatever kinky ideas he’s got about what she can do with it, she doesn’t seem to be interested because he tries to sell her on the idea multiple times in the song and she ain’t havin’ it.
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 my friend can stick around"
Now Gary says he’s looking for a place to hide. We’ve gotta ask, you just got into town and you already need to hide? Did you rip off the mob? Are you planning to skip out on the motel bill? You want to be on his side, but at this point, I feel like we don’t know the whole story here.
So, remember how Gary didn’t know where to find a place to sleep when he got into town? Yeah, well it turns out he knows the town well enough that he spots a couple of the residents of Nazareth, including the Devil, out for a stroll. What?! The Devil visits the town so often that people know him by sight? Does he own a vacation condo in town or something so he doesn’t have to ask local idiots where the nearest motel is? Or is he so recognizable because of the horns, the spiky tail, the goat feet, or what? Either way, the locals are OK with that? “Oh, look! It’s Carmen and the Devil again. He doesn’t deserve her, you know.” Maybe it’s just some guy’s nickname because he’s always in trouble. “I hear they threw the Devil in jail again for D&D. His pappy’s gonna beat him good this time.”
Then Gary yells at Carmen from down the street to see if she wants to go downtown because when you’re looking for a place to hide, you naturally want to go downtown and party with Carmen and THE FUCKING DEVIL! Nobody’s going to recognize you that way! Yelling at someone on the street, by the way, is a real dick move for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t yell at a woman out on the street to see if she wants to go out with you— it’s rude, to start with, and it kind of puts her in an awkward position. And, second, Dude, she’s with another guy, even if it is the Devil. You don’t hit on a chick when she’s with somebody. Especially if it’s the Devil. You don’t know if they’re together or what. Gary’s just totally ignoring the Devil like he’s not even there. “So, Carmen, why don’t we go downtown, just you and me and the suitcase here, get some drinks, do some dancing. If you see any Italian-looking guys coming up behind me, give me a heads-up, OK?” The point is moot anyhow because Carmen suddenly decides she’s got better things to do than hang out with these two goobers. “Oh gee, just remembered I’ve got to go have a wisdom tooth pulled right now. But you two go on without me and have a good time downtown.” After our narrator just dissed the Devil in front of Carmen, I don’t think he’s gonna want to go hang out with Gary downtown. Just sayin’.
Gary tries to get Fanny to take a free load and put it on him again. Still a hard No from Fanny.
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, won'tcha stay and keep Anna Lee company?"
OK, so old Mister Just-A-Stranger-In-Town has given up on hiding or partying downtown and is now hangin’ with three more of the town’s residents and he’s chock full of advice for them. Miss Moses, whoever she is, can just go down someplace, (we’ll assume it’s not sexual but with this guy you can’t rule it out) location not specified (why am I not surprised) and ignore ol’ Luke who’s waiting for the Judgment Day. “Don’t waste your breath on him while he’s waiting Miss Moses. That time can be better spent, in my opinion, going down.” And he says all this while good ol’ Luke, apparently, is sitting right there! It’s not clear how long Luke has been waiting here. Is it something he does every day after lunch, or every other Friday, or is he just going to sit there until Judgment Day either arrives or he dies of starvation? Gary doesn’t seem to have any problem with it, whichever way it is, but he does have something else on his mind since he disregards his own advice about not talking to Luke while he’s waiting, and asks him, pretty bluntly about young Anna Lee. Is she Luke’s daughter? His wife? His prize-winning heifer? Since things didn’t work out with Carmen, is our hero out to score with Anna Lee while Luke is otherwise occupied with Biblical matters? “So, um, Luke, since you’ve got your mind on other stuff, do you mind if I…?” By this point in the song, it’s getting pretty hard to like this guy. Anyway, Luke seems pretty enthusiastic about the whole end-of-the-world thing and figures that when he gets raptured, maybe the horndog can keep Anna Lee company. I think I can see how the conversation is going to go with Luke once Judgment Day rolls around.
“You were doing what, Luke?”
“Waiting for Judgment Day, Lord.”
“Didn’t you have a job or anything?”
“Nope, just waiting.”
“So, you were just sitting around the whole time while this bozo is pawing Anna Lee there?”
We’re starting to see why the Devil hangs around this place and why he just might not be the worst individual in town.
The guy’s persistent, I gotta say.
CrazyChester followed me and he caught me in the fog
He said, "I will fix your rack 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"
So now things take a bit darker turn. Another town resident our supposed stranger in a strange land knows is somebody named Crazy Chester who apparently owns a murderous pet. Now if I’m walking in the fog and I notice somebody named Crazy Chester and his hellhound trying to come up behind me, I’d probably be running. But, not to worry, CC just wants somebody to take his dog and he’s willing to fix Gary’s rack if he’ll do it. What, exactly, is a rack, in this context? Does it have anything to do with the load? You’ll be surprised to learn that we don’t know. We can only surmise that it is broken, given that CC is willing to fix it. Whatever it is, though, would you feel completely comfortable having somebody named Crazy Chester working on it? No! Crazy Chester is somebody you buy furniture from on Labor Day because his prices are so low that everybody thinks he must be crazy. You don’t let him work on anything. “So how’s that rack workin’ for ya?” “It fell off in the first big wind, Crazy. And Jack took a shit in the public library!”
Gary has some qualms about taking on Jack the dog because he’s a “peaceful man.” What the hell does that mean? Jack just roams around looking for trouble and getting his owner into violent confrontations? “Oh, now Jack, don’t go knockin’ over all those motorcycles in front of that biker bar, dammit! Bad dog, Jack, bad dog! You know I’m a peaceful man who don’t like fightin’ with angry, drunk bikers!” But then Crazy Chester reassures him that Jack is pretty self-sufficient and really just needs to be fed every now and then. Does anybody in this town have any sense of responsibility?
Load still ain’t movin’
Fifth and Final Verse
Catch a cannon ball now to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone
I’m thinking now that we can’t take the first line too literally and I’m not sure how deeply we want to delve into the second one. I’m no expert, but my impression is that catching a cannon ball and going down the line is probably hobo speak for hopping a train because actually catching a cannon ball, whether tossed to you by a friend or propelled from an actual cannon, would be difficult and rather pointless, not to mention possibly fatal. Again, not an expert. I know we can all agree, though, that it’s providential that I have my handy Hobo-to-English Dictionary to refer to whenever quaint colloquialisms that haven’t been used in nearly 100 years arise.
All right, so let’s take a look at Gary’s bag and ask, why is it sinking low? That didn’t come out at all the way I wanted. Let’s just leave the bag alone and move on. After spending an unspecified amount of time schmoozing with the locals in Nazareth, particularly the female ones, our Odysseus decides it’s time to return to Penelope. “And, oh yeah, she wanted me to give you her regards. Oh, and, umm, she doesn’t need to know about Carmen or Anna Lee or Miss Moses, right? Just between us, right? And, by the way, does anybody want a dog…? I’ll throw in a slightly used rack…” Maybe he can finally convince Fanny to take a…
…OK, guess not.