Reflecting the iconic group's return to the cultural forefront, the Wall Street Journal's excellent Marc Myers in Wednesday's edition features Robertson and his classic song "The Weight" for Myers' "Anatomy of a Song" feature.
Robertson, the group's leader against resistance from drummer Levon Helm, takes full credit for the song, reviving the bitter controversy stirred by Helm in his autobiography, which claimed that singer/pianist/drummer Richard Manuel, bassist Rich Danko and Helm himself contributed lyrics to the enduring anthem.
I was especially surprised that Robertson claims that he originated the character "Crazy Chester," a Fayetteville, Ark., eccentric known by all of the group when they backed singer Ronnie Hawkins and were called the Hawks. Helm said that another character was a person he knew as a child.
Whether or not Robertson gives himself too much credit, he does offer interesting details, such as that the reference to "Miss Fanny," not Annie as many listeners believed, referred to Fanny Steloff, the owner of the great Gotham Book Mart, which for many years drew famous writers and readers to its book-crammed space at 41 W. 47th St., incongruously in the middle of Manhattan's Diamond District.
Robertson said screenplays by Mexican filmmaker Luis Bunuel that he purchased at the store gave inspiration for the song, which has a cinematic surrealistic power with its images and characters.
The Nazareth in the song refers to Nazareth, Pa., the home of the Martin Guitar Co., long the standard for acoustic guitars. For many, the Nazareth reference has biblical implications, along with the song's references to the devil and a character named Luke.
"The Last Waltz," Martin Scorsese's film of the Band's 1976 concert in San Francisco that featured a number of notable performers, includes a sombre rendition of "The Weight" performed by the Band and the Staples Singers. That number was recorded after the concert on a sound stage.
The film is billed as the Band's final performance, mainly because Robertson had grown weary of touring with the group and wanted to quit. However, Helm, Danko and Manuel reformed the group several years later and resumed performances, with Robertson moving on to a solo career in the movies and as a musician.
As Robertson prophesied in his windy philosophizing in the movie, the road took its toll. Manuel hung himself in his hotel room after a performance. Helm and Dankio are also gone, prematurely worn out by the rock star life.
The group's songs, mainly credited to Robertson, although Manuel and Danko also played significant roles along with contributions from Helm, stand among the era's best. The brilliant organist Garth Hudson, who shaped the band's music, also deserves more credit. Hudson, now in his 70s, continues a vital career as a studio musician and composer. The group is also known for its dynamic association with Bob Dylan, who makes a stirring appearance in the "Last Waltz."
Scorsese's film shows that the Band stands with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as the best live performance groups. Each man could play multiple instruments, and Manuel, Danko and Helm are among rock's greatest singers.
Robertson, who in the movie seizes the dominant role in shaping the group's legacy, now puts another stamp on their career. As the last survivor, he claims the hero's cloak.