Like many, if not most, people I always seem to have a song in my head. Sometimes it’ll go all night, even while I’m sleeping; sometimes yesterday’s song will start up again when I wake. Usually it’s just a few bars, a fragment of melody, a line or two of lyrics. Usually, too – though not always – it’s a song I like. I know how to invite a song to play in my head but expelling one I don’t want is more difficult. You have to be wary of known ear-worms.
Today it’s The Weight . . . I pulled into Nazareth / I was feelin’ bout half past dead . . . I know why: there’s a version by Cassandra Wilson on Belly of the Sun which I’ve been playing in the cab and then, the other day, when I heard Levon Helm had died, I pulled out The Best of the Band cd and gave that a spin. It’s an ancient song for me, I’ve been listening to it for forty years – verdad! At the first flat I lived in, a four bedroom house at 6 Margaret Street, Ponsonby, we only had three LP records that weren’t classical. One was The Band’s second album, usually just called the black album, another was the The Songs of Leonard Cohen, the third Astral Weeks . . . and then we got a fourth, Music from the Big Pink, from which The Weight is taken.
Levon Helm, who sings lead vocals on the track, reckons the song’s about some people the band knew in the town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where the Martin guitar factory is; but Robbie Robinson, who wrote the lyrics, prefers to cite Luis Bunuel who did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood. I’ve never really considered what it’s about, like all the best songs it seems to answer its own questions. However, Fanny’s my grandmother’s name and, although she was frail as a leaf, I’ve always associated her with weight of a psychic kind – that which is hard to unload, that which might inadvertently be loaded onto someone too young to bear it.
It’s an appropriate song in another sense. I spend the morning trying to construct a document called an e-tan, necessary for the approval of travel funds for my research trip in June. I manage to enter the portals of World Travel and find what I think is the right form to fill out; but it’s hellishly complex and, each time I hit the backspace key to cancel a mistake, the entire document deletes and I have to start all over again. This happens four times in an hour . . . in desperation I call Mel at the Uni, she says she’ll call back in five, does so, and we learn I’m on the wrong page! Trying to construct a quote, which has already happened. The e-tan – an electronic record of your travel – is elsewhere. Mel is so efficient that she has the whole thing sorted in about twenty minutes.
Meanwhile The Weight keeps on playing in my head . . . Now wait a minute, Chester / You know I’m a peaceful man . . . and I begin to see its relevance to the shift I’m working this afternoon: isn’t that another kind of weight? I’ve missed the last two Tuesdays but had a sense from Bob, when I saw him Friday, that he wouldn’t tolerate me skipping out on this one. So I asked him straight up if he wanted me to work and he said yes.
So I start going through the routine preparations, all the time wondering about that story of the Moles going to visit Levon Helm (in Arkansas?) on our cross country tour in 1979-80. There were seven of us then, we travelled in separate cars, not in convey; and, while the musos and I went from Tennessee to Texas via New Orleans, the actors took another route to the rendezvous point outside the Alamo in San Antonio. Funny, I never asked Alan about that – not that he would necessarily have told me much, a cryptic sentence or two was about the limit of what you’d get from him. I can however see them all sitting on a stoop somewhere near Turkey Scratch. Like a scene from Coal Miner’s Daughter maybe, in which Helm plays father to Sissy Spacek’s Loretta Lynn.
It’s a quiet beginning to a busy shift, lots of people going out as if it’s a Friday night; later on, just before I go home, the Cross is absolutely jammed with revellers, it looks like Castro Street, SF, circa 1978. Some funny things happen. I pick up three tall, young Korean girls in Pitt Street and take them to Ashfield. They enunciate the address very carefully – 351 Liverpool Road – and I wonder if that means they haven’t been there before. In cases like this I always ask what kind of place it is . . . restaurant? private house? There’s no answer (all three are sitting in the back) but a lot of whispering and I can hear a phone being used.
And then, on the Anzac Bridge, this big white module appears under my nose and I realise they’ve called ahead to where they’re going and someone’s on the line to answer my casual question – which I’ve more or less forgotten and don’t need answered anyway. I have this bizarre conversation with an older woman, also, I assume, Korean, she absolutely refuses to tell me what the premises are used for then re-iterates the address before hanging up. I have no idea what all this is about until we pull up outside 351 – and it’s a Korean massage parlour. Perhaps these girls are going to work; perhaps for a massage: they’ve certainly been here before.
During the shift I re-play The Best of the Band, marvelling at how good some of it sounds. There’s a couple from Camperdown, going to The Winery in Surry Hills for their first night out since their 11 month old son was born, and she goes: What is this music? They’ve never heard of Levon Helm or The Band or any of that, they’re too young, and it’s odd to realise how contemporary it seems to them. I do all the taking of people out to have their fun but none of the taking home afterwards . . . my last fare is from the Cross to the casino in Pyrmont, a fellow wearing so much cologne it almost suffocates me; then I wash the cab in Burwood and go home.
There’s emails: Mel has completed the formalities, remarkable, my trip is now assured. And I have a new song in my head, it’s Whispering Pines: If you find me in a gloom or catch me in a dream / Inside my lonely room there is no in between / Whispering pines, rising of the tide / If only one star shines that’s just enough to get inside / I will wait until it all goes ’round / With you in sight the lost are found . . .