“Hey, wait a minute Chester, I’m a peaceful man!” The Weight
In 1968, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson holed up in a colorful cottage near Woodstock, NY, called “Big Pink.” These five musicians had backed Bob Dylan’s notorious leap from acoustic strummer to electrified frontman, earning the condemnation of purists at the Newport Folk Festival. At first, Helm and his cohorts remained anonymous, referred to collectively as simply “The Band.” But before long, and on the strength of their earthy, gutsy music, the group rose to iconic status, and their afterthought of a name became legendary. Martin Scorsese’s landmark concert film, The Last Waltz, not only captured The Band’s farewell performance, but inspired the seminal mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. Among the Last Waltz’s highlights is drummer Levon Helm’s impassioned performance of the classic song “The Weight.” In his prematurely haggard voice, Levon delivered one of Rock’s signature lyrics “Rolled into Nazareth, I was feeling ’bout half-past dead.” Then, joined by the weathered harmonies of Band mates Danko and Manuel, Levon dove into the enigmatic chorus “Take a load of Fannie, take a load for free, take a load off Fannie, and, and and, you put the load right on me.”
After The Band disbanded, Helm thrived as an actor and musician, trailblazing the amalgam of folk, rock, and country music known as American and becoming its beloved elder statesman. Through it all, Levon and “The Weight” remain forever linked together. It came as no surprise, then, that Levon became less than gruntled to discover seven years ago that his signature vocal turn in The Weight had been licensed as the theme for a cell phone TV ad. Helm sued, claiming that the commercial use of his voice violated his right of publicity. The so-called “ROP” protect’s a person’s name. likeness, and voice from unauthorized use by others, especially commercial uses. Gravel voiced singer Tom Waits successfully wielded his ROP to block a commercial that employed a Waitsian sound-alike after Tom himself refused to allow use of one of his vocal performances. If Waits could stop and impersonator, Levon must have thought that his lawsuit, against the real McCoy, would be a sure thing. And it might have been, except for one thing. Years ago, Levon and The Band signed away their rights in “The Weight” and many other songs. Their record company, not Levon, owned the recordings. And the record company, not Levon, had the right to decide where that music can be used–including the right to license “The Weight” for use in commercials.
Like the father he played in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Levon tried to dig himself out from under the weight of The Band’s prior agreement. He didn’t deny having signed away some of his rights. But he argued that he had kept his ROP. Both the trial cour and the appellate court had little trouble rejecting Helm’s theory. The trial court didn’t let the case go to trial, and the appeals court affirmed that summary ruling finding that Helm and The Band had held back nothing when they signed away their rights. So to paraphrase “The Weight,” when Levon Helm asked the judge for relief, “No” is all he said.
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