The Weight

In 1995, I decided to bag my radio career completely and I went back to college, enrolling at the University of Iowa, in the teacher ed program. My plan was to end up a social studies teacher someplace. My first semester, I took four history courses and one education course. There was a ton of reading to be done, but it was the sort of reading I did for fun anyhow, so it wasn’t like work. I was able to build good rapport with my professors, and although most of my fellow students were 12 to 15 years younger than me, I didn’t feel out of place. And I enjoyed the hell out of it. I remember walking out of my last class one afternoon (“Topics in the History of Public Health”), my head still ringing from a discussion of game theory as it related to epidemic disease prevention in 19th century London. As I walked among the old campus buildings on that sunny early-spring day, I felt a tremendous rush of excitement. I had never dreamed a purely theoretical, academic discussion could be so much fun. This is what it’s like to be a history major, I thought.

But that was March. Come April, I was to learn something else about being a history major, when all the end-of-semester projects came due around the same time, followed immediately by final exams. It was as exhausting as the earlier part of the semester had been exhilarating. For a period around the first of May, I was working harder than I’d ever worked at anything in my life—and I found a theme song that described the feeling exactly.

I lived an hour away from campus, so I had a lengthy commute each way. But Iowa City had a really good classic-rock radio station at that time, and I’d listen to it most of the way there and back. One weary afternoon I punched it up just in time to hear:

I pulled into Nazareth
Was feelin’ ’bout half past dead
Just need some place
Where I can lay my head

Although I’d heard “The Weight” plenty of times before, I could never relate to it until that moment. Neither did I really understand before that moment what it meant to take the weight. I had always been someone who preferred the path of least resistance—which explains, among other things, why my radio career ended up a disappointment. My return to college wasn’t the first time I’d ever taken on a task that turned out to be incredibly, unexpectedly hard. The difference was that this time, I was determined to keep at it, and my strong desire to see it through was a revelation. Far from being an intolerable burden, the weight itself became its own motivation for going on.

Apart from being a damn good song, “The Weight” is on my Desert Island list because I like being reminded of that life—those two-plus years of full-time studenthood, a tremendous luxury for a man in his mid-30s—weight and all. Here it is from The Last Waltz, with the Staple Singers.