The Band, “Katie’s Been Gone” from The Basement Tapes (1967): Across the Great Divide

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The first in what would become a series of forlorn triumphs from the Band’s Richard Manuel, “Katie’s Been Gone” engenders a kind of shattering wonder, even today, as he reveals the very shape of his heart.

Co-written by Manuel and Robbie Robertson, who seconds Rick Danko on a desperately sad backing vocal, “Katie’s Been Gone” was described by Barney Hoskyns in 1993’s Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, as an early moment that heralded “the birth of the Band.” Certainly, as the third Band-fronted cut on their Bob Dylan collaboration The Basement Tapes, it makes the argument for Manuel as something much more than a knock-off Ray Charles imitator. There is a depth of lonesome romanticism, echoed in the sensitive organ work by Garth Hudson, that’s uniquely his own.

The exact dates of these sessions, as discographer Luigi Cesari notes, remain “an object of discussion.” Syd Griffin, in 2007’s Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band and the Basement Tapes, asserts that “Katie’s Been Gone” was principally recorded in Woodstock in 1967, with drums overdubbed before the album’s release in ’75. Hoskyns, meanwhile, puts the sessions in New York in 1967, with Gary Chester perhaps filling in for an absent Levon Helm.

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Manuel, unfortunately, isn’t around to clear things up. In fact, he wouldn’t live to see the 20th anniversary of these recordings, having been found hanged by his own belt in the bathroom of a Quality Inn where the Band was staying after their packed 1986 performance at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge, a suburban club outside Orlando, Florida. There was no note, leaving friends, family — his wife Arlie had been asleep in the adjoining room — and fellow members of the Band to endlessly speculate on what went wrong for Manuel.

“To me, that was some kind of overreaction,” Danko told me a few years later. “He was truly my dear friend, from back in ’59. I can’t believe he meant to do that. I think he was looking for some kind of attention.”

Whatever the demons that tormented Manuel — he reportedly left behind some 2,000 empty bottles of Grand Marnier upon selling his house in Malibu — there was an unforgettable tenderness, a sentimental sense of awestruck wonder, to his recordings even before the release of the Band’s celebrated 1968 debut. (Arlie, according to one report, once compared Manuel’s voice to a hug.) “Katie’s Been Gone,” presented as it is with such a twilit poignancy, only brings that terrible loss into higher relief.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • jz

    Always loved this song.

  • the king

    There is no denying the greatness of the song and Richard Manuel’s artistry. But there’s no mystery surrounding his death, and comments made by Danko and Helm that continued to be included in articles about Manuel even all these years later simply show the state of denial they (Danko and Helm) were in when they made those comments. Perhaps they are trying to mask their own culpability through their enabling of their friend in his destructive behavior. Manuel was a hardcore alcoholic and drug user, and his suicide is no doubt linked to those conditions. End of mystery, if not story.