“The Shape I’m In,” despite its galloping cadence, finds the Band’s Robbie Robertson desperately attempting to reach out to the badly faltering Richard Manuel. Really, a lot of the second half of 1970’s Stage Fright sounds like that, like the bleary-eyed morning-after revelations that follow a period of partying too hard, and frittering too much time away and thinking too little.
Manuel had, by this point, gone into an addiction spiral that would rob him of his creative position in the Band, and ultimately his life. But the question of whether the pressures of being an every-day musician were killing him — or whether they were, in fact, the only thing keeping Manuel alive — tend to remain, even now.
There’s a terrible feeling, as this song’s driving Diddley-inspired cadence is unleashed, that it was already getting to be too much. But could Manuel have made it even as long as he did, dying a tragically early death in 1986, without the consistent distractions of this work? I’m not so sure.
What I think I hear is Robertson giving voice to his own worst fears about a treasured friend, and hoping — hoping perhaps against hope — that a nightly reading of these devastatingly un-redemptive lyrics would someday help Manuel turn away from the abyss that yawned before him. What we now know is that it didn’t work.
And yet the studio recording, for all of those layered emotions, is a coiled delight. Manuel handled the lyric with a wily desolation, even as Levon Helm kept a close eye on the shifting emotions of this rollicking and yet deeply complex effort. Garth Hudson holds an endlessly fascinating conversation with Robertson through the bridge, creating new depths of painterly emotion and then letting the complete funk out — while Rick Danko (who eventually took over lead on this track after Manuel’s awful suicide) and Helm add keening country-fried backing vocals. Their musicianship, so intricate and compelling, make it difficult to turn away from “The Shape I’m In,” even when you want to.
Over time, even a clearly stoned Manuel (as seen on The Last Waltz) came to imbue this song with a fierce bitterness — conveying a sense that he not only knew that “The Shape I’m In” was a thinly veiled missive in which he starred, but also that he was so entangled in that narrative as to make escape an angry impossibility. Danko, long after his friend’s passing, could only sing these lines with a sad resignation.
Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.