Remembering Richard Manuel (1943-86): Across the Great Divide

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For a brief moment, as the Band’s career officially got underway on 1968’s Music from Big Pink, Richard Manuel held the spotlight completely. “Tears of Rage” was enough to convince anyone of his anguished genius. But Manuel couldn’t square up with it, somehow. His crown — no matter the accollades, no matter the praise — always rested uncomfortably.

Of course, the magic and the wonder of the Band was that it had no front man, not really. Instead, Manuel — born on this day in 1943 at Stratford, Canada — was part of a triumverate of remarkable singers, along with Rick Danko and Levon Helm. That ultimately provided some measure of both comfort and cover for the introverted Manuel, who was already struggling with his own demons even as the Band’s shooting star of a career became visible over the horizon.

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Soon enough, however, there was no mistaking his downward spiral. Manuel wrote only a handful of songs before his muse left, and by the time the Band assembled for The Last Waltz, its celebrated 1970s-era farewell, Manuel had become all but invisible — as evidenced by this virtually unseen turn on the middle verse of the closing “I Shall Be Released,” with a throng of others gathered at centerstage. That song, of course, had once been his, a brilliant interpretive moment on par with anything Manuel ever attempted.

Just a decade after that, Manuel was gone, having wrestled for years with addiction, with heartbreak, and maybe most of all with fame.

What’s left, in particular of his self-penned songs, isn’t nearly enough when placed alongside his billowing talents. Yet, then again, it’s more than enough — as we’ll see through this handful of original Richard Manuel songs — to outline his genius, and his pain …

“TEARS OF RAGE,” (MUSIC FROM BIG PINK, 1968): With its watery guitar intro and decaying drum pattern, “Tears of Rage” quickly established the Band as something entirely different — even before Richard Manuel’s devastating vocal began. This was an album-, and career-, opening track like few others. The idea used to be that you kicked off such things with an up-tempo rocker, not something so darkly elegiac — something so clouded by troubled times. Instead, the Band began its debut album with a song (featuring lyrics by Bob Dylan and a melody from Manuel) about parental heartbreak, and in so doing put forward a lasting metaphor for a nation still learning how to deal with a generation of children returning from an unpopular war.

Its first-line Independence Day imagery must have cut deeply for a generation trying to come to terms with the wreckage of the 1960s dream. So much once seen as iron-clad promise at the beginning of the decade had become muddled and confused in an eruption of violence, perhaps most graphically in the fields of Vietnam — but also at home, in the streets of Detroit and of Watts, on a hotel balcony in Memphis and in a kitchen pass through at Los Angeles.

Much of that anguish plays out in the completely interior world of “Tears of Rage,” which features one of Manuel’s very best vocal performances. As he tries to make sense of how things turn out once something is set free, he could be referring only to a child (in something of a King Lear rerun), or a soldier, or a nation. The song, written during The Basement Tapes era when Dylan was the only father among the bunch, works on a number of different levels — a credit to the stirring artistry of all involved.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In a free-form chat, we talked to multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson about the earliest days of the Band, losing all three of its iconic vocalists and the wonders of the Lowrey organ.]

“KATIE’S BEEN GONE,” (THE BASEMENT TAPES, 1975): One of the first in what would become a series of forlorn triumphs from 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, this is as close as you’re likely to get to to a big-bang moment for the Band — though the exact dates of these sessions remain a point of contention.

Manuel, unfortunately, isn’t around to clear things up. In fact, he wouldn’t live to see the 20th anniversary of the initial Basement Tapes 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.

Certainly, as the third Band-fronted cut on The Basement Tapes, it makes the argument for Manuel as something much more than a knock-off Ray Charles imitator, and from the first. There is already depth of lonesome romanticism, echoed in the sensitive organ work by Garth Hudson, that’s uniquely his own.

“IN A STATION,” (MUSIC FROM BIG PINK, 1968): This light-filled paean to the Band’s pastoral surroundings at Big Pink, “In a Station” is a powerful argument against the recent label repackaging, and repackaging yet again, of their individual songs. The Band was never a singles group, and their output over a torrential creative outburst in 1968-69 was meant to be experienced of a piece — not as a series of edited moments in what has been a seemingly endless string of best-of and box sets over the past decade or so.

Confine your listening to those grab-bag corporate cash grabs, and you’re going to miss both the tender joys of this Richard Manuel gem, and the larger tapestry of storytelling and feeling at play on Music from Big Pink. Coming as it does after the excruciating sadness of “Tears of Rage” and the shambolic rumination on salvation that was “To Kingdom Come,” the idyllic reverie of “In a Station” balances everything that came before — even as it provides an early window into the dichotomy that was Manuel as a writer and as a singer.

If “Tears of Rage” showed how desperately lonesome he could be, “In a Station” finds Manuel — with a dreamy accompaniment on the clavinet from Hudson — opening himself entirely to the world around him. Perhaps, in the end, that simply represented two sides of the same coin for this lost genius, testament to a person in the troubled Manuel who simply felt too much.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 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. Click here to see past entries.]

“SLEEPING,” (STAGE FRIGHT, 1970): Richard Manuel’s greatest triumph on Stage Fright, and one of his last signature moments of creativity, arrives with “Sleeping” — as does the growing sense that this is a Band album like no other before it. Emerging from a contemplative intro, so full of hopefulness and yet also defeat, this Robbie Robertson co-written track leaps from a waltz time into a thrilling jazz-inflected cadence — illustrating once again the remarkable musical symbiosis this group once had. Rick Danko, exploring his new Ampeg fretless bass, plays off a series of limber fills from Levon Helm as they push “Sleeping” into this furious sense of ambition. Garth Hudson’s ruminative keyboards then pull everything back into a quiet place again.

Along the way, this song boasts every bit of the controlled emotion of “Whispering Pines” (found later on our list) but filtered through the unabashed openness of “In a Station.” And like this album’s opening Helm-sung “Strawberry Wine,” “Sleeping” — even as Robertson steps forward for a stunningly sympathetic solo, one that echoes and then amplifies the deep-space ruminations of Hudson at the Lowrey — ultimately unveils something far more dark and emotional roiling just beneath the surface. Having gone out, finally, into the world on a series of post-Big Pink concert dates, and having faced both the mythology they themselves had built up and the new problems fame had wrought, there was no getting away from what was happening — despite Robertson’s early idea that Stage Fright should serve as “a little bit of a goof.”

Instead, there’s this: “Sleeping” begins with a lament about “the life we chose,” and continues through a confusingly lonesome period of guessing and searching. The Band is turning definitively away from the enveloping narrative worlds that defined its first two albums to deal with the very real issues of their own lives, and not for the last time on Stage Fright. Is it any wonder — knowing, as we do, what ahead not just for them, but for Manuel as well — that “Sleeping” pines for a world of escape?

[ROBBIE ROBERTSON INTERVIEW: Robbie Robertson tells Nick DeRiso he discovered new greatness in a remastering of the Band’s 1971 concert collaborations with Allen Toussaint at the Academy of Music.]

“WHISPERING PINES,” (THE BAND, 1969): On an album dominated by strikingly resonant character studies and plenty of hootenanny fun, “Whispering Pines” thrums with unvarnished, seemingly autobiographical emotion. Manuel doesn’t sing this as if telling the story of a man walled off by loneliness, he lives and breathes every bruising syllable. Recorded at New York City’s Hit Factory, in final sessions that also included Helm’s knee-slapping ribaldry on “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Jemima Surrender,” “Pines” finds Manuel reaching for vocal places in an unguardedly heartbroken way. It may be the most unbearably sad thing the Band ever did.

Yet, as personal as “Whispering Pines” has always sounded, Robertson helped complete this song, as Manuel began his steep descent into a drug-fueled writer’s block. The music, and a vocal line, had been composed while playing a piano left behind by painter George Bellows in a house where Manuel lived. But he could get no further. As with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Robertson’s canny ability to echo not just the point of view but the deep-seated feelings of his band mates is again on display. “Richard always had this very plaintive attitude in his voice, and sometimes just in his sensitivity as a person,” Robertson recalled later. “I tried to follow that, to go with it and find it musically.”

In all, Robertson would collaborate with Manuel on five songs between 1969’s The Band and 1970’s Stage Fright, before the songs left Richard. There remained among fans a lasting hope, fueled oddly enough by this song, that one day he’d return to the pen. Its closing verse — shared in an aching loveliness with Helm — certainly paints a dark and cold portrait of despair, but Manuel’s final piano figure (not to mention the phrase: “the lost are found”) offer a quiet sense of respite, of peace at the coming dawn.

If only there had been more of that in Manuel’s tragically short life.

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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