The Band, “The Great Pretender” from Moondog Matinee (1973): Across the Great Divide

Sweet and goofy, haunted and doomed, Richard Manuel found in “The Great Pretender” a song that spoke words he couldn’t, by then, speak.

Long past the point where his muse had left, but a full decade before he’d tragically hang himself, Manuel was becoming best known for his mishaps — car crashes, chiefly. He would also be seriously burned while lighting a grill, and get involved in a scary boating accident. It’s commonly understood that the Band gathered at Bearsville studio to record the covers-focused Moondog Matinee as a kind of musical intervention for the badly faltering Manuel.

Some of this, maybe all of it, seemed to be related to his predeliction for Grand Marnier, or something harder. But there was something else going on, something darker and much more heartbreaking. And that, after one bad night a Florida motel bathroom, became the larger part of Manuel’s legacy — more, sadly, than moments like this, moments when he would grab someone else’s song (always, from Stage Fright forward, someone else’s song) and become its very embodiment.

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Forget that other stuff, then, if only for a moment. Listen as Richard Manuel focuses his considerable talents on a song that mirrors his own story, even as he transcends that story. When Manuel moves into the its second half, he’s no longer interpreting, no longer mimicking the original Tony Williams lead for the Platters, he’s feeling every word — making them brand new. He swoops upward, into a range that you might have thought long gone, pushes his voice back down into a dimly lit place of need an then charges forward into a moment where he almost loses control.

He never does, of course. Instead, as Garth Hudson’s expressive organ fills ride along with Levon Helm’s active but never cluttered cadence, Manuel gives “The Great Pretender” a visceral sense of yearning — too white hot for the melancholy of “Share Your Love (With Me),” too meaningful to ever fade. This isn’t the broken-down Richard of lore; he sings with a palpable hunger.

In that way, this is every bit as gutsy a performance, as risky and interesting and full of life, as the Band’s far more widely praised re-imagining of “Mystery Train” elsewhere on Moondog Matinee. Manuel, who could become the consummate professional as soon as a mic was turned on, stays away from the campiest sentiments in Buck Ram’s lyric — instead imbueing it with very real desire. If this was their plan in doing Moondog Matinee, it worked. An old song had Richard Manuel sounding like his old self again.

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.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso