The Other Side
Copyright © Peter Stone Brown, 1986, 1998.
It was many years ago, July. Psychedelic music was still happening. "After Bathing at Baxter's." The Doors were huge. Hendrix alive. I brought home the strangest-looking record on Capitol with what appeared to be a young child's painting on the cover. The back had a color shot of a stupid-looking pink house and in huge, ugly black letters read, Music from Big Pink.
All I knew about the musicians was that I'd seen them back Bob Dylan three years before at his first electric shows. They'd toured with Dylan all over the world, but nothing had been heard from them since his motorcycle wreck.
The music on that record by The Band was like nothing before or since, and the first voice you heard was Richard Manuel's. The song and the sound were heavy: "Tears of Rage, Tears of Grief." Richard Manuel and the rest of the group gave it everything they had.
As singer Happy Traum wrote in Sing Out! magazine, it was "so intense that when you first heard it, you had to stop halfway through and put the needle back to the beginning, just to make sure you got it all." And that was just the opening number.
Richard Manuel (who played rhythm piano and melodic drums) sang the opening and closing songs on the first two Band albums. He sang the last song at The Last Waltz, the movie of their final show. He always sang with passionate feeling, even when his voice couldn't catch up with him any more.
In the early days of The Band, he wrote some of their best songs -- "In A Station," "Katie's Been Gone," "Lonesome Suzie" -- that are still great today. If Robbie Robertson was the group's chronicler of historic American myth, Manuel was the poetic dreamer, forever lost, wandering some haunted mountain, hearing voices calling. When he sang, you heard the voices calling too.
Other voices were calling Richard Manuel. Not the romantic ones he wrote about. By the second Band album, he was only co-writing with Robertson. By their fourth album, Cahoots, he'd stopped writing entirely. During the Band's final tour in 1976, that culminated in The Last Waltz, it was obvious he was having problems.
He'd always start out strong, but by his third song his voice would be diminished to a hoarse croak. It could be a pretty intense hoarse croak, but it was coming from someone who had had one of the most eerie and wonderful falsettos in all of rock and roll. On stage, the rest of The Band would fill in his parts for him. You could feel them pulling for him.
After The Last Waltz, nothing was heard from Manuel for years, until Rick Danko started taking him out on tour. It was tenuous at best. The first night they played the Bijou (in Philadelphia), he didn't show. Danko said it was the mayonaise at the hotel. Everybody in the club knew it wasn't.
Many came back the next night: The Band's fans were loyal. He showed up and was good for three songs. I tried to interview him backstage. It was like talking to a shell.
Every time I saw him after that was pretty much the same. Long-time fans would come hoping to hear "Lonesome Suzie," and every time he'd sing "The Shape I'm In," which Robertson wrote for him. "Oh you don't know the shape I'm in": When he sang that, he wasn't kidding.
When The Band reformed a couple of years ago without Robertson (who knew it was over), Manuel again did three songs -- and of course one was "The Shape I'm In."
As I'm writing this, "Rockin' Chair," from The Band's second album, is playing softly, Manuel singing the "oh to be home again" chorus. A few hours ago, a friend phoned to tell me that Richard Manuel hung himself this morning in Florida after a gig. "The days that remain ain't worth a dime."
This column is about a bunch of memories and a couple of songs. It's about a few pieces of plastic that changed my life and the way I feel about music. Today, it's about the sad story of a sad, great singer who messed himself up. There's not that much to tell.
The facts of Richard Manuel's life aren't important anyway. The real story can still be heard. Hear it in "Lonesome Suzie" and "Jawbone" and "Share Your Love," in "Whispering Pines" and "Sleeping." That's where the story is, in the songs. "Tears of Rage, Tears of grief."
Copyright © Peter Stone Brown, 1986, 1998.