The Lonesome Death of Richard Manuel
The Day the Music Died
by Martin LevinFrom the monthly Canadian magazine Toronto Life, March 1996.
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RICHARD MANUEL'S jumping-off point for out yonder turned out to be a motel room in a sleepy Florida town called Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando. That night--it was March 3, 1986--a truncated version of The Band had played the Cheek to Cheek Lounge, a humbling comedown from the heated days when they toured with Bob Dylan and played festivals like the Isle of Wight. Early the next morning, after a night of booze and drugs, he got out of the bed where he lay with his wife, went into the bathroom and hanged himself. He was a month short of forty-three, a man victimized by the promises and betrayals of rock and roll. Ten years later, his friends and family still aren't sure why he did it, if they can accept that he did it at all.
Growing up in Stratford in the 1950s, Richard Manuel was like a lot of small-town Canadian kids, singing in the church choir, taking piano lessons, hanging out. But in one critical way he was different. Most kids were listening to mainstream radio and, in some fashion, being changed by it. Elvis, of course, and that wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis, but also white-bread versions of classics like Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" by the pallid Pat Boone. For Richard, that wasn't enough. He'd tune in nights to radio station WLAC in Nashville, where DJ John R. was spinning Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters, black musicians most of us had never heard of, might never have heard of if white musicians like Richard hadn't brought them to us.
At fifteen, he and his friend John Till were playing in a local bar band, the Rockin' Revols. Rebels was the name they wanted, but Duane Eddy's band already had it. Richard, who sang and played the piano, always said Revols was short for revolution. Within a couple of years, Ronnie Hawkins, smitten with Richard's soulful voice, recruited him into his band, the Hawks. "Richard had the greatest voice in the world," says Hawkins. "Great throat. Great phrasing." Hawkins' stand was the old Le Coq d'Or at Yonge and Dundas Square, where anyone old enough to drink--and many who weren't--got to hear the bar band that practically invented bar bands turn out the leanest, meanest, sexiest rock and roll around. It was Arkansas meets southern Ontario as Hawkins and drummer Levon Helm joined up with Richard, Simcoe's Rick Danko and Toronto's Robbie Robertson, all of them teenagers. Robertson was only fifteen. At twenty-four, London's Garth Hudson was a relative greybeard. The Hawks owned Yonge Street. "I guess we thought we were pretty hot stuff," says Danko. "We bought a '56 T-bird convertible that we kind of shared one summer."
They were young, hot, strutting their stuff. But the worm was already in the bud, the Circe of rock-and-roll seduction winking an eye in Richard's direction. The young Hawks balked at Hawkins' discipline, which included practice every day. Richard was already a party guy, all laughter and ready-for-anything on the outside, something else within. "I guess he must have had a drinking problem then," says Hawkins. "But he never messed up in performance, and that's what mattered to me." Party, you should know, is a code word for dissipation. Since Hawkins forbade the use of drugs, that pretty much meant women and drinking. Though Richard indulged heavily in both, it was booze that would be the hellhound on his trail.
WHEN THEY MET Bob Dylan in the mid-sixties, the Hawks quit Hawkins and, led by Levon Helm, struck out on their own. Mary Martin, who worked for Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, and had hung out at Le Coq d'Or, made the introduction. The Hawks followed Dylan to Woodstock, a little town in upstate New York where he was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. Dylan's painting of six musicians--the Hawks and Bob?--graced the cover of the group's 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink, named for the house they rented near town. The photographs inside the album cover were counterrevolutionary, affirming old values, rejecting the sixties contention that only the here and now mattered. Intergenerational crowds of Manuels, Dankos and Hudsons are massed in a multifamily reunion, witnesses to things they don't want to change.
The Hawks had now become The Band, and Big Pink stood for values they wanted rock and roll to accommodate. The big pink house wasn't just a low-key spot to hang out and make music. It was a real home, near woods and a pond. Richard, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, living together, could walk their dog, Hamlet, and experience a semblance of the small-town lives they'd left behind. Despite a proclivity for wrecking cars, they were still innocents. And this naivete extended to business; only Robbie Robertson understood it, or cared to.
Musically, Big Pink was a revelation, with its offbeat harmonies and narrative lyrics, its distillation of a century of eclectic influences--rock and roll, sure, but rhythm and blues, too, and string band, and country and gospel and backwoods caterwauling. It was a once-in-an-era blending of musical styles played by equals; there were no showboating solos, just three great singers (Richard, Rick Danko and Levon Helm), Robbie Robertson's inspired songwriting and electrifying guitar and Garth Hudson's commanding keyboards, which gave the rustic songs the feel and density of Bach cantatas.
Richard's is the first voice you hear on the album. His stately, impassioned "Tears of Rage" is a minor-key King Lear, a mournful, keening reproach to a wayward daughter. Gravelly and smooth at once, his voice could wrap itself around a lovesick ballad like melted chocolate or belt out the blues like a long day's dying. On songs like "I Shall Be Released," a squeezed and expressive falsetto is wrung out of him, pain and solace both, a comforting heartbreak. Richard's life in a nutshell.
A second album, The Band--also Woodstock-vintage and released in 1969--was more of the neotraditional same, a solemn, majestic autumnal work. It closes with "King Harvest," a musical dramatic monologue with Richard as a sharecropper offering a prayer to the rainmaker and, should that fail, the salvation of the Union. It's a desperate vocal; if salvation cannot come from the Union, he's not quite sure where to find it. Big Pink and its sequel were The Band's two greatest moments, and it's fitting that Richard both opens and closes them.
Woodstock seemed like a great rural experiment, a conscious resistance to urban excess. Bearded, hatted, dressed in nineteenth-century garb, The Band cultivated a neo-Thoreauvian outlaw image. Is it so strange that Canadian kids should capture so perfectly the shape and colours of a vanished America? Yes, they were outsiders enchanted by the exotic south, but, more important, they came from a culture of consent and deference, one that distrusted rapid change and quick fixes and values that shifted as rapidly as prime-time TV schedules. Here was community, of music, yes, but of soul, too--like-minded men and women who would not be seduced by the tradition-is-bunk and don't-trust-anyone-over-thirty mentality of the era. Even onstage, they seemed as much good friends as a band.
But the good times were short-lived. "They had too much time on their hands," says Hawkins. "When the Hawks were playing with me, I had 'em playing seven nights a week and practising five days. Not much time for anything else, except women. You got to keep busy." Rich, famous and insecure, they began to lose focus. Then they made a terrible mistake. They moved to southern California.
WATCHING RICHARD in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's film of their 1976 farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland, is a kind of memento mori, a preview of coming destruction. There he is, long hair, hawk nose, dark, dark beard, dark, dark, saturnine expression, and drunk, so drunk he missed the cue to his verse of "I Shall Be Released," so drunk he was hardly filmable, which is why there's so little of him there.
This was Malibu Richard, who forgot, or ignored, the community values of Woodstock. This Richard was thin but drank like a fish, with a fish's distended belly, and a fish's penchant for being eaten by sharks. When he vacated his Malibu beach house in 1976, they found 2,000 empty Grand Marnier bottles. He had to take placidyl--a potent downer--in order to sleep. Naked, he looked as if his liver were bulging out of his abdomen. He was so saturated with alcohol that even his skin seemed to sag on his bones.
After the filming of The Last Waltz, his already shaky selfesteem keeled right over. He lost his wife, Jane Kristianson, a former model who gave up her career for him and then, for stability and consolation and perhaps because its spartan rigours are the antithesis of the rock life, became a Jehovah's Witness. The other members of the band were going their separate ways--Robbie Robertson to Hollywood to hang out with Scorsese and score an occasional film; Levon Helm to rediscover his boogie roots with a series of bands; Rick Danko to try a solo career. Richard, too, talked of going out on his own, but his music-making dried up like his body. Once a brilliant and sensitive lyricist, since leaving Woodstock he'd barely written. He'd become too fearful to make the commitment.
RICHARD REFERRED to the Malibu days as his "beige period." He was very funny, often cynically. But no matter how much he drank, how many bad drugs he took, he never lost that dark-edged sweentness. In Chasing the Dragon, her 1984 autobiography, Cathy Smith, the woman charged with involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of comedian John Belushi, wrote about her relationship with Richard. Impregnated by Levon Helm, she bore and later gave up for adoption a daughter in whom he apparently took no interest. Richard was sympathetic. He and Smith had been lovers, and he offered to marry her. She turned him down, but he was always there when she needed him--if he could stay sober. He was, she writes, "exactly like his singing voice--sad, sweet and soulful, a little boy lost."
Later, Richard met Smith at Toronto's Inn on the Park, at a time when she was living with Gordon Lightfoot and The Band was touring with Dylan. They cuddled, nostalgic for the recent past of cheap hotel rooms, reefers and easy sex. Nothing had really changed, except that the rooms were expensive and the drugs were designer. But that chaste cuddle hints at the desire to slow down a world spinning too fast to hang on, to seek shelter from the storm. This Richard is a crazy combination of dependability and helplessness, a fragile rock of ages with a fund of wisdom for everyone except himself.
Eric Clapton was one of Richard's great friends. In an interview he gave to rock writer Timothy White in 1989, Clapton said: "I was madly in love with Richard because we were going through a lot of the same difficulties...screwing around with drugs and drink...getting pretty crazy down deep.... He was finding it difficult to cope with his talent. I just identified so strongly with him. For me, he was the one I thought was the light of The Band.... There was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that falsetto, the hair on my neck would stand up on end. Not many people can do that."
ARLIE LITVAK was a nice Jewish girl from Forest Hill. She had wanted to meet Richard since she was sixteen and heard him sing "Lonesome Suzie." "I wondered what the man behind the voice was like," she says. "He had a voice like a hug." They met in 1974 and three years later, after Richard's marriage collapsed, began living together in yet another Malibu beach house, this one owned by Who drummer Keith Moon. "Yes, I'd heard the rumour that he was a heavy drinker, but he was always very sweet to me--a soulful, gentle, charitable person who seldom spoke ill of anyone."
Richard and Arlie moved back to Woodstock in 1984 (Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko still live there). They got married and, although Richard hadn't given up drugs, he stopped drinking. Cold turkey. "In fact," says Arlie, "he told people that if he ever started drinking again, he'd kill himself." He talked about making an album with Eric Clapton. The Band had been revived, without Robbie Robertson. But the magic and hope Woodstock once offered were gone. There was no there there any more, and Richard knew it. Around spring of 1985 he fell off the wagon with a thud.
EVERYBODY WHO KNEW HIM, and some who didn't, has a theory about his death. Rick Danko and Arlie think it was a call for help, or a prank gone wrong. John Till, who was playing guitar in Janis Joplin's band when she died, is so puzzled that he concocts a drug hit disguised as suicide, though he clearly doesn't believe it. Just as implausibly, there are those who think it was autoerotic asphyxiation--pretty unlikely considering Richard was drunk, stoned and depressed. Levon Helm takes an almost mystical view: he sees Richard's act as a kind of ritual self-sacrifice. Richard may have felt he was letting The Band down when he couldn't get his ravaged voice to hit the high notes; his death might just get things going again. These are voices of people straining to account for the sudden loss of a cherished friend while denying that all things must pass--including The Band, including the idea of rock and roll as a force for renewal.
Others think, plausibly, that Richard was depressed that The Band was relegated to the B-list. To have reached the zenith of success, to be held in such esteem by your peers and fans, and then to be reduced to the nostalgia circuit, that's hard. Perhaps this sensitive, shy, naive small-town Canadian boy could handle neither the attention nor its end. He may have been, as Jim Morrison, another rock casualty, put it, what happens "when the music's over," tired of a lifetime of depressing onenighters rehashing the old songs and struggling to control both his damaged voice and his drug habits. Richard, the confident good-time Charlie, the man who said "I was a party," might have looked at where he'd ended up and thought: "I've wasted my life and time and talent. I just can't do it any more."
IF YOU WANT to understand Richard, you need to listen to Moondog Matinee (1973), an underrated album of covers of the music The Band loved so much, not Sha Na Na-style oldies, but the R&B classics they'd listened to all those years ago. The album cover is their only explicit nod to Hogtown. It's a wraparound poster, painted by Toronto artist Edward Kasper, showing the boys in various louche attitudes hanging out in Cabbagetown. Richard, smoking, is slouched against the outside pane of the Cabbagetown Cafe, while Robbie Robertson contemplates the jukebox. Rick Danko is propped up against a fire hydrant, reading a country-and-western magazine, while Levon Helm and Garth Hudson stand in a doorday, sharing a Coke. Richard seems the most contemplative, the least engaged. He's surprisingly natty in a hip suit and tieless green shirt, but he looks wary, on the edge, worried.
Inside the album, his reading of the Platters' "The Great Pretender" is almost too perfect. Oh, yes, I'm the great pretender, just laughing and gay like a clown. I seem to be what I'm not you see.... Then there's a little moan in the middle, just after Too real is the feeling of make-believe, that lets you know that he knows.
"Well, we fooled them again," Richard would say to Revols bandmate John Till as if, even in the beginning he understood his dark side, his fear that he was the great pretender he later sang about. But the pretense was as much rock and roll as it was himself.
Rock and roll had promised freedom from the bland, deadening certainties of the fifties, with its suburban ranch homes, despiritualized churches, political intolerance and grey-flannel suits. But it wasn't that easy. Kids like Richard and Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, weren't equipped for the journey between conformist past and pagan present. They were the romantic poets of their generation, living fast and dying young. Neil Young would later intone, "Hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll will never die," and he was right. The spirit of rock and roll lives on in punk and grunge. But the first rockers were just making music, and the music hadn't yet been sucked into the gaping maw of commerce and then spat out and sent on the road to sell beer, cigarettes and T-shirts.
That sense of pretending, of unworthiness, was drowned in booze, clouded in drugs, hidden behind a party-boy mask. How could his behaviour matter if he didn't? His proneness to accidents became a kind of joke, as if treating it as boyish peccadillo could cover what everyone must have known was a self-destructive streak. He'd career his Ferrari at high speeds on interstates and back roads in search of a crack-up. He once gave himself third-degree burns trying to fire up a gas barbecue. But his many accidents were greeted with a kind of "Ha, so old Richard smashed up another car. What a guy!"
TWO DAYS before he died, Richard and Arlie quarrelled. He was drinking heavily and looked ill. She wanted him to see a doctor, but he said he could handle it. "I was a bad drug addict," she says, "freebasing and doing heroin. I had my own problems." After the March 3 show outside Orlando, they returned to their room at the nearby Quality Inn, where Richard drank a bottle of Grand Marnier, his favourite, and finished off a vial of cocaine. Then he and Arlie fell asleep in each other's arms.
Arlie remembers the morning of March 4 like this: "Around noon, I got up and went out for breakfast to a place called Bojangles. For some reason I thought Richard might be eating on the tour bus. I didn't even go to the bathroom, which I always do. When I came back, I went to the bathroom. Richard was hanging from the shower curtain rod. I began to scream. I ran out to get Rick. He didn't believe me and sent his wife, Elizabeth. She saw what had happened, and finally Rick and Levon took him down. It was horrible. I called 911 and kept screaming, kept pounding [on his chest]."
Richard had looped his belt around his neck and secured the other end to the shower-curtain rod near the wall where it was less likely to buckle under his weight. When he was found, the screws had popped out of their mountings. His tongue was hanging out of his mouth. It took a hysterical Arlie, a sickened Levon Helm and an utterly disbelieving Rick Danko five minutes to get him down.
Arlie herself barely survived. She ended up back home in Toronto in the Donwood Institute, where her weight dropped to ninety pounds. Eventually, she detoxified and has been clean and sober ever since. Today she lives in Santa Monica and works as a massage therapist and yoga instructor.
IN A WAY, Richard Manuel's life was about what happens when you stick your neck out. Metaphorically, sure, taking old songs to new places, taking emotional chances with new songs. But literally, too. Before he put himself at the end of his trousers belt, he'd already injured his neck in one of his frequent reckless car accidents and in a power-boating mishap. And he knew as well as anyone where the drinking and drugs could lead. His death was the death of rock and roll as we had hoped it might be--forceful, honest, liberating, able to weave parts into a whole. It was as if Richard and rock and roll reached the end of the tether together. The wheel had come around.
Save your neck, or save your brother, looks like it's one or the other. In the end, sweet, kind, haunted, loyal generous, naive, stubborn, self-destructive Richard Manuel could do neither.