The Moving Shadow of Richard Manuel
by Ron HorningFrom 'The Rock & Roll Quarterly', Village Voice, 5 July 1988.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Shielding his eyes from the spotlights, he peered over the top of the beaten-up electric Yamaha. Robbie had been right to stay away from the reunion. We sing and play songs that were our lifeblood once, shifting occasionally to one of the classics, but what we meant back then, to ourselves and everyone else, is as dead as a raccoon hit by a semi. Not that the audience minds. There go the guys in flannel shirts, waving their long-neck bottles: hey Richard, hey Garth, hey Levon, hey Rick. The boys who became their fathers' sons loosen their ties, exchange knowing looks, and savor their superiority. For all of them our music represents youth, or an old belief in better time.
I felt that way about the Band, too, after The Last Waltz, when I sat in with groups around Woodstock, kids usually and usually terrible. Listening to songs that preached, bragged, brayed, and treated the audience like idiots, I remembered how we had tried to tell true stories, and how close we came sometimes, and I felt so proud. We were lucky, sure, but only because we were good: I can still hear how good on the records.
Could hear, anyway, before the four of us regrouped for the Woodstock chapter of the rock and roll revival, and even the records began to sound ghostlike. No one will ever play our stuff better than we do, but now, the music seems as canned as Rick's line about the bar reminding him of my living room. How cozy. The confidence gives the crowd another cheap reason to congratulate itself, and we sink a little deeper into our own cheapness. We're exploiting a terrific past, and you can't do that without wrecking the future. I can't. And that's just what I've gone and done.
If only there were no difference between living and making music. The thought made you smile as a kid: it could still happen to you, couldn't it? Twenty years later you laughed out loud, the laugh usually reserved for bad jokes by good friends, a bark or yelp accompanied by a show of teeth and a phony twinkling of the eyes. A cold twinkling. The friends had been replaced with a mirror.
I'm forty and look older, thin and gray with a beard too dark for teeth this yellow. They're big, so I see the stains every time. Coffee, cigarettes, pot... Most of the things that made me feel older I don't remember, but today one stands out.
A guitar player from one of the local college bands had dropped by, and while we talked in the lining room, "Twistin' the Night Away" came on the kitchen radio. Sam Cooke's voice knocked me out, the way it slipped and slid and never lost balance, so when the conversation slowed down I pointed to the door: "Isn't he great?"
The kid nodded impatiently. "The Who opened for Sam Cooke at my school in 1967."
"Sam Cooke was dead in 1967," I said. "A woman shot him at a motel in '64. Do you mean Sam and Dave?"
He squinted back, saying yes and meaning no.
"The Sam of Sam and Dave isn't Sam Cooke," I added, listening as intently as a detective listens for the first time to last night's tape.
The kid's eyes were slits. He looked like a pig.
"You know more rock and roll trivia than I do," he said at last, slowly. It was my turn to stare at him.
"Who says it's trivia?"
He blushed and looked down.
"I didn't mean as in Trivial Pursuit..."
Why don't you just admit you were wrong, you jerk, I felt like saying, but I didn't say anything. Why bother? This was the kind of garbage that kills a band, blocking out the feelings and brains and energy that make a song take off. Then it hit me: I hadn't even heard the band, that's why the kid had come in the first place, they were playing nearby that weekend and he wanted me to see them. I had judged their music without hearing a note.
So I drove to the bar on Friday and sat in for a couple of numbers during the second set, playing a big brown upright that sounded like it had been tuned with a hammer. The combo was lousy, no surprises there, but the crowd enjoyed itself and gave me a nice hand when I stepped down. Outside the air was fresh and clean, and the buzz of insects from the fields could have been the sound of my sweating, tingling body. I felt like I'd been bailed out of jail.
To hell with our music. When we play now I'm interested in how we handle the old tunes, the classics we've studied all our lives. Why shouldn't we pull a great version of "Chest Fever" or "King Harvest" out of the hole? Levon's "Poor Boy" the other night was a direct line to Buddy Holly, though, and the rest of us powered through the connection from beginning to end.
But nothing has ever been enough. You start off pure and the, as the wise guys say, you wise up, and the purity turns to ambition. If you're good and work hard, there's money and the kind of name and fame that make your life a story you're too busy or stoned to read. You expect to be successful forever, that's part of the high, and everybody else expects you to be successful forever, too. That's part of their high. Make too many mistakes, or the same mistake too often, and you find out quick who's higher.
I did. I was Richard Manuel once, a kid who grew up, kind of, and played the piano, kind of, and along with four other guys backed up Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan. After Bob had his so-called motorcycle accident we settled in Woodstock to be near him. We worked and sang and tripped our brains out, and besides playing with Bob we started to write and play for ourselves, play hard. Capitol signed us, the band became the Band, Music From Big Pink came out, "The Weight" was a hit and that was it: we weren't just renting anymore, we owned a piece of the property. How could life be better?
money was great.
Then we lost our touch, a mistake for which the good excuse has yet to be invented. The last records bombed and people acted differently. I was turning into Richard Manuel again and that made me shaky. We all felt shaky. When I saw the movie I thought of someone drowning in a river at night: a ripple in the current, trees sweeping past, a brown hand grabbing for air. Then we were gone. I was Richard Manuel after Band, and I didn't know what to make of him. All my choices had been made in a dream.
Less intelligent people push down: Come one, you've accomplished a lot. Life isn't perfect, for Christ's sake. Look at mine.
The suggestion makes you ill.
Smarter friends pretend not to notice, but you can almost hear them: he's depressed, who wouldn't be, but he'll pull out of it. Our job is to be here when he needs us.
You're separated by space like styrofoam, muffling, hiding, distorting, blinding. Occasionally a detail looms close, the flash of an eye or the end of a smile you see as if for the first time, although know you've seen it before. You're talking like old friends again, you are old friends, so why do you feel so far apart and as though you were moving farther and faster away.
Or maybe you've known her a couple of days.
They were having fun and making money, not enough of either, true, but royalty checks helped cover expenses and as for fun, he'd managed with less. He's been this nervous when they started out; now, though, they weren't headed for the top or anything like it. What a strange thought that would have been 25 years ago. Yet there are professional musicians who recognize their mediocrity the first time they pick up a guitar or sit down to a piano, and keep going anyway. Pretty good ones.
In crowds sometimes he thought he'd faint.
We're on the western slope, all right, but we may find a level that suits us. A songwriter would help. If we stick out the reunion honorably, Robbie may weigh in long distance; if we do really well, he might come back to Woodstock part time. No one young and fresh will show up with 12 good songs for us, that's for sure, and as for writing them ourselves, those doors rusted shut long ago. What matters now are the people who come to hear us play, the pictures: the big man's glasses burning like twin suns above the horizon of his grin the night we blew the roof off the high school gym in Worcester; or the pale face of the woman at the Lone Star in New York, flickering in and out of the cigarette smoke at the top of the stairs, a moon behind clouds.
All I have to do is look up. When Rick and I were here two weeks ago for our duo, she was on the stretch of balcony above the downstairs bar. Now and then she peeked over the railing, a flash of white I recognized at once tonight in the mahogany darkness where the waitresses turn after the long climb from the kitchen and, trays held high, start edging through the crust of people gathered for a better shot of the bandstand. She's at the first table off the landing, seated by the rail, her drained blond face in full view when it isn't hidden by smoke or turned to the man behind her. I can't make out her features, she's too far away, but she moves her head and shoulders with the snap of a woman who knows she's goodlooking, or who believes in herself intensely.
way the body would sway
Perhaps Manuel wasn't alone when he died, the hanging could have been the nightmare end of a practical joke.
He and a friend are drunk, drugged up, or both. Manuel spots the belt on the unmade bed, the Polaroid camera on the nightstand, and suggests a few photographs to amuse friends, to upset girlfriends and wives, to measure the distance from life to death with a laugh.
The first two don't look real enough says his buddy. Manuel's dark eyes flicker over the still-emerging images, and when he drops back into the hanged-man position his head jerks in a funny way his friend will remember later. Now, though, the friend's ears are tuned to the steady sigh of the air conditioner, which sounds like palm fronds rustling in a slow sea breeze. Perfect. He shoots three pictures from different vantages and lines them up on the tile counter with the other photographs, making sure all five are tilted up against the mirror at the same angle. Turning around, the cocaine fussbudget picks up the camera and again squints into the viewfinder, asking Manuel to move a little so he won't look the same in all the pictures.
Manuel can't move. He's dead, or so close to dying that the difference doesn't count. The friend must live, however, so he struggles with his future, trying to hold up the body from the butt, as if Manuel were a baby, and scrabbling with his free hand at the belt knotted around Manuel's neck. The know is like steel, the small thin body weighs a ton. When I listen for a heartbeat I hear the blood in my ear pounding around like the field at Churchill Downs. I won't look at his face. Above the belt, where his beard ends, the skin is swollen so tight it feels like his head could explode. I let go and walk to the telephone, but I'm too scared to call anyone I know.
I don't see anybody on the way to my room. Call Richard's room, and after four rings the desk cuts in. I leave a message and the time 10 minutes ago, the cover the smoke alarm with a shirt plastic and try to burn the pictures, throwing aftershave lotion everywhere to mask the odor of the scorching plastic and development chemicals. When the sky lightens I walk down the road to a closed gas station and bury the burnt shells in a patch of oil-soaked dirt between a dumpster and the ice machine. A few semis coast part, their headlights water white in the lavender air; a woman scoots by in a copper-flake Toyota, the end of her cigarette a red dot. The air is fresh and clean, and vision tricky: there are more accidents now and a sundown than at any other time of day. Return to my stinking room and fall asleep in the chair.
Winter hits and people come to Florida from all over the Eastern seaboard and Midwest. They come for survival courses in the Everglades, deep-sea fishing in the gulf, sailing, skin-diving, water-skiing and wind-surfing, Hialeah, the dog tracks and jai-alai matches, the beaches and pools and plenty of sun. At night, while children sleep and parents watch TV, single men and women search for sex and the right mood, smoking dope, swilling pastel-striped drinks with names like Tropical Languor, and tanning their sinuses as methodically as, during the day, they saute their skins.
To drive up the price of its product to dealers, a cocaine consortium has tipped off the Miami police to the arrival of another gang's shipment, information burned out of a man in less than 30 seconds with a cigarette lighter. The cops make a point of telling the men and women they impound with the coke how they found out about the shipment, lawyers bring back the news from Dade County Jail, and a few business decisions are made on the spot. One: Tighten up security. the less our people know, the better. Two: Keep your eyes open for a chance to repay those faggots, and remember, we and not the police have to get the stuff, to replace ours and to make up for the prices they're charging now. And: Where do their people stay?
Late one night two men walk into the office of the quality Inn in Winter Park. The blond man quizzes the clerk about weekly rates while his partner, a private detective until three days ago, eyeballs the register upside down. There you go: Richard Manuel, compliments of Fidel Castro. Ten minutes later this Senor Manuel is hinging from a string and we're gone. We thought about overdosing him, Hells Angels style, but decided against it: if he had ever used a needle for recreational purposes, his friends might wonder. We want them to know. So we knocked him out carefully, no contusions, then strung him up and waited till he popped. He looked like a mouse hanging there--too bad we didn't have one of those Mickey Mouse faces from Disneyworld to fit over his head. His friends will know he didn't kill himself, but a Mickey Mouse face would have been the perfect touch, like the signature at the end of a letter.
P.S. Maybe the murder wasn't a mistake. Manuel may have forgotten to pay off a brain-damaged dealer at precisely the wrong time, or perhaps he was dealing himself and moved into a territory the current proprietor had no intention of sharing. In 1970, at a San Francisco coffee house, a dealer leaned across a table, his green eyes glittering. Don't believe it, he said, making that movie was an excuse to go to Peru and Bolivia and bring back as many film cans full of coke as possible, and the scam worked. Sixteen years later, in a New York office, an editor rears back in his chair, laughing, and says the Mafia gets back most of the dough it pays porn stars by selling 'em cocaine. the money they make for fucking and sucking goes right up their noses, with very little cash changing hand and the dollar/gram exchange rate, even with employee discounts, extremely favorable to the mob. The editor howls. After checking the door he reaches into a drawer: Care for a line? I flash to Mike Bloomfield, lead guitarist for Paul Butterfield and Bob Dylan, who had been scoring porn movies for a living when he was found in the back seat of a parked car, dead of a heroin overdose. By now, of course, I'm laughing too.