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Must be some way to repay you
Out of all the good you gave

by Tom Byers

From the Stratford, Ontario e-zine The Local Option. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

"What we want is to get a hold of some of them high-school fat-girl diet pills."
-- Richard Manuel
So I'm sitting down at Ethel's -- for all you Stratfordites, that's a watering hole in downtown Waterloo, where I live -- downing a pint and bitching to Rickett. Pisses me off, I throw in his face, that his (meaning: Stratford's) local tourist information board doesn't know jack shit about their own kind. See, I'd twice made enquiries regarding the whereabouts of Richard Manuel's burial plot. "Whaaaa...who?" they asked, looking at me sideways. Richard Manuel. Y'know, favourite son of Stratford. Local boy made good. Appeared on the cover of Time magazine with The Band (see Fig. 1). How many Canadian musicians have done that?! Hanged himself in Florida. Buried in Stratford. The memorial ... where is it? "Sorry, we don't know what you're talking about. Can we interest you in some brochures about the festval?"


Fast-forward a year. After three failed attempts to find Manuel's plot, I finally get some directions from fans in the United States via the internet. I'm sitting with Rickett, again at Ethel's, again drinking beer, and I'm not any happier. I'm even more pissed. See, I finally found Manuel's grave marker in the Avon Cemetary, it's hidden underneath overgrown grass and weeds, and worse, when the grass is pulled back, the marker is covered in muddy tractor-tire tracks. Total disrespect. The groundskeeper and the guy in the cemetary office says no plants or flowers are allowed, the family wants it that way, and they can't give his marker any more attention than anybody elses. O-kay. So I've made the trip from Waterloo to Stratford three times the past year to do a little weeding, clean up the marker and giving it a wash. It's the least I can do.

So Rickett tells me to vent in The Local Option.

Good citizens of Stratford, Ontario -- especially the cool ones -- listen up, here's my public service plea. Richard Manuel was part of your family. Bob Dylan (Fig. 2) told Keith Richards to his face that the Stones weren't the world's greatest rock and roll band; no Keef, he insisted, that honorific belonged to The Band. Richard Manuel was a singer, songwriter & keyboardist for the greatest rock & roll band in the world. Writer Greil Marcus in his legendary book Mystery Train called The Band the same thing (he called Manuel "the Band's great sentimentalist, devastated and bursting with joy by turns"). In popular mythology, Robbie Robertson has been deified as the brains of the operation, but according to Levon Helm, "I looked at Richard as The Band's singer and writer." Manuel's story is sad, tragic, funny, beautiful, and it belongs to Stratford. Do yourself a favour. Get to know that story. Pay the ultimate respect and listen to the man's music. Start with Music From Big Pink and The Band. Hell, you might even catch a glimpse of him if you rent Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (read about that travesty below).


But most of all, the purpose of this article, for those of you who live in Stratford, I hope you'll join me in a hands-on effort. Let's face it, we all need some peace, privacy and open air to fill our lungs with cannabis from time-to-time. What better way to inhale the sacrament and celebrate the counter-culture than by making the pilgrimage to the Avon Cemetary (Fig. 3), giving his memorial a quick clean-up, sparking your fattie and toasting the man and his music? It's the least you can do. (See the detailed maps at the end of this piece; I can say with certainty that these are the most detailed directions to Manuel's marker you will find anywhere on the web. Fig.'s 4-7.)


As a tribute, I've culled some remarks about Richard Manuel from Levon Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the story of The Band (pub. William Morrow & Co., 1993, ISBN 0-688-10906-3). First some comments about Manuel, and then Helm's vicious recollection about The Last Waltz, a film that in many respects is a humiliating slapdown to Manuel. Helm's book is an excellent resource. It begins with Manuel's suicide in Florida and funeral service at Stratford's Knox Presbyterian Church, then goes back to Helm's origins and moves forward to Manuel's tragic end. I highly recommend it, not just for the sweet things Helm writes about Richard, giving those of us who never knew the man a wonderful insight, but also for the caustic things he says about Robbie Robertson! (I also recommend visiting an online tribute to Richard Manuel.)

Comments about Richard

Levon Helm: "In November (1985) Richard went to his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, because his old band the Rockin' Revols was reuniting after twenty-five years for a special show at the famous Festival Theater. Richard was nervous and excited. He'd rehearsed with his old mates the night before the show, and they realized they couldn't even remember what they used to play. "Levon," he told me later, "the people were just there. I could feel it, man. All the old crowd showed up, and there was this incredible teenage middle-age magic going on. People were yelling, 'Richard, Richard!' It was really something."

"Everyone wanted to see the Beak, as Richard was universally known in those parts. He performed beautifully for his people, and they welcomed him home with a huge, warm ovation. I know it meant an awful lot to Richard that he was able to return home in absolute triumph that night."

John Simon (engineer/producer): "A sweet, sweet guy. Very drunk, into pills: Tuinal and Valium. Always pushed the envelope beyond where it would go. Drove one hundred fifty miles in his driveway; faster on the road."

Levon Helm: ""Lonesome Suzie" was like a miniature portrait that Richard sang in his squeezed-out falsetto, really expressive, with horns and organ. Years later he described "Suzie" as his attempt to write a hit record. It was a quiet song that told a story and was pretty typical of Richard's general philosophy, which was to be kind to people. Richard was complicated and felt things really deeply, more than most people. Everyone who knew him would tell you that. His attitude, often expressed to me, was that you might as well live tonight, because tomorrow you could get run over by a truck."

Libby Titus: "Richard Manuel: self-deprecating, funny, soulful, sweet, extremely self-destructive, major alcoholic. He had zero information how to live. I was a mess myself, but I looked like Eleanor Roosevelt next to Richard. There were signs of what was gonna happen; anyone could see."

Levon Helm: "Maybe the greatness we heard in his voice, that catch in it, came from all the pain. To this day, we don't really know."

Levon Helm: "Richard was still in his bungalow down by the beach when it came time to move out. I think they wanted to rent it out to defray some of the operating expenses of the place. But Richard liked it down there and didn't want to leave. So they turned off his phone, then the gas. I went down to visit him and found him cooking minute steaks on an upside-down electric clothes iron. The thing was set on "cotton." Richard would drop a pat of butter on the hot iron, slap on a steak, flip it over, drop another butter pat, and eat it right off the grill, so to speak. When they finally got him out of there it took them a couple of days to clean out the two thousand Grand Marnier bottles they found."

Levon Helm recollects The Last Waltz

"As far as I was concerned, the movie was a disaster. ...

"I took Ronnie Hawkins with me to a screening of The Last Waltz just before its official release. All The Band was there, plus family, friends, people who'd worked on the project. For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost entirely on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut. The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck. The muscles on his neck stood out like cords when he sang so powerfully into his switched-off microphone. Hawk kept nudging me and laughing at this. Halfway through he whispered, "Was Richard still in the group when we did this?"

"Because there were almost no shots of Richard in the movie. ... Where was Richard? In the interviews he was depicted prone on a sofa at Shangri-La, his hair wild and eyes shining like wet moons, looking like Che Guevara after the Bolivians got through with him. ...

"I was in shock over how bad the movie was. Nine cameras on the floor, and there wasn't even a shot of Richard Manuel singing the finale, "I Shall Be Released," his trademark song. ... It was mostly Robertson, showing off and acting like he was the king.

"The lights came up. I lit a cigarette and looked at Hawk, who pounded me on the back and loudly exclaimed, so everyone could hear: "Hey, son, don't look so glum. The goddamn movie'd be awright if it only had a few more shots of Robbie. Haw haw haw haw haw!!!"

"Today people tell me all the time how much they loved The Last Waltz. I try to thank them politely and usually refrain from mentioning that for me it was a real scandal."

Directions to Richard Manuel's flat marker at the Avon Cemetary, Stratford, Ontario

(3 maps/details & 1 photo)





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