Today is Richard Manuel’s birthday. He would be sixty-nine years old.
I bought Stage Fright by The Band when I was about fourteen, right in the middle of my self-imposed musical re-education. It didn’t do a whole lot for me at the time. It would take years before I returned to that album and realized just how good it was.
At some point I decided I might as well pick up the first two albums to get a better idea of what the band were all about. In the process my appreciation for and understanding of Stage Fright deepened. Music from Big Pink became a desert island album, with the self-titled “brown album” not far behind. Listening to it for the very first time was one of those divine musical moments you get to experience every so often when everything clicks and time seems to stand still.
A lot of that had to do with Richard.
“Tears of Rage” has to be one of the best opening tracks on any album inhabiting the nebulous pop/rock genre. It’s not a hard-driving, uptempo song. It’s slow and mournful, painfully beautiful, like a punch to the gut with flowers protruding from between each finger.
There’s a lot of soul and intensity in that voice. It’s vulnerable and strong at the same time. A contradiction in sound. And on the choruses, it fuses with bassist Rick Danko’s voice to become something even more powerful. When that song finished playing in my headphones for the first time, I had to double back and listen again. I needed time to process what I’d just heard before I moved on to the rest of the album.
I’m pretty sure it’s the only time that’s ever happened to me in all my years of listening to music.
For my money, Richard had one of the most gorgeous male voices popular music has ever produced. It came attached to a person who was as self-destructive as he was talented. I don’t think The Band ever scaled the heights of those first three albums again after they were shrinking in the rear view mirror, and part of that comes down to this sad truth: Richard never wrote another song after Stage Fright, though he would continue to record and perform with and without The Band for another sixteen years.
I don’t mean to imply that Robbie Robertson didn’t write a whole lot of great, timeless songs for the group. But it’s tough to listen to transcendent pieces of music like “Lonesome Suzie” or “In a Station” without wondering what else Richard might have done if he was a little more motivated or better able to keep it together.
There’s a brilliant review/analysis of Stage Fright (on Amazon.com, of all places) by John Stodder that I think comes as close as anyone ever has to getting at the heart of what made Richard such an indispensable part of the soul of The Band and how it all went wrong. “In some ways, being in The Band destroyed him,” Stodder writes. “At the same time, it created a place for him to hide.”
Robbie Robertson, who tried to keep Richard writing and coaxed him into collaborating on a handful of songs, touched on the seeming evaporation of his bandmate’s creative energy in an interview that coincided with the reissue and remastering of Stage Fright in 2000.
“I just assumed it would continue,” he said. “When we were going to do our second album, there was nothing coming. So when I’d be working on something, I’d pull him into it and make him work on the song with me just to get him in the mood or give him a taste for this, thinking then [he would] go on to follow it up. But he didn’t. My theory is, some people have one song in them, some people have five, some people have a hundred.”
Maybe Richard would have had more songs in him if the drugs and alcohol didn’t take over. Levon Helm wrote in his autobiography that Richard would drink eight bottles of Grand Marnier a day. Heroin and cocaine were also part of the mix. Rick Danko once said the unexpected financial success the group experienced was the worst thing that ever could have happened to them because of the path to excess it opened up.
Richard went on to turn in more great performances on The Band’s later albums in spite of his lack of creative input, but the abuse he put his body through caught up with him. It’s difficult to listen to some of his live performances from later on in the 1970s. On the songs Richard sings, his voice is often little more than a hoarse croak. It can be a pretty soulful, effective croak — especially on a song like “The Shape I’m In”, which he kept on singing until the night he died — but it’s coming from a guy who once had a voice that sounded like it was capable of just about anything.
Incredibly, near the end of his life he regained almost all of his vocal range, having managed to get sober for a while. There’s a soundboard recording of “I Shall Be Released” from a February 1986 show, and on it you can hear Richard nailing the impossible falsetto of that lead vocal just as he did on Big Pink almost twenty years earlier. It’s a magical thing to hear.
By most accounts, he was doing well until the death of The Band’s former manager Albert Grossman, a close friend and staunch supporter. That sent him into a depressive tailspin that led back to cocaine and the bottle. It didn’t help that Richard felt The Band had become a parody of itself and a glorified nostalgia act, touring without Robbie and playing the same old songs night after night in small venues.
After one of those shows, Richard had a long conversation with Levon that went late into the night. Then he hung himself in his Florida hotel room. Maybe he felt he was at the bottom of a creative and personal black hole and the only way out he could see was to end it all. Maybe it was a decision that grew out of weariness. Maybe it was a drunken impulse he would have thought better of in the morning.
The only person who knows why he did what he did is Richard. And he’s not around to explain.
I don’t know his life story. I probably wouldn’t be the best person to tell it even if I did. But I can tell you this much: he had a wonderfully distinctive way of playing the piano and the drums, an astonishing voice, and he wrote some beautiful songs. It’s impossible not to think of what else he might have done if not for whatever it was that drove him to self-destruct.
I guess we’ll never know what the driving force was. It’s possible even he didn’t know. Sometimes we’re more confused by the things we choose to do than anyone else is.
At least he left behind some unvarnished pieces of himself in song. That’s more than most people can say.
If you don’t have them already, do yourself a favour and pick up Music from Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright. If you like good music, regardless of genre, those three albums belong in your collection. They make a nice little trilogy.
It feels appropriate that the first voice you hear on Big Pink and the last voice you hear on Stage Fright is Richard’s, introducing the band to the world and then bringing their hat trick to a close with one last breathless falsetto.