Bob Dylan reportedly said of Richard Manuel once, that he “did a hundred on the drive, and faster on the freeway.” Poor Manuel: like so many others before and so many others since, he doesn’t seem to have had any luck one way or another once his music ran out. He waltzed into the big and colourful world of rock ‘n’ roll, all wide eyes, thumping fingers and baritone, and, eventually, waltzed back out again into oblivion while life under the spotlight carried on exactly as it always had with nary a snag.
Richard Manuel played piano and was, insofar as they had such a thing, lead singer for the Band, a group who, as the Hawks and with a different drummer, had their first taste of infamy in 1966, when they were serially heckled by hostile audiences in America, Britain and Australia for backing Bob Dylan in his new, unpleasant “electric” incarnation. Subsequently, they retired to a farmhouse now well-known to the sort of person who knows such things well: perched safely there, they started to turn out records quite different from what most people would have expected of their 1966 wall-of-twang. This spare, slightly twisted Americana brought them a reasonable amount of prosperity and a whole lot of acclaim and affection: for some years, they were the darlings of the jam-band set in spite of not being a jam-band themselves (in fact, economy and restraint are the guiding principles behind their music). Eric Clapton quit Cream on account of them, George Harrison washed up at their doorstep seeking distance from the Beatles, they shared the stage and touring equipment with the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan painted the sleeve of their first album.
When things wound down therefore, as, in retrospect, they were bound to, Richard Manuel was left with time on his hands, a cocaine habit, no source of income, and the prodigal ways of a star. Without the business smarts of ex-bandmate Robbie Robertson, who, as it turned out, had salted a good deal away in publishing rights and songwriting credits during his time with the Band, and temperamentally incapable of happiness outside of the world of celebritydom (other ex’s, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson continued to record and perform after a moderate, small-time fashion), life became, to borrow a term, “a drag”.
Except for the occasional ill-advised, short-lived, and Robertson-less Band reunion, and a shorter-lived effort to rid himself of his addictions, Richard Manuel did nothing of any note in the ten years he lived after the original Band split up. In 1985, he cut a lone solo album, a Japan-only release called Whispering Pines.
Whispering Pines is a deeply poignant record, a document of a rickety pub gig with a small audience of friends and his few remaining well-wishers. In it, he plays and sings a number of soul standards as well as some stadium-fillers from the Band’s turn-of-the-seventies zenith. On some of the songs he’s backed by old bandmate Rick Danko on bass, and a guitarist and a blues-harp player. On the title track, one of the Band’s earliest, from back when they were on the ascendant and he must have felt invincible, he strains to hit the high notes. And misses: the forgiving audience have to help him along. Richard Manuel is far from a slick, big-stage name act here, and yet he carries enough goodwill with his crowd of fifty, and still shows enough barrel-chested aggression at the piano and growling humour in his singing to make this a performance of warmth and cheer. If you love his voice, as I do, then listen to this: beaten-down and far past his prime he may be, but it is the last time he appears on tape; the world would forget him once and for all shortly after.
The evening starts with a piano-and-vocals-only rollick through a Fats Domino song, the kind of music that Manuel is known to have loved. It is the one which has these lines, and he delivers them with a laugh in his voice:
“Oh, I do a lot of things I know is wrong,
I hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone,
It’ll take a lot of prayers to save my soul
And I’ve got to hurry up before I grow too old.”
On March the 4th, a year later, Richard Manuel finally succumbed to chronic lack of hope and hanged himself in the shower.
If rock ‘n’ roll can ever be said to have achieved anything of real value, it is this: it has, in its time, been a welcoming home to the confused, the ill-fitting, the emotionally unbalanced, maladjusted, and wholly deranged of this world, allowing them to channel their most destructive energies towards creating the noise for the benefit of all of us who wait for a revelation crouched in front of the stereo. It has taken the worst traits of these creeps and madmen – the Ike Turners, the James Browns, the Keith Moons, the Richard Manuels, people who wouldn’t (and didn’t) survive a minute outside, would wind up in prison, the mortuary, or worse – and coaxed goodness out of them. As we hurtle towards the inevitable long night, it is a thought to hold dear: that, if the stars are right and the gods are willing, even life’s worst failures can be brought up to shine, blinding everyone for a brief minute, before they burn out and the darkness surrounds us again.