Tales of Woodstock
It’s 30 years today since Richard Manuel took his own life in his room at the Quality Inn motel, Winter Park, Florida, a few hours after a gig. Born 42 years earlier in Stratford, Ontario, Manuel was both the owner of one of the most emotionally direct and affecting voices in the history of rock and roll and a member of what had been, by common agreement of most of the people I know, its finest band.
Last night a crowd of people gathered at Rough Trade East in Brick Lane to celebrate the publication of Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns’ new book about Woodstock’s musical history. Graham Parker, long a resident of upstate New York, and Sid Griffin talked and played. The atmosphere was warm and the anecdotes amusing, but there was no disguising the fact that the lives of a lot of the people we were hearing about had ended prematurely.
In one of his earlier books, Across the Great Divide, Barney told the story of the incarnation of five men — Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson — first as the Hawks and then as the Band; it remains, in my opinion, the finest single account of what compelled young white boys in the 1950s and ’60s to adopt the musical language of black people as their own, with world-altering consequences. It is also the story of a slow-motion tragedy.
There was a lot about Manuel in that first book, of course, and the new one — which is fascinating, and ranges far and wide — contains plenty of reminders of how brightly the fire burned before it began to consume him. His last gig was with Danko, Helm and Hudson in the reformed version of the Band at Winter Park’s Cheek-to-Cheek Lounge, quite a fall from places such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Academy of Music, where the full five of them had played to such unforgettable effect in their heyday.
Back in 1967/68 Richard co-wrote “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall be Released” with Bob Dylan and sang them on Music from Big Pink. He also wrote that album’s “In a Station”, “We Can Talk” and “Lonesome Suzie”. On its successor, The Band, he co-wrote “When You Awake”, “Whispering Pines” and “Jawbone” with Robertson. There were two co-writes on Stage Fright (“Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop”), and no compositional contribution at all to Cahoots, the fourth album. And that, in miniature, is the story of the Band: the slow disintegration of a sense of communal purpose, eroded by distractions and asymmetrical ambitions.
Eric Clapton once wrote this about Richard: “I wanted so much to be like him, to be able to express with such power and frailty.” Beneath the party-animal exterior, Clapton had spotted “an incredible vulnerability”.
I’m listening to an album called Whispering Pines: Live at the Getaway, Saugerties, NY, recorded on October 12, 1985, five months before Richard’s death. By that time he had ended an unhappy stay in Malibu and relocated to the more familiar and congenial surroundings of Woodstock. “I love it here,” he said in this interview conducted by Ruth Albert Spencer in March 1985. “I love the season changes. I love to see all that. California is just like one season with the weather changing.”
It’s an informal club session and he sings Band songs and a handful of standards: “Grow Too Old”, “You Don’t Know Me”, “Georgia on My Mind” (which the Band had recorded and released as a single to support Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign) and “Miss Otis Regrets”, plus J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama” and Ray Charles’s “Hard Times”. The album was not released until 2002, three years after the passing of Danko, who joins his old friend on four of the 17 songs. Those two voices, seriously ravaged now by comparison with their youth (and “struggling”, as Hoskyns puts it, with heroin habits), nevertheless combine on “Tears of Rage” to summon an echo of that old heart-piercing impact, the sound of two gifted, wayward boys who never quite grew up.
Finally, here’s a sweet, sad thing you might not know: a modest and tender version of “Country Boy” that Richard also recorded in October 1985 and which turned up, elaborately arranged in post-production, on the Band’s 1993 album, Jericho. His final time in a studio, I’d guess.
* The illustration of Richard Manuel is by Jack Dutieux and is taken from the cover of Whispering Pines, as is the quote from Eric Clapton’s sleeve note. Small Town Talk is published by Faber & Faber.