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Tales of Woodstock

Richard ManuelIt’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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. I too have the Richard Manuel album which is discussed in your latest post. I found it acheingly sad to listen to and as I recall circa 2002 there were a number of these informal Band member solo and/or live albums coming out via the same firm. Undoubtedly, these albums have their moments but they remind me over and over of what might have been.

    March 4, 2016
  2. I read Barney’s book last week and reviewed it on my blog. It’s terrific, albeit full of sorrow at the end as Richard, Rick and finally Levon bid us goodbye. You’ll love it. I can still remember the almost childish delight you showed in the office that week in February 1971 after seeing The Band at the RAH. It wasn’t until I saw them myself (at the Academy in NY three years later) that I came to share your opinion. One of the best gigs I ever attended, memorable not only for the music but because at an after-show party Rick tried to put the make on my sister who was visiting me in NY at the time. She was flattered but declined.

    March 4, 2016
    • Mick Steels #

      If my memory serves me well I’m pretty sure The Band’s Albert Hall gigs were in June 71, does feel odd correcting the estimable Mr Charlesworth though!

      March 4, 2016
  3. Anyone saw the Band at the Isle of Wight with Dylan? After waiting for three hours in the chaos it was just so elevating to hear them. Kind of shook up funny old England with a big dose of the America of that moment. You hardly noticed Richard Manuel but he was a big part of their magic. His ‘I shall be released’ is what I remember best. Poignant, visionary, transcendent.

    March 4, 2016
  4. More than sad. He and Danko. By coincidence, I’ve been helping Lee McLagan find a home (hopefully) for an upright piano which his father Mac bought from Manuel back in the Shangri-la days.

    March 4, 2016
  5. Nice piece. It’s also worth mentioning that Robbie Robertson’s beautiful ‘Fallen Angel’, from the 1987 self-titled debut album, was written for Richard.

    March 5, 2016
  6. Thank you, terrific piece and, as usual, fascinating comments. I have a Band compilation CD only, but reading this makes me want to explore the music and history much more. Given the very clear love for Band here, I hesitate, al out, to mention this, but some of you may like it, to my ears a terrific cover of Arcadian Driftwood, by the New York trio of sisters, the Roches.

    March 5, 2016
  7. Ian Cole #

    Great post. I recently lost a close and long standing friend of mine. Shortly before he passed away we reviewed a lifetime of the many gigs we had witnessed over the years and we agreed (which was rarely the case in such discussions) that The Band’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall (and it was June 71) was the most memorable of them all. I just wish he had been able to read this tribute.

    March 7, 2016
    • Paul Crowe #

      Another marvellous post, Richard. I’ve just ordered a copy of BH’s book as a birthday present for a big Band/Dylan friend. I can read it after him – win-win !

      March 7, 2016
  8. Colin Harper #

    I hope you won’t mind a little tangent, Richard, but seeing Saugerties and Woodstock in the post I thought you might like to know that Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones, the great voice of Quintessence 1969-72, now lives midway between Saugerties and Woodstock (falling on the Saugerties side of the postal district line). Happily, he’s in good health and good voice too – getting it straight in New York State…

    March 7, 2016
    • Excellent news. Thanks, Colin.

      March 7, 2016
      • Colin Harper #

        A new 2CD Quintessence set, of studio outtakes newly mixed from multitracks, will be out in May/June on Hux: ‘Spirits From Another Time: 1969-71’. Some incredible performances, six hitherto unheard compositions, and two instrumental alt takes completed with new vocals by Mr Jones…

        March 8, 2016
  9. music collector #

    Fascinating post Richard and so sorry I missed that book launch. Robbie Robertson’s autobiography is out soon and I am sure that his stories about Richard Manuel will be enlightening. So sad that after The Last Waltz his career had more lows than highs. A wonderful and haunting voice and a sad end to his life.

    May 3, 2016

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