Searching for Richard Manuel



This week is not unlike many weeks, in that my listening zeroed in on a certain group or era to what has likely been annoying levels for anyone around me. This time around, my energies have focused on The Band, especially their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, as well as their live record Rock of Ages. At work, at home, in the car, in my headphones, little else survived beyond the harmonies and Americana of those songs.

In the general binging that’s typical for me when I decide that, for a moment in time, one artist is all that matters, I ran through articles and essays and videos taking in all that was immediately available on the band. No easy feat, considering how Google-unfriendly “The Band” is as a search term. But there were little threads in my understanding of The Band starting to come undone, and not in the major sense as if the members or their music was somehow fraudulent, but in a much more basic term. I wasn’t totally sure of who was singing what.

It started with the realization that Richard Manuel was the primary voice on “Across the Great Divide,” and not Rick Danko as I’d always believed, more than a decade of listening to The Band’s self-titled record twisted on end.

That was as much of a revelation as a shocking head-turner. Danko, for me, has always been a beautiful anomaly in music, in that his voice was anything but typical, but his ability to leap registers and his unique phrasing gave his singing a soulfulness that couldn’t be denied. And, as part of that opinion, I’d incorrectly assigned “Across the Great Divide” to him.

It’s gone far beyond that, though. Manuel is the force behind “Katie’s Been Gone” on The Basement Tapes and the mutual epics “Tears of Rage” and “Chest Fever” on Music From Big Pink. Amazing songs I’d either credited to Danko or some other combination of voices were almost entire driven by Manuel. He was so much more than that gruff voice who found room between the other singers. A closer look at songwriting credits might’ve clued me more thoroughly, I suppose; he co-wrote “Tears of Rage” with Bob Dylan. But I’d missed that. I’d clearly missed quite a bit.

What had I known about Manuel? I knew his lead vocals on “The Shape I’m In” and “I Shall Be Released.” I knew that, like the rest of The Band, he could flip over to a number of different instruments, including drums. And I knew that his voice blended with Danko and Helm’s in a unique way; not necessarily a textbook blend of harmony in line with The Beatles, but a distinct sound that was as beautiful as it was defining.

And that’s where I had pegged him, fitting in perfectly between Helm’s southern drawl and Danko’s warble, tying the voices together and giving all their songs that Americana blend that was so familiar. Obviously, there was much more going on with Manuel’s contribution. As I listen now, I can more clearly hear the distinction between Manuel and Danko and, hopefully, can tell the difference in lead vocals from here on out. There’s certainly a distinction between the two, and for an artist that I’d loved for so long, it’s obvious, and a bit embarrassing, I hadn’t done my due diligence in assigning credit all this time.

In the Classic Albums documentary series, the episode chronicling the making of The Band was especially revealing, with the surviving members recalling the making of their early work and, specifically, how much Manuel meant to their music.

“When we started making The Band records, the hurt in his voice, it’s kind of … there’s a certain element of pain in there,” Robertson said, “where you didn’t know if it was because he was trying to reach for the note, or he was just a guy with a heart that had been hurt.”

That quote comes immediately before a clip of Manuel singing “Whispering Pines,” an aching song, one that details a longing that can’t come into words properly without the right voice. And for years, I assumed that was Danko’s voice pushing yet another song by this group into the realm of magic.

“Richard was always our lead singer, you know,” Helm said, “and I always just felt real confident with Richard in the band. I knew that nobody had a better singer in their band than what we had.”

When the Band reunited years after The Last Waltz, minus Robertson, they continued to enjoy Manuel’s talents. But that darkness, of course, reared its head in the ultimate fashion. In 1986, after a show in Florida, Manuel took his own life in his hotel room, the most obvious and tragic sign of a pain within that became too much.

“It’s just, um …” Danko tries to say in that same documentary. “I’m sure it was just a big accident or a big mistake. In my head, that’s what it was at least. You know, I can’t believe … I can’t believe that anyone feels that way, you know?

“There was only one Richard, without a doubt.”

Two years after the release of Classic Albums: The Band on video in 1997, Danko’s days would end, the result of a heart attack in his sleep. Helm, of course, joined them last year, the magical voices of The Band finally reunited in the hereafter.

But for those of us here, the albums and recordings live on. Those that knew him become fewer and fewer as the years roll on, but the work remains. And what a body of work it is. Already impressive, it’s even more far-reaching than I’d imagined. They were a band of equals, only much more equal than I had known.

The Band’s music has been and will continue to be within close reach for me. And I’ll have a better appreciation for what went into that music, and the voices that brought life to so many beautiful songs.

Jan. 18, 2013

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