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Rock n Roll Suicide: Richard Manuel of The Band (1943-1986)

May 10, 2011

We’re so alone
And life is so brief
– “Tears of Rage” (lyrics Bob Dylan / music by Richard Manuel)

I had thought Richard Manuel was old when he killed himself, but, at 42, he was a year younger than I am now  … Self-servingly, I have since come to think of old as a mindset and not a number, but when Manuel died in 1986, I was just a dumb high school senior and while I had heard rumors, I had little understanding of Time’s cruelty, if anything, believing its great transgression was that it moved too slow.

Born and raised in the small town of Stratford, Ontario, Richard Manuel joined what would become The Band at eighteen. He was funny, but he was shy; so he he drank his shyness away. He would go on to spend most of his life wasted. When he moved out of his Malibu home in 1976, legend has it that 2000 Grand Marnier bottles were left behind (making him not only a drunk, but also a hoarder). He cavorted with the likes of Keith Moon and Eric Clapton. Under the tutelage of such rock luminaries, he aped the excesses of the 1970s. Beyond downing several bottles of cognac a day, his favorite trick from the rockstar playbook was impishly crashing cars  (preferably Ferraris) and, once, a boat. Sadly, he was so drunk during The Band’s “last” performance in 1976 that he’s barely seen in The Last Waltz.

Manuel & Robbie Robertson: no caption necessary

Somehow, in 1984, Richard Manuel was still alive. In a clear attempt at a rebirth, he moved back to Woodstock, got sober – cold turkey – and remarried (his first wife had left him and become a Jehovah’s Witness). He told his new bride that if he began drinking again, he would kill himself.

What was left of The Band (without Robbie Robertson) had reunited in 1983, but it became increasingly clear that they were merely living off the past, ghosts of their former selves. For Manuel it was a bitter pill, one best washed down with a swig of Grand Marnier and a line of blow. By 1985, not only was Manuel hitting the bottle again, but he could no longer hit the high notes that had made him famous.

On March 3, 1986, The Band had just played the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Florida – clearly a shitbox and a long fall down from The Band’s peak. No wonder he was depressed. To make matters grimmer, The Band was staying at a Quality Inn next door. After the gig he forecast his intentions by thanking bandmate Garth Hudson for “25 years of incredible music.” He spent the remainder of his waking hours with Levon Helm, eventually making the way back to his own room around 2:30. Reportedly, he finished a bottle of his beloved Grand Marnier and did a few lines before climbing into bed with his wife Arli. They fell asleep in each others arms.

When Arli returned from breakfast the next day around noon, she found her husband hanging from the shower rod, a belt around his neck. He was dead. Apparently, Manuel hadn’t slept long the night before – the blow may have had something to do with that – because, according to the police, he died sometime between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m..

To have reached such heights and then be back at the bottom again must have been disappointing. But audiences are fickle and to value one’s artistic self-worth on the ever-shifting popular tastes is an inherently self-sabotaging choice. I don’t know Richard Manuel and I certainly don’t know why he did what he did, but while I imagine The Band morbidly joked that Winter Park, Florida was a long way from Bob Graham’s Winterland Ballroom (venue of The Last Waltz),  I’d wager that being booked at the Cheek to Cheek wasn’t exactly the last straw. After all, playing dives is how The Band got started.

Manuel laid to rest in hometown Stratford, Ontario

So many rock n roll suicides are stories of promises unfulfilled. We mourn not just what was, but what could have been. Sadly and tragically, at 42, Richard Manuel was old. His voice was shot and his body was ravaged. There wasn’t much gas left in that tank. And he only had himself to blame. He both literally and metaphorically put the pedal to the metal all his life. As Band producer John Simon once said: “He drove 150 mph in the driveway, faster on the highway.” At 42, the speeding tickets had stacked up. The voice that had made him so great was cracked and out of tune. He’d gone all in on the rock n roll dream and when he woke up, his sweet voice had turned sour, lost in the bottom of a bottle of fucking Grand Marnier. He’d already killed the one thing that made him special, the only thing left to do was finish off the job.

from better days (1970)

The Band – Tears of Rage : the first track off Music from Big Pink, Manuel wrote it with Bob Dylan. Buy it here.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 3:22 pm

    one of the greats for sure

  2. Howard frye permalink
    November 15, 2013 8:29 pm

    One of the greatest for sure and oh by the way you are a fucking idiot for saying that Cheek to Cheek was a shit hole. It was a awesome venue for the Band.

  3. Lunny Kipps permalink
    July 8, 2015 5:26 pm

    Great writing, if a little Gonzo. Truly 20% of The Band, yet without him would be nothing.

    • Bruce Robinson permalink
      November 10, 2020 7:33 pm

      Well written, indeed!

  4. steve-0 permalink
    April 21, 2017 3:54 pm

    Manuel was supposedly despondent due to the death of Albert Grossman, causing him to fall off the wagon. The reconstituted band, with Jim Weider replacing Robbie, sounded pretty good to me

    • Bruce Robinson permalink
      November 10, 2020 7:32 pm

      I heard them in that configuration in the Hollywood Hills — they seemed to be having a good time & I sure as hell did!

    • Lynn H permalink
      October 6, 2021 8:17 pm

      It was good, real good. Nothing against Rob, the Band was 5 dimensions.
      I wish I could go back and stop people from killing themselves.
      The Band is my favorite.


  1. Manuel roll | Ponderandpray

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