I hesitated for a long time before posting this first article. Why? Simply because I lack confidence in my English writing skills. English is not my native language, and sometimes, the exact words don’t come out. They appear clearly in my head, but when I want to put these thoughts on paper, I feel like the Stones at Altamont. It’s laborious and I am not in control. But I suppose you will understand my passion for The Band, anyway.
Although writing has always been my hobby, during that dark period of my life when I discovered The Band, I didn’t write. At all. I just listened to The Band. Lonesome Suzie moved me like no other song before. It was visceral; a strong and terrifying feeling. Richard Manuel singing these melancholic lyrics ended up being the only way to stop the pain I felt deep inside. This song became a part of me. Richard’s angelic voice, so kind, desperate, and beautiful all at once, echoed with my own loneliness.
After a few months of listening to The Band, a crazy idea popped into my mind; I wanted to write a novel about them, in English. And I did it; I wrote six hundred pages from the point of view of my narrator, Suzie, and I forgot my worries. I already wrote fanfiction when I was a kid, so it wasn’t an unknown territory, but I wasn’t a child anymore, and I felt intensely connected with my characters — perhaps a little too intensely.
The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw this bear was that he was going to kill me in my backyard while I was picking up daisies. Should I run away or stay still? Running away seemed a rational decision, but I wasn’t rational. The bear barked, and I put a hand on my heart, feeling it pounding through the cotton of my dress. I had been raised in a wealthy neighborhood in Montreal and had never encountered a wild animal during the twenty-five years of my life, but I knew a bear didn’t bark. In the town of Woodstock, Upstate New York, where I had moved last October, people were familiar with wildlife. I was not.
Even though I finished writing my novel about The Band last year, I’m still editing it, and Richard Manuel has been living in my head for two years. Which sounds schizophrenic, I admit it. Yet it reminds me of a scene from Julie & Julia:
Eric Powell: [about Julia Child] Look, there’s something wrong with her if she doesn’t get what you’re doing.
Julie Powell: There’s nothing wrong with her. Nothing. I spent a year with her. She’s perfect.
Eric Powell: The Julia Child in your head is perfect. The Julia Child that doesn’t understand what you’re doing is not perfect. The one in your head is the one that matters.
Indeed, the Richard Manuel I imagined didn’t exist for real, but was inspired by his personality and his music. I couldn’t make him a puritan who was faithful and who never drank alcohol; it would have been silly. But I made him fall in love with my narrator Suzie, I put words in his mouth; I pulled the strings of that semi-fictional, semi-realistic character. It was different from scribbling fanfiction about The Beatles. I was writing a novel about Richard Manuel, who lived in Big Pink in 1967, and who hadn’t been damaged by drugs and alcohol yet. This brief moment of quietness in the lives of the band — before they were The Band, seems magical; they got back to their roots; they shared their love for music with Bob Dylan, and they wrote and played those timeless songs that still resonate today. Wonderful songs that smelled of dirt roads baked by the sun and old Fedoras stained with sweat.
When Richard sang the last words, I was crying. I’d never heard a song so beautiful before. Richard’s voice mixed pain with kindness, as if he could put my feelings into words. When he played In a station for me two weeks ago, we’d met only the day before, and even though I’d felt a deep connection with him at that time, we didn’t have the intimacy we had now. In Lonesome Suzie, Richard had understood my loneliness and created a magnificent song from it.
Definitely, Richard Manuel saved my life, and I still seek comfort in his songs. Sometimes music is the only way I can escape into another dimension. Contrary to books and movies, music is brief. For three or four minutes, nothing exists but the melody, the lyrics, and the emotions rushing through you. I am living in a beautiful world when I listen to one of my favorite songs. During the minutes I spend listening to a piece of music, the musicians seem more real than people in actual life. I feel oddly that those artists, who died before I was born, understand me better than anybody else. Music is magical and makes dead people come back to life. When Richard Manuel sings Sleeping in my headphones, he didn’t commit suicide in a hotel in Florida; he’s alive; he’s that man living in my head, but he’s also that talented and troubled musician who influenced the music scene with his bandmates Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson.