Letter To Richard Manuel

Richard Manuel, 1970, Photo by David Gahr

Dear Richard,

A strong desire to visit your grave has seized me in the past months. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Stratford—sometimes just going to the drugstore is overwhelming. Yet I can picture myself there, in the Avondale Cemetery on a gray and windy autumn day, talking to your grave. And I always feel a little foolish. Hell, I’m far too shy to talk to dead people in the middle of a cemetery. Besides, these thoughts are in my head, and they need to get out now. I don’t believe in spirits, but here I am, writing you a letter as if I was hoping it would reach you in the afterlife. It’s foolish, but for a few minutes, I want to imagine I’m sitting on your grave covered in dead leaves and that I’m talking to you as if you hadn’t died by your own hand thirty-five years ago. 

Where to begin? You saved my life. Even today, years after I heard you sing Tears of Rage for the first time, you are sometimes the only thing that keeps me going. On the worst days, I can listen to Katie’s Been Gone or Whispering Pines, and your celestial voice will ease my loneliness. Just before I discovered Music from Big Pink, I felt so empty I couldn’t write a word, even though writing had often rescued me in the past. But those times were different; darker, hopeless. You knew that feeling, didn’t you? 

You’re the one who got me back to writing, and in a foreign language, as if that wasn’t enough. I wanted to connect with you, and since this medium was familiar to me, it seemed the perfect way to pay homage to you. A modest homage, I’m afraid, but writing this novel allowed me to find my way out of depression. It felt natural to name my narrator Suzie; meanwhile, I had become more and more intrigued with the song Lonesome Suzie. I needed to know who was the woman who inspired you to write that heartbreaking song. I wanted to discover who she was; maybe she lived in Woodstock in 1967, and you fell in love with her. But Suzie didn’t exist—or rather, she did exist, but not in the flesh. She lived in your heart; she was a part of you, a part filled with loneliness and that you kept secret. You composed too few songs, but the lyrics you wrote helped me to understand you, and Lonesome Suzie sounds to me like a cry for help. I hope you would have loved the Suzie I have created; I want to believe you would have loved her. 

Furthermore, my fascination for Lonesome Suzie led me to try to decipher In a Station. You intertwined melancholic lyrics with hopeful ones, and the line Tomorrow never came has always fascinated me because I’m not sure if you meant it in a positive or negative way. Yet, this is the beauty of the song, which is so mystical. I’ve spent years listening to those lyrics, taking in their poetic atmosphere, and it still astonished me.

It’s one of the things I love about your songs; they have so many levels; not only are the lyrics bewitching, but you seem to sing from heaven with your golden voice. The characters in your songs aren’t real, but they are as alive as Crazy Chester and Anna Lee. You were the dreamy composer of The Band, the one with the wistful yet comforting vision of the world. Robbie was the raconteur, the one who wrote about blacksmiths and hapless farmers, but your lyrics are filled with imagery, maybe inspired by your experience with Bob Dylan. 

I first thought you entirely wrote Sleeping, because this song represents you so much. The storm is passed, there is peace at last, I’ll spend my whole life sleeping. I can’t listen to this passage without thinking that you killed yourself sixteen years after you sang those beautiful lyrics. Did you know, somewhere deep inside you, that you would end tragically? I have no idea when that pain appeared in you, but it didn’t disappear completely, did it?

Undeniably, I’m feeling better than the first time I heard you sing, but sometimes it’s still difficult for me. Thankfully, you’re always there, like an old friend. You touched the lives of countless people, and you still do today. When you tied your belt to the curtain rod of your hotel room, did you think that you would live forever through your songs? I wonder about so many things. So many questions, and you’ll never answer them. People who commit suicide always leave unanswered questions behind them. You felt too much. I often read that about you. God, how I know that feeling. It was your sensitivity that allowed you to put so much emotion into your songs. You gave its soul to The Band. It was more than just your amazing voice; you reached an intensity that other artists can not emulate, perhaps because you felt emotions that most people don’t feel.

I said earlier that you saved my life. I wish so badly that someone could have saved yours, too. Or maybe you were damaged beyond repair and your soul couldn’t take anymore. Heartbroken, Rick, Levon and Garth had to live without you. When Rick sang I Shall Be Released at your memorial service, he had never been so vulnerable. He sang the end of the brotherhood that had connected all of you over the years, and which an irreplaceable part was now missing. And decades after your death, I am the one who misses you, though I know you only through your songs. I say only, but music has such mystical powers that I feel I know you for real. You are a part of my heart. 

Always

Love seems so little to say

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