Something To Feel

For Richard Manuel, the months spent in Woodstock with his bandmates, playing music in the basement with Bob Dylan, were rich in creativity.

We all have had a chapter of our lives that we would have wished to capture into a box to keep it forever. Did Richard Manuel feel that way in 1967 when he lived in Big Pink with Rick Danko and Garth Hudson? The answer will remain a mystery. Yet those months spent in Woodstock with his bandmates, playing music in the basement with Bob Dylan, were rich in creativity for Richard, memorable enough to capture into a box. 

Richard’s retreat in West Saugerties after a hectic tour with Bob Dylan the previous year allowed his inspiration to thrive. The mountains became his muse, and the Overlook Mountain inspired the song In A Station. Richard’s song subjects were diversified, and even spiritual, at some level. The Catskills offered him the motivation he needed, and the afternoons spent in the Big Pink basement provided him the opportunity to create. There were no obligations and no pressure; just playing music with friends. Richard sometimes left those musical sessions and went upstairs to write lyrics on the typewriter. It wasn’t his first experience in songwriting, since he had dabbled in it with his band, The Revols, when he was a teenager. He also co-wrote Beautiful Thing with Rick in 1966. 

“Richard made up a song about going upstairs from downstairs. A little song that has not been heard. Spoken words and little songs that were for the most part silly.”
Garth Hudson

Yet, this time it was different; he was free after years of touring with The Hawks, and then with Bob Dylan. Bob’s motorcycle accident forced Richard, Rick, Garth, and Robbie to rest. Once they moved to Woodstock, everything was in place to spark their inspiration. Richard, perhaps because he was the most sensitive, found himself hit by a creative wave. He co-wrote Katie’s Been Gone and Ruben Remus with Robbie, and Tears Of Rage with Bob. This one would end up on the album Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. 

This blessed period in Big Pink also generated three more brilliant songs that would find their place on the album: In A Station, Lonesome Suzie and We Can Talk. They all express different emotions, but they all show Richard’s vulnerability. Even the humorous We Can Talk contains the line We’ve got to find a sharper blade, or have a new one made. These lyrics are puzzling and demonstrate Richard’s keen ability to play with words. In Orange Juice Blues, one of his early compositions, he wrote ‘Cause I’m tired of everything/Being beautiful, beautiful, which, according to Robbie, was “a touch of anti-hippie humor slipping in there.”

“They had a typewriter set up in Big Pink’s kitchen, and Bob might sit down and type a few lines. Then he’d wander off, and Richard would sit down and finish the verse.”
This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band 

In A Station, with its George Harrison vibe, is the perfect ode to Woodstock. Must be some way to repay you/Out of all the good you gave/If a rumor should delay you/Love seems so little to say. Richard’s greatest strength was that he sought within himself to write his songs. He didn’t write realistic songs telling fragments of his life as Joni Mitchell did. His art was introspective, but in a dreamlike way. Lonesome Suzie contains his more melancholic lyrics, and he ends the song with a moving plea. I guess just watching you/Has made me lonesome too/Why don’t we get together/ What else can we do?

This fugitive moment in Richard’s life was prolific for him. In an interview he gave to Ruth Spencer for The Woodstock Times in 1985, he acknowledged the influence Woodstock had on him. When asked what was the impact of the town on the first three Band albums, he answered: “I don’t think they would have happened without it. I think this environment had a great deal to do with it.” 

For Richard, probably more than for Rick, Garth, and Robbie — and Levon, who joined them later — Big Pink was a refuge from the harshness of the world. In Woodstock, they lived in an artistic bubble. It was an idyllic situation that, of course, couldn’t last forever — and it didn’t. But those months proved to Richard he was a songwriter. Before the success and excesses, before something broke inside him, he gave the world beautiful songs that revealed his compassion. Those songs offered to the listeners an insight into his complex but fascinating personality. We time travel to Big Pink with him, decades ago, in a place and an age when life seemed simpler. It wasn’t simpler, however. Still, the glimpse we catch of that era in Richard’s songs brings us into a wonderful world, paradoxically filled with hope and sorrow.

Also on Medium

2 thoughts on “Something To Feel

  1. What a fabulous little article! I was fortunate to live in Kingston, NY for about a decade when The Band (minus Robbie Robertson) returned to The Catskills following their years in Southern California. I saw them routinely & had the opportunity to talk & hang out with them on several occasions. Sadly, I also attended the local service for Richard following his death, with Garth on the organ & Rick singing a heartbreaking acapella version of, “I Shall Be Released.” He was a genuinely sweet guy, revered by all musicians, with perhaps the most versatile & dynamic voice I’ve ever heard! His late night solo show at The Getaway was truly one of the musical highlights in a town long known for it’s legacy of exceptional musical giants!

    Liked by 1 person

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