The Lonesome Tale Of Richard Manuel
Music From Big Pink, the debut album by The Band, opens with the haunting Tears Of Rage. It introduces the listeners to the sublime voice of Richard Manuel, and it sets the pace for the rest of the album, which contains songs emphasizing vocal harmonies among the three singers of The Band, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. All songs, but one. Lonesome Suzie, placed between the eccentric Chest Fever and the restless This Wheel’s On Fire, is sung only by Richard. The musical accompaniment is subtle — more subtle than on the other pieces of the album. Simple arrangements highlight Richard’s voice, which is the principal instrument. The other musicians back him with sobriety; Robbie Robertson’s guitar licks almost feel like a caress, Garth Hudson offers a delicate accompaniment on the organ, Rick’s bass lines are subdued, and Levon’s drums sound like a fragile heartbeat. The nakedness of Lonesome Suzie surprises after the sophistication of the eight songs preceding it. The emotion is all the stronger because of this. It takes our breath away and Richard’s falsetto reaches our hearts.
Richard Manuel composed Lonesome Suzie in 1967, during The Basement Tapes. In 1985, in an interview with Ruth Albert Spencer for The Woodstock Times, he admitted he wanted to write a hit record. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a hit, and the others songs of Music From Big Pink shadows it, The Weight being the most famous. Lonesome Suzie is poignant and reveals Richard’s personality. It’s impossible to dissociate him from the narrator of the song. He’s not only singing the words; he’s feeling them, and he probably had been feeling them long before that session in The Capitol Studios in February 1968.
Loneliness didn’t seem to be a part of Richard’s life, however; he had three brothers, and he had toured with his bandmates for many years. And yet. To write a song like Lonesome Suzie, he needed more than sympathizing with lonely people. He had to have known this feeling at least once in his life. This is perhaps more tragic since he hid his loneliness, only revealing it through his songs.
The character of Suzie takes shape with Richard’s words, with his voice carrying all those fragile emotions. Lonesome Suzie exposes Richard’s vulnerability, and contrary to In A Station and We Can Talk, which he wrote the lyrics as well, he’s alone with the words; Rick’s and Levon’s voices aren’t answering or harmonizing with him.
But who was Suzie? A few months ago, I wrote a Letter To Richard Manuel and I reflected on 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.” Suzie didn’t exist indeed, but the song is a comfort for people who feel the same way she felt. Arlie Litvak, Richard’s second wife, had wanted to meet him since she was sixteen and heard Lonesome Suzie. She said he had a voice like a hug.
Lyrics are a key to the songwriter’s mind, especially when they are intimate, like the ones of Lonesome Suzie. Yet, a line of the song has always puzzled me: I don’t fit here/But I may have a friend to lend. Why does Richard believe that? He obviously fits there; he’s probably the only person who can ease Suzie’s pain. Or does he feel inadequate? And when he sings, If you can use me/Until you feel a little stronger, he talks to all the loners. His voice almost breaks with the last lines: I guess just watching you/Has made me lonesome too/Why don’t we get together?/What else can we do? He has reunited his loneliness with Suzie and made her feel a little stronger. The song ends with the hope that maybe she will make him stronger, as well. We want to reassure him, too, and tell him he is not alone. Or perhaps, as Bob Dylan wrote in Tears Of Rage, for which Richard composed the melody: You know, we’re so alone/And life is brief.
Like The Weight, Lonesome Suzie almost didn’t make the album Music From Big Pink, but for different reasons. The Band was hesitating between Suzie and Katie’s Been Gone, a beautiful song co-written by Richard and Robbie Robertson. They eventually chose the first, but the producer, John Simon, was worried that the album contained too many slow songs. He suggested The Band recorded a faster version, with horns, and Rick’s backing vocals. The result was lovely, but as Robbie said, “As we listened to the slow version and then the more up-tempo approach back to back, two things became very clear to me: the faster arrangement wasn’t lonesome, and I wasn’t concerned about the balance between slow songs and fast songs.”
There’s something magical with music; with their vivid imagery, songwriters can create a universe that seems real. Richard was gifted in that regard, perhaps because he was an introvert, and writing songs allowed him to get a grasp on his overwhelming emotions. In his memoir, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm said about Suzie, “It was a quiet song that told a story and was pretty typical of Richard’s general philosophy, which was to be kind to people. Richard was complicated and felt things really deeply, more than most people.”
Richard gave his soul every time he sang, whether he was in front of half a million people at the Woodstock Festival, or playing in a tavern with Rick Danko. Generously, he put so much of himself into his songs — the ones he wrote and the ones he sang — that he couldn’t come out unscathed. With Lonesome Suzie, Richard revealed a part of himself. He takes courage to do that. Regrettably, Richard’s death by his own hand in 1986 overshadows too often his incredible talent. He is much more than that — the way he died doesn’t define him. What defines him is the songs he left behind him, and Lonesome Suzie is perhaps the one that allows us to understand him the most.
Levon Helm with Stephen Davis — This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band
Robbie Robertson — Testimony