Shake 'Em Up, Change Things, Pray for the Dead

November 28, 1993|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

Call this the "Richard Manuel Indulgence Tour."

Late last month, I traveled from my Highlandtown rowhouse to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg; a Catholic Worker house in Cleveland; and on to Champaign, Ill., to write and deliver the Prayer of the Faithful at a Roman Catholic wedding.

At every turn, I carried prayers for Richard Manuel alive in my heart.

By the time I made it back to Macon Street, it was Nov. 2: All Souls Day.

Although educated Catholic from grade school through Loyola College, I don't ever remember celebrating or understanding All Souls Day, which honors the eternal spirits of the faithful departed.

This year, for the first time, I consciously observed the 1,005-year-old custom and dedicated it to the soul of Richard Manuel, a rock and roll piano player raised Baptist in Ontario and known throughout the world as one of the voices of The Band.

Gentle, gifted, supra-sensitive and alcoholic, Manuel tightened a belt around his neck in a motel bathroom in Winter Park, Fla. on March 4, 1986, hooked the strap to the shower curtain rod, and sat down hard.

I did not take much notice of the death because I had not yet begun to pay much attention to The Band.

Best known for songs like "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Weight," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," The Band helped Bob Dylan cross Electric Avenue from folk to rock and toured the world with him in 1974.

In the last year, the beauty of The Band has been revealed to me the way America's cornfields first spoke to Sherwood Anderson. Before leaving for the wedding in Champaign, I held a small party to watch "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorsese's documentary about The Band's 1976 Thanksgiving farewell concert.

Before the film rolled, my old friend Michael Reeb from The Sun sports department asked if he could say a few words. Reebie, who witnessed the music of Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel 18 times before the Band's demise, opened a new book he'd just bought.

Quoting Levon Helm in "This Wheel's On Fire," the drummer's story of his life with The Band, Mike read a passage about Manuel's funeral:

". . . Garth played, 'I Shall Be Released,' which Bob Dylan had written for Richard to sing. . . . I had a funny experience while Garth was playing. I was thinking about Richard and asking myself why, when I clearly heard Richard's voice in the middle of my head. It came in as clear as a good radio signal. And he said, 'Well Levon, this was the one action I could take that was gonna really shake things up. It's gonna shake 'em up and change things round some more, because that's what needs to happen.' "

Shake 'em on down.

Near the middle of the movie, Scorsese pulls his camera from the magnet of Robbie Robertson's ego for a moment to consider Richard Manuel -- supine on a couch, eyes deep, brown and glazed. He is explaining how The Band got its name.

"It was right in the middle of that whole psychedelia and Chocolate Subway and Marshmallow Overcoats, those kind of names, you know," says Manuel. "And we started out with the Crackers. We tried to call ourselves the Honkies. You know, everybody kind of backed off from that, you know. It was too straight, you know. So we just decided . . . just to call ourselves The Band."

With his long, shaggy hair, thick black beard and liquid eyes, Richard Manuel looked to me like an original disciple of Christ.

"He looks like John the Baptist," said Glenn Donithan, a friend at the party.

In that moment I was struck with the notion that if Manuel could shake things up from the other side by robbing the world of his talent, then perhaps I might do the same for him from this side of the Jordan.

Something told me to pray for this poor man.

The sensation reminded me of Naomia Stiers, an 87-year-old woman from Hot Springs, Ark., whom I interviewed at Graceland during the annual observance of Elvis Presley's death in 1991. Celebrated as the world's oldest Elvis fan, Miss Naomia explained what drew her to a teen-age heart throb in 1956 when she was 52.

She said: "The first time I saw him on television, it just seemed to me that he was pleading with me to love him."

Something like that passed between me and the sad, addled visage of Richard Manuel.

And it told me to pray.

Two days later, through plans made long before "The Last Waltz" played in my parlor, I was at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg.

There, on a wooded hillside where Elizabeth Ann Seton prayed to the Virgin Mary, a shrine has been erected for believers to give thanks and ask for help. Near a statue of the Virgin and a small stream were instructions on gaining a "plenary indulgence."

Plenary indulgences are something like Catholic parole for the souls of the living and the dead. Ritual prayers, they seek deliverance from punishment for sin, even if the sin has been confessed and forgiven.

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