The Shame of Richard Manuel


This post will not cheer you up. I’m sorry for that. But I felt I had to write it today.

26 years ago, March 4th 1986, Richard Manuel hung himself in his Florida hotel room. He was 42. As a pianist, singer and drummer, he contributed several great songs to the repertoire of Bob Dylan’s group The Band. This date is a fitting occasion to commemorate him. And to reflect briefly on the role of shame.

Richard Manuel    Manuel’s suicide was probably not the result of a sudden impulse. It appears to have been premeditated. The day before, he had thanked a fellow member of The Band for “twenty-five years of incredible music”. His death had to do with three factors that sadly are not uncommon when it comes to suicidal depression: alcoholism, disillusion, and loss.

    Having grown up as a very shy boy, Manuel had started early in his life to use liquor as a means to overcome his shyness and social ineptitude. He soon became a chronic, addicted drinker and remained so for the rest of his life. During his years with The Band, he frequently was very drunk.

    I suppose I don’t need to remind you that shyness usually is a form of fear that has to do with shame, rooted in a lack of confidence and self-respect. More about that in a minute.

Richard ManuelAt the time of his death, Manuel was disillusioned. Disappointed in himself. The Band, although still touring, had lost much of its former creativity and vigor. They had become a shadow of their former selves, just routinely cashing in on their old successes. And they knew it. Apart from that, Manuel was also facing loss. Two months before, his manager – who was so close to him as to be a kind of father figure – had suddenly died. Likely, this added to a mood of depression and desperation.

    I’m not going to rehash Manuel’s musical legacy here; there are many music websites that offer a retrospective in much better and more complete ways than I would be able to do. Just Google him, and you’ll find lots of information and samples of his work. For a webpage example, see here.

UPDATE: it looks like the audio and video samples have been removed from the site linked above. So for a simple list of many Youtube music videos featuring Manuel, try this link.


Because this is a depression blog, there is one thing I want to highlight here. In my view, Richard Manuel’s death was a striking illustration of the often fatal relation between shyness and shame on the one hand, and suicidal depression on the other hand.

    Although he seems to have premeditated killing himself, trying at least to say goodbye to one of his friends, he never discussed his intention directly with anyone. Certainly not with his wife, who was accompanying him on the band’s tour. She told afterwards how they had fallen asleep that night in each other’s arms; when she got up the next morning, she found him hanging.

Shame    Of course I don’t know what exactly was in his mind. But I do know, and I strongly suspect this also happened here, that shame can be a strong factor in keeping one’s suicidal intentions secret. In theory, we all know that being depressed is not something to be ashamed for. In reality, it still happens very often that people just do not dare to discuss the true scope and seriousness of their depression with anyone – not even the person closest to them. It is depression itself that generates and fuels such shame. For depression can not only lead to self-isolation: it also implies self-deprecation, and often self-stigmatization too.

    As a result, you can feel ashamed for your own depressed and suicidal thoughts: you just don’t dare to be really open about your desperate feelings. Instead, you hide them. Even from your loved ones. Maybe especially from your loved ones, because you feel ashamed for being so depressed while knowing they love you.

    All this shame has two consequences. In the first place, you bypass any opportunity to get some understanding, help and support from those people who might be best suited to actually help you. Secondly, this will add to your feelings of loneliness and isolation and thus, it will make your depression even worse than it already was.

    After a suicide, family and friends often ask: “But why didn’t he talk about it with us?” In two suicide cases where I was left with that question myself, maybe a simple one-word answer would have done. Shame.

Should you want to draw a lesson here, please do.

Manuel graveI would have liked to say that if Richard Manuel had dared to talk more openly with others about his feelings, he might have been still alive as an old man today. But in his case, I suppose we cannot even say such a thing. Probably, he would have succumbed anyway to cirrhosis or some other consequence of his alcoholism. I still wonder if he kept drinking so much to forget his shame, or if he felt even more shame because he kept drinking. Both, I guess.

One of the songs he wrote together with Bob Dylan is Tears of Rage. Manuel composed the music, Dylan wrote the lyrics. Including the lines

Come to me now,
You know we’re so low,
And life is brief.

The Band – Tears Of Rage

For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page

 tip: When you are seriously depressed, using alcohol can be really dangerous: even if you’re not an alcoholist. This has more to do with direct mood effects than with long-term addiction.
For more about this, see my post Genie in a Bottle.


6 Responses to “The Shame of Richard Manuel”

  1. 1 Fred Jan 10, 2013 at 02:01

    Thank you for the thoughtful words. I was just researching Richard M out sheer curiosity and what you said about depression touched me.

  2. 2 Suzette Green Sep 29, 2013 at 21:13

    Richard, a.k.a. “Beak”, was a close friend in the Woodstock days. He had a wonderful sense of humor, was sensitive to all around him, and was a deep thinker.
    We would talk for hours on end, unfortunately we went in different directions, so I was unable to see him often. By 1976, his hair had turned totally grey, and we talked until dawn about his “adventure” in rehab.
    SInce then I have known several persons who committed suicide – it is not so much “shame” as FEAR that drives people over the edge.
    Sadly, it is no one’s fault when another takes their life – ultimately, they have made the decision. May we wish them peace, and the same for ourselves.
    Surround everyone you know with love, and let it be.

    • 3 Henk van Setten Sep 30, 2013 at 13:54

      Thank you so much for sharing this.
      I didn’t really pretend to guess what may have been Richard’s exact motives. It’s just that shame often plays a role in such an unexpected “sudden” suicide. The problem is that feelings of shame often prevent suicidal people from talking to (and seeking help from) friends and family. You’re ashamed of feeling suicidal, so you don’t dare talk about it, and tragically your not talking about it increases the risk of your actually killing yourself.
      What you say about suicide being no one else’s fault and surrounding others with love is very wise and I agree with whole my heart.
      And I am absolutely sure that through his music, Richard will live on forever.

  3. 4 dougtheslug Feb 28, 2014 at 14:10

    Oh well, we all die sometime.

    • 5 s green Mar 4, 2014 at 04:33

      As one grows older, there are more and more on the list of suicides. The good news is that there is help for manic depressives, pi-polars, etc. What is known now is worlds beyond what we knew 40 years ago. “Beak” was loving, kind, generous with his emotions, would never hurt anyone, and I am certain, did not mean harm to his wives and children, his family and friends. It was strictly personal, and at the time, he could not help it. We will always love him, and others who have taken the same journey. We do the best we can.

    • 6 Frank Dec 20, 2014 at 04:14

      Hold on long enough, there may come a day when that is not the case. They have already reversed aging in mice- Google it.
      Richard Manuel certainly was self medicating, unfortunately with the wrong ‘medicine’.

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