The Band may have said farewell at The Last Waltz in 1976, but just seven years later, they were back on the road. Guitarist Robbie Robertson declined to participate, however, so the four other members soldiered on without him. The audiences were smaller than in the 1970s, but Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko still belted out the classics with incredible power.
Things got difficult by the time the tour hit Florida in 1986. “The guy who was booking us had scheduled it so we were traveling hundreds of miles between relatively small clubs,” Levon Helm wrote in his memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire. “It was a lot of traveling and not much dignity. Everyone had a cold, and the crew started referring jokingly to this trip as the ‘Death Tour.'”
Keyboardist Richard Manuel had a severe drinking problem at this point, and some nights, his voice was atrocious. He hung himself in his hotel room on March 4th after a show at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Florida. “I rushed into Richard’s bathroom and basically went into shock,” Helm wrote. “He had buckled his belt around his neck and looped the other end around the curtain rod, near the wall mounting where it would support his weight.”
It was a grisly death, and it caused the group to splinter off for a few years. They started touring heavily again in the late 1980s, and in 1993, they decided to record their first album since Island in 1977. They centered Jericho around covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Artie Traum. The clear highlight was Bruce Springsteen‘s “Atlantic City,” sung by Levon Helm. Here’s a live version from 1994.
Jericho scored positive reviews but it failed to make much of an impact in a marketplace dominated by new releases from Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Whitney Houston. They released another LP in 1998 but broke up for good in 1999 when Rick Danko died after a decades-long battle with drugs. Levon Helm kept “Atlantic City” in his solo repertoire, playing it at countless Midnight Rambles in the final years of his life.