“Manuel Black is dead. Long live Manuel Black.”
—Headline of the New York Times obituary
“Are you crazy? You may as well ask me to write a eulogy for God.”
—Me, when my editor assigned me this article
I was in love with Manuel Black from the moment I first heard “A Fragment, A Scar” at Penny Carson’s summer pool party my freshman year of high school and my devotion never wavered. Now that he’s gone everybody will say that, but they’re lying. By the end of sophomore year he’d disappeared, swallowed by a pit of depression and obscurity. That would have been the last we heard from him if not for the Visitation. Those were my private years with Black, the years of “Fragrant Like Stars” and “Eternity and I, We Miss You.” This is some of his best work, raw and broken, simple but fierce, and genuine. The seeds of what would emerge in the post-Visitation years are all there, but they’re missing the bleak optimism that suffuses his later work.
Black was born during the hour of the wolf on October 31st, 1987, to Maria Marquez and Robert Black. He was their first child after years of trying, a painful pregnancy, and two days of labor. Robert was so overjoyed when he heard about the birth of his son that he kissed the doctor. At 4:08AM, Robert held his son for the first time. He danced around the room, singing so loudly the entire maternity ward heard him. Reports of what he was singing conflict, but everybody agrees that he did. Then, at 4:17AM, baby Manuel still in his arms, Robert collapsed, dead. He’d always suffered from congenital heart problems, and the stress of the extended labor on top of a difficult pregnancy was too much for him.
So it was that Manuel carried a double-legacy from his first hour of life: a scar above his right eyebrow from hitting a table edge when Robert dropped him, and the conviction that by coming into the world, he’d slain his father.
—The Visited, Tanya Limth
The next time you’re wasting time at work, fire up one of the videos of Black from the Scarified tour. He was just twenty, a college drop-out who’d accidentally become famous when his video for “A Fragment, A Scar” went viral. He’s visibly uncomfortable on stage, his signature curls falling into his face, hiding him from the audience. It’s such a cliché of the stage-frightened musical genius, yet on Black it communicates a vulnerability that only grew with his confidence. Scarified Black was lost, overwhelmed, destined to seize our hearts and fade.
When you’re done with that, plug in “Manuel Black,” “The Ingress Lounge,” and “Loneliness of Forever” and start watching videos. They’re from his lost years, the pre-Visitation Black. It’s still him, but now he’s angry. He hasn’t found his Morrisonian black leather pants yet, but he’s not afraid of the audience anymore. Curls fly around his face as he stares them down, challenging them to answer the questions he raises with his lyrics, to justify the world in the face of his seething despair and melancholy. Critics of the time wrote the music off as angst-ridden wankery. Audiences found it unpalatably depressing and turned instead to catchy dance pop. Listen to it now and you’ll realize his melancholy was a foreshadowing of the post-Visitation malaise waiting for all of us, that his anger was founded in an optimistic belief that things could be different if we’d just bother to acknowledge they ought to be.
I took a break from college after my sophomore year. At the time I thought I was dropping out forever. This was just a few months after the first Visitation, and I had decided that I needed to do something different. I wasn’t the only one—people were dropping out, changing jobs and giving up at alarming rates. My parents were fairly understanding, even when I told them that my plan was to tramp across the country following a rock star. Lots of parents were understanding of lots of things in the months following the Visitation. The rest were too busy doing crazy things of their own.
What’s it like to meet somebody you’ve loved from a distance for years? Somebody you’d loved through obscurity only to have them break into popularity in the wake of the biggest communal trauma in the history of man? It’s nerves and sweating and making an ass of yourself in shoes you can’t walk in. It’s deciding to chuck out the shoes and stalk him back stage, then getting tongue-tied when he looks at you, until you blurt out, “I know exactly what you mean, in ‘Eternity and I.’” It’s proudly tweeting “Manuel Black stole my panties,” before remembering that your mother joined Twitter three months ago—her post-Visitation act-of-crazy.
We may never understand exactly what the Visitation was. Reports conflict, and there are as many reports as people who were alive at the time. What we do know is that at 10AM, GMT on October 31st, 2013, everybody on the planet had a vision. Some claim to have seen a man, others a woman. Most reports claim the figure they saw was unnaturally beautiful. They also claim to have sensed an intense longing. This report attempts to outline, categorize, and analyze the common themes across the corpus of available reports.
—The Visitation Commission Analysis
I saw them both. They were death, two-faced and beautiful. They wanted me. Oh god, they wanted me and I couldn’t bear it. I ran. I don’t even know how but I ran and they let me go.
I wish they hadn’t.
—The Unpublished Journals of Manuel Black
It was 3AM in L.A., where Black was crashing in a flophouse, when the Visitation happened. He immediately bent over his journals. By noon he’d barged into a friend’s home and commandeered his home studio. “The Faces, the Mark” was on the internet before the East Coast was heading home from work. It didn’t just go viral. Nearly every site hosting it went down under the traffic. In those few hours, Manuel Black had processed the trauma of being seized by something terribly, unfathomably beautiful, and being discarded. Our longing, our sense of disorientation, loss, our confusion around all of it, he had it there in a four-minute track. The technical elements of the song are massively complex, harmonies playing off each other and building, carrying the listener from whoever they were, through the revelation, and into what we were going to be after. Listening to that song made it feel like the world made sense, like we knew how to go forward from there. Just as long as we were listening to it. So we listened. On repeat. And we nearly brought down the internet.
We were all touched and disturbed by the Visitation, but none more so than Black. He’d found something of himself in the experience—and lost something. Never again would you hear his anger, his disappointed quest to change things. The world simply was, and he was powerless to change it. Instead, he explained it, became its prophet, its guide. The music he released in the weeks and months following the Visitation charted our course back to a sense of normalcy, a concept of our place in the universe. We couldn’t go back—there is no going back from facing your cosmic irrelevance—and we couldn’t have gone forward without him. In those weeks we were all in love with Manuel Black.
Did he love us back?
I stayed with the Visitation tour from its late May opening night at the Ingress Lounge in L.A. until their Boston stop in mid-October of the following year. I still can’t single out individual incidents from that time. I lived it as one long stretch, from the moment I confessed my adoration and he didn’t laugh until a shattering phone call from my dad brought me home. There are no pieces there. It doesn’t subdivide into anecdotes. That tour simply was, and it was marvelous and intense and ecstatic. I’ve talked to other people who traveled with Black, not just during the Visitation tour, but before as well. We all had the same experience. Spending time with Manual Black was living inside the Visitation, dwelling in 30 seconds that stretch on for eternity, skimming across months that pass in a moment. If we’d died on tour with him, the moment we joined would have been the last of our lives, one long, succulent, final moment. We all hate the people who were with him in New Orleans a little bit.
Kitman: You’re an international icon, your concerts sell out and overflow, people adore you. Is it enough?
Black: Enough what?
Kitman: Enough for you. Do you have everything you want?
Kitman: What’s left?
Black: You should never get everything you want. Not until your very last moment. Then, right as you’re leaving, then it’s okay. But if you have it before then, why would you ever go on? You’re just going to lose it.
Kitman: What is it that you still want?
Black: Something I ran from.
—Interview with Beth Kitman, Interior Examiner
From Boston, the Visitation tour veered South, landing in New Orleans. Black insisted on playing venues small enough to feel intimate, which meant that there were never enough tickets for his performances. That was why he started the live streams of his concerts, and the New Orleans gig was the biggest stream of the tour. We all waited while the opening bands fell behind schedule, delaying Black’s entrance more and more as the evening wore on. By the time the lights went up on Black at midnight, nearly a third of the adult populations of the U.S. was watching the stream. In the two days since his death, the video of the concert has been viewed over 100 million times. “Black’s New Orleans gig” is the Star Wars of our generation: Everybody saw it; some people watched it on repeat, letting it imprint itself on their bones.
Where were you when the stream cut out?
The second Visitation came at 8AM GMT, October 31st, 2015, two hours shy of the two-year anniversary of the first Visitation. There’s been lots of analysis to figure out why the people who saw it the second time did, what they had in common. Scientists and analysts and government cranks have spent millions combing through the data, and their explanation isn’t any better than the one we all knew instinctively right when it happened: It was after Manuel Black.
I was watching the stream on my cell phone while sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a soul-crushing hospital room, waiting for my mother to die of pancreatic cancer and an unwillingness to do anything about it. It was so different to see the show but not be there, to hear the music over a small, tinny speaker instead of feeling it in my sternum and the bottoms of my feet. I was crying before the stream cut out, lonely and alone, desperate to let Manuel Black carry me through this transition and into anything else.
The photos from when the authorities first arrived on the scene weren’t released for two years, so the staged photos of the event have become our canon. We know that Manuel Black stood on the stage, shirtless in his leather pants, his curls blowing in an ethereal breeze while his hands were turned up in supplication and he stared down the Visitation with mournful, hungry eyes. We know he was bathed in hard shadows and that his scar stood out more than it ever had before, that a black pendant glowed on his bare chest. We know he was gorgeous and impervious and innocent.
The sole survivor was a Hispanic male of approximately thirty years, 5’10”, black medium length hair. We found the subject prone on the stage in a state of extreme distress. He was naked except for a black pendant on a silver chain worn around his neck. Subject clutched the pendant and muttered unintelligibly. When officers attempted to engage subject, he withdrew. “You don’t understand,” he screamed. “I love them. I should have gone the first time.” Then he collapsed. At that point, paramedics on the scene took charge of the subject. At no point did he indicate awareness of the bodies in the room.
—Police Report from Investigation of the “New Orleans Gig”
We waited for Black to release a new track, to carry us through this new iteration of the crisis. But nothing came. Nobody heard from him for two months. “The Faces, The Mark” surged back to popularity, but it wasn’t the same. The second Visitation didn’t hurt us the way the first had. Or it hurt us differently.
I didn’t see anything. Had I been rejected? I couldn’t be sure and the doubt niggled at me. Did the people who had seen something feel like they’d failed somehow, too? I never asked anybody. None of us ever asked. We muddled our way through our post-Visitation lives without Black’s guidance.
That was as it should be.
Black never toured again, and only made one more public appearance, but he released tracks, and photos, and videos. He kept interpreting the world for us, kept telling us how to cope, kept paving our way through each day.
My favorite track from this period is “The Sacred Knight.” It’s a ballad—the instrumentation much simpler than in his more popular work—and a sublime interpretation of Lancelot as a hero torn between his devotion to a world shaped by chivalry, and his love, not just for Guinevere, but Arthur as well. The royal couple are the center around which Lancelot’s world rotates, so his devotion to one feeds his dedication to the other. He’s reflecting on that while debating whether he should go into the bedchamber and declare his affection, or continue to—honorably—stand guard outside. He tries to draw strength and guidance from a token Guinevere gave him the last time he struggled, but it tortures him with silence. The song ends before he makes a decision, leaving us with a bitter ambiguity. We know how the story ends, yet the song is so compelling we genuinely wonder. What does one do, torn between love of a thing and worship of the world it enables?
After four years of living alone in his Colorado ranch, Black made his last appearance two weeks ago by showing up in New York and giving an impromptu concert in Central Park. He hadn’t filed for permits or hired security—it was a public safety disaster waiting to happen. Given that everybody who attended his last public concert died during it, you’d think people would have stayed away. But they didn’t. The internet is full of videos showing police joining the crowd, hanging out and enjoying the music with everybody else when they should have shut it down.
And videos of Black? Maybe this is nostalgia, or wishful thinking, but he looks happy. He’s almost the twenty-year-old Black again, youthful and stunned to be popular, except that the confidence he learned over time is still there—and the leather pants. He’s having fun, the audience is having fun, and for two weeks we thought that maybe we’d turned a page, that we’d get to see Black again.
Manuel Black was found dead in his home early in the morning of October 31st, 2019. He was slumped over his journal, presumably because he’d been writing in it when he died. His estate released what he wrote. “It’s time to sit still, time to surrender, time to accept. This is the moment, and I refuse to lose anything. My loves, they’re coming again, and I am ready.”
I stretched out to forever
Hoping to find a trickle
A fragment of you
You tore a rent in the world
A scar, a mar, a wound
Maybe you’ll hear me
Return to us, lover
We miss you
—Excerpted with Permission from “Eternity and I, We Miss You.”
Lyrics by Manuel Black.
© 2013 Anaea Lay.