For Rick, with love
A Chat with Terry Danko
by Carol CaffinBandBites, Volume II, No. 1, November 1, 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Carol Caffin. All Rights Reserved.
Terry Danko is not an easy guy to get to know. I'd imagine that on first meeting him, one could get the sense that there is not just an invisible wall around Terry, but a locked door behind the wall and a labyrinth behind the door. But chiseling away at those layers -- as much as he'll let you, anyway -- is worth the effort.
Like his older brother, Rick, Terry is impossible not to like -- a youthful 59, he is charming, soft-spoken, candid, and funny, and has the same innate warmth as everyone in the Danko family. He can, at first, come off as stand-offish and guarded, but that's more about shyness than anything else. Once he gets to know you, he's very amiable.
I first met him in the early 90s when I went to Canada on Ronnie Hawkins' invitation. Terry was a Hawk then, and watching him perform -- though his stage presence and his playing style were nothing like Rick's -- I imagined what it must have been like 30 years earlier, when Rick was in that spot on stage with Ronnie.
I was struck by two things about Terry: how much he reminded me of his brother -- the expressive eyes, the distinct vocal inflections, the wry sense of humor, the palpable magnetism -- and yet, how "un-Rick-like" he seemed -- much quieter, more bashful, less jovial, even a tad brooding. When Ronnie's then-manager, Steve Thompson, introduced us, Terry said he hadn't seen Rick for a bit. "How is he?" he asked, trying not to sound too eager. When I got back home, Rick asked the same thing about his brother, in the same seemingly incidental way: "Well -- how is he?" "He's a lot like you," I told Rick. "Only he's not crazy."
Looking back, I realize it was a bit immature to expect Terry to look, act, or be like Rick. But when you're the younger brother of a rock and roll legend, comparisons are inevitable. As Terry himself told me two years before I met him, when I interviewed him by phone in 1990 and asked him about playing with Rick on his first solo tour, "People had heard of me but they'd never met me, so they didn't know what to expect" other than "a carbon copy of Rick." And that, he's not -- and, to his credit, never tried to be.
I speak with Terry occasionally, and it usually ends up being an hours-long marathon. Sometimes we email each other, and it's always good to be in touch. His love for Rick has never wavered. Sometimes, when he talks about Rick, I can hear the slightest edge of good-natured sibling rivalry -- though five-and-a-half years Rick's junior, the two were close enough in age to keep each other on their toes. But other times, I feel that wistful hero-worship for the guy who will always be Terry's big brother.
Though he doesn't perform very often, he does from time to time, and music remains Terry Danko's first love and his oldest friend. He's written some wonderful new songs, which hopefully he will get around to recording -- soon, Terry, soon.
CC: What's your earliest memory of Rick? Is there one in particular?
TD: Oh boy. As soon as you said that, I picture me looking at Rick -- I can see Rick riding his bike with a gleam in his eye, by this little house that we lived in in the country.
CC: You're five or six years younger, right? When were you born?
TD: Yeah, I was born in '49.
CC: Well, I'm sure you know there's always been this discrepancy over whether Rick was born in '42 or '43. The official documents say '42, but it's '43, isn't it?
TD: Yes. You know what? There was a discrepancy, because something happened at the time... my mother sent in his birth certificate I think a year afterward basically. Somehow the date became a year earlier. Rick wanted to get his driver's license a year earlier, right? So he figured he had his choice of what he wanted it to be. My mom said 'Trust me, I know when you were born.' [Laughs] But the birth certificate is different. He used to like to use the '42 [date], because that way he could get everything a year early [Laughs].
CC: What was it like for you growing up? What was your house like? You had three brothers...
TD: Yeah, three older brothers. So from my point of view, I guess it was different [than Rick's], you know? We didn't have a lot of money, but we didn't know that, so everything was fine.
CC: What's the age difference between Junior [Maurice], Dennis, and Rick?
TD: Okay, well there's nine or 10 between Junior and I -- I can't remember -- and nine or eight between Dennis and I. Then there'd be Rick, and then there'd be myself.
CC: What was the area like, the vibe?
TD: Yeah -- it was like Woodstock without being Woodstock, you know? [Laughs] Someone said 'Rick really liked Woodstock' and I said 'Yeah, well it was just like growing up.' Everybody played. Everybody just played in each other's living rooms.
CC: What was Rick like, day to day? What kind of a kid was he? What kind of a guy was he?
TD: Rick was happy-go-lucky. Everybody said that, and everybody liked Rick. Rick would get out of more things... and I was the youngest! I mean, I would have thought because I was younger and cuter at the time [laughs] that that would have helped, but no way.
CC: Poor Terry! It's usually the baby of the family that gets away with that kind of stuff.
TD: Right. But Rick went the other way with that. He was good at that. [Laughs] And he got away with a lot because, as he would say, he was 'sickly.'
CC: Yeah, I can see him milking that one a bit, too. But being sickly didn't keep him home.
TD: You're right. When you mention something like that, when I see Rick, I see him out the door and gone. He was never a sit-down kinda guy; he was constantly on the move. He definitely had ants in his pants, even back then, just constantly moving, constantly going someplace.
CC: People don't hear about Dennis -- almost never. The 'myth' and the legend all kind of surrounds Rick and Junior, and then of course when you guys played together, people got to know you a little more. But never Dennis.
TD: I think that the only reason is that all the rest of us seemed to be into the stage playing, so that's what people related to when they were talking about our family. Dennis did try at different points to play on stage, and just did not like it at all. Brian Wilson did the same thing. He just didn't like the stage. Dennis was a writer.
CC: Some people just have more of a writer's mind, kind of a solitary 'life of the mind' thing.
TD: Yeah. And I can relate to that. I'd see that in Rick, too. When I hear the song "Stage Fright," I do think of Rick in that respect. I think of me in that respect. I see where Dennis got it from, you know. It was a fear -- I think everyone has it, somewhere in there -- but it was a fear that kind of was always there. It's always there for me for that first few seconds when I walk out. Rick had it, too.
CC: I believe he did. But he usually hid it well.
TD: That's the shyness that people saw in him. That stage fright -- it was shyness. He'd hide behind a sheepish grin. I think I do that myself.
CC: If you look at his interviews over the years, you'll see that some of the other Band members' interviews were more revealing than his. He let you see what he wanted you to see.
TD: Right. He did.
CC: You had a very bad car accident in 1983, when your Dad died. Weren't you out of commission for a long time?
TD: Yeah, a year or so. Probably the first three or four months, I was on my back. Then I tried to get mobile with physiotherapy and things like that. But the rest was just memory loss. I just basically loss track of who I was and what I did, you know. I kind of knew who I was, but I didn't know that I really played... I didn't know too much about that.
CC: How did it come back? Did it just come gradually, or did you have to re-learn it?
TD: I once asked Ron who I was when he came down to see me. I said 'Ron, you probably know me better than anybody. Am I the same?' And he said 'You know what? You're a different Terry Danko. You're just as good as you once was, except now you don't mind tellin' people.' [Laughs] He said 'You're not so bashful or shy anymore. That's good. You lost that.' Before, I wouldn't talk to anybody off stage. I'd play onstage, and then didn't do interviews or talk to people. I loved the stage, but I didn't really care for all the rest of it. But that's just because I was shy. Rick was like that too -- 'see the man with the stage fright.'
CC: Do you prefer writing to performing?
TD: It got to the point where somewhere... in my youth as a writer, performing with Bearfoot and Atkinson, Danko and Ford, back in the creative heyday of the 70s... of course I was compared to Rick and The Band constantly, you know, no matter what happened. So I mean, I always had that fear publicly as well.
CC: How did you deal with that?
TD: It was pretty hard. I dealt with it by not talking to anybody in the media. I would just say, you know, 'I have nothing I want to say.' I did say something, though, in a radio interview. I forget how he [the interviewer] put it, and I said 'My favorite part of playing is the minutes after I step on stage and when I play the last notes of the song and say 'thank you.' After that, I don't want to be known for music...
TD: I think I just didn't want to talk. I was kinda like Rick in a way. I just didn't want to answer those questions because... because of that, like you said... I just knew what was gonna come out of my mouth; it was just gonna be a lot of stock answers. And I just felt like I didn't want to say anything because there was nothing left to say. What I wanted to do was write new songs, write music.
CC: Which is totally understandable. So how did that happen?
TD: When I left Ronnie, everybody was saying 'you must be outta your mind,' because it was a stepping stone up, so to speak. But I had left an incredible all-writing band to join Ronnie. The guitar player came with me, who was Jim Atkinson. And Ronnie saw something in us. When I first met Ronnie -- well, not when I first met him, because I'd met him through Rick, of course -- but when I met Ronnie this time, we were playing this huge club. We'd rented the downstairs of the club, and we wanted to do all original songs, which wasn't being done in 1967 at all in Brantford. We'd taken the entire summer off and wrote and played. It was a group I called Tin Pan Alley, because Tin Pan Alley was a songwriting place -- in the movies that I saw, they always talked about Tin Pan Alley, so whenever I thought of songwriting, I thought of Tin Pan Alley.
CC: So you were like 19 or something?
TD: Yeah, somewhere around there I guess. And within three weeks, maybe a month, we had all of the rowdies kicked out of there, but there was still a university crowd from Toronto, Hamilton, and London. The place was jam-packed with a line around the block.
CC: What was the name of the place?
TD: It was called the Graham Bell, the Alexander Graham Bell. And there were three bars, including the place we rented downstairs. Ronnie was doing a show upstairs and I thought, 'Great. I haven't seen Ronnie for quite a while.' Anyway, they were driving into town and they were late getting in, and Ronnie says to David Foster 'Look at that -- there's a line around the block to see us.' They got inside and they found that they had about 16 people. Ron wanted to find out who was playing downstairs, and he found out it was me, and he sent David Foster to come down to see why this band was drawing. There was no place to sit down, so he stood against the back wall and watched us, which I always thought was funny because David is an incredible musician, right? And I'm sure it pained him to see us come down and play. We were songwriters. We were tight, but we weren't the greatest musicians in the world. [Laughs] But we had the youth, we had the original songs, and we had a following.
CC: So Ronnie recruited you from there?
TD: Yeah. So they went back upstairs and... like Ronnie always said, David Foster wanted to put two chords in 'Bo Diddley.' Um, the next thing I know, Ron called and, to make a long story short, he said 'I'd like to hire you and Jim.' And he mentioned us being able to do our original songs, so I thought 'That sounds great.' And it worked out great for a while. We got with Ronnie and we put him back on top in Toronto. We went into this club and were just packing the place there.
CC: What club was that?
TD: That was called the Nickelodeon. It was on Yonge Street and it became another university place to go -- all university kids.
CC: And that was in the late '60s?
TD: Yeah, '69, maybe 'til '70. I only stayed for a year -- maybe a year and a half, year and three-quarters, and I remember telling Ron 'I gotta leave.' And he said 'Terry -- you're doin' great. What do you wanna leave for?' And I said 'You know Ron, I wanna write. I wanna do more.' Because like we were... he was locking us in, but we were locking ourselves in, as well. We'd play six nights in the club and on Sundays... we'd basically be playing seven nights a week. At that time, I thought I had the world by the tail. I'd gotten married, had a young son, and I wasn't seeing them. And I wanted to write and I wasn't getting time to do that, so I started writing at night at the bar, and we would rehearse these songs and put 'em together. We'd play them the next night and people would say 'Hey, play that song.' And then Ronnie would say 'Is that a new song by Elton John or somethin'?' and we'd say 'Yeah.' [Laughs] Ronnie would say 'Okay, if it's new, go ahead.' But he didn't want us doing the song.
CC: He didn't or they [the audience] didn't?
TD: Ronnie didn't want us playing those songs. He wanted to play the rock and roll, the rhythm and blues and stuff that was already out there. But then people would ask for our songs, and he'd say 'Hey guys, do the Elton John song.' [Laughs]
CC: But it was your song...
TD: Yeah, it was our song. And people knew that. And it was kind of funny for a while, and we got away with it. And I just wanted to do more [songwriting] so I ended up telling Ronnie again that I had to leave. And it was that whole thing, you know... he gave me a brand new car, and a penthouse... and that kept me for a second, but then I remember calling him up on a Sunday in the morning after rehearsal saying 'Ron, you can have everything back. I gotta leave. Sorry.'
CC: Well, you were being true to yourself.
TD: Yeah. So, you know, the whole band was gonna leave. We were gonna go out on our own. We got about 10 feet away from Ron, and Ron said 'I quit.' And I was like 'Oh man, he's psychic.' [Laughs] And four of the guys wouldn't go, so they ended up staying.
CC: I guess Ronnie knew everyone was gonna quit because he'd been through it before. Maybe he knew that look. [Laughs]
TD: [Laughs] Yeah, I think he recognized it. He'd seen it before when Levon and Robbie walked towards him maybe. And he was like 'Whoa.' He knew we hadn't been happy... we were rehearsing more, but doing a lot more original songs that he'd never heard -- by Elton John, apparently! [Laughs]
CC: That's too funny.
TD: We went to record a song, too. Ron didn't show up one night at the recording studio. And Ron was very protective of his studio time, because of the money that went into it, right? So, the time was booked, and the guy [at the studio] said 'Well listen, why don't you guys cut something?' So we cut a couple of our own tracks and at the time, songs weren't played [on the radio] unless they were on a 45. One of the DJs got hold of a tape of this and started playing it in Toronto on CHUM, which was a big station at the time. It was CHUM AM -- actually, I think it was John Donabie; I can't remember for sure, but I think it was. And he ended up playing it on the radio and it started getting requests. And Ron said 'Is that Elton John?' and we were like 'Yeah, it's Elton John.' 'Cause we didn't wanna tell him that we'd used his recording time.
CC: What was the song? Do you remember?
TD: I think it was called 'Bring it on Home' -- not the one by Sam Cooke.
CC: Was it a song that you had written?
TD: Well yeah, with the band. I think it was Dwayne Ford, Jim Atkinson, and myself. We knew this was our chance to cut something so we picked something that we all wrote.
CC: So Ronnie didn't like that too much, huh?
TD: You know, I don't know if he ever really knew about that. I don't think I ever told him... maybe I did. Back then it would have been like taboo.
CC: Ronnie seemed to be very good at recruiting the best, probably knowing they were going to leave him at some point. Like when he hired Rick as a bass player, though bass wasn't his first instrument.
TD: They were looking for a new bass player and Ron thought that Rick's band and Junior's band at the time had a big following. And Ronnie was very, very good at always hiring somebody -- you know, the post in the band that held it all together. Pull that out of the structure and that band will fall. Eliminate that and when I come back, that band won't be there, you know? Ron was very good at doing that.
CC: That's a good strategy, actually!
TD: See, these are the things that I know, and people would always talk about Ronnie's ability to put bands together. I always thought it was amazing the ability he had to break up these great groups! [Laughs]
CC: Yeah, you know, take John Lennon out of the Beatles or something.
TD: Exactly. He thought of that too! [Laughs] So anyway, I think to begin with, he actually wanted to hire Junior. But then he asked him what his situation was, and he'd just gotten married and had a baby. And Ron had this rule about no married guys in the band. So then he turned around and asked Rick.
CC: So you were just a kid then like what, 11 or 12?
TD: Yeah. And Rick was just a kid. Levon was just a kid himself, but I always think of him as this guy, right?
CC: I can't picture Levon being a kid. I think Levon was born 40 years old.
TD: Well, that's true, too. [Laughs] I remember him waking me up and giving me drum sticks after the show. Rick and him would come over and grab a bite to eat after the show. And I always remember Levon giving me drumsticks. The Levon twirl -- that's the first thing I learned.
CC: He still does that twirl, I think. I would love to see him again.
TD: Yep. And when I was playing drums, I did it as well. Until today, if I sit down at a set of drums, I twirl a stick and think of Levon.
CC: When they went with Dylan, what were you thinking? Did you realize what was happening, how big that was?
TD: There was a lot of stuff going on, a lot of decisions to be made. And it was definitely foreign to Levon because to Levon it just made no sense. Levon's thing was up front, he was doing a lot of the singing, he was doing the thing that he always loved. And for a drummer, it's a nightmare playing with Bob Dylan, I'll tell you that right now. I mean, his timing at that time left a lot to be desired. Well, it probably still does. He's a great writer, though.
CC: Well, he just makes it up as he goes along, I think.
TD: Oh definitely. He doesn't have the timing. I mean Levon -- he's Mr. Time.
CC: I've never heard a band with timimg like The Band had. It's intuitive. They stop on a dime; they play in synch, though Rick would be -- intentionally -- a hair behind. It was still in synch. Not just the early stuff -- listen to the timing in 'Stuff You Gotta Watch.' I love Dylan, but Bob Dylan as a musician -- he's not about timing.
TD: That's it, you know. He was a lyricist. He was a poet. And Levon, I think, just didn't want to back up a poet at the time. Now that I look back, in hindsight, I can see what maybe Levon was thinking, what Robbie was thinking, too.
CC: Seriously, I always saw Bob Dylan's role in their career as helping them get to where they needed to be, because I can't imagine that they ever had any intention of staying with him. I'm sure that Robbie had to be thinking a few steps down the line.
TD: I think you're absolutely right. Levon just didn't want to go through that. I would be like that. I guess there's a lot of Levon in me in many ways. I don't think I'd want to give up a year or a year and a half of my life for something that wasn't putting me in the direction I wanted to go. And Robbie, maybe Robbie could see the advantage of the whole thing -- which apparently he did.
CC: The big picture. And Rick?
TD: Rick just wanted to keep it together.