Rick Danko 1942-1999
by Gary AlexanderThe article was originally published in the Woodstock Journal, Dec 1999. This is Gary Alexander's original unedited version. Photos by Ray G Ring IV.
In a faint drizzle outside of the Bearsville Theater on Wednesday, photographer Ben Caswell balanced precariously on the top of a parking lot pole, trying vainly to fit the long line of mourners into his lens, each a surrogate for uncountable friends and fans around the world who couldn't make it to the gathering but felt the pangs of loss nonetheless.
Inside the overstuffed auditorium, facing an empty stage adorned with flowers and wreaths, it slowly dawned on many of those who came to remember Rick with their own recollections and the words of others that there would probably be music. Of course, there would be music...
Among those who related anecdotes and memories, John Simon observed Rick's amiable and direct manner; his talent for reaching deeply into the affections of those he met, appreciating the individuality of others and appealing to each in a way that made them feel they were equally sharing in some private joke between them. Simon said people everywhere felt like they were among Rick's close friends. It was a strong and genuine attribute of his personality. Rick liked people. Somewhere within, he remained the fun-loving and exhuberant "big kid" even into his fifties, finding something endlessly wondrous in life and trying, always, to make everyone else recognize it.
I shouldn't have been surprised to hear the others on stage voicing the same things I was thinking. Looking at the sea of faces in that theater; the tears, the secret smiles of remembrance, you could see a solid unity in the feelings being shared. I had written in a poem the day we learned of Rick's death "Most of us thought we knew you. Because of that studied simplicity." But, it was not a "studied" trait. Rather than a "device," that central part of Rick Danko was a deeply natural facetof a one-of-a-kind character. Peter Pan never let go of Rick. He always had the innocently conniving earnestness of a kid lost in a desert town. Always desperate, always hopeful...
Son of a woodcutter in the tobacco region around Green Corner, Ontario, Rick had taken a running jump onto a bandwagon touring the nightclub scene when he was just out of kneepants. He didn't even know how to play bass when Ronnie Hawkins snatched Rick from his own little band to go on the road with the Hawk's hard-driving rockabilly crew but it didn't take forever to learn. It was up and away, a teenage picker headed for legend in the limelight and there was no looking back now. Life would henceforth be greeted as surprise-studded adventure.
We all know the story, the rocketship ride, the dips and turns, the sky-grazing heights and, because we all knew, these things weren't spoken of at the memorial service. Instead, Rick Danko was celebrated for who he was and what he showed us. People spoke of his zeal for life and a seemingly bottomless vitality. Jules Shear, Amy Fradom, the Traums, John Sebastian, Shredi Volmer, Aaron and Marie, and others contributed moving songs and tales from life. Robbie Robertson, looking ever more rabbi-like, bid a heartfelt farewell to Danko the friend and the artist. Tom Pacheco delievered a rendition of his tune "They Can't Touch You Now," a tribute to a friend who had passed beyond the trials and tribulations of life. It was the last tune that Rick recorded.
Speaking of that last session, Pacheco recalled Rick's unique gift for harmonies. You can hear Danko's harmony contributions in the work of dozens of artists from Tom's own brilliant Woodstock Winter CD of a few years ago to the Irish group, Four Men and a Dog, there is no mistaking that voice in counterpoint and harmony even when you weren't expecting it. Rick worked eternally hard to polish his stylistic abilities. When you listen to his vocals over the past decade, you realize he was studying phrasing and intonation with a devotion that rivalled Sinatra's. His voice was to be a prized instrument on three tracks at the session that day but Danko's once remarkable vitality got him through only two. Tom noticed the blood pressure patches at the edge of Rick's rolled up sleeves. On the road all the time, always pushing it, ready to give his all at every benefit played for someone in need, a great heart was wearing down.
In two plus decades, I never heard Rick Danko complain. His defense was to turn negativity into a joke and "hey, let's play the next one." He had just returned from an eleven day tour when he went to sleep for the last time, probably thinkingof new ways to spin that "next one." In the end, Rick did what he always did...He played his heart out.
Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science
and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption
which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.