Danko-solo, but not alone
by Chris CharlesworthAn article published in the British music magazine Melody Maker (now merged with NME) on October 2 1976. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Thanks to Serge Daniloff for sending us a copy of the original article.
With the possible exeption of Robbie Robertson, the individual members of the Band have enjoyed a remarkable anonymity that belies their status as one of America's most popular and important groups. A mystique surrounds them not only because they spent years as Bob Dylan's backing group, but because of the haunting, often sombre music they create.
The five musicians, one supposes, are seriuos, dedicated men who have little in common with the regular trappings of the rock scene. Musicians first and stars second, the Band exists in a closely knit community that few outsiders can enter. After 16 years together in one form or another, they are an institution and, as such, fashion doesn't touch them.
About a month ago, Arista Records announced that they had signed Rick Danko, the group's bass player, to a solo contract - the first such undertaking by any member of the group since their inception. It was a shrewd move by the Arista boss Clive Davis, for Danko's compositions have contributed considerably to the Band's catalogue.
As a bass player he has few betters, but it is probably his vocal talents that led Davis to his door. He shares the Band's vocal spotlight with Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, but it is the emotional pieces where he somes into his own. His slightly croaky lonesome voice with its overtones of breathless exhaustion lends just the right flavor to those Band tunes that echo - or at least seem to echo - the hard times of the pioneers of North America.
Though he's never had the opportunity to display it, Danko is like the rest of the group a multi-instrumentalist. He played guitar before he played bass and he's equally happy on keyboards. On bass he perfected the deceptively simple technique of hammering on two or three notes at once, producing a bass chord between runs. Usually - though not on the current Band Tour - he uses an enormous Ampeg fretless instrument that tests the accuracy of the player but offers a deeper, more sonorous tone than the conventional fretted basses.
"I've got it all figured out in my head and on paper", he replied in a rather hoarse, early morning tone when I asked about the Arista album. "But well, the Band will be getting ready to record another album soon, so I'm not sure what comes first. I have a lot of material prepared...my own songs to record."
Pulling on what was to become a never ending stream of Chesterfields he continued: "I've also formed a new group for the record. My younger brother, Terry, is in the group; Jim Atkinson, another fellow from Canda and a guy from Southern California. They're all in this group called Rendezvous, a new group that I'm going to produce."
"I'll probably use some other people but these will be the main guys. As soon as I get back off this tour I'm off to start the sessions, but we haven't had time yet because of obligations to Capitol."
Danko is quick to point out that his solo aspirations will in no way interfere with his position in the Band, a position that will always come first. "Robbie has been writing songs all his life and I just hope he remains writing songs that I can play all my life. It's just the same energy that I can channel everwhere, as I want to tour with Rendezvous as well. I don't want to move to quickly... to rush something out and then have a tour. With the Band we don't rush and I won't rush on my own."
"I'm sure that all of us in the Band have thought about doing our own projects at one time or another but I don't know whether they've actually made music of their own. We often go into funny forms of semi-retirement which messes up the balance."
Danko says he approached just two companies when he made the decision to branch out on his own - he won't say what the other one was - and that Clive Davis was the first to come to his house. "I played him all kinds of thgngs I had done myself. We have our own recording studio so I've had all kinds of opportunities to put down skeletons of songs and things I wanted to be heard. I have written many things that haven't been done by the Band."
"Originally I was going to do songs that I'd written before, but now I've done new material so perhaps it'll be a while before I get to the old ones. I've written a tune called "Missing in Action" that I did for Clive Davis, but I donft think I could put it on my first album. I'd like the first album to be fresh."
"I think, though, that the Band's situation will change soon, and we'll be back to making one album a year ourselves instead of waiting so long as we have done recently. Everbody in the group is now resigned to that commitment, but it's fun anyway. We've been together for 15 or 16 years and I for one wouldn't stop making albums with the Band. Just so long as the Band wants to continue making records, I'll be there."
Sixteen years with the Band have given Danko some hazy memories of the early years, but he does recall being hired by Ronnie Hawkins as a guitarist - and not as a bass player - in the beginning. This was in Port Dover, near Toronto, near where he grew up. "He was making some changes in his group and he wanted a rhythm guitar player. The next thing I knew, I was playing the bass. I had a group of my own when I got out of school, because I quit school when I was young. In fact, I played in a band with my schoolteacher, at one point I started to play mandolin when I was five and I was playing guitar by the time I was six or seven."
Danko's first bass was a six-stringed instrument chosen because there was only himself, Robertson and Helm in the group. Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson arrived a few months later. "I seem to remember Ronnie (Hawkins) firing me one night, so I had a little meeting with the rest of the group beacuse we were thinking of doing something of our own later on. This brought it all to a head. In two weeks we were out on our own, working our first club."
Lean years followed. "When I first met Robbie he showed me some songs he had written and I immediatly liked the way he wrote, but when you're playing in clubs people really don't want to hear anything original. But what made the Band special in those days was because we had our own little bag of tunes which weren't Top 40 but weren't original. They were our own arrangements of tunes by our favorite artists."
"We didn't seem to be getting anywhere until we came down and played in New Jersey, which was when Bob (Dylan) got wind of the group. I think he'd played with Levon and Robbie before and was interested to hear us, so he came up to Toronto to talk to us. It was funny because we were taking a little time off for the first time in years. When you play juke-joints, you can't afford to take time off because you live from day to day, and so when Bob first came to hear us our voices were shot and we played all instrumentals. He split and then sent his plane back to take us to Texas were we did three shows with him. We didn't rehearse at all, just went straight on."
There followed a relationship that was to last, in one form or another, up to the present day. Although Dylan toured with a new set of musicians (Rolling Thunder Revue) this year, his close relationship with the Band seem certain to last an eternity.
"We hadn't really thought up a name until "Big Pink" in 1968" said Danko. "But me and a couple of the guys always used to see these posters up on marquees and it always said just 'Bob Dylan and band', so we thought it was quite funny to just call ourselves the Band."
"At the time of the first album, me and Richard and Garth lived in this big house with about 600 acres, where everything was spectacular except the colour of the house. The outside was pink. It was in the middle of all this country with mountains and rivers. That was where we did the Basement Tapes, too."
Danko can recall tours of England by Dylan and the Band in the mid-Sixties, a 12-city tour in 1966 which visited Ireland and Scotland. He still has tape of a show in Liverpool. "I can remember going around the world with Bob and it was the first time any of us had been abroad at all. I was ten years younger then (Danko is 31 now), so it was a pretty strange exposure for me and I guess an even stranger one for Bob. He was under the light and there were people all around him telling him to get rid of the Band. I don't think we were blamed by the folkies but it was uncomfortable sometimes. Bob understood and he was a friend. He just did what he wanted to do whatever anyone else said."
Dylan's 1974 comeback tour, says Danko, was as much a Band idea as it was Dylan's. "We talked about doing that up in Woodstock and Robbie had a lot to do with it. It wasn't really a Bob Dylan idea, but of course his contribution was very large."
"He was coming out after eight years or whatever, so it was hard on him. I think David Geffen had something to do with it too, because Bob had singed with his company. There was a business thing involved, but I don't discuss business with anyone but my lawyer. Not even Bob, even though we have the same lawyer."
"I know that not long after that tour I got a message from Bob saying that he wanted to take the Band over to Europe, but it didn't happen because in the end he thought the timing wasn't right. We'll be there sometime soon though, that's for sure."