12.29.1942 - 12.10.1999
photos by Elliott Landy, appeared in the music magazine BEAT in Norway, March 2000. Article copyright © 2000, 2001 Jan Høiberg. Translated by the author.
Jan Høiberg from Halden, Norway, works as a college professor in informatics, and is the Dean of the Faculty of Computer Science at Østfold College. He has been running the (now official) Band web site since 1994. Jan can be contacted at the e-mail address email@example.com.
"Hey, Rick, got a minute?"
Robbie Robertson looks out over a crowded Bearsville Theater, where fans, colleagues, friends and family are gathered to pay tribute to Rick Danko, who died five days earlier at his home in Marbletown, New York, at the age of 56. Left outside in the cold rain in Bearsville, hundreds of others are listening through a sound system.
The opening of Robbie's speech causes nods of recognition among the audience. When Rick asked if you "had a minute," it could mean the beginning of a jam session or a three-day party. Or it could simply mean that he wanted to talk to you, as a fan or a friend, always down-to-earth, free from rock-star attitudes, friendly and accommodating.
"They tell me you've left. They say you're not coming back."
Robbie's voice breaks. Holding back the tears is almost impossible for all of us in the theater who in some way or another felt close or connected to Danko. With the loss of Rick Danko, the 40-year-old musical legend known as The Band has definitely ended.
Richard Clare Danko grew up on a farm in Green's Corner outside the quiet Lake Ontario town of Simcoe; where tobacco farming was the common way to make a living. The Dankos were a musical family, entertaining at barn dances, and Rick picked up the guitar almost before he learned to walk. At the age of 12 he had his own group; before the end of the '50s he was a regular performer at local clubs on weekends, spending his work days as a meat cutter in a Simcoe butchery. Rick and the Starliners, with Danko as frontman, singer and guitarist, would play whatever the audiences requested, from old chestnuts to Nashville country and polka--and the new rock'n'roll music that swept across Canada.
Biggest and craziest on the Canadian rock scene was "The Hawk," Ronnie Hawkins, an Elvis wannabe from Arkansas who in 1958 brought the 17-year-old drummer and singer Levon Helm with him up from the Southern heat to Toronto, to play rockabilly. Throughout 1960, Danko would occasionally be the opening act when Ronnie Hawkins and his Hawks, consisting of Helm and young, talented musicians picked up from local bands, performed in Simcoe. Before the end of the year, Rick himself was a Hawk, a dream position for a young man aiming for success in music.
In 1962, the Hawks' lineup was identical to what would become The Band--Rick Danko on bass, Levon Helm on drums, guitarist Robbie Robertson, singer and pianist Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson on organ. They would perform almost every night; with Hawkins demanding discipline and long, frequent rehearsals. According to Levon Helm they were "probably the best r'n'b band in the world"--a band with musical ambitions that went beyond playing and dancing behind an already dated rockabilly singer. As Levon and the Hawks, sometimes labeling themselves the Levon Helm Quintet or the Canadian Squires, they split from Hawkins in 1963, going on the road and releasing a few singles that went nowhere.
The big change came in 1965, when Bob Dylan teamed up with the Hawks to explore new musical territories. The music created by the amphetamine-fueled Dylan and his Band during their now well-documented world tour, still stands as one of the significant milestones in rock history.
The Band retreated to Woodstock after Dylan's infamous bike accident, coming out on their own with the wonderful debut album Music from Big Pink in 1968 and their masterpiece, The Band, in 1969. Robbie Robertson's and The Band's song-writing, the unique voices of Danko, Helm and Manuel, and Hudson's barrier-breaking keyboard work, created a musical mixture that defies characterization. Country rock or country soul may be keywords.
For eight years, until the breakup following director Martin Scorsese's superb 1978 rock documentary The Last Waltz, the press, musicians and audiences everywhere loved The Band for the musicality and quality in almost everything they worked on, alone and with Bob Dylan. Rick Danko's light, melancholic and at times desperate voice, on classics like "The Weight," "Stage Fright" and "It Makes No Difference" was one of their trademarks, his elegant bass lines another. Rick reinvented the fretless bass in rock and also played country fiddle, often accompanied by the mandolin of Levon Helm.
One of the interviews with Rick Danko in The Last Waltz takes place in The Band's Shangri-La studio in Malibu, California. As the song "Sip the Wine" from his solo debut Rick Danko is played in the background, Scorsese asks what his post-Band plans are. "Make music. Stay busy," is the reply. And Rick did indeed stay busy until the end.
In the late '70s and early '80s he toured with acts like Paul Butterfield, Sredni Vollmer, Blondie Chaplin, Jorma Kaukonen and members of the Grateful Dead and the Byrds, in addition to appearing on albums by Neil Young, Emmylou Harris and many others. In 1983 he joined a reunited Band, sans Robbie Robertson. They toured with their old songs until Richard Manuel's tragic death in 1986, then made a strong comeback with the excellent album Jericho in 1993, followed by High on the Hog in 1996. The Band's final studio album, Jubilation, released 30 years after Music from Big Pink, is warmly recommended.
Here in Norway, Rick is well known for his work with Jonas Fjeld and Eric Andersen, resulting in a Norwegian Grammy for 1991's Danko/ Fjeld/ Andersen and excellent reviews of Ridin' on the Blinds that came three years later. Both albums were mostly recorded in Norway. The Band also did their first and only Norwegian concerts in the late spring of 1994.
Danko continued working through the '90s, giving solo performances at local clubs, festivals and charity concerts, often teaming up with Band-producer and musician Aaron Hurwitz. Two live albums were released, In Concert from 1997 and last year's Live on Breeze Hill, both on minor labels. During the fall of 1999 he recorded five songs for a new studio album scheduled for relase this year, and also worked with Tom Pacheco and Steinar Albrigtsen. Their emotional harmonizing on "They Can't Touch You Now" from Pacheco/ Albrigtsen's new album Nobodies, was to be Danko's last vocal recording in a studio. On December 7th, 1999, Rick performed at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, finishing a series of concerts and radio appearances to promote the new live album. Three days later he was found dead.
One of the strongest impressions from my days in Woodstock after Danko's funeral comes from a night spent with friends of Rick at the home of the now 62-year-old Garth Hudson and his wife Maud. Garth, as always eccentric and friendly, told stories from a long life filled with music, as we enjoyed Norwegian aquavit and cold beer, listening to the local Radio Woodstock. As Danko's voice singing "Caledonia Mission" comes through the speakers, Hudson turns silent. Tears run down into the grey beard, the radio is turned off. Neither Garth nor Levon Helm was able to go on stage at the tribute concert for Rick.
The legend also has a dark side. As Danko said himself; "Have you ever made a million dollars overnight? I have, and it's a crying shame what it can do to a person." Or, as he sings in "Stage Fright": "They gave this ploughboy his fortune and fame/ Since that day he ain't been the same." But that part of the history shall be left alone here.
The farm boy from Simcoe achieved more that anyone could have imagined. The music that is left will live forever. Rest in peace, Rick Danko.