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Living Legends

Rick Danko on The Band - New Albums, Old Wounds

by Bill Flanagan

From Musician magazine, December 1993, Issue No. 182. Copyright © BPI Communications. Please do not copy or redistribute.

After a 15-year drought, fans of The Band are in for a good hard rain. Levon Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, is just out. So is another history, Across the Great Divide: The Band and America by English writer Barney Hoskyns. Capitol is preparing to issue a boxed set to coincide with The Band's induction into the Rock Hall of Fame in January. That box will contain early sessions from the days when The Band called themselves the Hawks, previously unreleased basement tapes and other rarities. There is talk of Columbia finally putting out a live album from Bob Dylan and the Hawks' legendary '65-'66 tours as part of the Bootleg Series project. Rykodisc has just released in the USA a lovely album that Rick Danko made with Eric Andersen and Norwegian musician Jonas Fjeld in 1991.

"I'll Bring Over My Fender"
For basses, RICK DANKO has four Gibson Rippers with different pickups (from Ripper to Fender Jazz to Precision) and a Mark Dan custom-made hollowbody bass with Olympic pickups - "a great bass. One of the greatest basses that I've ever had. I went to Norway and they gave me a Worskshop bass with two different kind of Olympic pickups; it is by far the best bass I've ever had in my life. It's made by the Norwegian Workshop Guitar Company." He also has his Ampeg fretless with Jazz pickups, and an Ampeg "Baby Standup" bass.

For guitars, Danko plays a Jumbo Guild from 1969 a '44 Guild Dreadnought. "I have an old Gibson guiatr I love and a Tekamine they gave me in Japan when I was playing with Ringo. My newest toy is a Yairi guitar I was given in Denmark. I heard K. Yairi's a great Japanese guitar maker. I can get a vibrato by shaking the neck. The neck is that sensitive. I fell in love with it immediately. It has a saddle bridge." His amps are a 1959 Fender Bassman and an Ampeg SVT, "but Fender's about to give us a whole line."

Danko does not play any five-string basses. "I never got used to the balance. I take my four-string basses and tune them down, as low as from an E to a C. When I play guitar on my solo shows I tune down one full step, from an E to a D. I have the sound man exaggerate the bass a little, and it sounds like there's not only a guitar player, but a bass, too.

"I use medium-gauge guitar strings. They vary from Martin Marquis to D'Addarlo to Homespun. Danko's bass strings are round wounds, sometimes quarter wounds. He doesn't know which brands.

But the biggest news is that Danko, Helm and Garth Hudson have actually put out the first Band studio album since 1976. It's called Jericho and if it is not as great as Music from Big Pink or The Band, it is stronger than Cahoots and Islands. Considering that this version of The Band is operating without singer Richard Manuel, who died in 1986, or guitarist/ songwriter Robbie Robertson, that's a pleasant surprise. Then again, considering that Danko, Helm and Hudson are three of the most original musicians rock'n'roll ever produced, it's a wonder it took this long.

A few years ago Sony Music offered them a record deal and they headed up tp Woodstock, New York, to get material together. To replace Manuel they brought in Stan Szelest, a piano player who sounded like Manuel because -- remarkably -- Manuel had joined the Hawks as Szelest's replacement in 1961. Now that Richard was gone, Stan had a second shot at the chance he missed. The songs that came out of those sessions had the loose, funky feel of Stage Fright. Full of renewed optimism, The Band brought the tapes to Sony -- and Sony said, well, gee, maybe you guys should think about covering something by Paul Simon.

Some of the heart went out of the project then. A lot more went out when Stan Szelest admitted he'd been having chest pains through the recording. One night they got bad, and Stan died. Danko, Helm and Hudson cut some covers for Sony, but were unhappy. Eventually they secured their release from the label and took their tapes to Great Pyramid Records, a small Tennessee record company where no one's going to tell them what to do.

At Sony, explains Rick Danko, The Band's singer/ bassist and sometimes fiddler/ guitarist, "there was a big indifference in the art department, in terms a what they thought was a '10' or a '5.' We're tool old to be groomed, you know. We are The Band. I am 50 years old. I play my music. I do what I do. There's no danger of us becoming a heavy metal act or something that we're not, so we kind of fell out. Although we did put [Springsteen's] 'Atlantic City' on the albums from those [Sony] sessions. Also, we retained the masters, so we have done some fine outtakes that I am sure will break the surface eventually. Time is on our side."

One of the best songs on Jericho is a rocker called "Move to Japan." Asked what inspired it, Danko laughs, "Well, we were joking about all this money that Sony had given us,"

The impediment to reunion between the current Band and Robbie Robertson is not, as many fans imagine, Robertson. It is Helm's conempt for Robertson. In his book, Levon blames Robbie for trying to take over The Band in the early '70s, and then blame him for abandoning them with his Last Waltz. An insider who knows all the players in this complex cast once compared Helm's attitude towards Robertson to the old joke about the unhappy ladies at the Catskill's hotel: "The food here is terrible!" "Yes, and such small portions!"

Helm's book draws blood with his allegation -- long rumored but now made public -- that Robertson took advantage of some of the Band members' financial or chemical troubles to buy away their rights to The Band's songs. On the other hand, nasty comments about Roberston's singing seem petty, and Helm's belief that the Robertson-conceived The Last Waltz was junk is just nonsense. Helm's central claim is that the soul went out of The Band when Robertson started believing in the myth The Band created, and in his own press.

Danko says, "I think Levon's book hits the nail on the head about where Robbie and [manager] Albert Grossman and some of those people went wrong and when The Band stopped being The Band. This is truly a new Band record and you can tell the difference. I'm truly friends with everybody but, hey -- it could happen to Levon, too. When people take themselves too seriously and believe too much in their own bullshit, they usually get in trouble."

Neither Helm's nor Hoskyns' book reports that a couple of years ago Geffen Records, Robertson's current label, floated the possibility of The Band signing to Geffen and doing an album and a tour with Robertson. Helm refused. One imagines that Danko (who, like Hudson, has guested on Robertson's solo recordings) might have said, "Oh, come on Levon, let's let bygones be bygones and go back to the big time." Surprisingly Danko says no -- nothing against Robbie but he's with Levon on that one.

"There's more to life than money," Danko says, "I live a comfortable life -- as do Robbie and Levon. It's just got to add up to something, you know? There's more to life than a big payday. I guess if we were homeless, if we were desperate, it might be different, but thank God for those CD windfalls. Thank God for the half million dollars that Sony just swept under the table and said 'Go ahead boys.' I'm very thankful that I have a following -- I can go out and play music and have a petty cash flow that way."

"I'm an optimist. I just want everybody to do their part and not be something they are not and not be led on by other people thinking they're something they're not. Everybody know that they have their own contribution to make. The Band was always a very unique thing. The Band was never one person. There isn't a boss or leader. To go back out and make another Robbie Robertson record..." Danko's voice trails off and then he says, "After the first two Band albums it really wasn't a band anymore. We were on somebody's ego trip. Success can be a very strange thing. It can rear it's head like an ugly beast."

"But like I said, time has a way of allowing poetic justice to prevail. I'm in no hurry. Of course I would like to see all the right things happen. But in the meantime I am not sitting around waiting for it. We all have our lives to live and it's amazing. I foresee good things for the future."

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