Last Thoughts on Rick Danko
by Rick ConnellyArticle first appeared in Renaissance Online Magazine, January 2000, Vol. 4, No. 1. Copyright © 2000 Renaissance Online Magazine, Rick Connelly. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Rick Connelly is the staff television writer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He can be reached at the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
The question is posed to singer/bassist Rick Danko by director Martin Scorcese. It is "The Last Waltz," the 1976 film that chronicles the break-up of The Band.
"I don't know," goes the response. "Just make music, you know..."
With that, Danko gingerly cues a recording of a new song. Its plaintive opening strains play. Danko closes his eyes. He bows his head. He smiles slightly, part bashful joy, part childlike pride.
It's twenty three years later, and a similar query is posed, the last question in the last interview Rick Danko will give. It is December 7th, 1999, three days before he, at 56, will die in his sleep.
"What is in the future for you at this point?"
Danko doesn't hesitate. "I'm just making music, you know?"
With the late 1990s formation of his own record company, two live albums released in as many years, and three recording projects scheduled for the upcoming months, he's surely being a bit modest. Struck down, in fact, during his second prime, it would seem Rick Danko's music-making might just have begun.
Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Ronnie Hawkins, Doug Sahm, Dr. John, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters. It's a litany of legend, the best of the best, perhaps the most lasting names in the industry. Rick Danko, little known as he may be, belongs on the bill, not because they were friends and collaborators of his but because they were his company, his peers, in the cream of our musical crop.
But rock scholarship--not to mention pop perception--is occasionally remiss, and the death of Rick Danko seems to be passing too quietly behind us. Yet in these historic and newsworthy days, our millennia segueing before us, it seems all the more appropriate to celebrate our archetypes and our ideals; the second half of the twentieth century, after all, provided us a rich heritage of popular music, some of which supercedes its very form to add fabric to the greater American thread.
To wit, The Band. These days, their music belongs more to legend than to a playlist, and it is sparsely heard. But songs like "The Weight," "Caledonia Mission," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "When You Awake," and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" are much more than pop fodder, much more than some of the most striking and original music produced in the last 50 years. In the proper context of American art, the music of Rick Danko and The Band totals more than just melody and verse; as a symbolic sum, the songs form a question to our national character, a mirror to our sky and land, a hand to our collective heart.
Beneath it all, of course, is a voice. If Levon Helm was the guts of The Band and Richard Manuel its soul, Rick Danko filled in the flesh between. His was a vocal quality rare in mainstream music, one capable of a range that in today's world just isn't heard. From ballad to blues to head-on rock, Danko's singing combined a distinctly country influence with something a bit deeper and more dark. Perhaps it's because he and the members of The Band were first generation rock, teenaged contemporaries on the honky tonk circuit to Elvis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, those originators for whom there was no formula, no map. To that small pocket of musical time, it was more than obvious how well black and white could combine, intuitively, to speak a better whole.
Thus, later in his career, Danko would be seen easing beautifully from Robert Johnson's dirge-like blues to the Carter Family's galvanizing "Keep On the Sunny Side," his voice carrying him effortlessly across such disparate strains. Much earlier, at Woodstock, he would follow The Band's mostly folksy set by crooning the Four Tops' "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever," a rather jarring and seemingly incongruous juxtaposition.
But Danko and The Band established their quiet greatness in exactly this way, suggesting artfully to the world at large what was most essential to them. Folk followed by the Four Tops; the complex, completely American message to Woodstock's soggy mob of half a million on that day was that even Motown contained more country than at first might meet the ear.
Yet still, in his own humble words, Danko and company were doing little more than just "making music."
In "Mystery Train," his epochal 1975 study of American music, rock writer Greil Marcus would detail the concerts by Bob Dylan from 1965-66 in which The Band, playing behind him, would take his music to near-frenzied new volumes and heights. Marcus would cite Danko specifically as the man to whom eyes were drawn, the man who danced spastically through the clamor, rocking back and forth, lost in the moment. Marcus would write, quoting critic Ralph J. Gleason's original review of one such show, that Danko moved with equal parts abandon and poise, with force; "He looked," it was observed, "like he could swing Coit Tower."
Some 32 years later, a lifetime in terms of rock and roll mythos, I would see Danko on the tiny stage of a glorified pub, playing to a room of forty people on a Tuesday night, 7:00 p.m. His vigor would be unceasing, his emoting for real. During a verse of "It Makes No Difference," perhaps the most moving rock ballad ever written, Danko would close his eyes and let his voice jump an octave for an unrehearsed high note. By the end of the song, two women in the audience would have shed tears. Best of all, though, was the rousing blues song that would follow; Danko, now 55, weighing nearly three hundred pounds, gray hair and all, would kick up his heels and start dancing, simply to the sound of his own acoustic guitar.
This is a man, recall, who once traveled in limos and Leers, played Watkins Glen and the Isle of Wight, graced the pages of Time and Rolling Stone, and made millions off the entertaining game. Yet here, on a tiny pub stage, in what would be his last years, money and fame replaced in the equation by obscurity, he would be lost in the music once more, transported not back to his lofty prime some three decades earlier but ahead to the new terrains his playing would take him--those more modest, more compelling, more wise. Hungry again, he would sing, circling those forty fans closer to him than most performers could conceive.
Rock and roll is not wine, though; it does not age well. In recent years, some cited Danko's decline in health, the extra weight he carried, his run-in with the law on a drug charge, his occasional difficulty in hitting the hard upper-register notes that made him famous. Yet a certain rise and fall in a musical life--especially one based in part on the blues--seems fitting, if not compulsory. Rick Danko was, by his own prideful claim, just a country boy, in love with and respectful of his roots; if nothing else, his career resurgence in the 1990s was all about this, about tracing a long and indirect arc back to what was most vital to him. And if the country and folk tunes he was raised on sounded great coming from him as a young man--via the music of The Band, as he often steered it--imagine how he sung them at 56, after years of high and low living, after being treated by time to a healthy dose of balance and reflection. Danko's recent singing may not have been as technically remarkable as when he was 25, but it was far more affecting as a result--a voice seasoned and smoothed through by insight and wit. He re-arranged songs in this light, former radio anthems by The Band recast as lost Maybelle Carter riffs. The result? Stirring ... and freeing, too, without the odd confines and pretense of success. Here's a man playing the pubs again after forty plus years, as if singing for his dinner and this month's rent. There's a certain love in that, a certain reverence for his art, a grace.
"You know, I'm selling my new CD here tonight," Danko says to the small audience, speaking of a new release on his self-started label. It is his last performance, December 7th, 1999. "But if you don't want to buy [one], that's okay. Just come on up, and we can talk a little bit anyway."
It was on southwest Ontario farms that Rick Danko grew up, born in 1942 from a line of Carolina tobacco workers who moved north during the Depression. He sang in the barn, literally, performing with his father and brother in the fine style of the country family dance. His voice would develop a high keen, as if Appalachian, his harmony style somewhere between mountain music and soul. At the age of five, he would play banjo and mandolin. At the age of six, he would perform "Little Black Jug" and "Long Black Veil" for his first grade class. At seven, he would deem himself ready for Nashville.
A dusty wind-up victrola could tune in Tennessee in the 1950s, even when operated by a kid in Canada. WSM and WLAC in Nashville could be heard, even the local station in Laredo, Texas. For Kitty Wells, for Ernest Tubb, and for Patsy Cline, Rick Danko would huddle by the receiver through his teen years, pulling away only to flirt with the fiddle or with travelling accordion bands. The stage was set. When rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins spied the 17-year-old singing, he came knocking with a job offer. As if joining the circus or the medicine show, Danko, wearing a borrowed coat, ran off with him into the night.
From Hawkins and the Hawks to Dylan and The Band, Danko and his mates soon left the honky tonks behind for theatres and arenas, riding the long road from rural farms to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In between is the stuff of myth.
In the mid 1960s, The Band would flesh out Dylan's music with unheard-of breadth, stumbling upon a mad folk-soul combo they executed with punk grit to spare. When met with boos and threats of riot, they exiled. Dylan took Danko and company to the woods, to rural upstate New York, where they would launch into even more confounding forays; namely, a wayward experiment in avant-pop impressionism, in which Dylan and The Band aimed to connect the heritages of folk, country, blues, and gospel in a decidedly surrealist stew. While the Beatles and the Beach Boys were out soaking up the spotlight and vying for king-of-the-world status, Dylan and The Band were huddled in barns and damp basements, recording two track tapes with old instruments and odd liquors.
To this day, the ensuing music, known simply as "The Basement Tapes," is probably the most ecstatic and delirious ever put on a rock era record. The key is that the musicians ignored the outside world in favor of conjuring Dock Boggs and Jimmie Rodgers; the joy is that, as secret ceremony, "The Basement Tapes" not only emulate the richness and obscurity of American music but also lay claim to its continuing livelihood.
If Rick Danko's legacy can be seen and felt anywhere--and it can be, in a million tack-marked locales across the American map--it is here, within "The Basement Tapes." Look to his sly, striding bass lines, his see-saw fiddle, his odd, other-worldly harmonies with Dylan. Look to his and Robbie Robertson's song, "Bessie Smith," a sepia-styled valentine to the fine line between respect and adoration, and the ways in which music blurs them both into love. Look to the Danko-Dylan collaboration, "This Wheel's On Fire," a slow-boiling sermon filled with black gospel blood, as if a Jonathan Edwards-style Puritan were chanting Psalms alongside southern slaves. Like much of The Band's music, the sound is simple yet arresting; and somewhere therein lies the casual magic of Rick Danko.
"I love to play," he once said, simply, summing it up as perfectly and as unpretentiously as he could. "The stage is a safe place for me. I'd be lost without it."
Indeed, the lights have fallen low, and the seats have been left bare. You were our stage, Rick, and now we, too, will be lost without you.