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Rick Danko Rides On

by Craig Harris

From Dirty Linen magazine, Issue #41, August/ September 1992.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

[cover art]
One of the most successful musical groups in Europe last year was a trio featuring Rick Danko of The Band, folk music veteran Eric Andersen and Norwegian folk-pop performer Jonas Fjeld. The trio's debut was released in Norway and remained on that country's Top Ten charts for several months, winning a prestigious Spellman Pris (Norway's equivalent to the Grammys) as "Best country Album."

The seeds for this collaboration were planted in 1990. "I sang with (Danko) at the Wetlands in New York," Andersen explains between shows at Cambridge folk music coffeehouse, Passim's. "I went up and did some rockabilly songs and Rick couldn't believe it. He always thought I was a folksinger and that I didn't' have it in me to sing rockabilly. The first things that we heard - Dylan and me and, probably, Phil Ochs - was Buddy Holly and Little Richard. That's what we started to play - rockabilly. (After the show) we went back to my apartment and talked about writing songs."

The partnership, however, nearly became another passing dream. "I had forgotten all about it," Andersen admits, "but my daughter, Sarah, said 'Call Rick when you get back from Europe.' So I called Rick. He invited me up to his house (in Woodstock, New York) and we started to work."

An intended three days of work turned out to be a month-long collaboration. "(Andersen) was up to my place," Danko explains by telephone, "and he was saying, 'Rick, you've got a couple of cars inside the garage and a couple of cars outside. You've got a front yard and a back yard. What am I doing wrong?' Just as a joke, I said 'Maybe, you're being too greedy and too selfish.' He looked at me. The weekend ended up turning into a month. We wrote some songs together."

Andersen remembers things a little differently. "Rick said 'I have an appetite but it isn't that huge'," he recalls. "If it gets too huge, you've got go feed it. I don't have to feed such a huge appetite."

Danko and Andersen first met in 1968 at Woodstock where Andersen was invited by Robbie Robertson to meet the Band. Their friendship grew when they both performed during a musical train tour of Canada. "(We went with) The Band, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Ian and Sylvia, and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells," Danko says. "We had a private train that went from Montreal to Calgary."

The partnership was solidified when Fjeld came to the United States to play guitar and sing harmony on the three new songs that were recorded for Andersen's long lost album, Stages. "One night, we came up here to Woodstock," Danko remembers. "The three of us got up on stage and played together. There was some magic. This was something that money could not buy. I suggested to Eric that I come to Norway."

"During the show, we sang a song together and the harmonies just exploded the molecules in the air," Andersen reflects. "People went crazy. We did, too. We realized that we had a beautiful thing to give to the world."

Andersen and Fjeld had already been working together for a year, and the trio continued their partnership with a 10-show tour of Norway and Switzerland. "I went over last February," Danko says. "It was an incredible energy. Those people were so energized and well-read. It was another level of togetherness."

Although brief, the tour was very successful. "We played the Montreux Jazz Festival," Danko recalls. "The record was number four at the time. We were supposed to play a party (at the festival) for 400 people. We sold 2,500 tickets, so, they had to move it to a larger venue. They, eventually, moved it to an even larger site that held 3,000 people. An extra thousand people showed up and couldn't get in. We left the doors and windows open.

It was inevitable that the trio should record." (Polygram/Norway) wanted to document what we were doing," Danko says. "We thought we would record it live as a documentary of the shows," Andersen adds. "Then, we decided to go into the studios and do it properly. It was really a lot of fun. It was just a spur of the moment thing. We recorded it in a week or so, really fast."

The album's success is only the latest milestone in the careers of Danko and Andersen. In addition to performing with The Band, Danko has played bass and guitar and sung with Bob Dylan, Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, Jules Shear, Donald Fagen, Michael MacDonald, Tony Madeiros and the late Paul Butterfield. "Playing live is a big part of my life, "he explains. "If I couldn't go out and play, I'd likely be in heavy therapy sessions."

Danko was born in Simcoe, a small town in Ontario, Canada. "Music was a great healer," he reflects. "Hank Williams was like a healing power to me. I had an uncle, Uncle Spence, who dressed like a cowboy. It was the greatest party when he would show up. His wife was my father's sister. I also had three aunts on my mother's side of the family and they'd sing harmony. By the time I was five years old, I had learned 'Sentimental Journey' and 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy From Company C,' The Andrews Sisters and Big Band. It was an influence of swing music and country music. By the time I was seven, I made my first performance on a stage at a Christmas party."

Danko began playing string instruments when he was five. "I memorized chords on the mandolin, banjo and violin," he says. "They're all tuned the same. "When I was six, I got my oldest brother to buy a guitar that I couldn't afford but really wanted. I got him into playing, as well. By the time I was seven, I was accompanying myself on guitar."

A turning point came some years later when in 1960 Danko attended a concert by rockabilly performer, Ronnie Hawkins. " I was so engrossed with Ronnie Hawkins," he explains, "that I booked myself to be his opening act. He hired me after the first night. I played rhythm guitar, but I ended up learning the bass because his player was leaving."

As a member of Hawkins' band, Danko met the other musicians that would later become The Band. "When I joined, Levon (Helm) and Robbie (Robertson) were in the group," he remembers. "Then, I joined. Richard (Manuel) and Garth (Hudson) came along, all within a year."

The group performed almost non-stop. "In 1961, we had a '59 cadillac with those big fins and a trailer," Danko recalls. "Of course, there were women galore. From 1960 to 1965, I played six or seven nights a week because I didn't know any better. That was kind of our dues-paying time. We really got our chops together."

Danko and the band left Hawkins in 1963. "There's a couple of ways of looking at it," he says. "I remember Ronnie firing me for something silly. Ronnie was the greatest discipline form in our lives. He had a knack for picking people. I watched him double the money that he was making and it didn't reflect on my pay check."

Despite leaving Hawkins, the musicians continued their success. "When we left Ronnie," Danko says, "he fired his booking agent. We immediately called him up and he started booking us as Levon and The Hawks. Then, eventually, we called ourselves 'The Levon Helm Sextette.' Then, it became 'The Hawks.' In Toronto, London and Hamilton, Ontario, which were our main stays, we'd show up at a club that would hold 200 or 300 people. It was amazing. There would be people lined up every night of the week. After the fifth week, on Monday and Tuesday, there wouldn't be a line anymore. Then, Wednesday, it would start again. That following Monday, we'd be in a new town. The same thing would happen."

During this time, the group backed up many well known vocalists. "From the Friday night parties, we'd be too hung-over to sing on Saturday," Danko reflects. "David Clayton-Thomas (of Blood, Seat And Tears) used to get up (and sing), people from Toronto, John Kay from Steppenwolf. There were a lot of those people. That's how we met John Hammond. He came up and sang and played harmonica. We did some recording with him."

The group's biggest break came when they were chosen to accompany Bob Dylan. "Bob was going from folk to electric," Danko remembers. "He hired Robbie to play at Forest Hills and The Hollywood Bowl with him. At the last moment, he also needed a drummer. So, Levon also played those two dates with him. He wanted to hire Levon and Robbbie to be in his band. That's when Levon and Robbie said 'We got a band.' Bob said 'I'll send my plane to pick you up and we'll start touring in November.' We came up and rehearsed one night. The following week, we started touring. It was the first time in my life, that I was afforded the luxury of time. We could sit in a room and, actually, plot and scheme. Then, we could turn those plots and schemes into reality."

Dylan's motorcycle accident in 1966 allowed Danko and The Band to settle in Woodstock. "The Basement Tapes were recorded at Big Pink (a house in nearby West Saugerties)," Danko says. "Bob would come by every day for six months. We must have accumulated a couple hundred songs during that time period."

On their own, The Band recorded nine top-selling albums. "After (our second album) The Band came out, it shipped a million copies," Danko remembers. "I was suddenly making $1,500 to $2,000 a night. (Our third album) Stage Fright was cut at the Playhouse in Woodstock. We were going to do it live, but, 20,000 people requested tickets the first day they were on sale in New York City. Of course, the people of Woodstock, who are now my friends, said 'We don't have that many parking spaces.' So we ended up - Todd Rundgren was our engineer - making Stage Fright without an audience. We just brought in the equipment and a remote truck and recorded the album. It took us a month."

The Band recorded a live album, Rock of Ages at their 1971 to 1972 New Year's show. "It was the first time that we worked with such great horn players," Danko remembers. "Allen Toussaint wrote all the horn charts. He's just a master. He came up to Woodstock and, I remember, he was running a fever. We put him on one of the cabins in the woods. I asked him what he needed. He just needed some chicken soup, a tape recorder with the cassette. He didn't work with a piano."

The Band performed at three of the biggest music festivals - Woodstock, Watkins Glen and (with Dylan) The Isle of Wight. "Woodstock was the first," Danko remembers. "It was pretty outrageous. I think Watkins Glen is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest show. It was just three groups - The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead and The Band. There were over 600,000 people there. They ended up giving us $100,000. At The Isle of Wight, Richie Havens played before us. I had never heard anyone sound so good in my life. We went over there a week before and we had an old farm house. We were there rehearsing. At least, that's what we said we were doing. But, basically, we were hanging out in the countryside."

The Band and Dylan resumed their collaboration in 1974, touring and recording a studio album, Planet Wave, (sic) and a live recording, Before the Flood. "Between 1965 and 1974, times had changed," Danko recalls. "People were totally behind us. We grossed between 40 and 50 million dollars in two months. We had a private plane with bedrooms. That's when I got turned on to fine wines. That was one of the most incredible tours. It was first class all the way. I've never done anything so extravagant in my life."

The Band's final concert (on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco) was recorded and filmed as The Last Waltz. "It was a 12-hour event," Danko remembers. "I was on stage for five and a half hours. They could do a 'Son of the Last Waltz' because we've got some great material. We only used a small amount of it."

Danko continued to be active, performing several duo shows with the late blues harmonica player Paul Butterfield. "The last show that (Butterfield and I) did was in Pittsburgh," Danko recalls. "I made a deal with him - no drugging, no drinking before the show. Then, after the show, he had a couple shots of tequila. He was in good shape. I've learned to give the position (of entertainer) a lot of respect. It's easier not to be drunk or high. It's more natural, the evening goes by quicker. I'm getting too old. I can't bounce back like I used to."

Danko also played many shows with The Band's late pianist Richard Manuel, including several that reunited The Band (without Roberston). "(Manuel's suicide) was one of the biggest, most sophisticated mistakes," Danko reflects. "I'm sure that there was no way that he planned that one. He might have been reaching out form some kind of attention from his lady. I don't know. We were all together in Florida. We were in the middle of playing some dates. His wife went to the bathroom and there he was."

"He was a very special friend," Danko continues, "very sensitive, obviously. He had stopped drinking alcohol for many years. That particular night, he was drinking again. It was in this place that was so packed it was overcrowded. I remember seeing him pick up somebody's drink. It was terrible. No way in a million years would you expect something like that to happen."

Danko has also experience the tragedy of death in his personal life. "I lost a son three years ago," he says. "He was in his first year of college, 18 years old. He had an asthma attack, which was something he had problems with before."

Danko continues to find solace through music. "I plan on playing music until I die," he says. "It's a good release to be able to have the stage and to be able to go out and play."

Danko has several projects currently on the fire. "I've been doing some work with Donald Fagen, "he says. "I did some shows in New York City with him. There's talk of a tour with Michael MacDonald. The optimist that I am, I'd like to see The Band (with Roberston) make an album together."

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