[Band Bites by Caol Caffin]
For Rick, with love

An Interview with Colin Linden

by Carol Caffin

BandBites, Volume I, No. 11, December 29, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Carol Caffin. All Rights Reserved.

[cover art]

Colin Linden's latest album, 2006's Easin Back To Tennessee, marked the 25th anniversary of Colin's career as a solo recording artist.

Read more about Colin Linden at his official website:

Most fans of The Band, however casual, have heard the name Colin Linden. The forty-seven-year-old, Toronto-born singer/ songwriter and guitarist, known for his prolific work as a solo artist and producer and for his "double life" as one-third of the popular Canadian folk-rock/alternative country group Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, was profoundly influenced by The Band long before he co-wrote "Remedy" for The Band's 1993 album, Jericho.

I remember when Rick introduced me to Colin at a gig in Boston in the early 90s. I had heard Colin's music, of course, and had heard wonderful things about him from Rick, but had never had the opportunity to meet him. I still remember the looks on each of their faces: Rick was smiling ear-to-ear, with his arm around Colin's shoulder, like a proud big brother, and Colin was glowing, happy just to be in the presence of a childhood hero. Rick took Colin around the room and introduced him to everyone he knew, singing his praises all the way, while Colin smiled, blushed, and graciously shook hands.

All these years -- and lots of credibility, fans, accolades, and awards -- later, you can still hear the excitement and awe in his voice when he speaks about the guys in The Band and what they meant -- and still mean -- to him.

CC: Colin, why don't you tell me how The Band came into your life, and how your paths first crossed.

Colin Linden, 2006
CL: For starters, I should just tell you that The Band was always my favorite band from the first moment that I heard the first note of "The Weight" on WNEW radio. It was when I was eight years old and Music From Big Pink came out. They were my favorite band always. They had a profound influence on me and on my becoming a musician. There were never just sort of "one of my favorite" groups, they were the favorite, always; there was never any question about that from the first second I heard them. They were the standard. And I was always honored, when I started playing -- I moved back to Canada [from White Plains, New York] -- to be playing [when] sort of the last vestiges of the Toronto rock and roll scene were still alive and kickin' in a big way; this is around '76. So I was very aware and very honored to be part of that tradition, that started essentially fifteen years earlier.

CC: What was it that hit you, if you could put your finger on it, about their music? Was it one thing? The total sound?

CL: Well, I can tell you that actually. Remember that in the sixties, roots music was part of the pastiche of pop music at the time. They really weren't separate things, you know? Roger Miller was on pop radio, and so was B.B. King, you know, "The Thrill is Gone." It was all part of pop music. So what The Band did for me when I listened to them, was everything I liked about rock music, about blues, country, folk music -- it was all in there. So the satisfaction that I got from listening to all that different music was all there in The Band's music. And also, I felt like they all sounded like such unique personalities. They sounded like characters from an old book, or from an old movie. They had so much personality, and I loved the singing so much. And Robbie's guitar playing, when I started playing guitar a couple of years later, there was something so -- it was what Rick would refer to as "the desperation factor." That was in Robbie's playing. And there was something so obviously brilliant in Garth's playing, too. And I liked the sound of the records too. There was a sense of atmosphere.

CC: So how did you go from being a fan to becoming a colleague?

CL: When I first met them, when I first met Rick, was October 29, 1985. They played at the Diamond Club in Toronto and the guy who promoted the show, the booker at the club at the time, was a guy who had known me and had been a supporter of mine since I was fifteen -- I'd been performing since I was twelve -- so we got to open for them at the Diamond Club. And it was an amazing thing. And Rick was so incredibly sweet to us and made us feel so comfortable. He made us feel so welcome and at home. They were all great, but Rick was so outgoing. He came and sat in our dressing room. He really engaged us all, our group, you know. And two of the three other guys who I played with are still really, really close. One of them [Gary Craig] has been playing drums with me for twenty-three years and the other [John Whynot] has been recording and playing with me even longer. John was the keyboard player in my band from '84 to '89, then he moved to Los Angeles. He moved to L.A. the month before Richard Bell moved to Toronto.

CC: So you knew Richard [Bell] from back then?

CL: No, I met Richard Bell through The Band in June of '89. My wife Janice and I were on our honeymoon and staying with Rick in Woodstock. Jimmy Weider was playing at Tinker Street [Café]. And I knew Jimmy already, we'd become quite friendly already through The Band. And Richard had just moved back up to Woodstock. And Rick said 'you gotta go hear Jimmy play. Richard Bell's playing with him and he can play all this wild horn stuff. He's an amazing keyboard player. You gotta check him out.' I had seen Richard play when I was ten years old -- I saw him play with Janis Joplin. Jimmy introduced Richard to Janice and I and Richard said 'you know, I'm thinking strongly of moving back to Toronto. Can I give you a call when I do?' and he moved back in December of '89 and called the week he moved back. And basically, we adopted him [laughs]!

Colin with his wife, Janice Powers, and keyboard master Richard Bell.

CC: Wow, that's a great story.

CL: We became very close friends very quickly. He was my best friend for eighteen years. We played on probably a hundred records together. I know that was tangential... we were talking about how I met The Band.

CC: Hey, it all fits. We're just talking; it's all part of the story.

CL: Well, stop me any time if you wanna keep me on track.

CC: Not at all. It's all wonderful.

CL: So, I met them at the Diamond and they all treated me great. And it's interesting, because I was making my first studio album at that point. My debut album was a live album. And then the Duran Duran era kicked in.

CC: Oh, gross. The Dark Ages.

CL: Yeah [laughs]. So I didn't make another record of my own -- we were right in the middle of making an album when we got to open for The Band. And it was very exciting and very timely for us because it provided us with a great deal of inspiration. Yeah, we were just coming out of the Dark Ages at that point [laughs].

CC: Hmmm. Hard to say 'Duran Duran' and 'The Band' in the same breath, but I guess in '85, there was starting to be some light at the end of the musical tunnel for a lot of artists.

CL: Yes, well The Band had a big influence on that record, and an even bigger influence over the course of time. That was the only time I'd ever met Richard Manuel. It was Jimmy and the original four. And they were all so nice. Garth spent all his time practicing and warming up, you know, the entire time. Levon had a legion of friends and fans hanging around, but he also took a lot of time with us, and he was as nice as could be. And Richard was very nice too. He was really shy, sort of soft-spoken. And he had some family there as well, and some friends. But we hung out with Rick more than anyone else, and he was really great. From that point on I spent about a year and a half when I didn't listen to anything else but The Band. They had a tremendous influence on the direction of where my songwriting was going, and they were so inspiring in terms of developing my own ideas about incorporating grooves, which is really the root of everything I do in songwriting, because I think they had so many of those elements in what they did.

CC: It's really interesting to hear it in those terms -- from a musician's point of view. Besides the musical virtuosity, The Band is so much about atmosphere. They're hard to break down and analyze, but you almost studied them. What came next? How did you hook up with them again?

CL: In the summer of 1987, I had just started making my third album. I'd got signed by A&M Records in Canada, and I was making an album that was profoundly influenced by The Band called When the Spirit Comes. We'd really kind of worked on our style. Around [that time], in August, I got hired to go out to the Edmonton Folk Festival to back up the blues singer Yank Rachell -- a great blues singer from the '30s -- and Randy Newman was scheduled to perform and he got sick and couldn't do it. So they brought Rick in as a replacement for Randy Newman. And I was thrilled! I was really excited, because then I was listening to nothing but The Band. I was also backing up an African singer named Tony Bird, who I'd played with quite a bit in the 80s. And I was doing a workshop with Tony and Eric Andersen and Rick. I was just playing guitar, and Rick showed up. I didn't have a chance to talk to him, but I was sure he wouldn't remember me or anything like that and I played a guitar solo and he looked at me across the room and pointed and said [imitating Rick's voice]: "To-ron-to!" [laughs] They hadn't introduced me or anything, he just kind of remembered me, which blew me away.

CC: Hey Colin, can I use that "To-ron-to" as a sound byte, by the way [laughs]? That was pretty good.

CL: Of course. Of course you can! [laughs] You know how he was, right? You couldn't put anything past him.

CC: No. He remembered everything. Everything.

CL: He remembered details, and a lot of times, he would not tell you everything he remembered all at once. He was an incredibly smart guy and he had an amazing wit, which I think served him very well.

CC: You know what, Colin? I think you've really nailed it about Rick. He remembered everything -- nothing escaped him. He archived all the details in some little secret hideaway in his brain, and just stored them away for future reference. Then he'd bring them out a little at a time, on an as-needed basis.

CL: Exactly [laughs]. Exactly! Also, for somebody who was such a larger-than-life character, he was really, really conscious of other people's feelings.

CC: Absolutely.

CL: Even though he was a very, very smart guy, I don't think he ever used his smarts to intimidate anybody else or put himself on a different level than other people. He was smart in the same way that Howlin' Wolf was smart, or Muddy Waters. They just had a way -- a graciousness. They were smart enough not to blow their own horn. But after that weekend in Edmonton, Rick and I spoke. We talked for quite a while over the course of the weekend. And by the Sunday night of the festival, afterwards, there was a party, and I said to him -- I was very bashful about this, myself -- but I said, 'do you ever sing or play on other people's records?' And he said 'well, you know, I never really thought of myself as much of a session player. But I'll always help out a friend.'

Sredni Vollmer, Colin Linden and Rick Danko, 1988. Photo by David Lee, from NOW magazine.
CC: Self-effacing.

CL: Yes, he was. And there was a remarkable synchronicity of events. As it turned out, he was coming up to Toronto to do a couple of shows right at the time that we were in overdub mode for When the Spirit Comes. And he was completely gracious about the whole thing. And he sang on five songs and, through him, we ended up getting Garth to play on a couple of songs. It was a real dream come true. A couple weeks after we finished the sessions, I got a message on my answering machine [imitating Rick's voice]: 'Hey, Colin. It's Rick Danko. Gimme a call!' [laughs] I called him and he said that he wanted to do some gigs together because he had a really good time and enjoyed being in the studio. And that's how it started. We went down to Woodstock, and recorded Garth in November, and had a real nice hangout with Rick in December. In March, we did a wonderful weekend with Rick and Sredni Vollmer came up, too. Rick said 'you gotta get Sredni to sing on this, he'll be great.' And he did.

CC: Sredni's great. He's an excellent player and he's a good guy, too. I miss him.

CL: Yeah, I haven't seen him in a long time. He was a really sweet guy. He came and played on quite a few of the gigs that we did together.

CC: So then you guys played in '88, and '89 and at the Juno weekend in Toronto, right?

CL: We went to this rehearsal hall and Blue Rodeo, who were good friends of mine, a roots-based band and very, very good, were there. We were all friends and we go to the rehearsal place. And Domenic Troiano was there. He was one of the early titans of Toronto guitar. Robbie was kind of the king of the Toronto guitar sound that was prevalent in the early sixties, and that I'm a big fan of and a product of to a large degree. But Domenic was leading the house band for the Junos, and Blue Rodeo was playing with The Band. And Robbie and all these other guitar players were hanging around the room and Robbie says quietly [imitating Robbie's voice] 'anybody got a pick?' and every guitar player in the room reached into their pockets [laughs]. It was good. But when they started talking harmonies, everybody turned to Rick. I'm sure this is not a story you haven't heard in different forms, but Rick really knew how to delineate who should sing what. He had an incredible sense of harmony and he had a lot of confidence in his ability to put something together in a cohesive way. He could tell people what to do very clearly and it would work really well. There was never any doubt that he could remember the parts -- he just thought in those terms. Again, you talk to Terry, right? I get a sense that that was really a part of their growing up. It was part of their family, their way of doing things.

CC: Well, from everything I know from Rick and Terry, it was.

CL: Terry is a wonderful singer and player, too.

CC: He is. And a really sweet person. I know that he is writing a lot now. And one thing that struck me that we talked about, speaking of their family, is that one of Terry's earliest memories, when he was very little, was of sitting under the table and seeing everyone's feet stomping and tapping to the music that was always there.

CL: That's great [laughs]. That's a great memory.

CC: And Rick's harmonies have been talked about a lot. One of the things that always struck me, and I don't know if there is a musical term for it, was how he did his harmonies 'on top' of the melodies rather than 'beneath' them. Not all the time. The harmonies he did with DFA were different -- I guess in some ways, more conventional. But with The Band, all the voices kind of melded in a characteristic way that no one has ever duplicated.

CL: He knew all the way around it, too. One of the things about The Band, about the way their harmonies were structured, was that whoever could hit the notes would get certain parts. If you listen -- I don't know if you've watched the Classic Albums DVD about the Brown Album -- but John Simon's sitting at the console and playing Richard's part in 'Rocking Chair' where he sings the low harmony in the verse, I believe, and then goes up to the really high one in the chorus. It was like that for all of those guys, but Rick and Richard had such a tremendous range. They could be really flexible. And they understood the power in the different stacks of voices.

CC: Yeah. And I also think that over the years, in terms of vocal flexibility, Rick became more confident as a lead singer as well as an ensemble singer. He could turn it on and off. There were times when he would do a bunch of Band shows and then do a couple solo shows in between or a solo show and a trio show and a Band show, and he would sound completely different in all of them, within the same time period.

CL: I think that he knew how to make it musical regardless of what was going on. One of the first things I noticed when I first heard him and Sredni when we were in Edmonton was that when Rick played by himself he sounded like The Band. And remarkably, when I've heard Levon -- which I've done a lot, I've heard Levon sittin around playing guitar -- and when Levon plays the guitar by himself, he sounds like The Band. I've heard tapes of Richard Manuel playing by himself, and he sounds like The Band. There's some live stuff that got released under the name Whispering Pines. It's beautiful in some ways and in other ways they might have been a little discrete about what they used and didn't use.

CC: Well, it's much harder when the person is not here. A posthumous release is very difficult. I find Rick's Times Like These very hard to listen to. Even though I finished out the promotion for it, there is something very different about that one. You can tell which songs are 'Rick' songs and which were finished without him. It's nobody's fault. It's just the nature of it.

CL: Because of when it came out, I couldn't listen to it at all for a long time.

CC: Same here. Promoting it was very sad and surreal. But it needed to be done, for him. I don't think I've listened to it since. I think I will, at some point. That kind of thing doesn't go away -- you either deal with it now or you deal with it later.

CL: That's kind of how I feel about Richard [Bell]. You know, he passed away three months ago. And I was with him until the very end. I talked to him on the phone every day. I mean, he was in remission for seven months. We really thought that... I was sure he was gonna make it through, at least that he was gonna get through a few years after a bone marrow transplant and then a few years after, they'd find some way to keep it at bay. I mean, nobody wanted to live like Richard Bell did. And so I get emails and calls and there is a ton of stuff to take care of. I'm taking care of his equipment and stuff with family. It's insane. But also sometimes doing all that stuff, and thinking about it all the time -- I've been mixing the last record he played on and I'm just finishing it up. I mean, listening to it, and listening to him talk between takes and all that stuff -- it's a big challenge, but in some ways maybe it's better than to not think about him or not look at pictures.

CC: I think you're probably right. There are stages of grief and you have to go through all of them. You can put it on hold, but you can't avoid it. Hopefully working on his music will be healing for you and for his fans, too.

CL: Well, I hope so. I like to think that when somebody departs this existence, to some degree, especially when you know somebody really well -- and for the last year, it was very clear in both of our minds and both of our hearts what we meant to each other, and so I kinda feel like okay, well I'm the steward of some of Richard's mythology. So wherever I go, wherever I play, whatever records I make, the experience of eighteen years of playing with him comes with me. It's part of who I am now.

CC: Yes, I feel much the same; you internalize that person. It's like their DNA is in you or something. How can it not be? You absorb them into your psyche somehow and help them carry on in another form.

CL: Yeah, that's right. I talk to older people about this. A bunch of people have spoken to me who, you know... take Garth, for example. Talking to Garth or talking to Levon. They've been... those who can see a little further into the future. We can't at our age. In some ways you feel like this is part of the path. And it transforms itself into the blessing of actually having known the people you love, instead of just losing them.

CC: The love is still here, even after the person is gone. And that is a gift.

CL: I think that's a way of putting something that's absolutely a hundred percent true in your heart. It's a way of kind of figuring out what this feeling means.

CC: So, tell me about some of the shows you guys did together.

Rick Danko, Colin Linden and Garth Hudson at a Band show in Toronto, early '90s. Photo from the archives of Serge Daniloff. Copyright © Serge Daniloff, not to be reproduced.

CL: Well, there were the yearly shows that we did in Canada, and eventually, the last one that we did, before The Band got together to promote [Jericho] and it wasn't that practical to do was at the end of January of '92, and it was very exciting, because it was the first one that we did with Richard. That was two nights at the Horseshoe. Richard was just in fabulous form, and it didn't surprise me at all when, a few weeks later, we were on the road in Western Canada with Bruce Cockburn, and Richard said 'Hey, I got a call [from The Band]. The want me to play.' So began Richard's sojourn of playing with those guys.

CC: I thought he was great. Did you know Stan Szelest? I thought he was incredible, too.

CL: Oh Stan was wonderful. One of the greatest gigs I ever did in my life -- and I think there's a bootleg of this one too. Rick was so excited about it he played it for me over the phone, which he did frequently, as I'm sure you know [laughs]. The concert was at State University of New York in Buffalo. It must have been June of '89. It was a wonderful gig. It was me, Rick, Stan Szelest and Andy Robinson. Somebody taped it in the audience and gave the tape to Rick, and Rick...

CC: ...lost it? [laughs]

CL: [Laughs] No, actually he didn't lose that one. He may have made a copy of it and given it to me at some point. But it was a really beautiful night of music. So I played with Stan some.

CC: His tenure was pretty short-lived, I think like a year and a half or something. He was awesome.

CL: Yeah, that's about right. The first time I saw him [was] when they got the deal with Sony, which I think was early, early 1990 -- I'm usually pretty good with dates; I think it was around February. In June of '90, Rick called me up and said 'you know, we're getting pretty serious about this idea of making a record. You wanna come down and write some songs?' So I came down and stayed with Rick and it was one of the best visits we ever had. We talked about a lot of stuff, and came up with some music that was pretty good. And a couple of nights, we went over to Levon's. And Stan and Jimmy and Levon were working on songs over there. Jimmy and I were friends by this point, but this is before we started writing together. I knew that we really wanted to. That was really when I began to be involved -- certainly not exclusively; there were a lot of people who ended up being really kind of part of the pit crew that got The Band up and moving again, which lead to Jericho. So I got to hang out with Stan for a while in a short amount of time, and I loved the way he played, and he was a beautiful guy.

CC: That was a great time. That year is kind of when all the momentum started for them, and I was so happy for all of them. I thought they were in top form. They were writing, recording, performing -- just productive all the way around. That's when Rick and Eric and Jonas got together, and he was doing all kinds of impromptu things with different songwriters. That was a big singer/songwriter era in terms of club shows, too. Jules Shear was around, Willie Nile... every day there was somebody new and creative. A perfect storm of creativity.

CL: In the summer of 1990, I ended up doing some of Rick's solo shows in Providence, Rhode Island, with the Chili Brothers, and a few other shows around then. And yeah, it did feel like there was something real interesting going on.

CC: It was great. Whenever they recorded a new track, I would get a call -- this was before cellphones, because then there would have been a million calls a day...

CL: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah! That's him...

CC: ... I'd check my voicemail, and there would be no message, just whatever song they'd recorded. So I got to hear Jericho one or two songs at a time. And it was always on the phone. So I got used to hearing all the songs with the static and far-away sound of long distance! When I finally heard the tape, I was like 'Oh, so this is what it really sounds like.'

CL: [Laughs] Wow, that's great. It was such a funny time. Richard called me when they recorded "Remedy." He said 'I got something to play for ya' and he played it. And then Levon got on and talked. It was incredibly exciting!

CC: I can imagine! That's such a great song.

CL: Well thank you.

CC: And they played it on everything. Every show. You must have been so excited when they played it on Leno and Letterman.

CL: Oh man, it was incredible. Even if they had just played it in a room -- Rick and Levon singing words that I wrote. It was the greatest thing in the world. I mean, Jimmy and I wrote it for those guys, no doubt. It's funny because, after that first trip in 1990, my writing brain began to divide itself into two parts -- one part would be Levon and one part would be Rick. Part of me still, to this day, is writing for Levon and part for Rick.

CC: Didn't you do some other work on Jericho, too?

CL: Well, I made a bit of a deal with Levon, 'cause I was working on my album South at Eight North at Nine. And I really wanted to have Rick, Levon, Garth and Richard on the record. So Levon asked me, and John Simon asked me, if I would help them work on Jericho. And I said 'can I work in the mornings in the studio and in the afternoons with you guys?' and Levon said 'of course.' And each one of them was true to his word. And they all ended up on that record, and I ended up on Jericho. I think I'm on two songs, but I'm actually only credited for being on one.

CC: What was the uncredited one?

CL: I'm on "Amazon." That's me and Rick singing harmony; that one I'm credited for. Then I'm on "Shine a Light," which I don't think I'm credited for. I actually played on it too, but I'm not on there [the version used on the record] playing, I'm on there singing. I'm on a version of "Atlantic City" with Bruce Hornsby that didn't make the record. I'm not on "Remedy" and I'm not on "Move to Japan," but I worked on a lot of the other tunes. In some cases, it was kind of a funny summer because, as I'm sure you know, there are sometimes some tensions -- as there are in bands. There was never any lack of love, but sometimes there was a week when Rick would be pissed off at Levon or Levon would be pissed off at Rick, and then sometimes Rick was just not around. So sometimes I would end up kind of 'ghosting' Rick's part with Levon or Levon's part with Rick. I sang on "Too Soon Gone" with Rick and I was so honored to sing on that song, because I remembered Stan working on it. And then they kind of felt afterwards that it would be the honorable thing to get Jules Shear, who wrote it with Stan, to come and do the harmonies. So Jules ended up replacing my harmony, and he did a beautiful job, by the way.

CC: There was a lot going on then. In 1990 through 93, so much happened. In '92, especially, Rick was going through a lot of changes. And whenever there is growth or change, there is pain and tension.

CL: You know what my main memory of Rick and Levon's relationship at that time was? There was a little bit of tension one particular day and we were going to play at Saratoga Springs with the Allman Brothers. And Rick said 'why don't you come and play some of these shows with us?' And of course, I was delighted just to be with them. And most of the guys -- I mean, Garth would go back with the crew, he would travel with the crew a lot of the time. So he went back with the crew after we played. And Jimmy and Randy and Butch Dener -- you know Butch, I'm sure, right?

CC: Of course I know Butch! He's great.

CL: Butch is a sweet guy. Yeah, Butch called me after Richard died to see if I was okay. And I appreciated that a lot. Anyway, so at that show, everybody wanted to stay and hear the Allman Brothers. But Richard, me, Rick, and Levon were not that interested, so we had the bus take us back to Woodstock. And Richard had just come down from Toronto and had discovered these old pictures that Ronnie Hawkins had given to him of the guys back in the day. And we were on the bus back and Rick and Levon weren't talking to each other, and you could tell they were pissed off at each other. And Richard said to them -- 'cause Richard was not only oblivious to all that stuff, but he truly didn't give a damn [laughs]; he wouldn't even acknowledge it. So Richard looks over at them and says 'hey -- look at these. I got these pictures!' and they started looking at the pictures, and Rick and Levon started looking at the pictures, and reminiscing about when and where they were taking, and the tension just all melted away.

CC: Oh, that's so sweet. That's how brothers are, and that's what they were -- brothers.

CL: Well, I think it further underscores what you were saying about how the bond those guys had was really something. It was pretty impenetrable.

Ronnie Hawkins, Colin Linden, Richard Bell and Levon Helm. Photo courtesy of Butch Dener.

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