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On The Tracks - An Interview with Rick Danko

by Marjorie Kaufman

This interview was done after The Band's concert at the Stephen Talkhouse, Long Island, NY, August 16th, 1996. It has been copied from the Bob Dylan magazine On The Tracks. The author, Marjorie Kaufman, is a freelance writer based in New York. She is a regular contributer to The New York Times. The article is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

While sushi, Levon Helm's staple food, was delivered to the tour bus, an anxious crowd gathered inside the intimate roadside bar, the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, on Long Island's east end. The place was packed, bursting in anticipation as roadmanager, Butch Dener, stepped up to the microphone to announce: The Band.

They wailed into "Ophelia" and didn't stop for the next hour and a half. Early into the set, Rick Danko thanked everyone for coming as he joked "Hope you VIPs are all comfortable and the peons too." (The VIP's limited table seating was $95, while others were $90.) Original Band members, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, were joined with newest members, keyboardist Richard Bell (former member of Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, and later of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band), second drummer Randy Ciarlante and Jim Weider on guitar. Together, in true Band form, they rocked the small stage. Ciarlante complemented Levon's amazing beat while Weider's riffs spoke deftly to Rick's bassline. Bell's keyboard solos brought him to his feet Jerry Lee Lewis style - as well as the audience.

After the show, Rick confided that he never heard The Band sound so good, the audience seemed to agree. They played Band stand bys including "Rag Mama Rag," "Stage Fright," and some tracks off their newest album, High on the Hog, including a first time recorded version of Dylan's "Love You Too Much". It was delivered in a fast frenzy in which Rick took command. Levon played the bass on "Long Black Veil" with a cigarette in his mouth that someone in the audience had lit for him. Garth was set up stage right, a bit isolated from the rest of the band, with two keyboards, and an array of instruments including sax, and accordion. He sat, casually attired in a tee shirt and white baseball hat, orchestrating bizarre but brilliant combinations of notes and sounds to the audience's delight.

After the show, they were delighted to sign autographs from their tour bus for a small group of fans who gathered. Rick came off the bus and we drove to the nearby oceanfront motel where The Band was staying during their two night gig on the Island. They had just finished an extensive exhaustive summer European tour. We sat outside for an informal late evening chat where the surrounding ocean air was cool but the company warm. After we spoke for a while, Levon (who still occupies the best seat in the house) strolled by with a bag of low fat popcorn, "Mind if I join you?" He pulled up a chair on the veranda of the first floor room and went into a slow dissertation about the creek on his property up in Woodstock just five minutes from Rick's farm. Twenty years ago he knew it was a lake, Rick said. With some bulldozers and insight, and without sacrificing the land's integrity, he recently converted that ol' creek into a lake. You might say The Band, musically, has done the same...

Rick, any new projects in the works collectively with The Band or individually?

Well. let me see...Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. Scotty being one of the greatest guitar players of all time: he was part of Elvis Presley's band in the 1950s. We just stopped doing some filming and recording with them in our studio that's in Levon's barn. We're doing a little project with Paul Burlison, another great '50s guitar player, who played with the Burnette Brothers. And a company from England came over with a film crew... they chose The Band as one of the Top 10 Best Albums of all time, and gave us a bunch of money so they must be doing some kind of documentary. [Rick is referring to the 1997 VH-1 program about the Band's second album, in the Classic Rock Albums documentary series] We're, of course, getting ready to make another CD, another Band record this September (1996). We haven't really cranked up the machines, just got them oiled, you might say. You get this old. And you don't worry too much about a schedule. This is more of a way of life for us than a job, we're too old to work and too young to retire.
Any plans to hook up with Dylan again?
Victor Mamudes, one of Bob's right hand men, talked to me a little bit about that. We've been talking about doing this thing - some recording and playing with Bob in Japan. I'm beginning to think its a rumor, but Victor tells me its true. We've been talking about it for about two years now, but, it usually comes around and we absolutely would be up for it.
High On the Hog has two Dylan cuts, "Forever Young" and "I Must Love You Too Much" - which Dylan never recorded. Why did you choose it now for the album?
He wrote it for us years ago. Paul Butterfield and I had a band together at one point. (Bob) wrote it for us then. We were just too messed up, as humans... We had a great band and the music was good, but we were - pardon my language - we were just too fucked up to have anybody put much faith and trust in us. and I don't blame them one bit. But here it is now. As for "Forever Young" - we were just messing around with it one night and I loved the way Levon came in with an extra "forever young." We recorded it, didn't think too much about it, heard it a week later and I thought it was pretty damn good. It reminded me of something that was authentic. It's hard for me to sit around and discuss what I do - I'm used to hearing other people talk about what I do - It makes me very uncomfortable. [As for song selection], we choose everything very carefully, it's a great democratic system in The Band, it's a way of life. You can take two steps back and be in a great band. or you can take two giant steps forward and be fronting something, but still be a part in a great band-that's what's nice about The Band.

I started another production company about four years ago. But I ended up cutting two CDs with Eric Andersen [Danko/Fjeld/Andersen and Ridin' on the Blinds] and two records with The Band. So I put the Rick Danko Project on hold. But I still have the production company based in Chicago, with another great family of musicians, but I'm in no hurry to do that. I have nothing but time.

What is your best Dylan memory during The Basement Tapes recordings?
There are a lot of good memories. Writing "This Wheel's on Fire" with Bob wasn't a bad move. Over 25 years later, he's performing it, it's back in his setlist again - it's been wonderful. The writing of it was part of The Basement Tapes structure. there were a few songs that were different, a few that could have been credited different. but I won't get into that. I'm thankful it came out. We wrote "This Wheel's On Fire" together. I wrote the music on piano, and the phrasing, and Bob wrote the verses. Same with Richard and Bob on "Tears of Rage". Richard wrote the music, phrasing and melody totally. I've actually been talking to Greil Marcus lately who is doing a book on The Basement Tapes, which is good. There is some pretty good stuff that I forgot about - I must confess. I'm getting older.
What ever became of the painting Dylan did for the cover of Music From Big Pink?
Wasn't that brilliant?! I was hoping he would donate it to a museum. it's not in my archives. I'm sure Bob has it somewhere. if he hasn't given it to someone.
What about that famous dog barking in the background of some of those Basement Tapes?
Hamlet. I saw Bob having an argument with Hamlet one day, and I took Hamlet aside, the next thing I know Bob dropped him off. He stayed quite a while, then I started getting busy and leaving town a lot. But Hamlet had so many houses he could go to. I think he likely ended up in the south of France on the Riviera, He had good rapport with people; he was wonderful. That barking on "Every Grain of Sand" could have been Mitzie - Richard's dog or Hamlet; we remember them doing a duet together. The Basement Tapes days were great days, wonderful days. everybody should have days like that. We all got along and the best part is, we still get along.
When did you first start working with Dylan?
I started working with Bob in 1965. We did go through a lot of changes from 65 to 74, a lot of changes. By 1974, everything had straightened itself out.

We first met when he came to hear us play up in Toronto. Levon and Robbie had played with Bob in Forest Hills and The Hollywood Bowl. I think Bob wanted to hire Robbie and Levon. and they told him that there were these other guys that they played with. So Bob said well. let me come up to Canada and hear them. He heard us. We played a bunch of instrumentals that night, and he said he was there to play and we started touring in the south. Once we got out of the south people started booing a lot. But they were booing at Bob, they didn't really know who I was. It bothered me, not as much as Levon who left the group; he went down to Mexico and New Orleans. Levon was in New Orleans when I called him up about our Capital Record deal. I always knew that he would be with us when we recorded a Band album.

What were the circumstances surrounding "I Shall Be Released"? Was it written for Richard Manuel?
Bob wrote the song during The Basement Tapes time period; we put it on Music From Big Pink. Richard did a great job singing it in falsetto. It was one of the 150 or so songs that were written in Big Pink. (Songs) that came off the typewriter that Bob had stamped out, one of the papers that went downstairs to the music room and went through the process. I thought there was something particularly different about every piece of poetry that Bob came up with, or even inspired us to come up with. It lasted about seven or eight months; where we got together every day and we'd record in the afternoons. You have to remember the band played from 1960 to 1965, every night. You get into a rut playing nightclubs every night, and you didn't want to run it into the ground. But I found myself eating my own words, because there we were getting together everyday for seven or eight months. It seemed the more we got together. the more we got done, the more work was produced.
What do you remember about the Royal Albert Hall show in London, May of 1966, the so tatted "Judas Show"?
Bob acted like he was cracking but he really wasn't. He introduced The Band that night as "poets." He acknowledged that the audience was being rude, that they didn't have any right to be rude with him, and they shouldn't blame The Band. The press made a big deal about it.
What about The Last Waltz?
It was like a 'going out of business' sale. The Band was always famous for its retirements; we'd go and play and get a little petty cash together, and then not see each other till it was time to fill our pockets up again. Now, as we get older, we're trying to not spend the principle. The Last Waltz was quite a caper. We set it up to fulfill our Capital agreement. It worked; sold a lot of records for us. I moved out to Malibu for three months and stayed eight years - a long, silly vacation.
Would you change anything in Levon's book This Wheel's on Fire?
Levon's book; they made me part of the book, part of the deal. Which I will do when I write the Rick Danko book. Robert Palmer likely will be the ghost writer. It will be through Rick Danko's eyes as opposed to Levon's - we're two different people. We see things different but its all valid. Although there was laughter in Levon's book, mine won't be as dark as Levon's. I'll have different people write sentences or paragraphs, and hopefully it will be educational. Also I'd put in some things Levon left out like all the front money from Warner Brothers and United Artists. The picture wasn't quite as bad as he painted it, although as smart as we thought we were, people still took advantage of the situation.

As time goes on we get closer to that American Dream of there being a pie cut up and shared. Usually greed and selfishness prevent that and there is always one bad apple in every barrel. I hate to see "the corruptible seed," it doesn't have to be that way. To make a longer story short, I am just very thankful that over this life, I'm in my 50's now, that I can go all over this world and be accepted by a following of people for what I am and for what I do. I really appreciate that and I'm very thankful for that. I don't have to punch a time clock. I can take my time, and not run it into the ground. It just gets better with time. It's amazing everybody has a part to play in everything. The Band, for instance, I don't think The Band has sounded this good - ever. A lot of that has to do with the amount of dates we've done since Jericho and High on the Hog have come out, and the way its grown together with Richard Bell and Randy Ciarlante and Jimmy Weider. Plus we're all a lot healthier, a lot more coherent, and we get along a lot better as people. As for Bob, it's hard for me to talk about my buddy. I understand the way he feels about his privacy and mine, and I want to respect all of that. Bob is one of my favorite comedians, truly an inspiration, the hardest working man in show business, always on the road, always doing something and it's good. Getting older, I realize I've had a very fortunate life. I've had a budget that's allowed me to do just about any silly little thing the mind could conjure up, and I'm still alive and here. I'm glad I outgrew that 'cause here we are. When we were all younger, we had big aspirations of changing the world... I'm smart enough now to know that's not going to happen, but I am also smart enough to know we can help the neighborhood. The people who came to see us tonight left feeling they knew us a little better, and maybe the person next to them a little better. It's a nice thing. With Bob, things come in cycles, you never know what's going to happen. I hope I can play with Bob Dylan until the day I die.

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