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Rick Danko

by Ruth Albert Spencer

From The Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 15, April 11, 1985. This is one of a series of interviews with all five members of The Band that appeared in this weekly newspaper.

Copyright © Ruth Albert Spencer.

Front page header, Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 15, April 11, 1985.

Several months ago, I conceived of the idea of writing a loving study of the Band's music from a classical musician's point of view. The Woodstock Times agreed to publish this article, but when it was suggested that I perhaps interview some of the Band, I became obsessed with the idea of speaking to each of the five about music and theit lives as musicians. I decided to focus on comparisons between classical and rock musicians, and the creative process of writing and performing music. Anything they could say would surely be more interesting than anything I could say, and I set to find and speak with each. This self-imposed task wasn't easy; even after all five had agreed to do this, the saga of arranging for the individual interviews became almost as interesting as the interviews themselves and could surely form the basis of a film or thriller novel. It meant dealing with the in-between people, going backstage to clubs both in New York and Woodstock and in one case, following a member home and having my daughter hand deliver a note. It meant contacting old friends in the recording and film world in Los Angeles at the time I was working on this project. Of course, some of the Band members helped put me in contact with the others. But in the end, each of the five sat down with me and spoke seriously and I believe quite sincerely. The interviews took place over a three-month period in Woodstock, New York and Los Angeles. I am presenting them in the chronological order they were conducted.
--Ruth Albert Spencer

The other interviews by Ruth A. Spencer:
[Richard Manuel] [Garth Hudson] [Robbie Robertson] [Levon Helm]

Rick Danko, incognito.
The interview with Rick Danko was conducted on February 9, 1985, in the backstage area at Folk City in Manhattan, between Rick's early and late shows. Though he had been the first of the Band to agree to this interview (through an intermediary), it took months to arrange. We finally settled on New York, rather than waiting for Woodstock. My old friend Liz Wright, a pianist, was with me.

At first Rick was quite guarded and concerned about this interview appearing in the Woodstock Times, saying he and his family, which includes two teenagers, live in the Woodstock area and they cherish their privacy. I promised not to include anything he said about them. We had trouble finding an electric outlet for my tape recorder. Rick said he'd feel more comfortable and would speak more freely if the interview were not recorded. I agreed to this, saying I'd have to to write fast. As the interview progressed, he became more open. He was very charming and very funny.

The next day my friend Liz and I went over the questions and our recollections of Rick's answers in an attempt not to lose anything that he had said. Because this conversation was not recorded, it is being presented in a freer style.

Early years as a musician

Rick's parents both played instruments and his mother "sang like a bird." His father would host weekend musicales; it was always like "harvest time with homemade brew." His mother and her three stepsisters sang on the radio in a four-part harmony group. His Uncle Spence, who Rick describes as a "drugstore cowboy," wrote and sang songs. He began introducing Rick to musicians when Rick was about six. Rick's first instrument was the mandolin, which he started playing at about age four. By the time he was five or six, he wanted to be a musician. His early influences included Hank Williams, Little Richard, George Jones, Fats Domino, June Carter and Patsy Kline. His first big performance was when he was fourteen; he sang two Little Richard songs in front of 5,000 people. Unlike Richard Manuel or Garth Hudson, Rick never sang or played in church.

Ronnie Hawkins days

Rick met Ronnie Hawkins when he was sixteen. He was in a group that opened for the Hawks. Levon and Robbie were already with Hawkins. He was hired after they all had heard him once. Of their first meetings, Rick mostly remembers Stan Szelest (a pianist who preceded Richard and Garth in the Hawks), who Rick says was a big influence on him, though it was "really Ronnie Hawkins who got my attention." Rick only began playing bass after he joined the Hawks. He didn't sing much at that time; Richard was the lead vocalist. That was in 1961 and they would play six nights a week.

Relationships between classical and rock music

Rick loves classical music, but didn't name any composers or periods in particular. "Anything good is good," says Danko, adding that he is "sure there are relationships between classical and rock music." He spoke about Bach and a connection with Chuck Berry.

The Band as a group

RAS: What do you think made the Band so unique?

RD: Five heads are stronger than one, just like five hearts are stronger than one. I love each and every one of them. Time made us like a family; we were people who got together for the right reasons and that's powerful.

RAS: How do you think that the Band might have been different if four of you had not been Canadian?

RD: I can't answer that question. I can't even speculate.

RAS: That's what all the others said.

RD: What exactly did Richard say?

RAS: When I returned to Richard's house to edit his interview, he said that question set him thinking about how the Band might have been different if one of them had been black.

RD: Oh, Richard would say that. He's into high technology; he's my technical expert. He told me to invest my money in computers.

RAS: What do you think was the impact of the Woodstock environment on the Band's music?

RD: Bob Dylan once said "Woodstock was just an excuse to sell tie dye." But seriously, after living in New York from 1965 to 1967, the Band moved to Woodstock where we could apply ourselves. If you apply yourself, something happens. A little concentration goes a long way. If you don't apply yourself, you won't get anywhere.

Rick, individually, as a musician

RAS: How have you changed musically and personally since The Last Waltz?

RD: We all change day by day, but we don't notice it. I've grown up a little bit. I have good memories of the past and they outweigh the bitter memories.

RAS: What does Woodstock mean to you today and why have you chosen to live there?

RD: I lived in Malibu for eight years. It was like a long vacation, but it's not a good place to live and it's not a good place for teenage children. Malibu is transient, changing, full of tourists. Woodstock is very small and protected. It is family oriented, not transient. The Catskill Mountains are a much more productive and social environment. They offer a sense of foundation, filled with middle class and average people. I'm a family guy. Family is your roots. I have family and staff around who help, who are patient, understanding and offer support.

RAS: Are you interested in any of the other arts?

RD: I am an artist (meaning the larger sense of being an "artistic person"). I also paint and like to do two paintings of the same person, one at a younger age and one at an older age. Art is hard to describe. It means something different to each individual. Twenty people can feel twenty ways, but you can also all feel the same about it.

RAS: Can you talk about the way you write music?

RD: It's never the same way twice. Sometimes I'm influenced by something I heard like even while riding in an elevator or by something someone said. Sometimes I'm influenced by an illusion. It's hard to explain how one creates art.

RAS: What you said is almost identical to what Robbie said.

How did you and Dylan co-write "Wheels on Fire?"

RD: We put together about 150 songs at Big Pink. We would come together everyday and work and Dylan would come over. He gave me the typewritten lyrics to "Wheels on Fire." At that time I was teaching myself to play the piano.

RAS: I didn't know you played piano.

RD: Never in public. I only play piano a little. Some music I had written on the piano the day before just seemed to fit with Dylan's lyrics. I worked on the phrasing and the melody. Then Dylan and I wrote the chorus together.

RAS: What about performing?

RD: It's not a big deal. It's just something that happens, though you never know what's gonnahappen.

[Rick said he doesn't get thrown if an expected performer doesn`t show up and he suddenly has to perform with one less person.]

RAS: Do you practice regularly?

RD: I've never been one to practice. It's nice to have the urge to play, but no, I don't play every day.

[Rick then spoke of his 15 1/2 year old daughter who lives in California. She has played classical piano since she was six and he is very proud of her.] I hope she realizes how talented she is, but she's the one that's gonna have to deal with it. She also plays guitar.

RAS: I guess musical talent runs in your family.

RD: You never know; you never know where it comes from.

At the end of the interview, I asked if I could take pictures and Rick said sure, he'd be right back. He went into a little dressing room and when he didn't come out for a while I thought he forgot. But about five minutes later he reappeared, saying he had gone to get dressed for the photos. He was wearing a pointed hat, funny sunglasses and a long scarf. Holding a cigarette, he asked to be photographed next to a "No Smoking" sign. ++

© Ruth Albert Spencer

Ruth Albert Spencer is a classically trained musician and teacher. She is Director of the Music and Movement Department at the Diller-Quaile Music School in Manhattan. She has published two books on Music Education for teachers and currently is working on a book entitled Recollections of John Lennon. Ruth lives with her husband Michael, teenaged daughter Joanna and three dogs in New York City. The have a weekend home in Woodstock, just down the road from Big Pink. She describes herself as the "world's number one Band fan."

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