I was a Rick Danko fan from the first note of the first song he sang on Music From Big Pink, “Caledonia Mission.” There was something in his voice that grabbed me immediately, some incredible mixture of twang and soul that was not only inviting but also very honest and very real.
I’d seen Rick play three years before that record came out from a front-row center seat at a Bob Dylan concert in Newark, New Jersey and had been waiting ever since for more, with a John Hammond album and one lone flipside of a Dylan single to tide me over.
This interview took place on Rick’s tour bus that was parked in front of the Bijou Café in Philly, before his show. Rick’s first album had just been released, the Last Waltz had not been released and I couldn’t believe I was on his tour bus and was frankly quite nervous. I’d seen The Band as much as I possibly could and in many ways he was my favorite guy in The Band to watch because he was something of a maniac on-stage, always moving. A roadie took me to the back room of the bus where Rick was sitting, wearing glasses and reading a newspaper. As I walked in, he put down the paper, took off his glasses and shaking my hand said, “Have a joint of really good Mexican, man.”
Rick talked to me for close to an hour, pretty much until it was time to get ready to go on-stage. I went back in the club to watch the show, and right before the show started, one of the roadies came up to me, holding my notebook that I’d left on the bus. He could easily have not sent the guy after me, and that memory still moves me.
During the interview I asked Rick about a song The Band did at almost every show, but had never put out on record (until years later on box sets), a cover of the Four Tops song, “Lovin’ You Is Sweeter Than Ever.”
Little did I know that song would start the show, with Rick and his band mates singing the chorus as they entered the club on the way to the stage and put on their instruments and into the song.
I’d like to talk about the record a little bit. I felt that you really seemed to go for an energetic sound, more of a spontaneous sound than the recent Band albums, and you had a couple of fun things in there too, like the ending to “Java Blues” and the ending to “What A Town” where the horns go on and it had the feeling that it was done live in a couple of takes. Was that the case?
What I would do, I would get a couple of people together and play them the songs, and tell them a few things, a couple of very simple ideas and then we’d do a quick performance. We’d do a song a day. And we’d usually end up doing that within five hours. And after that, we’d just go home and meet the next day. Recorded the whole album in maybe three weeks that way. But it took a longer time to get released.
I had read in one of the trade magazines when you signed which was like August a year ago, and have been waiting ever since for the record. How did you come to write with Emmet Grogan? I thought that was interesting. I saw his article on the Last Waltz and I remember him from years ago when he had this called the Diggers with the hippies in San Francisco .
He’s an old friend of mine and he showed up at a friend’s house, Ronnie Wood’s house one night at this party, and I grabbed him and I wanted him to help me with some of my images on “Brainwashed,” and we ended up doing a few more together. And we ended up having some fun.
I really liked that song. I hadn’t heard rock music like that in a really long time with that kind of guitar and the whole feeling of the song brought me back, really far back.
Well, that’s what keeps us out here right now, we come out, we play for an hour, an hour and fifteen minutes every night and that’s what keeps us out here, that hour that we’re on. The traveling is hard, but you make up for it. And these people in my group, they’re going for a feeling. It’s just not a job or they’re not here because they have to be. They want to be here.
Where did you get some of these people like Michael DeTemple for instance. I’d never heard of him and thought he was a great guitar player.
Michael’s been a friend of mine for three years. He writes and sings and I didn’t really know he played guitar till one night Peter Townshend and Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton was making a record in my studio and this one night I was up fooling around and they all came by and they were playing on one of my tapes and Michael played lead guitar for the first time.
Was that Shangri La? Is that like a collective Band studio?
You said a long time ago when The Band first started playing as The Band that you always wanted to be a country singer and go to Nashville but along with the country influence, I hear a lot of Motown in your voice and in your singing style and I hear a lot of Marvin Gaye, Levi Stubbs. In fact one night, a couple of weeks ago when your album and Levon’s album came out, I did a show where I spotlighted those two records and I tried to play the people I felt had influenced you or the people I read had influenced you. I played Marvin Gaye doing “I’ll Be Doggone,” and then I played one of your songs, and it really went together. It was the first time I’d heard you and Marvin Gaye in a row.
I wonder what Marvin Gaye would think (laughs). That’s a compliment man. I grew up not far from where Motown was founded, maybe 300 miles from Detroit and I’ve always liked–I used to like the way they made records. I still do, I just haven’t had a chance to hear as much. They used to entertain me.
Country artists, I met a lot of them when I was five, six years old. I had an uncle who was a country and western singer and I met Lefty Frizzell when I was five or six years old in those shows that would come through Toronto from Nashville . Ernest Tubb or Red Foley, fire-eaters and sword swallowers and they drank a lot … of whiskey and after I met them, I didn’t really want to go to Nashville anymore. But I’ve been to Nashville since, and it’s a good town. I still haven’t played the Opry though.
I’d always wondered why the Band had never put out “Lovin’ You Is Sweeter Than Ever.” I was sure it was gonna be on Rock of Ages.
Isn’t that on the record?
Is that right? Oh, I’ll record it. I thought I put it on a record once. Oh yeah, well this is an a cappella arrangement.
There was always in the stories I read some sort of mystery surrounding The Band which may or may not have been intentional and which possibly had to do with the whole Dylan mystique, which The Band always seemed to ignore. In every interview, you said “There’s no mystique, we’re just regular guys,” and your record, almost in contrast seems really open to me. When you were touring with The Band, did you feel that kind of thing? Was there that kind of pressure?
We grew up on the streets, but we’re very private people. We’ve gone through a lot of changes and everything happens for the best though. The pressures, I don’t really like to think about the pressures, I like to solve them, you know what I mean. I could sit here and complain about pressures but nobody wants to hear about pressures. Now the good times … (laughs) … I always just tried to have a good time.
I saw The Band several times. I saw you first back with Dylan in ’65 in Newark, New Jersey and I waited, you know, like who are those guys and I knew about the Hammond record and stuff like that and when The Band appeared as “The Band” after Big Pink, I saw you several times since then and you would come out and do a very explicit set, it was very set, it seemed at any rate. I remember The Band used to do “Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos” and switch instruments and stuff, and you used to do “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and some of the Basement Tapes song and after awhile it just stopped. And I always wondered how come, when it seemed like you could have taken the music so much further, by doing some of those other songs which maybe you didn’t feel people wanted to hear.
Well the recording process is a strange situation. That song “Lovin’ You,” maybe I didn’t put it out or whatever, maybe that’s why I still do it. You put a song on the record or on tape and you stop singing it. You just don’t sit around and sing it anymore unless you’re performing. That’s kind of sad.
I saw you guys down here at the Spectrum, which is a hockey rink and it’s so much more fun seeing you in a club.
That’s why we’re here too. We’re kind of right in everybody’s lap. I really wanted everybody to take a close look ’cause I’m not sure how long we’re gonna feel this way. But we do feel this way at this time and it’s a nice feeling. I’m just not sure how long it will last. Also, it could become a very expensive hobby, touring like this.
How is the tour going?
Great. This is the last show here on the East. We just came from New York. We did 12 shows with Boz Scaggs, we opened up for him and we were out two weeks before the record was out, so we were virtually playing songs that people had never heard before. And they accepted it and Boz changed his tour around, and was gonna come towards major cities and I really wanted to come and do a smaller showcase thing so people could take a closer look. It’s strange though, it’s fun.
I think the smallest place I saw you before this was the Fillmore East which isn’t that small.
It’s been a long, long time since I played that. Times have changed. When I used to play nightclubs, you had to play Top 40 or favorite oldies that maybe people could relate to. We used to play our favorite oldies of course. But now, I have a record out. It’s kind of nice. You can come up and showcase your record and let people take a close look. It’s a lot more personal playing these places and you get another kind of feeling that you don’t get from a big stage. But I wish this stage was just a little bit bigger, ’cause we’re really kind of pinned down.
Who do you listen to?
I like a lot of different people, but sometimes I go for months at a time where I don’t listen to anyone and then I’ll catch up.
Was there any big influence on your bass playing? Any one bass player?
I like a lot of bass players. I like a lot of tuba players too.
Is there anyone you want to produce? Are you into that at all?
I have a few friends who are great writers that really haven’t made a record that they like yet. I’m putting together a team of people that will help see some of that through.
Have you heard Bruce Springsteen at all?
You got to hand it to Bruce. He’s got so much energy. He’s a talented dude. I haven’t seen him play yet, but I’m sure when I do, he will be inspirational to a guy like me.
You play some leads on the record and you played some tonight, and I remember a long time ago you used to play acoustic guitar with The Band.
I play keyboards too.
Is there any instrument you prefer?
Well, it’s just always the same. It’s the same arrangements. It’s the same if I’m playing bass, if I’m playing guitar, if I’m playing piano.
How’s Richard Manuel doing?
We talk to each other all the time. He’s fine.
Does he have any plans to record?
Yeah. Oh yeah.
Do you ever get back to Canada?
I go back occasionally and my folks they like to come to California and visit me. They like to come down in the wintertime. It’s warm all year ’round there.
Do you find any contrast between Canada and this country at all?
There’s a great contrast between the United States and Canada. Sure. That’s why I’m here. I love Canada but there’s only 25 million people there. There’s 250-million people here or 200-million and I like people and that’s why I moved here.
Do you like the West Coast?
Yeah, it’s good for my health. I live about a half a mile off the water and I have some back-draft that comes from the water but through another canyon behind my house and it’s kind of like living on the high desert. It’s very dry and it’s warm all year ’round.
In the press at least there seems to be a lot of confusion about The Band. There’s all this stuff: The Band broke up. Now from what I understood, The Band just isn’t gonna tour.
That’s right. We have a movie coming out, a multiple-record set and Robbie has some fine new tunes written and I’m sure we’ll have a new studio album out before next Christmas.
You’ve been playing rock and roll for a good 20 years with Ronnie Hawkins and on up, and there’s a couple of record on Atco which you can’t get, like Levon & The Hawks, “Stones That I Throw” which I heard once on the radio.
I saw Ronnie Hawkins play near my hometown, Port Dover, Ontario, and I saw him play there on New Year’s Eve and the following spring I booked myself to be his opening act on maybe five shows, and he hired me after the first night. And we were traveling around, that was ’60 in a ’59 Cadillac with a white matching trailer. And just cruised around like that. We’d carry our equipment in the trailer and just drive from show to show.
There was one record they put out on Roulette, supposedly Ronnie Hawkins and The Band. It was right after Big Pink came out.
I remember that.
Was that all The Band on that record?
Some of it was and some of it wasn’t. At that time we were a little distant from Ronnie but we’re a lot closer these days. He’s in our movie as well.
And you used to tour down in Arkansas, I remember reading something about Sonny Boy Williamson. You played with Sonny Boy Williamson ’cause he was in the town Levon grew up in.
They threw us out of town that night I think. The police did. We were likely messin’ with their politics. But we weren’t trying to step on anybody’s toes. We were just kind of hanging out. But we left town, came up to New Jersey and played at Tony Mart’s in Somer’s Point and I think that’s when we met Bob and we started playing with him.