Peter Stone Brown on hearing of the death of Rick Danko.
The first time I saw Rick Danko was in 1965 in Newark, New Jersey. He was a member of The Hawks and was backing up Bob Dylan. It was my fourth Bob Dylan show and my second electric Dylan show. Somehow I had a front row center seat I’d bought at the theater that afternoon. I really didn’t know who the Hawks were. I didn’t know who Rick Danko was. They weren’t introduced and there was no program book. I found out a few days later when I saw the program from the show the night before in New York at Carnegie Hall, and I realized that most of those guys (not Danko) were on this John Hammond album I had. I remember there were guards at either side of the stage and this band didn’t look at all like Dylan. They were all wearing suits and had really short hair. There was like a wall of Fender showman amps running across the stage and it was loud. I remember Danko and Robertson were moving like mad and every time there was a solo Dylan would turns towards them. I didn’t know when I left the hall that night that it would be almost four very long years before I would see that band again and almost nine years before I would see Bob Dylan again.
All I had to tide me over was the flipside of the single, “I Want You,” a live version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that I would play every chance I got at top volume.
Finally as the spring of 1968 turned to summer, there was word that that band, now called The Band was putting out an album, and soon the FM rock stations were playing a song called “The Weight,” but since the album wasn’t out, you didn’t know that and thought it was called “Take A Load Off Fanny.” And then that album appeared just in time to be a birthday present. I’d never heard anything like it, or seen anything like it. From Dylan’s crazy child-like cover painting to the next of kin photo to that photo of these outlaw-looking guys who looked like they just stepped in from the last century with the upstate New York hills behind them. And though it didn’t say on the cover, somehow I knew who was who and who was singing each song. It was a life-changing album, and sounded nothing like what I’d remembered from long ago in 1965. It was country and blues and rock and roll and gospel and in its own way weird psychedelic all wrapped up in one with songs that were new but somehow sounded like you’d heard them all your life. It was tough, and funky and singers shouted out the songs with guts in a way I’d never heard before and they could play!
And one of the first songs to really hit me and it still hits me 31 years later was “Caledonia Mission” sung by Rick Danko. Those first words, “She reads the leaves…” it was country but it was more than that. It was just so incredibly soulful and full of feeling. And then there was his verse in “The Weight,” still my favorite verse, “Crazy Chester followed me…. ” I’d never heard anyone sing like that. Blew me away. And on the other side, “Long Black Veil,” and then “This Wheels On Fire,” one of two Bob Dylan collaborations with Garth’s wild keyboards and Robbie’s totally crazy guitar and Danko’s always-on-top-of-it thumping bass. And soon musicians all over the place were stopping what they were doing and getting back to real rock and roll. Clapton decided he wanted no more of Cream and pronounced The Band the greatest thing he’d ever heard. He even wanted to join them. Satanic Majesties and Sgt. Peppers Mystery Tours left in the dust. It was like no one noticed how truly weird “Chest Fever” was.
And everyone couldn’t wait to see them, but within two months of the album’s release Rick Danko broke his neck in a car crash and everything was on hold. It was a too-familiar scenario.
It was a long wait made slightly easier by the appearance of what was called The Basement Tapes sometime during the winter. My first copy was on reel-to-reel tape, and getting one was a clandestine operation, almost like buying dope. I was visiting someone in Philly who knew someone who had one, and I took a lonesome trolley car out to some neighborhood I’d never been in at night, and was kept outside waiting. It was like Big Pink but different, like John Wesley Harding, but different. Many of the songs were mournful and spooky and others like “Million Dollar Bash” were hysterical. “Wheels On Fire” unlike the Big Pink version was slow and scary as any Robert Johnson song.
Finally in the spring of ’69, they were perfoming first in San Francisco, an opening night disaster with Robertson sick and a hypnotist conducting him on-stage.
And then at last they came to the Fillmore East. And it was a strange set-up with Garth’s organ back where the drums should be and Levon on the right. They didn’t say anything except thank you, but played just about all of Big Pink and some other songs as well, songs that would eventually appear on the Basement Tapes like “Ain’t No More Cane,” and a song that never appeared on record that they’d learned from Levon’s dad called, “Little Birdies,” and then a Four Tops song, “Lovin’ You Is Sweeter Than Ever.” But they got that sound on stage. The Big Pink sound. The Band sound. And they were tight, tightest band I ever saw. Tight like James Brown’s Famous Flames or Booker T. They left no doubt that they knew exactly what they were doing. And they switched instruments too. Rick would play acoustic and Robbie would play bass. Richard would play drums and Levon played mandolin, and Garth would play piano, accordion and sax.
That fall I got to see them again, this time in Boston at a very crazy Halloween show with Van Morrison. Two shows. Nobody knew who Van Morrison was and he was crazy drunk that night, lying down on the stage of the Boston Academy of Music doing songs from Astral Weeks and the then un-released “Moondance.” I’d gone to the show with him. After the show we went to the Band party at the Boston Sheraton, but only Danko showed up. There were all kinds of people there from the Boston folk community like Maria Muldaur and the Band’s road-manager Jon Taplin who I used to listen to on the radio every Sunday night from Princeton. I was 18 and trying to make myself as invisible as possible. The Band’s second album had just come out and was just as remarkable if not more remarkable than the first. They were going to be on Ed Sullivan the next night, and Rick was saying, “I’m gonna shake Ed Sullivan’s hand man.” I watched it the next night of course, and sure enough when “Cripple Creek” was over, Danko made sure he shook Ed Sullivan’s hand.
I saw the Band as much as possible over the next few years and bought all their albums the day they came out. They moved from theaters to arenas and their sound got harder and tougher and louder, but they never lost that tightness.
One day in the fall of ’73, I got out of bed, went down to the kitchen to get some coffee and my roommate says to me, “They just announced in on the radio, Dylan and the Band are going to tour.” I think they put a chair under me.
It wasn’t going to be for a couple of months. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” was a big hit at the time, but Dylan had left Columbia and The Band had been inactive for awhile. The tickets were by mail order only to some weird address called “Box Lunch.” They were eight bucks, the most expensive ticket anyone had ever heard of at the time. They had to be postmarked on a certain date. I went down to the main post office at midnight.
Finally the day came, Dylan walking on-stage in a dumpy sports jacket and scarf, switching to a white shirt-jacket for the acoustic set. The Band was the Band, blasting out their own special brand of Dylan rock behind him, and then turning into The Band for their own set and back again.
The next time I saw Rick Danko was in the fall of ’75 in Hartford. By some stroke of magic, a friend of a friend had gotten a few tickets to the Rolling Thunder Revue. We borrowed someone’s parents car and made the 200 mile trip. Somehow this friend’s friend knew who we were and slipped us a little white rolled up piece of paper. Properly inspired, we took our rather excellent seats. I sat down and looked around and sitting right there in the next section was Rick Danko without his moustache. Sometime during the first half he appeared on-stage and sang, “It Makes No Difference,” with Allen Ginsberg on tambourine. Northern-Light Southern Cross wasn’t out yet.
The next year The Band toured again. They were still great and even had a little horn section with Larry Packard on fiddle. They did an incredible “Acadian Driftwood,” but something was missing. Something wasn’t right. Richard Manuel was having trouble on-stage and the old magic wasn’t quite there. Within a couple of weeks came the announcement of the Last Waltz.
A couple of years later, while being a volunteer disc-jockey at a local college station I got to interview Rick Danko while he was on tour promoting his first solo album. He was playing a club which was something special in those days. One of his roadies led me out to his tour bus. It was maybe my third interview and I was pretty damn nervous. I go into his little private room at the back of the bus, he’s sitting there wearing glasses and reading. I introduce myself, and he puts on this big grin, sticks out his hand and says, “Smoke a joint of some really good Mexican, man!” He talked to me for an hour. We went through the whole history of the Band, Ronnie Hawkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, his new album, right up the ’66 World Tour… “and then we went around the world with Bob,” and I’m just about to say, “and what was that like,” when he says, “I gotta get ready to go on-stage man.”
I went back to the club to watch the second set and had barely taken my seat when a roadie appeared, saying, “You forgot this man.” It was my notebook. I was always touched that Danko noticed and sent it back out
I saw Danko many more times after that night at all kinds of places. With Paul Butterfield, with Richard Manuel, with Levon Helm, by himself, with some strange Byrds reunion, with The Band. Some shows were great, some were good and some were not so good.
But as the years went on, the shows I happened to see got less and less tight. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see them any more. In some ways the club shows were great because Rick and especially Rick cut the distance between audience and performer that was always there at the original Band shows. But in other ways it was sad because here was a great great singer, and an incredible bass player who never really got the recognition for his playing that he deserved, and he’s playing bars, the bars where the local bands play. But he never stopped, and if this change of scene got to him, he never let his audience know.
After I heard the news this afternoon, I turned on the radio. Finally after a couple of hours, they played “It Makes No Difference,” and then went back to whatever else they do. Rick Danko deserved a lot more than that. He was one of the greatest and most soulful rock and roll musicians and singers of all time. It’s been a cold, rainy, windy day which I guess is kind of fitting. But a major chapter in music has ended, and one of my musical heroes is gone. It’s not gonna be the same anymore.