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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Tomorrow (December 10) marks the tenth - the tenth! - anniversary of the wonderful Rick Danko's death. Anyone unfamiliar with singer-songwriter Steve Forbett's work (very samey but very good) might find his tribute-song about Rick Danko interesting. It's called 'Wild As The Wind' and it's on the studio album Just Like There's Nothin' To It (2004).

My tribute is this entry from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2008):

Danko, Rick [1942 - 1999]
Richard Clare Danko was born at Walsh, near tiny Simcoe, Ontario, just south of the Six Nations Reservation (and just east of a small town named Woodstock, as it happens), on December 29, 1942. He grew up in a musical family, quit school at 14 to concentrate on music, joined RONNIE HAWKINS & The Hawks as rhythm guitarist at 17, and then learnt to play bass on the job - eventually developing his very distinctive style, ‘percussive but sliding’. After the group quit Hawkins they went out on the road as LEVON & The Hawks, recorded under the additional name The Canadian Squires, and in 1965 met Bob Dylan.

That September the group rehearsed with Dylan in Woodstock, New York, ready for further live gigs beyond those already played with Levon & ROBBIE (and other, non-Hawk musicians) in the aftermath of ‘going electric’ at Newport that July. The first Dylan concert Danko played was probably October 1 at Carnegie Hall. Four days later the group went into the studio with Dylan for the first time, followed by more live concerts and on November 30 a second studio stint - two days after Helm had quit - from which comes the single ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’. This session has also now yielded the version of ‘Visions Of Johanna’ released on The Bootleg Series Vol.7, 2005.

Back in the studio in New York at Dylan’s behest on January 21-22, 1966, the Helmless Hawks helped create that quintessential mid-60s Dylan record, ‘She’s Your Lover Now’ (finally issued on the Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 in 1991). On January 25-28, Dylan got Robertson and Danko back into the studio without the others, added them to AL KOOPER on organ, Paul Griffin on piano, BOBBY GREGG on drums and, alongside Danko as a second bassist, BILL LEE. These sessions yielded ‘Sooner Or Later (One Of Us Must Know)’ - and therefore got Danko and Robertson onto Blonde On Blonde (though Danko’s name is missing from the credits). They also yielded the rather inferior version of ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ that was also issued on Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3.

Then came Dylan’s 1966 tour, beginning in Louisville, Kentucky on February 4 and going across the States, into Canada and Hawaii, over to Australia and then Europe, where they began in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 29 and ended at the Royal Albert Hall in London on May 27. Every musician was crucial to the consummate glory of those performances, but Danko’s bass-playing was especially dramatic on the intro to the hurled-out ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that came at Manchester in response to the shout of ‘Judas!’ from someone in the crowd, with Dylan’s retort of ‘I don’t believe you!’ followed by the explosive challenge of that bass riff coming in, making Dylan’s second sentence - ‘You’re a liar!’ - part of the song itself: part of the opening tumult.

After all that came the calm of Woodstock and West Saugherties, 1967, when The Hawks were working very differently with Bob Dylan, laying down the Basement Tapes and preparing to turn into THE BAND. Here Dylan began to seek out Danko as his vocalist of choice to harmonise with, whereas within The Hawks he had rarely been more than automatically backing vocalist to MANUEL and Helm.

The exceptions amount to little more than these: that Danko takes lead vocal on Robertson’s ‘song sketch’ ‘(I Want To Be) The Rainmaker’, 1965; he shares lead vocals with Helm & Manuel on the 1965 Levon & The Hawks single ‘Go Go Liza Jane’; that he takes lead vocal on the Dylan-free Basement Tapes tracks ‘Caledonia Mission’ and ‘Ferdinand The Imposter’; and that he shares lead vocal with Manuel on another such track, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’.

At any rate, it’s sometimes been argued that herein lies one of the benefits Dylan derived from working with The Hawks: that harmonising with Danko’s countrified wail freed Dylan up to sing out in a country style himself. Danko was the first person Dylan had sung with while fronting an electric group. And it was Danko to whom Dylan gave his dog Hamlet (allegedly after discovering that Hamlet’s pedigree was suspect).

The Woodstock sessions saw Dylan and Danko in songwriting partnership too: the great ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ is a Dylan-Danko composition (though Danko again misses his credit on the original LP cover of The Band’s Music From Big Pink) and it is Danko who has won the right to be lead vocalist on their début album recording of the song. Again he’s lead singer on ‘Caledonia Mission’ too, and on ‘Long Black Veil’, and shares lead vocals on ‘The Weight’. He also plays violin on ‘Chest Fever’.

On the second album, Danko plays trombone on ‘Across The Great Divide’ and ‘Unfaithful Servant’, violin on ‘Rag Mama Rag’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, and he sings lead on ‘When You Awake’, ‘Look Out Cleveland’ and ‘Unfaithful Servant’; on the third album, Stage Fright, he sings lead on the title song, and shares lead with Manuel on ‘Time To Kill’ and with Helm & Manuel on ‘The Rumor’ and ‘W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’. And he plays violin on ‘Daniel & the Sacred Harp’.

On Cahoots he co-wrote ‘Life Is A Carnival’ with Helm and Robertson. It was his first writing credit since Music From Big Pink. Things were falling apart within the group. On Moondog Matinee he played rhythm guitar on one track but only bass on everything else. His main contribution was his lead vocal on SAM COOKE’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ - a lead vocal that wasn’t credited on the album sleeve and had many people, GREIL MARCUS included, assuming it was by Richard Manuel.

On Islands Danko managed a co-composer credit with Robertson on ‘Street Walker’ and with Robertson and Hudson on the title track, but he wanted out. He, as much as Robertson, wanted to call a halt, and welcomed the grand bow-out that became The Last Waltz.

In a way Danko was the keenest of all to make solo albums, though he looks bereft at the prospect of an uncertain future when, in that film, SCORSESE asks him what his plans are; and in fact after the first solo album, in 1977, fourteen years elapsed before the next. Danko’s solo (and soloish) albums were: Rick Danko (1977), Danko/Fjeld/Andersen (1991), Ridin’ on the Blinds (also an album of shared billing with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld, 1994), In Concert (a poorly-recorded return to solo billing, and also to the material of classic Band days, 1997) and Live on Breeze Hill (a better offering, with a larger band, 1999). These were followed by the posthumous Times Like These (a far worthier collection than either of its immediate predecessors, 2000), One More Shot (a live Danko/Fjeld/Andersen CD added to a re-release of their first album from ten years earlier, 2001) and the discountable rehash of A Memorial Edition (2002.

Many Band afficionados feel a special affection for that first solo album - not because it sounds like The Band but because it doesn’t. It sounds like Danko in full bloom. Less is more here; his vocal work and his harmonies are tremendous; and the album’s particular treats include his song ‘New Mexicoe’ (co-written with BOBBY CHARLES), which weirdly combines ERIC CLAPTON’s electric guitar with Garth Hudson’s ghostly hillbilly accordion.

So much promise. And yet… Nothing happened to the album at the time, and Danko seemed to disappear in the late 1970s to early ’80s - though in fact he turned up on other artists’ records, including EMMYLOU HARRIS’ Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town and Joe Cocker’s Luxury You Can Afford. In 1983 he retreated back into the re-formed Band - and even then, when those 1990s Band albums finally arrived, it was only on the third and final one, Jubilation, that Danko co-wrote any of the material.

Outside of the group, however, he was not inactive. Encouraged by Levon Helm, Danko took an acting rôle, as the unnamed father of a kidnapped child, in the 1986 film Man Outside (as do Hudson, Helm and Manuel). He played live music with many people, including Paul Butterfield and Jorma Kaukonen, and in 1987 released Rick Danko’s Electric Bass Techniques, an instructional video. In 1990 (again with Helm and Hudson) he made a guest appearance in Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall’ concert in Berlin (and so in the TV film of the concert, The Wall: Live in Berlin, and then in 1991, prompted by the success of a shared low-profile gig in Woodstock and a follow-up tour of Norway, came Danko/Fjeld/Andersen, which won Norway’s equivalent of a grammy, and is widely felt to capture some of Danko’s best work. It was issued in the US in 1993.

By this time Danko and Dylan had combined again. Levon Helm and Rick Danko gigged at the Lone Star Café in New York City in February 1983, and on the 16th, Dylan joined them to sing and play guitar on ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’, ‘Ain’t No More Cane’ and ‘Going Down’. In 1992 Danko was a member of The Band that took part in the so-called 30th Anniversary Concert for Dylan at Madison Square Garden, at which they performed ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ and joined the ensemble for the penultimate song of the evening, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’; on January 17, 1993, he (and Garth and Levon) played with Dylan at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration party, the so-called ‘Absolutely Unofficial Blue Jeans Bash (For Arkansas)’. And then in 1997, Dylan’s long-serving band member Tony Garnier joined The Band to play stand-up bass on three numbers at their March 20 show in Carnegie Hall, and on August 18, 1997, at a Dylan Never-Ending Tour concert in Wallingford, Connecticut, Rick Danko joined Dylan on stage twice over - to sing with him and play guitar on ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ and, a few songs later, on ‘I Shall Be Released’.

Rick Danko died in his sleep at his home in Woodstock on December 10, 1999. Steve Forbert wrote a tribute song for him, ‘Wild As The Wind’, which means well and doesn’t avoid acknowledging the rôle cocaine played in his life and demise. But Danko’s own posthumous album Times Like These is a more substantial tribute to his considerable talents. Everyone who knew him misses the sweet, good-humoured person that it’s agreed he was. Everyone who knew the music of The Band misses his artistry.

[Rick Danko: Rick Danko, Arista AB-4141, US, 1977; In Concert, Foxborough MA, 22 Feb & Clinton, NJ, 6 Mar, 1997, Woodstock Records, US, 1997; Live On Breeze Hill, Breeze Hill/Woodstock, US, 1999; Times Like These, Breeze Hill, US 2000 (different version issued CoraZong / Nordic 255034, 2003). Danko/Fjeld/Andersen: Danko /Fjeld/ Andersen, nia, Norway, 1991 & Rykodisc, US, 1993; Ridin’ On The Blinds: Grappa GRCD 4080, Norway, 1994 (Rykodisc 10371, US, 1997). Man Outside, dir. & written Mark Stouffer, US, 1986. Steve Forbert: ‘Wild As The Wind’, Neptune NJ, nia, Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It, Koch KOC-CD-9534, NY, 2004. For a full Danko discography see]

PS. Someone contacted me, after publication, to offer a correction, saying, I think, that it's well-documented now that the first Dylan-Hawks concert was somewhere in either Texas or Chicago. Monstrously, I lost this message (even though I believe it was sent to me twice) before I'd made a note of the details. But according to Olof Bjorner's highly detailed chronicle of Dylan's professional life more or less day-by-day from 1960 onwards, the first concert with the Hawks / Crackers, was Carnegie Hall NYC on October 1, 1965. Chicago was November 25... Apologies to that patient person, and if he or she has better info, I'd be obliged to be sent it one more time. Thank you.


Blogger Michael Gray said...

This blog also gets seen sometimes by readers of the Rock's Back Pages blog, and so occasionally a comment comes in to that instead of to here, and last night I was alerted to this, from Dave Meinzer, offering a response about which were the first Dylan concerts with the Hawks/Crackers.

Dave writes:

" has added a concert archive that would have to be considered more accurate and complete than Olof's. It lists Austin and Dallas on Sept. 24 and 25, followed a week later by the Carnegie Hall show. Given the time line it's logical to assume the Texas shows were with the Hawks rather than the makeshift band of the previous summer shows."

2:13 pm  
Blogger Ronald said...

For the ones that do not know Steve Forbert at all: it is worth seeking out at least some of his music. He is a great guitar player and lyricist.

And, by the way, it is indeed ForbeRt and not ForbeTt as Mr. Gray undoubtedly knows but apparently slipped his finger typing.

Ronald Lamars
Houten, The Netherlands

7:49 pm  
Anonymous Angelo said...

Hi Michael, really enjoy your blog, but I can't believe you've put up such a fulsome article without once mentioning "It Makes No Difference", surely one of the most beautiful, heart-rending vocals in the history of modern music. Along with that wonderful, high-lonesome cry of "behind" on the 66 One Too Many Mornings, my favourite Rick Danko memory.

4:41 pm  

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