Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,385

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,385

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This is the grave of Rick Danko.

Born in 1942 in Blayney, Ontario, Danko came of age in an immigrant family but one deeply imbued in American music. The family was Ukrainian in origin, but had moved to Canada back in the day. The radio had all the good American music–country, R&B, blues. The family listened to it all and played it in their community. We can all agree Rick proved a worthy heir of their efforts.

Danko was already heading local bands by his early teens, often playing the banjo. By 1960, he had a band called The Starlights. One night they opened for Ronnie Hawkins. To say the least, Hawkins was taken with this kid. A guy like Hawkins didn’t make enough money to have a stable band of veterans. He traveled around, played that rockabilly, and had a good bit of success in Canada. In fact, he was fairly popular in Ontario. But one could only pay so well doing just Ontario touring. But for a 17 year old kid, what an opportunity, when Hawkins offered him a slot of his band playing rhythm guitar! Pretty quickly, after Hawkins fired his bass player, Danko took that over and the bass would remain his primary instrument through his career, though certainly not his only. Pretty soon, Hawkins had one hell of a band behind him–a pianist named Richard Manuel, an organist named Garth Hudson, a kick ass guitarist named Robbie Robertson, and a kid from his native Arkansas on drums, Levon Helm.

Well, I hardly need to tell you the rest of the story. These guys broke with Hawkins in 1964 and went out on their own. At first, they were under Helm’s name, I dunno, for that southern authenticity I guess, and then under a couple of other names. They played a lot of in Canada, they played a lot in Arkansas, and they played shows traveling between the two. These guys were just so good together, an amalgamation of a huge variety of American music, a variety of good to great singers, and with really great playing.

This of course led to Dylan. Technically, it was Albert Grossman’s assistant who started the process. Dylan liked the sound, met them, invited them to join him. He was ready to leave the political folk music behind and play some goddamn rock and roll. It took a lot more convincing for these guys to play with Dylan than the other way around. Basically, Levon thought Dylan was a shitty musician playing boring music, though he certainly respected the writing. But the money, I mean how could you pass that up? C’mon. So they agreed.

Well, the rest is history. Dylan used this new band to start his electric career. They were hated by bullshit folkies until everyone realized this music was awesome shortly after all the boos in the live performances. The fame and the notoriety was too much for Levon, who left, but then he came back as the rest of his friends got together in a big pink house (now available for your vacations on VRBO) that Danko found. The Band was formed as a solo act, Levon came back, and two of the greatest albums in rock and roll history came out in 1968 and 1969. That doesn’t even get to The Basement Tapes, I mean, my God, this is all American musical history compressed to its very core and reinvented as rock and roll. Incidentally, a few years back I did find the house and….you can see why a bunch of dudes would like to hang out on the very edge of the Catskills and just play to their heart’s content. Cool location.

It’s interesting to me just how little Danko really sang on those albums. In truth, Richard Manuel was the lead singer, Levon provided the southern authenticity on his vocals and overall being, Robertson provided the licks and the songs, Hudson provided the pyrotechnics, and Danko helped out all around. That is by no means a slight on Danko. But we have to be honest–he was a good, not great singer, and he did not write songs. That does not mean he wasn’t central to The Band. He sure as hell was. This is a good list of who sang which song for The Band. On Big Pink, Danko sang “Caledonia Mission,” “Long Black Veil,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and “The Unfaithful Servant.” On The Band, he sang “Look Out Cleveland” and “When You Awake.” He also sang the title track of Stage Fright, one of their biggest hits, as well as co-singing “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” with Levon, who by that time was really the co-lead with Manuel. These are all great songs, but I guess without thinking so much about it, I always assumed Danko sang a few more and Manuel a few less. Well, whatever.

One thing about The Band that has always surprised me is that by 1968, these guys were hardened veterans. All those years on the road, backing up Hawkins, playing with Dylan in some of the most important music in American history, and….the fame they got as a band themselves really freaked them out. I would have thought they might have built up more bark, but no. This was most true of Manuel and Danko, who both became complete disasters as human beings. They all engaged in a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs, but Manuel went way off the deep end (his talking in The Last Waltz is just painful) and Danko wasn’t too far behind. He got into heroin. If you watch the documentary Festival Express about a series of rock festivals put on across Canada in the early 70s that includes The Band, he is just completely fucking smashed the entire time except possibly when they are playing. He’s drunk, he’s taking acid, it all seems fun at the time, but the body can’t take too much of it. He never did write songs and so when The Band broke up, he really had nothing to turn to. He just seemed kind of freaked out by all of this fame and adoration.

Danko did get a solo contract on Arista, but his album bombed and Arista killed the second. I have actually never heard it. He and Paul Butterfield toured together for awhile. Gave both of them something to do with their faded careers, but it wasn’t what it should have been. He played on and off for years with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld, which was about as stable as it got for Danko. About the recreation of The Band without Robertson, let us forget it ever existed. Shudder. He played with Ringo’s All Star Band of Washed Up 60s Musicians. He sang some of Gilmour’s songs for Roger Waters’ 1990 restaging of The Wall in Berlin. Danko doing “Comfortably Numb”?????????? Not a good choice, sorry.

Danko’s personal issues only got worse as he got older. He got busted for heroin in Japan in 1997 because he had his wife send it to him in a lettter! C’mon Rick, Jesus. You know who doesn’t like heroin? Japan. This was a big embarrassment. He got a couple months in prison and was deported. But his body was a mess from decades of treating it like shit. He died in 1999. He was 56 years old.

Jason Isbell’s “Danko/Manuel” sums up their rock and roll excesses and his own better than anything I could write.

Let’s listen to some of Rick Danko’s greatest songs:

Rick Danko is buried in Woodstock Cemetery, Woodstock, New York.

Danko, as a member of The Band, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. If you would like this series to visit other Rock Hall of Famers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Pigpen McKernan, inducted as a member of the Grateful Dead in 1994, is in Palo Alto, California and Sterling Morrison, inducted in 1996 as a member of the Velvet Underground, is in Poughkeepsie, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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