Rick Danko was about music. He was about melody. He was about harmony. He was about authenticity. He was about vulnerability. Rick was--and always will be--the epitome of unadorned, unaffected, unparalleled cool.
I worked with Rick for many years. He was a dear friend and a major influence who "taught me how to seek the path." This site is part of a promise I made to him a long time ago. I hope you enjoy it.
Please note that all content on this site is copyright-protected. All articles, essays, and other written materials (c) Carol Caffin, unless otherwise noted. Do Not Reproduce.
Merl was an amazing keyboard player who was part of the Grateful Dead "extended family," and worked closely with Jerry Garcia in his solo career.
Though Merl and Rick did not have a terribly close association, their paths did cross (as they did in Japan in 1997, at a tribute for Jerry Garcia) from time to time, and they liked and respected each other.
In fact, it was through Rick that I met Merl. Merl was looking for some tour support and Rick recommended me. I worked with Merl for a couple of years and tried to help him identify, target, and expand his audience. Honestly, it was not an easy task. Merl was exceptionally talented, very well liked, respected by fans and peers, and his shows were always packed. But it was hard to identify his "niche." He was one of the most eclectic artists I'd worked with, and, in terms of publicity and promotion, that was a double-edged sword. His audience was even more eclectic, with funk fans, rock fans, jam-band fans, and a large contingent of neo-Deadheads.
The last time I saw Merl, in the late 90s, he'd just become a bona-fide "senior." He didn't look much like a senior, with his leather hat, tie-dye, and jeans. And he didn't carry himself like a "senior," either--he easily could have passed for 10 to 15 years younger than he was. We met for dinner in Manhattan to discuss press for his forthcoming tour and album. Phish--who were very big at the time--were performing at Madison Square Garden that night, and Merl was supposed to hook up with the band after the show to discuss a project they were going to be working on together. Merl took me to the show and I sat with him in the audience, totally not getting it as I listened to fans screaming and cheering for what sounded to me like an endless excrutiating cacophony. Afterward, we went backstage and Merl introduced me to Trey and the rest of the group. I remember being struck by their respect and admiration for Merl, and Merl's ability to hang and jam seamlessly with these guys, 30 years his junior.
I didn't know Merl very well, but I liked him and I'm sorry he's gone. I wish his family peace and healing.
I don't remember Rick really singing "Times Like These" at shows back then, though I knew it was a song that had "been around." I never asked him if he wrote it; I kind of assumed he did, just by the way he gravitated toward it at soundchecks or backstage when he was warming up. He sang it in different ways at different times, sometimes changing the words, sometimes humming the words, sometimes forgetting the words. It seemed to mean something to him and it became, to me, a comfortable, familiar Rick thing--like his moccasins or his Merits.
At some point, Rick told me that he really wanted to record "Times Like These," and that he would, one day. Then it was pushed to the back burner, as The Band got busy and DFA took shape. I don't think Rick was ever terribly secure about his songwriting, and maybe that's why he never really made that one a priority. But after working with Eric Andersen, working on some stuff in the studio with Jim Tullio, and doing some true collaborative writing and arranging, he became a bit more confident as a writer.
It wasn't until the spring of 2000 that I thought about "Times Like These" again in a conscious way. That was when I had to gear up for the publicity and promotion of the posthumous album of the same title. The record, released in August 2ooo, was a collaborative effort to which Garth, Levon, Terry Danko, Tom Pacheco, and others contributed. Many of the tracks were produced by Aaron Hurwitz. Everyone involved in putting the record together was grieving and did the best they could do considering the surreal circumstances.
I couldn't bear to listen to it. But I had to--if only to write the promotional materials. It was a dreary, heartbreaking experience. But I think everyone involved knew that they had to do it for Rick.
When it was time to start pitching to the media, I did my initial calls very early in the morning--so I wouldn't have to speak to anyone personally, and could instead leave voicemails. I don't know if I was more afraid that people would talk about his death, or that they somehow would not know that he'd died and I'd have to tell them. I dreaded either prospect.
I'd like to say that it got better, but it didn't. The promotion of that record was the most dismal professional experience and one of the saddest personal experiences of my life; talking about Rick when Rick wasn't here was lonely and horrible and haunting.
Is the record worth owning? Of course it is; it's Rick--older, mellow-voiced, pensive, and comfortable in his own skin. There are a few gems on the album, including the title track, "Chain Gang," and "Ripple." There's definitely a melancholy beauty there. Would the production have been the same had it not been a posthumous release? I doubt it. There are things that I'm sure Rick would have done differently. But that's the nature of this kind of release--a lot of people worked hard to make it happen, and I'd rather have it than not.
I'd become very friendly with the organizer of the event, who asked if I had any suggestions for a headliner. I suggested Rick. She said "Are you kidding? I'd love it, but he probably wouldn't do it."
"I'll bet he would," I told her and, of course, he did. I don't know if the organizer was more excited about the event itself, or about the prospect of meeting Rick, but she was really happy. Ticket sales were initially slow, but as the promotion started kicking in and Rick began doing interviews, they picked up and we got a nice buzz for the show. Rick even did a live interview on WCBS News Radio and, as anybody who listens to that station knows, rock-star interviews, even if they are for a good cause, are quite rare on that station. But it was a great cause--and the anchor was a big fan.
Photo (c) Carol Caffin
On the night of the show, it was noisy and chaotic backstage at Irving Plaza, as it usually is before a concert, with stage hands and crew and the organizers scurrying to make sure everything ran smoothly. The main organizer was there with her young daughter--I don't remember her exact age, but I believe she was a tyke, perhaps four or five--who was extremely tired, cranky, and agitated by the loud noise in the cavernous club.
Rick was on his way to a dressing room to tune up, run through a couple of songs, and get himself together for the show when he noticed the crying little girl. "I'll take her with me," he said, holding out his hand to the child who willingly went with him, though she'd never met him before. "She'll be okay. I promise I'll play quietly."
A little while later, the child's mom went up to Rick's dressing room, knocked gently and entered to find Rick strumming his guitar quietly--and her little daughter sound asleep on a sofa next to him. Not your typical rock-star scenario, but very typical of Rick.
It’s the same every day: get up, take my vitamins, make my son breakfast, drive him to school, stop for my coffee, listen to The Band on the way back, start the day. Since I heard of Bryson’s death, I have been listening to other music, music that I’m not so attached to. I don't know if it has anything to do with Bryson; it's just how I've been feeling.
But this morning, I popped in the Brown Album, and had a mini rebirth. I know lots of women get facials and massages for the same effect. I prefer The Band.
I’m not a “Rah! Rah!” kind of person, and The Band needs no cheerleader. But the simple fact is that they kick everyone’s ass—musically, aesthetically, technically, and every other way. What can compare with “Unfaithful Servant” or “Dixie” or “Rockin’ Chair?”
As I was listening, I thought, as if for the first time, about how hip to the core this music and these people are. I mean, I know that on a personal level, and have always known it. Levon Helm exudes hip, without setting foot on a stage or touching a drumstick. It's in his drawl, in his demeanor, in his slow and deliberate body language.
And Rick--I spent enough time with Rick to know that he was the prototype for hip, no matter what he was doing, singing, wearing, or where he was or who he was with. He was not hip in the Beat sense or the Velvet Underground sense—I mean, the man wore Members Only jackets and drugstore glasses. But, when Lou Reed takes off his masks, is he still hip? I don’t know. But I know that Rick Danko couldn’t lose the hipness that oozed out of his soul like lava if he tried—it was innate, part of his DNA.
That kind of hip doesn’t get written about in press releases or talked about by record executives. That kind of hip can't be modeled, mannered, or affected. It just is.
Listening to Rick wailing some kind of other-worldly harmony on “Rockin’ Chair” this morning, I had a series of mental pictures waft through my mind. Rick in his mountain-man bulky sweater and chapeau, with a mustache and soul patch; disheveled, baby-faced rock and roll Rick in beat-up leather and long hair; 50-year-old husky-voiced, sleepy-eyed Rick in a motorcycle jacket and boots telling writer Bill Flanagan he’s “too old to be groomed.”
It brought to mind a book I’d read in the nineties, an interesting tome about a handful of artists and their managers, The Mansion On the Hill by Fred Goodman. It lays bare the music business by dissecting its inner workings and examining the M.O.s of a few moguls, including Albert Grossman. (Incidentally, unlike most books, which have portrayed Grossman merely as a domineering loudmouth who screwed Dylan out of royalties, this one does all that, and more. It does show Grossman as a bit of a megalomaniac, but it also gives some insight into his human side. He did have an affection for some of his artists, and was even parental—or seemed to be--toward a select few. It’s worth a read).
I vaguely remembered that someone in the book talked about The Band’s hipness and its effect on their commercial success. As soon as I got home, I searched for it on my bookshelf, found it, opened it to a random page, and inadvertently cast my eyes on a quote from Jon Taplin describing The Band as “too hip.”
Serendipity? Synchronicity? …Or astral confirmation from Rick?
Sadly, "may be" has now become "may have been." The 16-year-old Windsor, Ontario boy--known on YouTube, where he's posted a number of tributes to Rick and The Band, by the moniker "60s Kid"--died Thursday, apparently by his own hand.
I didn't "know" Bryson, but he contacted me last year via email to ask about Rick and to talk about The Band's music. He told me that he wanted to do a tribute to Rick, that he loved The Band, and that he was in a band himself.
He contacted Elizabeth Danko's niece, Danielle, and helped her with the graphics and uploads for Rick's Myspace Page, and seemed to be thrilled about that, telling me that she was "really cool and really nice." His enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge about the music that he loved was infectious. Unlike so many kids his age, who tend to shy away from "adults," Bryson didn't seem to be put off or hindered by things like age. I got the feeling that he could easily have been friends with anyone.
Bryson really touched my heart when he emailed me with a question: "Can you please tell me a funny story about Rick?" I told him there were many, and emailed him a couple. Later, he emailed me with another totally innocent and very sweet question: "Do you think Rick would think I'm cool?" I told him "Of course he would. Ab-za-lutely!"
I feel an empty ache in my heart for this child, just five years older than my son, still a baby. He had everything to live for, and for some ungodly reason, he is gone. From the little I know about Bryson, he would have wanted everyone to check out his work on Rick's MySpace page, and to watch and maybe comment on the YouTube video tributes he made. He asked if I thought Rick would like them; I told him Rick would love them.
If you wish to offer your condolences to Bryson's family, you may do so here: Bryson McCabe Guestbook.
Not to be melodramatic, but if there is a Heaven, I am sure that Rick is there holding Bryson in his arms right now.
In addition to the many interviews he did over the years, including 1978’s now-dated nationally syndicated Innerview with Jim Ladd--in which Rick alluded that he found his "key to self-awareness" in a Jacuzzi--Rick also did a number of live and recorded in-studio performances, most of which are, in my opinion, priceless. I’m not talking about interviews in which he picked up his guitar and did an impromptu song, though those are wonderful, too. I’m talking about radio performances and shows.
Photo (c) Carol Caffin
Throughout the 90s, I booked Rick on a large number of radio programs, many nationally syndicated, some commercial, some public. Though he didn’t perform on all of them, he did on many, and those performances are true gems.
Radio studio performances were ideal for Rick, because he got the feel of an audience, the excitement of a performance, and the control of a studio (in the case of pre-recorded performances). The result was always something beautiful and, just for the record, even in the case of pre-recorded shows, I don’t remember Rick ever doing more than one take; he performed as if he were performing live.
Rick did countless radio interviews with stations of all kinds, as well as huge syndicates and national programs, like Westwood One. He even did Voice of America, which is broadcast worldwide to more than 130 million people. But some shows involved bona fide performances; in fact, some of the best performances of DFA were on radio.
Photo (c) Carol Caffin
Shows on which he performed through the years, many more than once and in different musical configurations, include eTown, Mountain Stage, Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour (these are all live-performance programs with a full audience), Studio C (an in-studio performance program at KBCO in Boulder, CO), Acoustic Café (produced in Ann Arbor, MI), and World Café.
Rick was one of the first major “commercial” artists to be featured on the PRI syndicated program World Café, just a few months after its 1991 inception. He did, among other songs, a truly beautiful acoustic version of "It Makes No Difference," accompanied by Sredni on harp playing one of his best solos ever. The performance left David Dye momentarily speechless and then he noted Rick’s unique style of acoustic guitar playing, quipping “that was Rick Danko on bass and guitar.”
I remember that day well, because Rick did not have a gig that night and came down to Philly from Woodstock specifically to tape the show. The folks there were excited to have him, and he also did a brief live interview with the show’s host station, WXPN, in which they announced Rick as a surprise guest. A few of us were kind of standing in the hall, Rick with his guitar strapped on, ready to enter the studio and listening for his cue, when the on-air accolades started flying, words to the effect of “a rock and roll legend right here in our studio.” With that, the opening notes of the original Band version of “Stage Fright” began, and Rick had to stand there in the hall with us as he listened to his very young voice and a flurry of compliments, followed by another laudatory intro. He blushed noticeably and kind of shook his head slightly, looking at no one, as if to say, “they’re not talking about me, are they?”
Photo (c) Carol Caffin
It was a match made in Heaven. Rick played in a melodic way, filling up all the holes that needed filling. And, just as he began playing bass out of necessity, so he began playing acousitc guitar. It was primarily to accompany himself as a singer.
The analyses of Rick's acoustic guitar playing sometimes make me laugh. People have commented that he was not a great acoustic player. Well, I'm sure Rick would agree. He wasn't trying to be, either. But he did have a signature sound. He played melodies and bass lines--sometimes a counter melody to make it sound like he had more than one instrument accompanying him. There was nothing fluid, graceful, or delicate about his guitar playing; Rick pounded and slammed the strings in a very stacatto way, shaking every last whiff of vibrato out of the instrument. That poor Takamine; it took a licking and kept on ticking.
Photo (c) Raymond Foye
He was no strummer--he was a banger. And a picker. He could play just about anything after having heard it just once or twice, and he rarely missed a note. His playing, like his approach and his musical philosophy, was pragmatic. If you have the opportunity to hear any of his live solo acoustic shows, you will hear a very Rick-like style--i.e., what sounds like a combination of bass and guitar, or a rhythm and lead guitar, on songs like "Mystery Train," "The Weight," "Endless Highway," and "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today," just to name a few.
These are two pictures from that day:
Photo (c) Carol Caffin
Photo (c) Dana Scheer
So I’ll keep this short and sweet. I realize there are many fans out there who never got to meet Rick, or who did and would like to have something of his as a collector’s item. There is nothing wrong with that. An autographed record, photo, ticket, or guitar pick can be a treasure.
I can’t tell anyone what to do but, whether you’re buying or selling “memorabilia,” please use discretion and don’t exploit Rick or denigrate his memory. Please don’t dehumanize him. He was a private person and would be embarrassed by some of the things out there right now.
Please don’t send me emails telling me about your latest purchase of Rick’s private things, or asking my advice on their value; it is creepy and voyeuristic. As I’ve said, an autograph is one thing, and there are plenty of resources where you can authenticate autographs.
If you care about Rick, please treat him—and his memory—with dignity and respect. What’s been happening lately is really heartbreaking.