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.
Rick was loved by many. And many of the readers of this site knew Rick; some were friends, some even family. Many more got the opportunity to meet him once or twice, or at least to see him perform. But 10 years have passed since his death, so, sadly, many more never got to see him and want to know, "What was he like?" Of course, it is impossible for anybody to sum up the character of another person, particularly one as complex as Rick Danko. And, of course, every person sees or knows another person in his or her own way. So, aside from sharing facts, photos, interviews, artifacts, and anecdotes with you, the best I can do is try to relay different facets of him--those that really resonate with me.
Today I received an email from a fan of Rick's who wrote that he'd been wanting to contact me for some time, but the catalyst for him reaching out to me today was that he'd just seen the much buzzed-about movie Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges. "If you haven't already," he wrote, "go see it."
The gentleman went on to say that he'd wager that, based on my work with Rick and on the experiences he'd had meeting and interacting with Rick, I'd "be able to appreciate the story more than most."
Aside from the fact that this man's email was lovely and heartfelt, I couldn't help but smile at the timing.
I don't know anything about the movie, not even the basic storyline (though I'm sure we can all surmise), except what I saw of it--just in the past couple of days. And that was the movie trailer. Within the first few seconds, my heart was pounding, and I felt a vague, but powerful, sense of familiarity--and sadness. The character on the screen struck a chord and I was right there. And when the commercial ended, I tried to forget about it--but I couldn't. I can see why Crazy Heart is already generating Oscar buzz and Jeff Bridges is being lauded for his performance.
"Just one question: Is it gonna make me cry?" I wrote back to my new friend. Yes, he told me--but some tears will be tears of joy.
The film may end up being nothing like the trailer--we'll see. I promised to write back to my email pal with my thoughts on it.
Take a look at this clip. Some of you, particularly those of you who just looked at Watt Casey's 1976 photos of an almost adolescent-looking Rick Danko, may be saying, "What?" (I mean, the character is (or looks to be), admittedly, more of a Hank Williams/Kris Kristofferson/down-on-his-luck fading country star hybrid type.)
But those of you who knew Rick, may see something familiar...
These photos were taken outside Austin at Sunday Break II on September 5, 1976--just two-and-a-half months before The Last Waltz. It was a very hot day and, if you look closely, you can see that Rick is wearing a bandana.
Also on the bill were Fleetwood Mac, the Steve Miller Band, and Firefall. "These have some dust spots but folks may enjoy them," says a very humble Mr. Casey.
Thanks so much to Watt for graciously providing these photos. If you'd like to see more of Watt Casey, Jr.'s work, visit wattcaseyphotography.com.
Having been predeceased by his mother, Leola and his father, Maurice, Sr. (“Tom”), Junior had been the patriarch of the Danko family for many years. Though Junior, born in 1940, was less than four years older than Rick, he had an almost parental role in Rick’s life in many ways.
Rick adored his brother and, in fact, less than two weeks before he died, Rick asked me to send Junior The Band CD, Jubilation, and his own CD, Live On Breeze Hill. He was eager to hear Junior’s opinion of both but, sadly, never got to do so.
Junior was a pragmatic, kind, straightforward, wise man who loved his family more than anything. A talented musician himself, Junior had spent his life, together with his beloved wife of nearly 50 years, Joyce, and raised his family on the Simcoe farm that housed what Band fans know as the “backdrop” to the “Next of Kin” photo on Music From Big Pink.
Over the years, I’d developed a deep affection and respect for Junior. During the course of my research for the biography of Rick I am working on, Junior has helped me immensely, and I’ve always known that, whenever I was in doubt about a fact or a story, I could call Junior—who, I felt, loved Rick in almost the way a father loves a son—for the true story.
Junior was down-to-earth, very likeable, and funny—he had a great sense of humor—and had a very rural, salt-of-the-earth mentality. He talked a lot about his parents with great affection, referring to his mother as “Mom” and to his father as “the old man.” Something about his hearty laugh, and a few of his inflections, reminded me a bit of Rick, but he spoke in a quicker cadence, his words peppered with country phrases like “as the crow flies” and “the last horse at the trough.”
I last spoke to Junior shortly before the holidays, when we talked for a couple of hours, and was hoping to talk to him again soon. I’m so sad that I won’t get that opportunity. But at a more appropriate time, I will feature here some snippets from one of my interviews with Junior.
Junior Danko is survived by his wife, Joyce and their three grown children Lori, Maurie, and Sue; his grandchildren Kate, Jackson, and Jonas; and his younger brothers, Dennis and Terry.
God bless you, Junior. I will miss you. I wish peace, love, and healing to your family. XOXO
I'd written a couple of short pieces on The Band for local (Philadelphia) newspapers and music rags but, again, I had very little in the way of source material from which to cull even basic facts. There was no Internet; I decided to try library research, with microfiche being pretty much state of the art. While other pilgrims to Woodstock were checking out Big Pink and visiting the shops on Tinker Street, I was checking out the archives at the Woodstock Library. And that's how I found Ruth Albert Spencer's 1985 Woodstock Times interviews with The Band entitled "Conversations With The Band." I felt as if I'd struck gold.
And then I got to Rick's interview. Something just didn't ring true. ("The Ring of Truth" will be the topic of an upcoming piece on this site.) It wasn't that I didn't find the writer credible; it was just that there was no information in the piece and Rick Danko didn't "sound" anything like what I pictured Rick Danko to be like. Wow, I thought, this journalist has a captive audience--each of the five Band members--and she's asking general, open-ended, sometimes ludicrous questions like...
"What do you think made the Band so unique?" to which Rick replied "Five heads are stronger than one, just like five hearts are stronger than one. I love each and every one of them..." or my personal favorite, "How do you think that the Band might have been different if four of you had not been Canadian?" to which Rick--I'm sure by now scratching his head and knocking his knees together--candidly responded "I can't answer that question. I can't even speculate."
I decided that the only way to get the answers to the questions I had was to ask them myself. A good place to start, I thought, was with Ronnie Hawkins. I took the path of least resistance and pitched the interview to the record collector's magazine, DISCoveries, which gave me the green light.
There've been a couple of futile--and disingenuous, in my opinion--attempts at "tribute songs" for Rick. Steve Forbert's "Wild As the Wind" comes to mind, as does Luke Doucet's "The Day Rick Danko Died," which was, frankly, less of a tribute and more of an exploitation. There also have been some lovely songs, which I've written about on this site.
But of all the tributes to Rick, one of the most--if not the most--beautiful, heartfelt, poignant, and personal comes from Rick's longtime friend, collaborator, and fellow Woodstock resident, singer/songwriter Tom Pacheco.
As many people know, Rick kept musicians' hours and was a night owl to say the least, often starting his day in the mid to late afternoon. Many of Rick's friends, including Tom, had the pleasure of being on the recieving end of a 3 am phone call or visit, and Tom's way of letting Rick know that he was awake was to leave a light on outside of his house.
"We would sit and talk, play music, have a beer or coffee with a shot of whiskey in it," writes Tom in the notes of his new CD. "I always kept the outside light on for him."
"I'll Leave A Light On For You," the aptly named title track from the CD, is raw and passionate, melancholy without being maudlin, wistful without being saccharine, as Tom imagines Rick's passage from this world to the next:
"They told me that you left us early in the morning
The sky was black with rain and the sun refused to shine
You slipped into a dream and just kept right on dreaming
Beyond the speed of light, beyond the touch of time"
Tom's rough-hewn vocal and naked guitar--and the haunting harmony, subtle in its resemblance to Rick's mournful wail--are all that are needed to accompany the lyric and bring the listener to tears, particularly on the chorus:
"And I'm never gonna see your face outside my window
Silhouetted by the silver moon
But every now and then when I hear the midnight winds blow
I'll imagine that you're standing there like you used to do
So I'll leave a light on for you
I'll leave a light on for you"
Though the CD is not yet available in the States, it can be purchased online and is already getting airplay on some East Coast stations, including the very Danko-friendly WKZE FM in Connecticut.
I will be writing more about Tom Pacheco and his relationship with The Band and Rick, so check back at this site for an interview in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, for more information on Tom, his new CD, or his many other wonderful CDs, please visit tompacheco.com.
(Photo of Rick and Tom Pacheco courtesy of Fred Kurland)
These photos of Rick were taken by photographer Watt Casey, Jr., in July, 1974 at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, when The Band opened for Eric Clapton on the East Coast leg of his summer tour. The cast on his arm didn't seem to bother Rick a bit.
The photos are some of the best stage shots, specifically of Rick, that I've seen, and the candids--of him walking with Eric Clapton and laughing (what else?)--are just fun. "I was a UT Austin college journalism student on a summer dream job for me since I sure liked The Band and was working on Eric's tour," remembers Casey. "I had a good position standing on stage and could walk around since I was on the sound crew."
If you like these pics, please be sure to check in again at this site, as Watt has promised more Band and Rick photos--from 1976--very soon!
In the meantime, to see more of Watt's work, visit wattcaseyphotography.com. For more of Watt's pics of other Band members, please check Jan Hoiberg's wonderful Band site, TheBand.
Is it a simply a heartrending coincidence or sad synchronicity that today, January 14, is a day of significance for two fine New Orleans-based musicians, both of whom were associated with The Band?
The great Bobby Charles, who would have been 72 next month, died today in Abbeville, near New Orleans, where he was also born. Though Mr. Charles was popularly known for penning “See You Later Alligator,” which became an iconic and very mainstream rock & roll hit for Bill Haley & the Comets in 1956, and “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” which became a hit for Fats Domino in 1960, he is known by Band fans for his part in the soulful, swampy performance of “Down South in New Orleans,” which, though it doesn’t appear in the official film release of The Last Waltz, does appear on the album.
Mr. Charles, who once lived in Woodstock, is also known for his earlier work with members of The Band, particularly Rick, who co-produced his 1972 album, Bobby Charles, which contained the Danko/Charles-penned song, “Small Town Talk,” which Rick would later record on his eponymous first solo album in 1977.
Today also marks the birthday 72nd birthday of the legendary musician, songwriter, producer, and arranger Allen Toussaint, born a month before Bobby Charles in the same year, whose relationship with The Band goes back to 1971, when he contributed horn arrangements for both Cahoots and the New Year’s Eve concert that would become Rock of Ages.
In the interest of avoiding mushiness, I'll refrain from making the references to great concerts in Heaven that are just begging to be made. But I can’t help thinking that, as we say goodbye to one irreplaceable legend and celebrate another, there’s more at work than just happenstance.
I've always found it interesting that The Band was--and is--referred to as a "rock group." Actually, I haven't always found it interesting--I sometimes catch myself referring to them that way, even now. Old habits die hard, but the truth is, The Band was not a rock group. And Rick Danko was not a rock artist.
The Band was much more complex, subtle--and pure--than rock and roll. And though, when I was younger, long before I ever knew him, I had thought of Rick as a "rock star," I realized quickly after I met him just how ill-fitting that moniker was.
First of all, Rick was a country boy--born and raised in the country, and with a country mentality and a country sensibility. Second, the music he grew up loving--really loving--was country music. Later, Rick developed a love for the blues and, still later, R&B, but, by the time rock and roll was considered a genre, Rick was a teenager. His formative years were spent listening to country radio stations and daydreaming about the Grand Ol Opry. And his first instrument was not a guitar, but a four-string tenor banjo; not your typical rock-star axe.
So, while early rock and roll did affect him and influence him to an extent, it was by no means his driving musical force. And, like many other elements of his life and his career, his musical persona was rife with contradiction, a study in contrast. On the one hand, there was this backwoods bumpkin singing Burl Ives campfire singalongs on a tiny lonesome stage, and on the other, there was this ultra-cool longhaired rebel with sunglasses and a cigarette and black leather boots helping Dylan set the music world on fire by going electric.
The dichotomy helped define Rick and his music over the years, yet, at the same time, kept him from being pigeonholed. It also kept him from becoming a "household name"--but it's just as well. That's the way God, or fate, or the cards, or the universe intended it.
It's why The Band was a nightmare from a promotional and marketing perspective, and why they endure and mystify decades after so many of their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. It's why "Somebody to Love" sounds dated and "Long Black Veil" seems timeless, why a great song like "A Whiter Shade of Pale" sounds like a 60s song, while a great song of the same era, "The Weight," sounds at once brand-new and eternal. It's why Rick could yodel while wearing a pink shirt and a gambler's hat on The Ed Sullivan Show while his cohorts were blowing out amps and wearing Nehru jackets and love beads. It's why he could sing "Lucky Old Sun" to a beer-drinking crowd and nobody laughed, and why he could sing "It Makes No Difference" to the same crowd and everybody cried.