Perfect Sound Forever

Nature's Way:
Rick Danko's Later Years

Photo courtesy of Woodstock Records

by Marianna Fikes (August 2003)

"God don't like complaints."
--R.D., as quoted by Elliott Landy, Rolling Stone, 1-20-00

We know what happened to Rick Danko to a certain extent, but we're not supposed to talk about that stuff. Neither 'tactful' nor 'classy' ever having been part of my repertoire, I would like to discuss it at some length.

As bystanders, we could only go by his looks--ample outward evidence of what went on emotionally, then biologically. Like the song by Spirit, y'know, "it's nature's way of telling you... something's wrong..."

I've always wanted to believe in the pseudo-science of physiognomy--that physical features, at least over time, come to betray the personality and life that moves them, that people's faces and bodies could or should be (in novelist Milan Kundera's phrase) "posters for their souls." Of course, faces are a stock-in-trade of entertainers--though not musicians' so much as actors'.

In an old article I have, the caption on a photo of Rick reads, "The Band's secret ladykiller" (never alluded to in the text of course) but I don't know how secret it was. His good looks and spirit are the main reasons Ronnie Hawkins always gives for having selected him, back in the day, over musicians who played better. When he was a teenager, he was a cute boy not unlike other cute boys, although perhaps more expressive than most; his features were thick, unetched, and malleable to passing stimuli--like all kids'.

Up until 1976, the only bad things he'd had to endure that I know of were being raised poor, a sickly asthmatic child, in the nowheresville tobacco-farmland of Simcoe, Ontario--the song "New Mexicoe" (it only took me fifteen years to figure out what that extra 'e' was about) from his solo album gives an idea of how un-nostalgic he was for the place--and then that nasty car accident in 1969. About the latter, Danko is quoted by Rob Bowman in the liner notes of The Band CD reissue as laughing that he was "a little too drunk, a little too high"- may I remind you that he broke his stupid neck, damaged his back, and got at least one nifty facial scar.

But by the time of The Last Waltz, Danko had been a working, touring musician for half his life, a father, husband, and addict, and in his mid-thirties he was old enough and young enough for his face to betray all of it. All those wild years seemed to have brought him to his physical essence, but he was only beginning to show their ill effects--such as being far skinnier than his build meant him to be.

Onstage he appears happy, healthy, and youthful, very present, sharp and watchful; offstage he looks gaunt, weary, and jaded, his eyes preternaturally glassy with occasional humorous sparks. His speaking voice is hoarse and sloppy but his singing voice is, as ever, bell-toned and careful. The lifelong smiler here has his natural teeth, overbit and spaced a little, and with his unstudied enthusiasm and impish humor he is the film's warmest, liveliest character--at least when he's let alone and not forced into respectful submission by the filmmakers.

When The Band quit--or Robbie Robertson quit anyway--I surmise that he was unable to stay busy, certainly unable to stay productive; there must have been a lot of music-less space to fill over those twenty-three years from their goodbye concert until his death, especially yawning after the all-too-brief heyday the group had. Since he made just one solo album, and was forever hooking up with other musicians, we know he did not like playing alone.

I only got to see The Band perform as a group during their 'reunion' years--in a suburban park (with Levon and Garth and Richard and Rick!) in the summer of 1984, in a small club (with Garth and Richard and Rick!) in early-Winter 1985, and at a state-fair grandstand (with Levon and Garth and Rick!--see if you can tell who's who with these binoculars!) in the summer of 1986, and all these times Rick looked just fine, a little older, a little thicker, but playing with his lifelong cohorts and having a good time. After Richard Manuel's suicide--I remind you that Rick and Levon were the ones who had to get him down from the motel-bathroom shower-curtain rod, too late (for its emotional effects on them I refer you to pp.9-10 of Helm's book This Wheel's on Fire)--and before The Band regrouped yet again, I saw Rick's upstate New York solo shows about every other time he came. He performed with backing musicians (I don't remember who or even how many) at a community college in Auburn in December 1989, as part of Danko Fjeld and Anderson in a Syracuse club named Copperfield's in June 1991, and by himself again (I think with only Aaron Hurwitz this time) at the Hotel Syracuse in September 1997.

At the college show his opening act was a Syracuse singer-songwriter, an emotive young folkie who--while quite talented--had to my mind always gotten way too much positive regard from the locals. During his set he told us, "I just met Rick, and he said [throwing torso back and arms wide] 'How ya doin!' So...he's a pretty laid back guy." To my distress Rick later invited him onstage to participate in his encore number "C.C. Rider." Syracuse's main alternative-newspaper reported that after the show the two of them went to a local tavern and led a singalong of "The Weight"--in our concert the song had likewise been introduced by Rick, "And now I'd like to feature--you!"--and that later still Rick had willingly contributed bass to a 'bonus track' on this guy's latest CD.

The erstwhile perfectionist was letting a lot of technical things slide these days in favor of promoting a good time. As his showmanship picked up the slack from his musicianship, Rick made plenty of telling comments to the audience. After a cover of "Keep on the Sunny Side" he said, "What else we gonna do? Burn up the candle, y'know?" and "I always have fun. And when I don't, I act like I do" (there's a motto for you). He told us he had just spent three weeks in Japan--as part of the first Ringo Starr 'All-Starr' Band tour--and had gotten back a week and a half ago. When an audience member asked how Ringo was he answered, "The only difference between you and him is... he doesn't drink."

Rick: So what do you all wanna be when you grow up?
Audience: A musician!
Rick: Could be worse.
Audience: Beats working!
Since the last time I'd seen him perform, his eighteen-year-old son had died--mere months before this occasion--of unnatural causes (away at college, drunk enough to choke on his own vomit). With my outsider's collapsed sense of time, it was just too soon to be resuming the party. While I watched his dad and everyone else carry on, I kept getting the impulse to say something about Eli, to console but also to bring them back to brutal reality, to a horrible loss whose associations made me sadder, even a little angry.

The more I read about Rick, the more interviews I plumbed, the more evident it became that in order to maintain his optimistic outlook, he was forever moving on. While I don't advocate dwelling on bad things, an optimist who stays that way only by swallowing them as quickly as possible like huge bitter pills is really just a liar and a fool--because if they didn't get you from without, they're sure as hell gonna get you from within. In the long term, I wonder if he would've stayed healthier--or just stayed--if he'd stopped to deal with the nasty shit a bit longer, to feel (appropriately) bad more often. But, financially and psychically, he probably couldn't afford to.

Before the opening act while I was outside the building smoking a cigarette, Rick arrived, wearing a big black flat-brimmed hat and a parka, flanked by four or five anonymous guys. He looked a lot bulkier than he had three years before, and more serious. As the little entourage passed through the glass-walled, glass-doored lobby beside me I waited until his eyes fell on me standing there then mouthed "Hello, baby" to him, and then carefully turned my back on him [as perfect a distillation of my interpersonal perversity as you can get]. I doubt very much that he made out the words. So I redirected my 'must make personal connection' energies to trying to pry a 'Rick Danko Security' button loose from the power-drunk college staff, and failed even at that.

When requests were bidden during the concert, I purposefully called out "Sip the Wine," the closest to a hit solo song he'd ever had. As it was probably not even heard among all the shouts for old Band standards, it wasn't played. I would've rather seen a whole concert of covers than hear those songs get beat so ignobly into the ground one more time, but was as usual in a minority of one.

I didn't take notes at the Danko Fjeld and Anderson gig, partly because I had gotten my friend Patrick to come with me and thus had no need for distractions from my freakish aloneness. We recognized D.A. Pennebaker filming the concert, so we went over to engage him in conversation. (He was quite aloof, even wary, but I did manage to put in my two cents about "Will we ever get to see 'Eat the Document?" He said it was entirely up to Dylan). And that's all I really remember from it. I never warmed up to D F & A even on album; they were too earnest, too romantic-folkie, and that particular combination of people never stopped seeming bizarre to me.

The Hotel Syracuse show was the last time I saw him, and I'm not sure I could've stood seeing him again even if given the opportunity; I had about hit my limit of witnessing what was lost. The small crowd seemed full of aging hippies and oversexed trashy harridans--seriously, even as he was the 'ladies' propositioned him--and the shit was really hitting the fan. Rick had become a veritable stand-up comedian, his between-song patter now getting equal time with the music, but the humor's implicit jadedness was overwhelming and inescapable. When the line "I just spent sixty days in the jailhouse" from "The Shape I'm In" met with an eruption of screams and whoops from the audience--making plain their smirking knowledge of Rick's recent bust in Japan for heroin possession via his wife (in mundane reality, he spent six weeks)--I wished only for a gun.

"You know that I'll stay high / Drinkin' coffee 'til I die"--"Java Blues", indeed: I think he omitted the lines about Bolivia and cocaine from this song, but as they are crossed out in my notes (Patrick would not again be coerced into coming along), I can't be sure.

Rick's face and body were by now subsumed in bloated fat. He started the show wearing a navy-blue polyester sport-jacket, but excessive sweating soon got rid of that; he continued in a long-sleeved print shirt over a dark-blue tee, loose gray slacks, and scoop-toed black cowboy boots. That he was prone to making formerly self-contained songs into extended jams or singalongs only contributed to the effect of his channeling Jerry Garcia.

He commented that it was "a very nice room, like Aaron's living room," told us "Levon sends his disregards," said something about "Canadian riffraff" (all right, those words by themselves are pretty funny). Attending to business, he mentioned he was pretty sure that the latest DF&A CD was now available in this country, that CD's and t-shirts were for sale in the lobby, and that after the show he'd be out there to sign autographs, "greet" (his word) and shake hands, "...maybe become a politician!" During the concert, he handed out used and unused guitar picks with abandon.

My favorite line of the evening was when he called the cover song "Four Walls to Hold Me," "a George Jones song, written by...James Taylor!" and the worst was when he altered one from "Blue-Tail Fly" (that kids' song, immortalized by Burl Ives) to "Jimmy smoke crack and he'll die!" (I didn't invent this--I wrote it down!). Jeezus, you want nasty...

Also in my notes, however, were allusions to good music: "Stage Fright"'s "amped acoustic fills on guitar, not piano...interplay real nice," Hurwitz' pretty accordion on "The Long Black Veil" (and "Mystery Train"?!), the "very elegant piano... really nice music" on "It Makes No Difference," and that "This Wheel's on Fire" "gets a little baroque" (what on earth did I mean?)--what Rick called "a little rough".

During a set break, while I sat in a chair along the side wall scribbling in my note pad, with most of the audience seated at tables in front of the stage and thereby distant and profiled to me--the better to pass judgment upon--one of a nearby trio of young guys (grad students from Cornell University) turned to me and asked, "Are you taking notes for a paper?"

"Not yet," I said, and they laughed.

"So," he continued, "if there's one sentence from what you've written that could describe the evening, what would it be?"

I gave him the first one my eyes fell on: "'Very typical bullshit'."

No response--smiles no doubt faded.

"Just kidding," I said quickly. "There isn't one."

End of conversation. The line had referred only to Rick's merchandising efforts, but it could have summed up the whole evening.

Before the show began (no opener--why bother) I was sitting in an upholstered chair in the lobby dirtying one of the hotel's nice glass ashtrays when Rick came out, wearing that big black hat, to sit on a sofa nearby and hang with the folks a spell, as he was wont to do. As I recall, a few youngish, scrawny, long-haired-&-bearded dudes latched onto him. Sitting there talking to them in a hoarse, quiet voice, he looked heavy--not just in weight but in mien--and old and tired, a closed book. As I walked by to go wait in the less stressful surroundings of the concert room, I caught one flash of his eyes (I hoped to be becoming a little Central-New-York familiar to him); he did not look interested or even friendly, but I was more than willing to blame that on my own increasing lack of beauty.

Rick's encore that night was "I Shall Be Released." I wrote "Egads!" either before or after a die-hard party gal at one of the tables went "Wooooo!" (Prison! Suicide! Wooooo!!). And did Rick actually say this (no quotation marks in the notes)?: "The ultimate release is, of course..." It sounds more like me.

"God I hate singalongs," I wrote. "God I hate crowds."

What happened to Rick Danko wasn't an isolated accident of cruel fate, wasn't the outcome of deep depression and self-hatred; not to over-simplify (and, god knows, not to disrespect), but apparently the 'good' times killed him--that and, according to Helm, all the people with their hands in his pockets that made him work himself to death (nice denial, Levon). That his personality, his spirit seemed to have stayed largely intact all those years, with everyone always calling him one of the nicest guys, is perhaps inspirational--even if it took a whole lot of substances to achieve. If it had been anyone outside The Band who had died at age 56 (the entertainment field is of course rife with death-in-life characters, and they do tend to leave us early), I would've taken it more in stride. But they'd already lost one irreplaceable member, and Rick was the kind of guy who should have been able to make music as he had since early childhood, to be on the stage he would "be lost without," well into his 80's and beyond, like some of those very-hard-living blues players who seem to run on their music alone. That this unusually talented and unusually decent, in many ways beautiful person knew exactly where this road would lead and fucking took it anyway, taking his soul, its physical representation, and all semblance of a party with it, is a hard, hard pill to swallow.

Addendum After Seeing Rhino's Classic Albums: The Band DVD For the First Time

Made in 1997, this exploration/dissection was an eye-opener in many ways, but the most upsetting stuff comes not (as I expected) from Robbie Robertson, but from Rick.

How do I put it? Rick is scary in this thing. That he is interviewed less than Robbie and Levon--Garth is only shown playing keyboards and saying odd, unintelligible stuff while doing so--makes me, for once, extremely grateful. When he is filmed with sunglasses on (in a country-house backyard on a sunny day), you can manage to believe he's really OK; when he's shown playing a song by himself in the black space of a studio, in truly alarming close-up, you realize he's sick. Really, really unhealthy. Like, get thee to detox at least ten years ago. I know who he reminds me of--Elvis Presley, right before he died. I'm not exaggerating. Assuming that he was surrounded by fewer ass-kissers than The King, didn't anyone try to intervene? I thought even the cameraman would be concerned.

Shown singing part of "The Unfaithful Servant" and an abbreviated "When You Awake," he remembers the words and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar nicely, so the most jarring thing is seeing this incredibly, unrecognizably bloated and lumpy face, pale and sweating as it emits... that same old sweet, crying sound, only slightly aged and strained; you have to wonder what more it would have taken to destroy the voice (his phrasing is weird, but that could be attributed to trying to get a new spin on old songs he's sung several hundred times). His eyes are nearly hidden in swollen eyelids, glimpses of feverish beady black, and his 'oops' expression when he muffs the latter song's final chord is... disturbing.

Then you see him settin' in front of that house again, Mr. Smiley Do-I-Have-to-Answer-This?, and you notice that he just cannot sit still. Hands juggle air, knees pump up and down or fly to the sides (exposing that big solid gut, with pants legs strained). Nerves? Or is it that other thing-that-dare-not-speak-its-name?

Rick dared not speak anything's name, but I wouldn't have minded so much if he hadn't extended it to discussing Richard Manuel. He had so little to say about him, and what he did manage sounded superficial, even dismissive. While Levon--admittedly a very eloquent man--stuck to his own policy (and a fine one too) of not hypothesizing on reasons, on what was in somebody else's head, he was still able show natural feeling, giving his throat a good clear as he tried to sum Richard up for us and pay tribute to someone he'd known and cared about. Although Rick tells us he'd known Richard longer than anyone, had first met him in 1959 before they even played in The Hawks together, the most he can say is (I'm still wincing), "Yeah, he was a party kinda guy," at least looking down when he says it, then back up to add, "and he sure was one of my favorite singers."

I don't know the reason--it might be his innate reserve, or maybe his emotional fuses were truly blown by then along with a lot else--but I suspect it's just more of that goddamned conspiracy by all of humanity save me to not talk about the heart of anything especially if it's dark, to pretend that there's more sun than clouds in this place--something I have a hard time abiding from anyone, much less from someone who had seen enough to dispense with such charades years ago.

In total, Rick's segments here made me feel the same way I had at the Hotel Syracuse show: that the world of grownups living real lives is hard and scary and ugly and full of self-delusion, and that I'll forever be an alien in it--nothing like what he intended anyone to feel I'm sure.

He does eventually spill a few beans: "It's just a... I'm sure it was a big accident or a big mistake--in my head that's what it was at least," he says about Richard's suicide. "I can't believe that, uh-- Although I can't believe that anyone feels that way, y'know?"

Welcome to the world of depression, Mr. Danko--welcome to where people are unable to run away from what troubles them. But I don't suppose you had any kind of death-wish yourself, did you? That you chose a slower, more socially acceptable, and less honest way than Richard to do the deed yourself is not something I'm going to overlook.


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