Band of Brothers: Levon Helm and Rick Danko, together again

Friday, April 27th, 2012 · 16 Comments »

The Band in 1968. From left to right, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson.

This is so poignant: Levon Helm to be buried next to Rick Danko.

After a private funeral, Levon Helm will be buried Friday in Woodstock Cemetery next to Rick Danko, The Band’s singer and bassist, who died in 1999.

Whippersnappers may be a tad confused as to why these guys were so important, and why the world seems to be turning out in force to mark Levon’s passing. It’s not because of Levon’s second-wind movie career, though that is why he’s more of a household name than the other members of The Band. Simply put, The Band was one of the most influential musical groups of the 20th century. They weren’t chart-toppers, and they weren’t the kind of group that went on American Bandstand and had Number One singles. They were more like Jimi Hendrix: virtuosos, innovators, the kind of musicians whom other musicians copied and revered.

It is probably impossible to overstate the impact of The Band’s first two albums (Music From Big Pink in 1968 and The Band in 1969) on their musical peers. After hearing Music From Big Pink, Eric Clapton quit Cream and asked if he could join The Band. (They turned him down.) The Beatles were similarly bowled over; the Get Back/Let It Be sessions represented the guys from Liverpool trying to sound like the guys in Woodstock. Almost single-handedly, The Band wrenched popular music away from psychedelia and into a rootsy, backwoods, bluesy-country American groove—where it stayed until punk and New Wave took over in the late 70s.

Rick Danko and Bob Dylan onstage, 1966

And that’s just one part of The Band’s legacy. Even before they started recording albums, the group (then still called the Hawks) had made history as the kickass live band that helped Dylan go electric, accompanying him on the infamous 1965-1966 world tour. Then Dylan had his motorcycle accident, and he and the guys all settled down in Woodstock to make music in private. (That’s why, by the way, Woodstock was in Woodstock; the promoters were hoping to get Dylan to play the concert. He didn’t, but The Band did.) The basement of Rick Danko’s rented pink house (“Big Pink”) became a musical clubhouse, a secret fort for the guys to play in. The legendary Basement Tapes came out of those sessions, as did The Band’s own first two albums.

The Band in the basement of Big Pink, 1969. From left to right, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko.

But back to Levon and Rick, the lifelong musical brothers who will now rest side by side in Woodstock Cemetery. Both were country boys: Levon the son of cotton farmers in Arkansas, Rick the son of tobacco farmers in Ontario. Both grew up glued to the radio, both started playing music as children, both decided to become professional musicians at the ripe old age of approximately six. The other day I posted some clips from The Last Waltz that featured Levon; today I’ll do the same for Rick. Rick died too soon to enjoy the elder statesman status that accrued to Levon in recent years, but he was every bit as important to The Band. So while other folks are doing Levon obituaries, I’m going to take this opportunity to offer a little shout-out for the late, great Rick Danko.

Despite certain problems with the film’s focus (which I’ll get to in a minute), The Last Waltz serves as a glorious memorial to The Band, capturing the guys in their still-youthful thirties. Rick is the first member of the group you see in the film; he’s the one shooting pool in the opening sequence.

Martin Scorsese: Okay, Rick, what’s the game?
Rick Danko: Cutthroat.
Martin Scorsese: And what’s the object of it?
Rick Danko: The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off.

Then we cut to the band coming back out on stage for their encore. The guys plug in, the drums kick in, Rick thumps the bass line, and they launch into “Don’t Do It.” It’s a fricking brilliant way to start a movie.

There’s a quote somewhere that Scorsese ignored the audience in The Last Waltz because he didn’t want it to be like a typical concert film, with shots of girls in the audience giggling and cutaways to “Rick Danko up there looking handsome.” I’m not sure if Scorsese himself said that or if Robbie Robertson did—the two men were sharing a brain at the time—but nevertheless, the director knew the power of a handsome face. I’m convinced that’s why he opened the film with Rick, even though the rest of the movie is heavily weighted towards Robbie Robertson. Rick Danko, still in his prime, still one of the best-looking men in rock, was just too beautiful not to use. (I can imagine Marty and Robbie in their blacked-out coke room in Malibu, editing the film, and Marty saying to Robbie, “Look, the whole movie is going to feature you and make you the star, I promise, but we gotta open with Rick. We just gotta.”)

Like the other members of The Band, Rick Danko was a virtuoso musician. Bass was his main gig with the group, but he could also switch off and play guitar, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, piano, and banjo. He wasn’t a terribly prolific songwriter, but the songs he did write were excellent (e.g., “This Wheel’s On Fire,” which he co-wrote with Dylan). And he was one of The Band’s three lead vocalists, with a unique plaintive tenor that could break your heart. His rendition of “It Makes No Difference” in The Last Waltz was perfect:

(By the way, although Robbie Robertson appears to be singing harmony in that clip, actually his microphone was turned off. He had a bad voice—he still has a bad voice—and the sound guys would cut his mike during the music so his off-key warbling wouldn’t ruin the song. The Band’s vocalists were Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel.)

Eric Clapton said that he was hugely influenced by Rick Danko’s singing, which he thought reflected a profound musicality. I wonder if listening to Rick was what encouraged Clapton to become more emotional with his own voice, or just more confident. I do know that, for better or worse, 70s AOR was full of singers trying to sound like Rick Danko (see Eagles, The, entire output of). As for Clapton, he and Rick co-wrote at least one song and remained friends and occasional collaborators for the rest of Rick’s life.

Rick was friends with everybody, really; people loved to work with him and hang out with him. He was a fantastic musician, of course, and well known as the life of the party. (If you haven’t seen it, check out the hilarious scene in Festival Express of a thoroughly plastered singalong involving Rick Danko, Janis Joplin, and Jerry Garcia.) But Rick was also, by all accounts, an amazingly sweet person. A big-hearted puppy dog of a man, the kind of guy who would help anybody in need. When you hear stories about Rick Danko, it’s never about him being an asshole or a rock star prick or anything like that; it’s always about him being humble and unpretentious, sticking up for friends or befriending strangers, giving somebody the shirt off his back (literally), realizing that a fan is a battered woman and helping her escape from her creep boyfriend—that sort of thing. A good guy.

One of the most famous scenes in The Last Waltz—really the emotional sucker punch of the film—is the bit where Scorsese asks Rick what he’s going to do now. You get the whole Danko effect: the sweet-natured bashfulness, an undercurrent of sadness, a touch of debauchery (he seems a bit high), and the brilliant musicianship at the center of his life (the track he cues up is himself singing the haunting “Sip the Wine,” from the solo album he was getting ready to release).

Rick’s first solo album was a lovely piece of work, but the times were a-changing. It was the disco era, and guys like Rick Danko and Levon Helm were out of fashion. Rick spent the 80s and 90s touring, playing live shows with his Band brothers and other musical buddies, collaborating with kindred spirits like Paul Butterfield, guesting on other people’s albums, recording again with Levon and Garth, and even winning the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy for the superb folk trio he put together with Jonas Fjeld and Eric Andersen. But ill health caught up with him, and in 1999 he died in his sleep. He was only 56 years old.

And now, with the passing of Levon, all three of The Band’s singers are gone. (Richard Manuel tragically committed suicide in 1986 while on a Band reunion tour. He hung himself from the shower curtain rod in his motel bathroom; it was Levon and Rick who had to get the body down.) Garth Hudson is still alive and well in Woodstock, doing Garth things. Robbie Robertson is still alive and well in L.A., doing Robbie things. But The Band is gone.

I said that there was a problem with The Last Waltz. It’s a gorgeous film and I’m glad it exists; as a teenager I was thrilled out of my mind to finally see this near-mythical group whose music I’d been aware of for most of my life. But the problem is that it’s lopsided. For whatever reasons—friendship, money, egos, substance abuse, show business bullshit, the fact that only Robbie wanted to quit and the other guys were mad about the whole thing—the film is edited to make Robbie Robertson the star. It’s almost like Robbie is the dude and the rest of the guys are just his sidemen. Not only is that completely untrue, but it’s the exact opposite of what The Band was all about.

There has never been a group of musicians who were so much an organic whole, and whose whole was so much greater than the sum of its parts. Nobody was the front man—though, if anybody was the senior partner, it was Levon. He was older than the Canadian boys and had been in the group the longest, starting with the embryo lineup back in Arkansas. Robbie Robertson was credited with writing most of the songs, but a lot of the lyrical content seems to have been inspired by Levon (Anna Lee and Crazy Chester in “The Weight,” for example, were people Levon knew from Arkansas). Rick Danko was a musical prodigy who could play anything and had an uncanny ear for harmony and counterpoint. Richard Manuel was, until alcoholism took over, the group’s primary lead singer. Garth Hudson was a college-trained musicologist and instrument wizard. All the guys contributed to the material, jamming and riffing, sparking each other. Each man brought his own knowledge and abilities and style to the mix. And while their subsequent solo careers were certainly respectable, none of them on their own ever did anything that approached what they had accomplished together as The Band.

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16 Responses to “Band of Brothers: Levon Helm and Rick Danko, together again”

  1. scott says:

    Thanks for this. It says a lot (bad) about my ignorance that I didn’t see The Last Waltz until a few years ago and was totally blown away by the music. You could tell from the guest gigs that they thought a lot of The Band, but only after reading you and Charlie Pierce after Helm’s death did I realize what a big deal they were. Listening to some of their music, you get it – it’s hard to describe, but it just reaches into you and grabs your gut. Thanks for pointing me in this direction. This may sound corny but I don’t give a damn – great music has a way of sustaining you in bad times and making good times sweeter, so you can never have too much of it.

  2. Violet Socks says:

    Thank you, scott, I appreciate that.

    Charles Pierce of Esquire has written something this week about The Band? I’ll have to go look it up. I always like him.

  3. caseyOR says:

    You are so right about Rick Danko. He was the prettiest boy in rock ‘n roll.

    This last week I have been immersed in the music of The Band and my memories of The Band. In an era of some pretty damn fine music, these boys were something special. Their music was dug from the very belly of America.

    I’ve tried to explain it to people who weren’t there (not their fault, they hadn’t been born yet), but, well, Charlie Pierce really said it better than I can. And so have you, Violet.

    [Here is a link to Charlie’s piece. It appeared at his blog the day before Levon died.

  4. John says:

    Excellent post. World-class band. The Band…mmmm, mmmm good.

  5. Phil T. Listener says:

    You are right on the mark in your description of Rick. He was one of the nicest guys in Rock I ever met.

    I met him at the Capitol Thetare in Passaic NJ.
    The Band and The Allman Brothers were playing the closing night of that wonderful Venue. I met Dicky Betts before when he was solo touring in the early 70′s, so I went down to Passaic and got backstage after running into Dicky again that night.

    I was backstage eating some good food and enjoying the company of many musicians I came to respect over the years.

    About a year later I went to the Lone Star Cafe in NYC to see Rick Danko play a solo show. It was packed. I waited by the back door and when Rick showed up I said hello. He remembered me from the capitol show and invited me in. I went up to the dressing room a bit later and ran into Bernie Taupin and Steve Forbert up there singing some Gospel tune with Rick. During the show he called them up on stage to sing with him. It was an amazing night i will never forget.

    I’m sure if there is a Rock and Roll Heaven, Rick and Levon are holding the rhythm section together, and singing angelic leads and harmonies.

    Thanks for the post of It Makes No Difference. That song, and Stage Fright, show off the fine vocal qualities of Rick, “singing just like a bird”.

  6. Gerrtrude says:

    Another lovely piece about Levon and The Band. I do so hope those three are together again. Watching The Last Waltz and all these videos and reading all these pieces makes me think how young we are – for so long – and how beautiful youth is. Isn’t it so like life – their trials and triumphs. For heavens sake, we are just learning to live all our lives. Wish we could be smarter earlier. To think what we could be. I am grateful that they got together at all. A bit of terrific luck.

  7. Violet Socks says:

    Phil, I’m so envious! That sounds like a hell of a night and a hell of a show.

    Hey, there are a bunch of people here from the Dylan site. Hi, folks.

  8. Violet Socks says:

    caseyOR, thanks for the link to Charlie Pierce. Excellent piece. He’s about 10 years older than I am, so his perspective is different. He was a teenager when Music From Big Pink came out. I, on the other hand, was a little kid.

    I have no idea the first time I heard Dylan or The Band, because I grew up with it. My parents were always playing Dylan in the house. It was funny to me when I started reading rock critics later on and discovered that Dylan “couldn’t sing.” But isn’t that how people sing? I thought. He sings fine!

    Anyway, I was too young to ever see The Band live in their heyday. To me they existed on records and in the pages of Rolling Stone and Zoo World.

  9. caseyOR says:

    Charlie and I are the same age and so, share the same perspective. It was a glorious time to be a music lover. Charlie lends an more eloquent voice than i could to what the music meant to all of us during those “world coming apart at the seams” times.

    I remember getting my first transistor radio when I was eleven (1963). That radio freed me from my parents’ control over the music, and it was so liberating. I grew up in Illinois which meant that I could not only listen to the local radio stations, but I could also listen to Chicago’s mega-station WLS. That was a goldmine of music. And then, when FM radio hit, well, my goodness, it was like the heavens had opened and showered down upon us a treasure trove of musical jewels.

    I am not one who sees no value in the digital age and its effect on how we get our music. The iPod is a handy gadget, and youtube is great. Still, no digital gadget delivers the smooth and sweet sounds the way vinyl records do. And getting great music, for free, over the radio, was a pretty sweet deal.

    I am also so grateful to have spent my teens and twenties during a time when the cost of concert tickets did not equal my monthly car payment. We were so damn lucky, and we didn’t even know it.

  10. Violet Socks says:

    I just came across this: Bernie Taupin’s eloquent tribute to Levon and The Band, posted on his website right after Levon passed.

    The whole thing is beautiful, but this bit about Rick jumped out:

    Rick Danko, with whom I spent some questionably manic moments and cerebral hours and whom I loved dearly, sang like an unfettered young buck, all tremulous beauty and with poignant longing. Anyone doubting this just listen to his vocal on “It Makes No Difference” from the “The Last Waltz” soundtrack, one of the best live vocal performances I’ve ever heard.

    An “unfettered young buck.” Yes.

  11. Briar says:

    On a completely differently subject, but about something else you like:

  12. Violet Socks says:

    Thank you, Briar. I need some alpacas to pet. (Can you tell I’m depressed?)

  13. quixote says:

    Alpacas are better unsheared, I just found out. Although funny.

  14. SophieCT says:

    Violet, thanks for the link to Bernie Taupin’s blog. I’m a huge fan of his and had no idea he had a blog! (Yeah, what kind of fan doesn’t know…?)

    Anyway, I poked around at some of his entries and was delighted to find that for the most part, he sounds a like he’s what we once called PUMA!

    Great tribute to The Band, by the way.

  15. Steve Rawson says:

    Nice post. Danko’s voice was indeed plaintive, tortured even but not tenor. I held a party a few years ago here in Dublin, Ireland and played The Last Waltz on a 42 inch TV all night – everyone went out and bought the DVD afterwards.

    Would have given anything to have met Rick and Levon. Met Robbie Robertson at a backstage party in Marianne Faithful’s dressing room a few years back. He was in town with Daniel Lanois who was mixing a U2 album.

    For Band fans, Levon’s ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ is a must read.

  16. Violet Socks says:

    Danko’s voice was indeed plaintive, tortured even but not tenor.

    Steve, I’m kind of mystified by this comment. How would you categorize Rick’s vocal range, if not tenor?