Sometime in the morning of December 10, a couple of weeks before his 57th birthday, Rick Danko of The Band died in his sleep, not far from Woodstock and the big pink house in whose basement he once helped make rock safe from psychedelia. In 1994 and again in 1996, I had the good fortune to be working as a sideman to a folk singer who had the good fortune to be opening shows for The Band, consisting then of three-fifths of the original group -- singer-drummer Levon Helm, keyboard and saxophone player Garth Hudson, and singer-bassist Danko -- abetted by three "new" members who had already been onboard something like a decade. (Absent were the late singer-pianist Richard Manuel, a suicide in 1986, and guitarist Robbie Robertson, who had long since gone Hollywood.) They were at that point in their career where their career was a kind of resume of their career, not just as regards what they played onstage, but in the sense that, having been up one side of the mountain and down the other, they were at once successful and struggling -- playing the many-balconied Beacon Theater in New York City one night, and the next a small club in Delaware where two disc jockeys offered a prize to any woman who could produce a tampon. The group seemed to take this stuff in their stride; they'd seen worse, of course, and better.
Were they past their prime? What rock band in its fourth decade is not? But they played 20-song sets nearly every night, and I never caught them coasting. It would be useless to deny the air of nostalgia that hung around some shows like the clouds of pot wreathing the old and not-always-ex-hippies in the audience -- though there were kids coming out, too -- or to worry whether it was still "really" The Band without Robertson and Manuel. It was and it wasn't, but it was more than it wasn't; Robertson may have been the principal songwriter, but from the standpoint of performance, he was easily the most expendable member, and his songs were never any more important than what the group made of them. And they were still making quite a bit of them 20 years after The Last Waltz, their premature farewell to touring. Nor did they lean on the oldies, but gave equal time to two recent releases, Jericho and High on the Hog, which, while not on the order of Music From Big Pink or The Band, are solid and honest and here and there superb.
I loved watching Danko; his bass playing, syncopated and percolating, marked by swoops and slides, was fresh from performance to performance, as if he were hearing every song for the first time but understood it immediately. Some of the body of his singing voice was gone, and some of its precision, but not its yearning character or conversational intelligence, and a few signs of age were anyway not unsuitable to the material. The grand ballad "It Makes No Difference" was his showstopper, but "Long Black Veil" and "Stage Fright" and "This Wheel's on Fire," which he co-wrote with Bob Dylan, were just as reliable. If, in vocal-dramatic terms, Manuel was the old soul and Helm the feisty cracker, Danko was The Kid, the romantic, ever excited and hopeful, ever tender and sweet; he sang like a man who had no defenses at all.
He had grown pretty large -- had begun to look like the meat cutter he long ago was -- and some nights were obviously more work for him than others; occasionally, not often, he'd play leaning on a stool. When we asked him to sit in with us on our last show of the '96 tour, he politely demurred, saying that even a minute onstage would cost him an hour's sweat. The love-hate relationship with the road that The Last Waltz recounts was evidently not over: Posted in the front compartment of The Band's tour bus was a paper with a figure written large upon it: It was the number of days until they got to go home. But Danko died having just come off a string of solo dates, with more scheduled. In September, he released a new album of old favorites, Live on Breeze Hill. (He'd also made a couple of records in collaboration with old-school folkie Eric Andersen and Norwegian songwriter Jonas Fjeld.) It makes me happy to think he left the world as a working musician -- that he died booked -- and it strikes me that these lines from "Stage Fright" might not be the worst epitaph: "When we get to the end/He wants to start all over again." Or else the note he posted one day on his hotel-room door, affixed with soap: Laundry crisis. Don't knock!
© Robert Lloyd 1999 and 2011