Thoughts on Rick Danko
He was the king of harmonies in The Band, but not because he studied harmony or read music; it just came perfectly naturally to him. It was because of Rick that our vocals became known for their harmonies.
Robbie Robertson, Testimony
The idea of a blog post on Rick Danko tumbled around in my mind for several days. Writing the letter to Richard Manuel exhausted me, and I wanted to write something that wouldn’t be emotionally demanding. Even though I love Rick deeply, my attachment to him is simpler than the one I feel for Richard. Rick’s hyperactive and upbeat personality differs from mine, but perhaps it’s the reason I’ve been needing Rick lately. I love him for his boyish attitude. And because the first time I watched The Last Waltz, I thought, “Holy shit, who would have known that playing fiddle could be sexy?” But hell, it is. As a Canadian, I had associated fiddle with men old enough to be my grandfathers, wearing plaid shirts and smoking pipes. Yet, that attractive musician with a stubble, stylishly wearing a leather jacket and a hat, showed the contrary.
In my letter to Richard Manuel, I wrote he gave its soul to The Band. And I think Rick gave its lightness to The Band. Although the two men were close and shared many points in common, Rick represents the opposite of Richard’s melancholic nature. They complement each other. Rick’s harmonies are the perfect balance to Richard’s angelic voice and Levon’s Southern twang. The particularity of having three lead singers is one of the biggest strengths of The Band, and what makes this more efficient is the distinct voices of Rick, Richard and Levon. However, The Band is at its best when the singers get out of their comfort zone, and Rick is the perfect example of that.
It’s not about who has the most beautiful voice, but about how these three men can convey so many moods. They have the talent to ignite a whole range of feelings, but Rick is probably the most versatile. Wistful on The Unfaithful Servant, heartbroken on It makes no difference, damaged yet hopeful on A change is gonna come, pure ecstasy when he sings Volcano. And of course, the iconic verse of Crazy Chester from The Weight that he sings with his tremulous voice.
The world stops when Richard declares he sees his light come shining, but the universe comes alive when Rick sings It makes no difference. It’s a romantic and desperate song that Robbie could have written for Richard to sing. Rick is so raw that I fall a little more in love with him every time. While singing his distress, it reaches the heart of the listeners and brings us into his gloomy world. We sink with him, but it’s such an honor to share this moment of helplessness. It’s Rick’s most beautiful vocal performance, the one that still defines him today, because his personality rarely shows that sorrowful side of him. Here, he goes further than with The Unfaithful Servant, which, though filled with emotion, doesn’t have the profound intimacy of It makes no difference.
Well, I love you so much, And it's all I can do, Just to keep myself from telling you, That I never felt so alone before.
In the same way, melancholy hits me when I listen to A change is gonna come, from the album Moondog Matinee, which has become a favorite of mine recently. This song combines all I love about Rick. Hearing him sing Sam Cooke’s lyrics with his fragile voice brings tears to my eyes.
It’s been too hard living, But I'm afraid to die, ‘Cause I don't know what's up there, Beyond the sky.
Rick sings these words with a vulnerability surprising for him. I listened to it so much in the past month that I feel strangely closer to Rick than before.
Besides his amazing voice, Rick was an accomplished musician. He could play bass masterfully, and, of course, fiddle with sexiness. Among the four other skillful musicians of The Band, Rick’s bass lines are mesmerizing. I was about to use the word sexiness again, which is proof that this blog post is funnier to write than the letter to Richard. It was the point, after all. My intentions are not to make someone cry today. Rick can make me cry, but he’s also the one who eases the mood, the one whom I turn to when Richard’s pain is too much to bear.
I live between two worlds with The Band — the real one and the one in my novel about them, and I’m glad that Rick took a more important place in my story than planned at first. He comforts me both in the actual and fictional worlds. “It was for that reason I’d stayed quiet in the evening; I wanted that part of lightness Rick had brought with him.” I wrote this from the point of view of my character Suzie, but as with every word in that novel, there’s a little of me in that sentence.
Even before I heard The Band play, I fell in love with Rick, which is probably the reason he has a special place in my heart. He just said “Happy Thanksgiving” with his playful smile and it was the beginning of a passion that continues today. A passion that has led me into unexpected yet wonderful experiences. No, my love for Rick isn’t as devastating as the one I feel for Richard, but it is not less significant. Rick soothes my anxiety when he sings Loving you is sweeter than ever, and he restores my faith in humanity with his gorgeous smile. I have written this post mostly in the present tense, as if Rick was still alive, and in a way he is. I share precious moments of intimacy with him every day when I put my headphones over my ears and listen to The Band. Whether with his spellbinding bass lines or his alternately jerky and forlorn voice, he makes me feel I am not alone.