My Modest Tribute To Rick Danko
The most beautiful smile in the world. These words instantly come to my mind when I think about Rick Danko — which is often. He’s the first member of The Band I laid eyes on when I came across The Last Waltz on PBS several years ago. He’s the one who stole my heart with his boyish grin and his “Happy Thanksgiving.” Rick was my introduction to The Band, a turning point I recounted in The Night I Met The Band. When I discovered The Band, I suffered from deep depression, and I kept few memories of this period, except the moment I heard them for the first time.
Since then, depressions have come and gone, but my mental health deteriorated last March, about the same time as Richard Manuel’s death anniversary. Which is perhaps not a coincidence. Besides, it wasn’t the ideal moment to write a piece on one of my favorite songs, The Lonesome Tale Of Richard Manuel, and exposed raw emotions. I relate too strongly to Richard, and it sometimes breaks my heart. Rick, however, is always there to elevate my mood, even more so since I launched Rick Danko Page on Twitter.
I started this fan account on a whim. Just for fun, I said to myself. I should have known better. And I should have thought about that quote from Almost Famous, one of my favorite movies: “I always tell the girls never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, you always have fun. And if you ever get lonely, you can just go to the record store and visit your friends.” Perhaps I have overlooked the part about never taking it seriously, but I have followed the advice about the record store. I am not Penny Lane living in California in 1973, but listening to music carries me to Woodstock in 1968. Being Asperger — high functioning autism, but you don’t want to know about that — means I am prone to obsessions. Since I was a child, my life has been revolving around obsessions about musicians.
When I created Rick Danko Page, my goal was to post twice a week, but it changed as soon as I launched the page, and I have been posting several times a week since then. I discovered there were so many subjects I wanted to cover, and I immersed myself in Rick’s life and music. I soon realized that Rick was underrated, and worse, that he was the forgotten member of The Band. If you would have asked me a few months ago, I would have answered that Richard and Garth were the forgotten members of The Band. Yet, when I started researching more intensively about Rick, it struck me that he wasn’t as recognized as I had thought.
Rick Danko brought so much to the music world until he passed away in December 1999. He still does, because music is everlasting, after all. Twenty-two years after his death, in the darkness of my depression, I not only found comfort in Rick’s songs, but I also found inspiration in his resilience. Even though, unlike me, Rick had an upbeat personality, I related strongly to him during those hard days in March because he had suffered so much in his life. In 1968, he almost died in a car crash and spent weeks in traction. Then in 1986, his friend, spiritual brother, and bandmate, Richard Manuel, killed himself in a hotel room in Florida, which impacted Rick deeply. To add to the grief, Eli, Rick’s son with his first wife Grace, died in 1989, at eighteen years old, after a night of heavy drinking at the university. It’s amazing how Rick seemed to overcome the grief. Yet, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t suffering. Perhaps it only means that he kept his pain deep inside him and released it through his songs.
It’s a shame that Rick is so underrated, especially as a singer. He possessed a whole range of emotions. As I wrote in Farewell To My Other Side, he was the most versatile singer in The Band. He could perform some Motown on Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, be a young boy on When You Awake, or be an Acadian singing in French on Acadian Driftwood. (I just want to add for the record that he had the sexiest French ever, though, being a native French speaker myself, I must say the words aren’t very clear. But what the hell.)
Rick not only could sing like a bird; he was also in Robbie Robertson’s words, “the king of harmonies in The Band.” But he was more than that: he was the king of harmonies, period. It’s obvious, not only on The Band albums, but also with Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes and with his bandmates Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld from the trio Danko/Fjeld/Andersen.
The Band had five wonderful members, and it’s hard to give the same importance to each of them. We all have our favorite — or two or three. But it’s time to acknowledge Rick’s importance. His contributions to The Band are often neglected. Yet you can’t listen to a Band song without admiring Rick. His bass lays strongly the foundation for the other instruments. Or sometimes, it’s his fiddle or trombone playing that gives us goosebumps. And his voice. His beautiful voice weaves its way through the melody and marries perfectly with Richard and Levon’s.
Rick was a sensitive and warm man who put all his heart into his songs. He could also act like a mischievous — and adorable — little boy, and indeed, as I like to repeat, he had the most striking smile in the world. His passion for music shone throughout his entire career. Not only on the more celebrated songs like It Makes No Difference and Sip The Wine, but also on those hidden gems his live shows are, many of them with Richard, Levon and Garth. The quality of these recordings is often poor, but Rick’s pleasure of playing in front of an audience, no matter how many people attended, is always there. He was born to play music, and he did it until his last breath. He deserves to be remembered not only as an ingenious musician and a gifted singer, but most of all as a wonderful human being. I already knew he was a beautiful soul, but going through depression with him has deepened this feeling and made me love him even more.