Rock & Roll Angel

Rick Danko In The Last Waltz

This blog post is not insightful or reflective. Not at all. November is The Last Waltz month, and as I already wrote Caught In The Spotlight last summer, I tried to find a new angle, and thought it would be a good idea to profess my love for Rick Danko in The Last Waltz. Okay, I already have professed my love for Rick Danko, and not only in The Last Waltz. Yet, this time, I want to focus entirely on that concert and the Martin Scorsese documentary. Even though Robbie Robertson was meant to be the star of the movie — it’s obvious in the way Scorsese interviewed him and in the shots from the concert at the Winterland Ballroom — Rick stole the show. The Last Waltz’s prestige serves him well. He is outstanding throughout the documentary and is a movie star for two hours. In a letter to Rolling Stone, Bernie Taupin wrote: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rick look that good. He was trim, fit and handsome, and played and sang beautifully. Demons may have chased and consumed him years later, but on that glorious night, he looked like a rock & roll angel.” Beautiful words and so true. Sexy as hell, singing like a bird, playing bass with his dance moves, Rick looked like a rock & roll angel. 

When I laid eyes on Rick for the first time in The Last Waltz, it was a revelation. I didn’t fall in love with The Band first — I fell in love with Rick first because he opens The Last Waltz, playing pool in the Shangri-La Studios. “The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off.” He also introduces Don’t Do It, which The Band play as an encore, and which is the first song we hear in The Last Waltz. “All right. Happy Thanksgiving!” 

As if under a spell, I couldn’t take my eyes off him the first time I watched the movie. And I still barely can now. I am bewitched every time I re-watched The Last Waltz. There is, of course, the heartbreaking and iconic It Makes No Difference, but also Rick’s radiant smile when The Band play with their old mentor Ronnie Hawkins. And there is the way he gazes at Joni Mitchell during the first notes of Coyote, and when he looks up at the sky during Helpless with Neil Young. I have always loved the blissful expression of Rick, Robbie and Neil in that scene. Like Robbie explained in Testimony: “When Joni Mitchell’s high falsetto voice came soaring in from the heavens, I looked up, and I saw people in the audience looking up too, wondering where it was coming from.” 

Rick is fascinating throughout the entire movie, like in the touching Sip The Wine scene, where he talks about just making music and trying to stay busy. It’s a moment almost painful to watch. However, Rick can also lighten the mood, like when he says with a deadpan face, “And as soon as company came, of course, we’d start having fun. And you know what happens when you have too much fun.” Without forgetting this magical moment when he plays fiddle on Old Time Religion, accompanied by Robbie on guitar and Richard on harmonica. Who would have thought that fiddle could be so sexy?

The Last Waltz was flamboyant. A Thanksgiving dinner for five thousand people, chandeliers from Gone With The Wind, a horn section, and prestigious guests. Amid that opulence, Rick, country boy at heart, was a down-to-earth sight. It’s probably why it’s still so fascinating to watch him in the movie, forty-six years after the concert. 

This is not a scientific statement, but considering the many comments I have received on Rick in The Last Waltz and the several articles I have read on that subject, Rick is the one who makes the strongest impression on the viewers. And it’s not unusual that someone would fall in love with The Band in this movie because they are hooked by Rick in the first scenes. Like I wrote last year in The Night I Met The Band, “And that guy who said Happy Thanksgiving with his mischievous grin — God, who was that striking man?” 

Despite his musical skills Rick overdubbed his parts for the soundtrack because his bass was out of tune during the concert. However, his angelic harmonies were impressive that night: Helpless with Neil Young, and the delicious way he sang “If I don’t do it, somebody else will” on Such A Night with Dr. John. He also offered powerful back vocals on Van Morrison’s song Caravan, reminiscent of the ones of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Yet, nothing is better than Rick’s lead vocal performances. It Makes No Difference and Stage Fright are among his most acclaimed. Was he thinking that maybe it would be the last time he would sing these songs?

I used to think The Last Waltz wasn’t the best introduction to The Band, and I would have preferred listening to Music From Big Pink before watching their farewell concert. I love order, and starting with the end isn’t natural for me. However, I don’t regret having discovered The Band in The Last Waltz, on PBS, on a gloomy winter night several years ago while I was struggling with depression. Now, I think it was perfect. In another blog post, I wrote, “I wish I could recover the innocence I had when I first watched The Last Waltz. Back then, I didn’t know that Richard Manuel killed himself ten years after the concert or that Rick Danko succumbed to heart failure in 1999.” 

When I watched The Last Waltz for the first time, I couldn’t have guessed that Rick Danko would eventually occupy a special place in my life, that he would help me get through tough times, and that, somehow, in the middle of a depression — another — years after I discovered The Band, he would be my solace. 

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2 thoughts on “Rock & Roll Angel

  1. What a superb comment and description of this wonderful rock documentary. I agree wholeheartedly with the authors and was captivated by Rick Danko in particular . He is magical to observe in this film and his singing and commentary are charismatic throughout. Despite thinking myself to be a normally heterosexual male I am not ashamed to state that I too fell in love with Rick upon discovering this film and am proud to state I must now have watched it over 50 times

    Liked by 1 person

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