Another Tale To Tell

Rick Danko and Bob Dylan — 1965-1967

This Wheel’s On Fire — The 1965 Tour

Bob Dylan and Rick Danko met in 1965, when they were both at a crossroads in their lives. In March, Bob had released Bringing It All Back Home, an album ingeniously blending electric songs with folk ones. Four months later, the Newport Festival, famously known as when “Dylan went electric,” ignited a profound change. It led Bob to hire guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm as backup musicians for a few concerts and recordings. They were members of a band called Levon & The Hawks, with Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, and they had toured with Ronnie Hawkins for several years. When Bob wanted to engage Robbie and Levon permanently, the guitarist told him he would have to hire Rick, Richard, and Garth, too. 

Bob Dylan agreed to come to Toronto for a few days in September 1965 to attend a Hawks’ show at The Friar’s Tavern. Impressed by the talent of bassist Rick, pianist Richard, and keyboardist Garth, he engaged them as musicians. They played live together for the first time on September 23, at the Austin Municipal Auditorium, which had over four thousand seats. The Hawks were used to bars and clubs, and they had never performed in front of such a significant audience before.

It was a stressful time for The Hawks, who were risking jail after the police found marijuana in their car at the beginning of the year. The possibility that they could have to put their careers on hold for several years was never far from their minds. Once, while the five of them were talking about their experience with Bob, Richard admitted they needed to learn his songs to get better. Realistically, Rick noted that they may have to phone their parts from the Kingston Penitentiary. Richard, Levon, Garth and Robbie were eventually acquitted, however, and Rick received a one-year suspended sentence probation.

Rick Danko was only a teenager when he joined The Hawks of Ronnie Hawkins in 1960, and he had spent the last years on the road with his bandmates. Music was his life, yet nothing could have prepared him for what he would live with Bob Dylan. On October 1, Bob and The Hawks played at Carnegie Hall. Barely a few months ago, it wouldn’t probably have crossed Rick’s mind that he would play at Carnegie Hall. It was a prestigious venue, yet the brutal reaction of the crowd shadowed that achievement. The audience was there for Bob Dylan. They wanted to hear folk songs; they didn’t appreciate the five musicians and booed them. The experience shook The Hawks, but it was only the beginning of that chaotic yet wonderful adventure. 

A few days after the concert at Carnegie Hall, they accompanied Bob in the studio. They recorded Can You Please Crawl Out Of Your Window, and a song called Freeze Out, which Bob would record again later with the more poetic title of Visions of Johanna. In November, the band was excited to perform for a few shows with Bob in Toronto. It didn’t happen as expected, however. Or maybe that should have been expected after the tumult of the previous concerts. In his memoir, Testimony, Robbie described what happened during the concert at Massey Hall. “The light went down, and we took the stage in darkness and slammed into Tombstone Blues. The most extreme booing and yelling erupted.” 

The experience disconcerted The Hawks, and even the usually optimistic Rick suffered from it. They felt humiliated; they considered Toronto as their hometown, and to add to the disgrace, their folks were in the audience of Massey Hall that night. Yet, a while after that disappointment, Rick’s buoyancy came back. He said to his bandmates that he considered playing with Bob an incredible life experience. Levon, however, thought otherwise, and he left The Hawks in November. Bobby Gregg, who had played on the albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, replaced him.

In January 1966, during a break in the tour, Bob, Rick, Richard, and Robbie recorded some tracks in Nashville for the Blonde On Blonde sessions: One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later), I’ll Keep It With Mine and She’s Your Lover Now. The first song would be selected for Blonde on Blonde, which would be released in May 1966 — Rick’s modest but brilliant contribution to this iconic Bob Dylan album.

After Every Plan Has Failed The 1966 World Tour

Bob Dylan’s tour resumed on February 4, 1966, in Louisville, Kentucky. It would be known as a tumultuous one that would later be documented in Eat The Document. In April, Bob and The Hawks left North America and toured in Australia and Europe with a new drummer, Mickey Jones, who had replaced Sandy Konikoff, who himself had replaced Bobby Gregg. 

With his wild hair, wearing a fashionable polka-dot shirt, and sporting sunglasses even indoors, Bob became the symbol of rebellion. He didn’t care about what his fans wanted. He wanted to play rock music with The Hawks, and amazingly, he never gave up. It was terrible for the band, who were welcomed by yelling and booing when they came on stage. Yet a notable exception happened in Paris. Bob couldn’t tune his guitar during the acoustic part of the show, and when The Hawks started playing, the crowd was relieved. It was the only time the audience cheered the band and booed Bob.

Drugs of all sorts were part of the tour, which added to the craziness. In an interview with Robert Shelton in 1966, Bob confessed: “It takes a lot of medicine to keep up this pace… It’s very hard, man. A concert tour like this has almost killed me.” After having taken LSD, Rick informed Bob that he had ambitions to do more than just back up a front man. Even under the influence of drugs, it was an accurate reflection. The Hawks were accomplished musicians, and Richard and Rick could sing beautifully. Rick could do so much more than harmonize to the Behind of One Too Many Mornings. He was only twenty-two, but after years of backing Ronnie Hawkins, he understood The Hawks were talented enough to be on their own. After all, they already had been on their own when they left Ronnie in 1964 until they joined Bob Dylan the next year.

Meanwhile, the chaotic World Tour continued. During a show at The Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, after Ballad Of A Thin Man, with Rick’s haunting bass line dominating the song, someone in the audience yelled, “Judas!” 

Bob snapped: “I don’t believe you! You’re a liar.” Then he turned to the band and said, “Play fucking loud!” The band indulged him and kicked into Like A Rolling Stone.

The last show was scheduled for May 27 at The Royal Albert Hall, after almost four agitated months. Then, back in the United States for a welcomed hiatus, Bob rested with his wife Sara in their house in Woodstock. For their part, The Hawks lived in New York, and Rick shared an apartment in Gramercy Park with his girlfriend, Robin. 

At the end of July, they received a call from Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan and The Hawks. He informed them that Bob had had a motorcycle accident, and thus, the next shows were canceled. Rick described his mood and the one of his bandmates: “We didn’t know what to do. Bob broke some bones in his neck and was in total recuperation mode. We didn’t know where Levon was. We were road musicians without a road to go on.” Rick didn’t know they wouldn’t return on the road for almost three years, and when they would, they wouldn’t be The Hawks anymore, but The Band. 

We Shall Meet Again Big Pink And The Basement Tapes

In my piece You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere I wrote about the Basement Tapes, which was such a prolific period in the lives of Bob Dylan and The Hawks. Bob and the band spent the last months of 1966 working on various projects, but it wasn’t until the winter of 1967 that an important change occurred. Bob was editing Eat The Document, filmed during the tour the previous year. He asked his musicians for help, but according to Rick, what led him to Woodstock wasn’t Eat The Document, but a movie called You Are What You Eat. “I came up for the first time with Richard Manuel as part of Tiny Tim’s band for Peter Yarrow’s film. It was February 1967.” He realized that even though he was a country boy, he had been living in cities for years. They stayed at the Woodstock Motel for a few weeks, but soon, Rick went house-hunting. He found a pink ranch-house with salmon-colored clapboard called Big Pink, and he rented it with Richard and Garth. 

They settled into a country lifestyle, and like any country lifestyle worthy of the name, they adopted a dog. Or rather, Rick adopted a dog, from Bob Dylan, a German shepherd-poodle mix named Hamlet. However, the dog stayed in Bob’s life, who came every day to Big Pink to play music with Rick, Richard, Garth, and Robbie in the basement. Hamlet was a part of the house, as Rick remembered. “He slept on the carpet by the stove through most of the basement tapes music and most of the Big Pink rehearsals as well. That dog heard a lot of music.” 

Bob and The Hawks spent several months recording hundreds of songs. Poetic ones, cynical songs, traditional tunes, and silly songs. A casual day-to-day life replaced the chaos of 1966. They played music, wrote songs, chopped wood, played checkers, took the garbage to the dump, and cooked. Bob was living quietly with Sara and their children in a house called Hi-Ho-La. He established a routine and came to Big Pink almost every day. Rick, Richard, and Garth weren’t as righteous as Bob, and they were often asleep when he arrived in the morning. “If we were sleeping, he’d get us up. He’d make some noise or bang on the typewriter on the coffee table,” Rick said. During one of those sessions, Bob asked Rick to compose a melody for some lyrics he had written. This Wheel’s On Fire was born.

When Levon Helm joined his old friends in the fall, the basement sessions were drawing to a close. Bob Dylan’s band was about to become The Band. This exceptional moment in the lives of Bob and The Hawks lasted only nine months, but it had an influential impact, not only on music, but also on Bob, Rick, Richard, Garth, Robbie and Levon. Nothing would be the same for them, but the recordings in the basement capture this blessed time. Perhaps those moments at Big Pink were  a remedy for the excesses of the year before. No touring, no booing, no inquisitive journalists. Just the musicians and Hamlet gathered in a basement in the Catskills, while a tape recorder was immortalizing those moments that would never come back.


Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Howard Sounes – Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan


You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

Bob Dylan, The Band, The Basement Tapes and the story behind the myth

July 29, 1966, was a beautiful day in the Catskills, one that would have stayed unnoticed in history if destiny wouldn’t have intervened most unexpectedly. What happened in Woodstock along or near Striebel Road,  — even that fact isn’t clear — sealed the fate of the musicians who would become The Band. Upon leaving the house of his manager, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle. Amazingly, the mystery surrounding this accident still endures today. Despite all the contradictory stories told by Bob’s entourage, the consequences of the accident are undeniable; the upcoming Dylan’s tour, a week away, was canceled. The months that followed the accident are now iconic. They are inseparable from the pink ranch-style house that would be a haven for Bob Dylan and four of the musicians from The Hawks, who had backed him up on his chaotic World Tour. 

Like most stories behind a legend, the change was not perceptible immediately. It took a few months to impact the lives of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. After his accident, Bob Dylan worked with Howard Alk to edit Eat the Document, the movie that D. A. Pennebaker had shot during the tour in the UK. Bob’s health had improved and his friends came to Woodstock to help with the film. Yet, after a while, as Rick said in This wheel’s on fire: “Then we got tired of the motel, and I went house hunting and found Big Pink.” Rick, Richard and Garth rented it for $125 a month, while Robbie and his girlfriend, Dominique, settled into a house on the Glasco Turnpike. The guys moved their musical sessions from the Red Room at Hi-Ho-La, the house where Bob was living with his wife Sara, to Big Pink. 

It was the year of the summer of love, of the emblematic Sgt. Peppers, of beautiful people with wild hair, wearing pearls and flowers. Less poetically, it was also the year of racial riots in big cities across the United States, among them the infamous ones of Detroit. Protected by all the agitation of that time, five young men found a refuge in the Catskill Mountains. Bob, Richard, Rick, Garth, and Robbie created their own universe protected from the modern world. Listening to The Basement Tapes — especially The Bootleg Series — we can imagine them jamming in the basement while Rick’s dog, Hamlet, lies on the rug. We can almost feel the warmth of the sun coming timidly through the dusty windows. 

In Woodstock, they were protected from the Vietnam War, from the riots. And from their ghosts and their past. The songs they played in the basement were so far from the music of that summer. They got back to basics, to old tunes that reflected a world that no longer existed, interspersed with songs written by Bob Dylan that contained enigmatic lyrics. Immersed in that cozy world, they forgot they had toured the world the previous year. They rediscovered the satisfaction of playing music without pressure. As Garth Hudson told Barney Hoskyns: “We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs, some were written by Bob, but others would be songs Bob made up as he went along.”

Their pieces were an incredible blend of roots music, country, traditional, bluegrass. One of them, I’m your teenage prayer, written by Bob Dylan, is a doo-wop parody sprinkled with laughs and false starts. Rick Danko’s tenor voice is delightful, and Richard Manuel singing mischievously in the background captures the essence of The Basement Tapes. The lively Apple Suckling Tree is another example of the good time they had in Big Pink. 

Yet, they also wrote poignant songs, like Tears of rage and I shall be released, that would end up on Music From Big Pink by The Band in 1968. The chorus of I shall be released is now a classic: I see my light come shining/From the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released. Concerning Tears of rage, Richard co-wrote it with Bob. Dylan asked him if he could write lyrics for a melody he had just composed. Richard remembered: “I had a couple of movements that seemed to fit, so I just elaborated a little. I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant, but I couldn’t run upstairs and say, What’s this mean, Bob?’”

In addition, they played timeless songs like Ol’ Roisin the Beau, along with new Bob’s compositions like You ain’t going nowhere. I don’t care/How many letters they sent/Morning came and morning went/Pick up your money/And pack up your tent/You ain’t goin’ nowhere. Old songs popped up too, like the almost desperate rendition of One too many mornings, with Richard singing the first verse. It echoes the distress of This wheel’s on fire, which the slow tempo is distinct from the frenetic one of the version from Music From Big Pink.

According to Rick, the sessions in the basement lasted until the end of 1967. “For ten months, from March to December 1967, we all met down in the basement and played for two or three hours a day, six days a week. That was it, man. We wrote a lot of songs in that basement. It was incredible!” Levon Helm joined them in the last months. He had left The Hawks in the middle of Bob’s tour and was working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico when he received a call from his old friends, who wanted him back with the band. During those months when Levon was absent, Richard and Robbie alternated behind the drums. Richard was the most talented, and even after Levon’s return, he would be known as the second drummer of The Band. We can hear him on drums on many songs from The Basement Tapes, including Goin’ to Acapulco, a gem written by Bob, and Ain’t no more cane, a prison work song that sounds like it was recorded along the Brazos River rather than in a basement in the Catskills.

Unconscious that they were inventing the Americana Sound, they devoted themselves to the music they loved, the music they wanted to play. It offered them a sanctuary from the troubles that were going on in the United States. In the basement, the Vietnam War was forgotten, as were their obligations and personal struggles. They drove cars from the 1940s, wore vintage hats, and played traditional songs in a pink house. It wasn’t the hippie dream, but it was their dream. A dream different from the one of the flower children, yet no less significant. Those afternoons in Big Pink marked a path in their lives, a welcomed intermission that pushed their creativity to new heights. As Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1969, “You know… that’s really the way to do a recording — in a peaceful, relaxed setting — in somebody’s basement. With the windows open… and a dog lying on the floor.”

We feel a whole range of emotions with The Basement Tapes, which is perhaps the reason these songs still have an impact today. The life Bob, Richard, Rick, Garth and Robbie led in Woodstock during those months appears like a pastoral scene. We are drawn to that image of comfort and — relative — quietness, of living surrounded by trees and mountains. The Catskills triggered the inspiration of Bob Dylan and The Band, and the town’s spirit slipped into their compositions. 

What happened in Big Pink during those magical months was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It shaped Bob Dylan and the members of The Band. The influence of Woodstock is present on the first albums by The Band and on the next Dylan’s albums — Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding among them. It was a total contrast with 1966, where they were almost punk. A year later, they had changed. The world around them had changed, as well. The trepidation of a world tour gave way to a peaceful lifestyle set in an artistic town. Robbie described that atmosphere in his memoir, Testimony. “There was a real family feeling between Bob and The Hawks up in the Catskills. He was a very special friend and co-conspirator. We were already survivors from our year of living dangerously on one of the craziest tours in history.”

Listening to the sessions in Big Pink is a rift in time that brings us back to 1967. We don’t feel the riots, and the war, and the bad acid trips. Indeed, these five men were protected in Big Pink, and with the recordings made by Garth Hudson, we shared that oasis with them. Did they feel they missed something living in the Catskills rather than in San Francisco? Probably not. They knew they were finding their own voice. Although they weren’t conscious that their music would still live decades later, the shelter they created at Big Pink should have seemed like a benediction. It was exactly what they needed at that moment in their lives. And it’s exactly what we still need now. 


Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide

Barney Hoskyns – Small Talk Town

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

Sid Griffin – Million Dollar Bash

Something To Feel

For Richard Manuel, the months spent in Woodstock with his bandmates, playing music in the basement with Bob Dylan, were rich in creativity.

We all have had a chapter of our lives that we would have wished to capture into a box to keep it forever. Did Richard Manuel feel that way in 1967 when he lived in Big Pink with Rick Danko and Garth Hudson? The answer will remain a mystery. Yet those months spent in Woodstock with his bandmates, playing music in the basement with Bob Dylan, were rich in creativity for Richard, memorable enough to capture into a box. 

Richard’s retreat in West Saugerties after a hectic tour with Bob Dylan the previous year allowed his inspiration to thrive. The mountains became his muse, and the Overlook Mountain inspired the song In A Station. Richard’s song subjects were diversified, and even spiritual, at some level. The Catskills offered him the motivation he needed, and the afternoons spent in the Big Pink basement provided him the opportunity to create. There were no obligations and no pressure; just playing music with friends. Richard sometimes left those musical sessions and went upstairs to write lyrics on the typewriter. It wasn’t his first experience in songwriting, since he had dabbled in it with his band, The Revols, when he was a teenager. He also co-wrote Beautiful Thing with Rick in 1966. 

“Richard made up a song about going upstairs from downstairs. A little song that has not been heard. Spoken words and little songs that were for the most part silly.”
Garth Hudson

Yet, this time it was different; he was free after years of touring with The Hawks, and then with Bob Dylan. Bob’s motorcycle accident forced Richard, Rick, Garth, and Robbie to rest. Once they moved to Woodstock, everything was in place to spark their inspiration. Richard, perhaps because he was the most sensitive, found himself hit by a creative wave. He co-wrote Katie’s Been Gone and Ruben Remus with Robbie, and Tears Of Rage with Bob. This one would end up on the album Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. 

This blessed period in Big Pink also generated three more brilliant songs that would find their place on the album: In A Station, Lonesome Suzie and We Can Talk. They all express different emotions, but they all show Richard’s vulnerability. Even the humorous We Can Talk contains the line We’ve got to find a sharper blade, or have a new one made. These lyrics are puzzling and demonstrate Richard’s keen ability to play with words. In Orange Juice Blues, one of his early compositions, he wrote ‘Cause I’m tired of everything/Being beautiful, beautiful, which, according to Robbie, was “a touch of anti-hippie humor slipping in there.”

“They had a typewriter set up in Big Pink’s kitchen, and Bob might sit down and type a few lines. Then he’d wander off, and Richard would sit down and finish the verse.”
This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band 

In A Station, with its George Harrison vibe, is the perfect ode to Woodstock. Must be some way to repay you/Out of all the good you gave/If a rumor should delay you/Love seems so little to say. Richard’s greatest strength was that he sought within himself to write his songs. He didn’t write realistic songs telling fragments of his life as Joni Mitchell did. His art was introspective, but in a dreamlike way. Lonesome Suzie contains his more melancholic lyrics, and he ends the song with a moving plea. I guess just watching you/Has made me lonesome too/Why don’t we get together/ What else can we do?

This fugitive moment in Richard’s life was prolific for him. In an interview he gave to Ruth Spencer for The Woodstock Times in 1985, he acknowledged the influence Woodstock had on him. When asked what was the impact of the town on the first three Band albums, he answered: “I don’t think they would have happened without it. I think this environment had a great deal to do with it.” 

For Richard, probably more than for Rick, Garth, and Robbie — and Levon, who joined them later — Big Pink was a refuge from the harshness of the world. In Woodstock, they lived in an artistic bubble. It was an idyllic situation that, of course, couldn’t last forever — and it didn’t. But those months proved to Richard he was a songwriter. Before the success and excesses, before something broke inside him, he gave the world beautiful songs that revealed his compassion. Those songs offered to the listeners an insight into his complex but fascinating personality. We time travel to Big Pink with him, decades ago, in a place and an age when life seemed simpler. It wasn’t simpler, however. Still, the glimpse we catch of that era in Richard’s songs brings us into a wonderful world, paradoxically filled with hope and sorrow.

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