Rick Danko: 1943 to 1999
The first time I saw The Band was on a PBS airing of the 1992 Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert (hey, I’m 23, cut me some slack). They performed “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, which quickly became my favorite song of the moment. But it wasn’t the song that initially grabbed my attention. I was more struck by the guy with the bass, loping onto the stage with that man-child grin on his face and, when he played, looking like he wanted to leap off the chair in which he sat.
I soon learned that the guy was Rick Danko. Not long after that first exposure, I delved into The Band’s catalog. Dazzled by the array of guests (and likely persuaded because it was cheap), I picked up The Last Waltz. Musical all-stars be damned, it was Danko who stole the show, with one song: “It Makes No Difference”. God, that voice. The way it bobbed and weaved, the way it soared, the way it teetered on the edge of cracking. I had never heard a song sung with such emotion.
Maybe that’s why I found Rick Danko’s death on December 10, 1999, so tragic. Not only was the world robbed of, by all accounts, a lovable, generous man, but it was also stripped of that voice. Though some of The Band’s surviving members had continued to perform together under that name in recent years, Danko’s death makes future such appearances absurd. The Band without that voice, and Danko’s hypnotic bass playing, is as pointless as The Beatles without John Lennon.
Of course, records, tapes and CDs will keep his voice alive. Most of us will be survived by faded photographs or perhaps embarrassing home movies, but those who miss Danko can find him at his best, whether on a studio recording such as “Stage Fright” or a live song such as “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” from The Band’s Watkins Glen concert. Danko’s last album, Live At Breeze Hill (released in 1999 by Breeze Hill Records, firstname.lastname@example.org), shows that while he may have lost a few steps along the way, he was so far ahead to start with that it hardly even matters.
When I heard a memorial service was being held for Danko in Bearsville, New York, I had to go. There was a debt that needed to be repaid. So, I took the day off, hopped a bus having only a vague idea of where I was going, and walked two miles in a steady drizzle to pay tribute to a man I met once, for about five seconds. Music will make you do weird things. Sometimes, you hear a voice and you have to follow.
Editor’s note: Most news reports at the time of Danko’s death reported his age as 56, based on common reference sources quoting his birthday as December 9, 1943. However, in an interview with Robert L. Doerschuk three days before his death, Danko stated that his birthday was December 29, which would have made his age 55 when he died in his sleep at his home near Woodstock, New York, on December 10, 1999.]