was originally published in the Woodstock Journal, Dec 1999. This is Gary's
original unedited version.
Rick Danko 1943-1999
by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G Ring IV
"SO LONG, DANKO" said the sticker someone had stuck to the side of the
Thruway tollbooth last week. It was a soulful underbeat with a
good-natured flip and a strain of mournfulness appropriate to the
qualities of that vanished voice.
In a faint drizzle outside of the Bearsville Theater on Wednesday,
photographer Ben Caswell balanced precariously on the top of a parking
lot pole, trying vainly to fit the long line of mourners into his
lens, each a surrogate for uncountable friends and fans around the
world who couldn't make it to the gathering but felt the pangs of loss
Inside the overstuffed auditorium, facing an empty stage adorned with
flowers and wreaths, it slowly dawned on many of those who came to
remember Rick with their own recollections and the words of others
that there would probably be music. Of course, there would be
Among those who related anecdotes and memories, John Simon observed
Rick's amiable and direct manner; his talent for reaching deeply into
the affections of those he met, appreciating the individuality of
others and appealing to each in a way that made them feel they were
equally sharing in some private joke between them. Simon said people
everywhere felt like they were among Rick's close friends. It was a
strong and genuine attribute of his personality. Rick liked people.
Somewhere within, he remained the fun-loving and exhuberant "big kid"
even into his fifties, finding something endlessly wondrous in life
and trying, always, to make everyone else recognize it.
I shouldn't have been surprised to hear the others on stage voicing
the same things I was thinking. Looking at the sea of faces in that
theater; the tears, the secret smiles of remembrance, you could see a
solid unity in the feelings being shared. I had written in a poem the
day we learned of Rick's death "Most of us thought we knew you.
Because of that studied simplicity." But, it was not a "studied"
trait. Rather than a "device," that central part of Rick Danko was a
deeply natural facetof a one-of-a-kind character. Peter Pan never let
go of Rick. He always had the innocently conniving earnestness of a
kid lost in a desert town. Always desperate, always hopeful...
Son of a woodcutter in the tobacco region around Green Corner,
Ontario, Rick had taken a running jump onto a bandwagon touring the
nightclub scene when he was just out of kneepants. He didn't even
know how to play bass when Ronnie Hawkins snatched Rick from his own
little band to go on the road with the Hawk's hard-driving rockabilly
crew but it didn't take forever to learn. It was up and away, a
teenage picker headed for legend in the limelight and there was no
looking back now. Life would henceforth be greeted as
At Levon Helm's studio, Jim Weider, Rick, and
Tom Pacheco listen to a playback of Danko's
harmonies for Tom's 1996 album Woodstock Winter.
We all know the story, the rocketship ride, the dips and turns, the
sky-grazing heights and, because we all knew, these things weren't
spoken of at the memorial service. Instead, Rick Danko was celebrated
for who he was and what he showed us. People spoke of his zeal for
life and a seemgly bottomless vitality. Jules Shear, Amy Fradom, the
Traums, John Sebastian, Shredi Volmer, Aaron and Marie, and others
contributed moving songs and tales from life. Robbie Robertson,
looking ever more rabbi-like, bid a heartfelt farewell to Danko the
friend and the artist. Tom Pacheco delievered a rendition of his tune
"They Can't Touch You Now," a tribute to a friend who had passed
beyond the trials and tribulations of life. It was the last tune
that Rick recorded.
Speaking of that last session, Pacheco recalled Rick's unique gift for
harmonies. You can hear Danko's harmony contributions in the work of
dozens of artists from Tom's own brilliant Woodstock Winter CD
a few years ago to the Irish group, Three Men and a Dog, there is no
mistaking that voice in counterpoint and harmony even when you weren't
expecting it. Rick worked eternally hard to polish his stylistic
abilities. When you listen to his vocals over the past decade, you
realize he was studying phrasing and intonation with a devotion that
rivalled Sinatra's. His voice was to be a prized instrument on three
tracks at the session that day but Danko's once remarkable vitality
got him through only two. Tom noticed the blood pressure patches at
the edge of Rick's rolled up sleeves. On the road all the time,
always pushing it, ready to give his all at every benefit played for
someone in need, a great heart was wearing down.
In two plus decades, I never heard Rick Danko complain. His defense
was to turn negativity into a joke and "hey, let's play the next one."
He had just returned from an eleven day tour when he went to sleep for
the last time, probably thinkingof new ways to spin that ":next one."
In the end, Rick did what he always did...He played his heart out.
Rick rocks as he checks his bass against the double
drum-section of Levon Helm and Randy Ciarlante (backs to camera) at a
performance of The Band at The Night Shift Cafe, North Adams,
Massachusetts, in February 1996.
The Dankster, tuning with Cindy Cashdollar's steel guitar at
Tinker Street Cafe in 1988.
is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of
interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names,
he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event;
science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for
national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and
complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of
presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have,
Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort
Posted on August 8, 2001