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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

When it comes to The Band it's sad stories wherever you look

Saw the Levon Helm documentary Ain't In This For My Health, which was slight but not without interest.

I was particularly interested in Elizabeth Danko, widow of Rick, who's the most forthright interviewee in the film. We see pictures of a sleek rock star wife on board a private jet during the Bob Dylan/Band tour in 1974. Then we see her as an elderly woman living in a not very posh retirement home in Woodstock. Rick had died and there can't have been much income even when he was around. The PRS from the use of This Wheel's On Fire on Absolutely Fabulous wouldn't pay many doctor's bills, particularly if you took as little care of yourself as Rick did.

I went looking for more information about her and found that she died since the film came out. Elizabeth was Danko's second wife. Then I read he had a son Eli from his first marriage. Eli died at the age of 18 in a binge drinking incident at college. The local coroner called the Danko house three times, wishing to speak to the boy's father or mother and tell them about his findings. Nobody got back to him.

Funny how Robbie Robertson talked in The Last Waltz about the road being "a godamn impossible way of life". That was 1976. In truth The Band hadn't toured anything like as much as, say, Jethro Tull, so it's difficult to know quite what he was talking about. It was a good line. For most of them it seems life got a whole lot more impossible once the touring stopped.


9 comments:

  1. I don't think there are many stories in rock as sad as Rick Danko's. You see him, charismatic and sparkling, in The Last Waltz and it looks like he's the most obvious solo star from the group. Wasn't to be.

    Having watched that doc one has to conclude that as much as Levon complained about being being ripped off by Robertson and others, it could have been a whole lot worse for him. He spent his last few years in the warm glow of critical acclaim and cheering audiences. His old muckers Manuel and Danko weren't nearly as lucky.

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  2. 'impossible way of life' may have been..er..freighted.. with pre-Band experience in The Hawks. Can't help feel that the ruthlessness of Robertson's management team over royalties left the rest debilitated after hefty artistic contributions, and in the red while he was in the (big) pink.

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  3. Absolutely heartbreaking story. Have
    you seen John Niven's novella Music From Big Pink (in the 33 & a third series) David? The storyline is made up, but the depictions of Rick and Richard Manuel seem to ring horribly true. Neither of them seemed capable of putting a foot to the brake pedal. A genuinely upsetting read.

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  4. It is a very sad documentary, and one that many Band fans will find disheartening- eg NZ critic Nick Bollinger: http://www.nickbollinger.co.nz/articles/1149/levons-last-waltz/

    The scenes of debauchery during the 1974 tour give some idea of the lifestyle; one can only imagine what the come-down was like once they got home, with little to do (such as write songs). Why did bands such as Jethro Tull survive their endless tours - because they just drank beer rather than use Class A drugs?

    Coincidentally, just two weeks ago I was proof-reading my 1997 Crowded House book, for its re-issue as an Ebook. I had completely forgotten this passage, in which Mark Hart describes his first gig with the band in early 1989, in New Jersey. He had been suddenly hired as a replacement keyboardist, and had to learn the Crowded House setlist overnight:

    > Support act that first night was Rick Danko, bassist and vocalist with the Band – one of Mark’s heroes, although the rest of Crowded House didn’t know who he was. Danko thought Mark was a roadie, and asked for help to fix his equipment. ‘It was a really heavy night for him,’ says Mark. ‘His son was in hospital in a coma, and subsequently died. But Danko couldn’t be at the hospital, because he had to do this gig. I felt really bad for him, but couldn’t watch him play: I was in my own secret anxiety hell.’

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  5. Chris - very sad and poignant story and probably not that uncommon in the real world of rock n roll.

    I find it hard to believe that Neil Finn didn't know who Rick Danko was though?

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  6. "Why did bands such as Jethro Tull survive their endless tours - because they just drank beer rather than use Class A drugs?"

    Shaun Ryder's theory was that all his damage was done from the alcohol not the pills. Not exactly the most reliable witness, but still.

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  7. Thanks for these truly insightful, and genuinely heartfelt comments.

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  8. Charlie - well that's what Mark said, maybe he didn't mean it literally and instead sensed a lack of connection with Danko from the others. It's hard to believe they hadn't seen The Last Waltz - which finally gave faces and names to all those anonymous voices in the Band - but in all the interviews I've read or done with Neil I've never heard him mention the Band. Although he has a connection with Wilco now, roots music was never really his thing. (Elton John's Band-influenced 'Tumbleweed Connection' was a big album for him as a teenager, though.) Nick Seymour, too, came from more of an art/postpunk background (after a childhood singing in a family group like the Von Trapps). Paul Hester grew up with Creedence, and cut his teeth in Australian pop, but he also never mentioned the Band. Surprisingly few musicians are readers of pop papers or record collectors in the same avid way as fans. The only connection I can think of with Neil and the Band - other than the fact he now owns a 1974 mixing desk from the Bearsville studio - is that Split Enz keyboardist Eddie Rayner pinched some applause from The Last Waltz when mixing the live album Living Enz.

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  9. I saw Rick Danko in concert three or four times in the 1990s, mostly in tiny venues. He always looked either slightly troubled or very ill, or both. I think one time he'd just been released from prison. That was at the Bottom Line in New York in April 1997. He looked like Jerry Garcia. Lou Reed was there to see him too. But, no matter how bad he often looked, he opened his mouth and began to play and all of that seemed to vapourise. Not only did the music seem to wash anything negative away for the audience, but it also seemed to give him a kind of peace and joy which you suspected he didn't know how to find anywhere else.

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