December should be the happiest month of the year. Surely it is. Christmas is still a relevant day for me, even though the word “Christmas” is not political correct. They say “Holidays greetings” to not hurt any feelings. Poor baby Jesus.
Anyway, December reminds me of the passing of two great men I was lucky to meet and know, shortly, both. One is Joe Strummer. The Clash were for my generation what Bob Dylan was for the 60’s generation, and I was lucky enough to meet him for a damn funny interview one day. At a certain point while we were talking, he took away his boots and the girl who was with me told me: “He did something punk at least…”. Some months later, he was playing in my city. I never saw him or The Clash in concert. David Bowie was playing the same night in a small club. I thought, well, I could go see Joe next time, but David Bowie in a small club. I can’t miss it. There was never a second chance, because a few days before Christmas, Joe Strummer died.
The other man is the subject of the following story.
It was a cold December day when, excited by the news, I walked into that great concert hall with the hope of finally meeting Rick Danko for the first time in my life. He was a true musical hero for me. The music of The Band was a big part of my younger days when I grew up listening endlessly to their music. Of course one of the leading voices of that group was Rick Danko. His performance of It Makes No Difference during the Last Waltz film was the most memorable part of the entire film when I first saw it in 1978.
Now it is 1994 and the rest of the Trio (Eric Andersen, Jonas Fjield and Rick Danko, for the first time in Italy) are there doing the sound check. Rick Danko is not there. They told me he has been locked in his hotel room for two days. They told me he is sick and needs some rest. He will be here later.
When he arrives some hours later, he looks awful. He tries to play the bass, he tries to sing, but he simply cannot. At one moment he throws his bass with anger onto the floor. I’m shocked. I will know the truth some days later.
The concert will not be memorable. The truth is that he was looking for some heroin and was not in good shape because nobody was able to found any.
A week later The Trio tour in Italy is over. The promoter invites some of us to a farewell dinner in a wonderful restaurant by the lake in a small northern Italy town. There are a lot of special guests that night: Townes Van Zandt was here until the day before but now he is gone. I met Townes few days before, he was so lost that it was a painful experience, we only laughed when he told me that outside his hotel room there is a neon light: “Gambling house”. “I can’t be without it, it seems.”
There is Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo; there are the rest of The Trio, Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjield. No Rick Danko, though.
During dinner, the entrance door suddenly opens and a large figure with a cowboy hat enters the room. Everyone is suddenly silent. He has a leather jacket with the logo “Allman Brothers Band” on the back. Here is Rick Danko. He is smiling and everyone seems reassured just because he is smiling. He sits at the head of the table. He would not eat very much. He will drink a little, but he is in a great shape, smiling, laughing and talking with everyone. I approach him and it is like he is talking to a long time friend. We talk about the recent The Band reunion show at Woodstock last July for the 25th anniversary of the legendary festival. We talk about the recent Levon Helm biography: “I don’t agree with everything he wrote but it was his book. The world will know all the truth when my book comes out.” He laughs, but that book will never come out. We talk about Bob Dylan and those days in the basement, of course. We talk about Robbie Robertson. He has a good word for everyone. “I don’t care about what people say. I’m grateful for what my life has been. I don’t hate anyone. I love everybody.” Simple as that.
(Rick Danko on stage with Bob Dylan, in one of his last concert)
It’s midnight and everyone is enjoying the dinner and drinking a lot. Everyone is passing the guitar around and singing a song. Alejandro Escovedo introduces a song he just recorded a few weeks before with Willie Nelson. Joe Ely sings Pancho and Lefty as a tribute to Townes. Eric Andersen performs a tender, melancholy Moonchild River Song, one of his old 70’s hits. Rick Danko stood up, took the guitar and shouted: “Hey come on, it’s almost Christmas!” and performed a truly wonderful Christmas Must Be Tonight, the old The Band song. When Rick Danko sing, somebody once said, the angels stop to listen. A foot on a chair, moving and shaking his body in the way Rick Danko always does when he is into a performance. I’m in paradise. I’m waiting for another song from him but he says goodnight to everyone. “Rick, it is only midnight” I say. He laughs. “I’m too old; I need to go to sleep.” And then he is gone. I will never see him again.
(Thats me and Rick, that night)
Two years later – its almost Christmas time again – I’m on a cold Italian highway taking Eric Andersen to another show. We stop to have a coffee. He needs to make some phone calls. He told me how Rick Danko laughed every time Eric tells him about the picture of me and Rick hanging on my wall at home. “Would you like to say hello to Rick?” he suddenly asks. C’mon, we are an ocean away, please don’t disturb him. He phones somebody. “Here’s Rick, he wants to say hello.” Rick Danko’s voice comes from another planet, but he is laughing, as usual. I can see his usual big smile on his face. He wants to know about my family, if everyone is ok. He always acts like a long, lost friend.
Three years again are gone. It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas. Somebody phones me at work to tell me Rick Danko died last night “while he was sleeping”. It was his birthday. They told me he was happy when he went to sleep, and that his wife found him with a smile on his face. The usual smile he always had, even when he went to prison in Japan for that heroin. They told me he was singing all the time, in prison. He was released because the Japanese judge was a great The Band fan. Nobody could release Rick Danko from the great pain inside of him, the pain of the loss of his 18 year old son who died while at college from a stupid disease. I guess Rick is smiling again, now that he is with his son and his old friend Richard Manuel. I guess Joe Strummer is joining the band too.
Christmas must be tonight.
(thanx to Chris Marcum for editing this)
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