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, 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, but it didn’t happen as expected. 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, Rick’s buoyancy came back. He said to his bandmates that he considered playing with Bob an incredible life experience. Levon, 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 the frontman. 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’s sour mood returned:
“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