The Heart, like the Mind, has cliffs of fall.
Any one of us can find ourselves tumbling head over heels down those sheer cliffs.
Prostrate at the foot of those cliffs; bleeding, broken, the Heart yet beats on.
Though the dawn no longer beings a sliver of hope still less the promise of joy the Heart beats on.
Night or Day, though the shadows never fade away – the Heart beats on.
The Sun, former friend, don’t shine anymore and the rains, the rains!
They fall and fall on your sodden door as the Heart beats on.
Oh, it makes no difference how far you go.
The Heart beats on.
It makes no difference who you meet.
They’re just a face in the crowd on a Dead End Street.
The Street where you live.
Without that love what are you?
Footsteps in an empty hall.
A scarred Heart still beating on though the battle is lost.
Who can sing your broken heart’s Song?
Who can match in their musicianship and the harmony of their voices the depth of your loss?
Four Canadians and one American, veterans of the roadhouses and Honkytonks, the white heat of Bob Dylan’s 1966 Tour and the restorative retreat of Big Pink.
Never a band better named – The Band.
They all played a plethora of instruments with loving skill and three of them sang with haunting grace.
Levon Helm – the Life Force.
The one with the leery vocals and the drummer beating out the animating rhythms.
Robbie Robertson – the Hot Shot.
The one with the gift of writing haunting songs and the guitarist who knew what you leave out is as important as what you put in.
Richard Manuel – The Holy Ghost.
The one who played the piano with gleeful brilliance and whose voice sounded like it had knowledge of those lands beyond the Styx.
Garth Hudson – The Professor.
The one who could play any instrument you put in front of him and who could conjure soundscapes from them (especially from the Lowery Organ) that no one else could begin to imagine.
Rick Danko – The Heart.
The one who played the bass like his life depended upon it and who sang with a keening country soul that could make you feel that he was saving your life and his with every word.
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And, when they had a great song to live up to they lived up to it.
A song for those who are hurt and scarred and whose hearts yet beat on.
The original version comes from The Band’s 1975 Album, ‘Northern Lights – Southern Cross’ a record that was shot through with autumnal elegiac solace.
Robbie said that the song was written specifically for Rick to sing and that as they rehearsed it the levels of emotion he brought forth demanded they all plumbed the depths of their musical instincts and empathy to match the magnificence of his vocal.
There is pain and loneliness in Rick’s voice but there is also a passionate determination for that battered heart to beat on.
Though he is aflame with torment he has not surrendered to final despair.
For despair is silent.
The supporting anguished harmony vocals of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel along with the fellow pilgrim guitar of Robbie Robertson and the soul cry of Garth Hudson’s final saxophone together with Rick’s peerless vocal make the Song a luminous triumph.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 The Band gave a, ‘Farewell’ Performance at The Winterland in San Francisco to which they invited famous friends like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Eric Clapton.
The concert demonstrated their ability to be brilliantly sympathetic accompanists switching styles with seamless ease.
Amongst many stellar moments there are two transcendent performances.
First, Van Morrison and The Band taking, Caravan’ right into the very heart of The mystic.
Second, a grand, stately, version of, ‘It Makes No Difference’ that rattles the walls of every Heart that hears it.
Rick’s vocal has the quality of an abandoned penitent refusing to believe, despite the rains falling all around him, that there is no hope left in Prayer.
Garth Hudson’s saxophone is a lambent lament fully equal to the line :
‘I Love you so much that It’s all I can do just to keep myself from telling you’.
In the years after The Last Waltz while Robbie went all Hollywood Levon, Richard, Garth and Rick initially struggled to find their way.
It was in live performance that they found themselves again.
While they would never fill the stadiums anymore those who saw them were privileged to be in the presence of a group of musicians of surpassing craft who could yet cut to Heart’s core.
Below, a performance from 1983 in Japan.
The intensity of Rick’s vocal and the interplay with the wraithlike Richard Manuel sears the soul.
If you have tears ….
Rick Danko died, worn out by life on the road and the ravages of drugs and alcohol in December 1999.
He was 55 years old.
When a musician takes to the stage he stands in the spotlight surrounded by pools of darkness.
It takes a truly great musician, in the way he plays and the way he sings, to respect in performance, and present to the audience the truth of both the darkness and the light and do so with a full heart.
Rick Danko was such a musician.
His performances, with his Brothers in The Band, especially of ‘It Makes No Difference’ will always flame, night and day, year after year, as long as there are human hearts that though broken stubbornly beat on.