Rick Danko + Levon Helm, “Once Upon a Time” from Rick Danko (1977): Across the Great Divide

There’s an openness to Rick Danko’s first solo album, and to this song, that wasn’t there in the last recordings with the five-man edition of the Band. His self-titled solo debut, the first from any member of the group, works almost like a long, slow, relaxing exhalation after too many of years of towering expectation and complicated interpersonal dynamics.

That said, connections remain, and none perhaps more uniformly touching than Rick Danko’s vocal duet with his former Band mate Levon Helm on “Once Upon a Time.” It’s a stand-out moment featuring a shared songwriting credit with Emmett Grogan — who, like Danko and Helm, had a shared history with Bob Dylan. A sense of community binds them, and this song, together.

Rick Danko begins with what seem to be very personal admissions about trying his best to get along, during past days where he spun far different yarns. But “Once Upon a Time” is building to something, a chugging, emotional chorus. Levon Helm ambles in beside Danko, and they simply soar together through a passage that speaks to lingering bonds, and to holding on to what’s important, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable.

All of it proved very prescient, and not just because we’d have to wait so very long before we heard Rick Danko and Levon Helm’s voices intertwine like that in the studio again.

Grogan, with whom Danko had hit it off after meeting at a Ronnie Wood-thrown party, was gone by early 1978 — the victim of a heart attack in the subways of New York City.

Grogan also made important contributions to “Java Blues,” “Brainwash” and “Sweet Romance” for the deeply underrated Rick Danko, and had earlier sang back up on “Mr. Tambourine Man” with Bob Dylan. (He wrote one of the more perceptive explorations of the Band’s Last Waltz, too.) Dylan would dedicate 1978’s Street Legal in Emmett Grogan’s honor.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Jimmy Nelson