John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“I Scare Myself”

A slightly paranoid classic from Dan Hicks, whose deadpan style can be funny or serious as hell.

By - Mar 30th, 2015 10:56 am
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Dan Hicks

Dan Hicks

Dan Hicks is a stand-alone unit. His talent, wholly original, is sometimes mistaken for some kind of nostalgia. His bends his influences — swing and string bands, gypsy jazz and pop surrealists like Spike Jones — to reflect his own completely off-kilter take on life. Like Tom Waits, who lives near him out on the left coast and has recorded with him, he doesn’t have much to do with anything past 1960. This is not to say he isn’t modern, just that he is recycling from the best junk pile in history, vintage American music.

Where Waits has always shown a predilection for darkly funny themes and the rough-and-tumble blues of Howlin’ Wolf, Hicks has always has a nice coat of polish on his work and a lightness that belies his own struggles with some hefty personal demons. It’s easy to forget that people who make you laugh aren’t always happy themselves. When Dan went through an extended lost weekend the quote I heard was that music had started to interfere with his drinking, so he gave it up. He’s been back and sober for some time, though, and his shows are tutorials in cool.

On stage Hicks might be the funniest, driest performer I’ve ever seen. He is blessed with a deadpan delivery that never gives anything away and the kind of straight man good looks that disguise what I’m pretty sure is a less than placid inner life. A Hot Licks show would be worth the ticket if they never did a song, but thank god they do. The musicians he works with must feel blessed; they are dipping into one of the great song catalogues, a collection as vast and varied as anyone’s, and virtually free of clinkers.

This is after all, the man who penned the wonderfully titled, How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away? and another called Is This My Happy Home? (Notice the question marks? They are not only shaped like hooks, they function that way too, pulling you into his uncertain world.) That second song contained, among its litany of complaints, the immortal line, “The little things you don’t pick up, like a ringing telephone…” That’s a good one and he’s got a zillion others.

Dan is good for more than just laughs; like all great comedians, he is an actor first. When his thoughts have turned serious, he’s produced his share of jaw-dropping beauties. One of his most famous is a song called I Scare Myself. Again, the guy can really write a title, and this one sums up the human condition in this or any anxious age. But it is everything that happens after the title that never fails to amaze me so many years after I first heard the song.

Its harmonic structure is based loosely on Ravel’s Bolero, but only in the most Hicksian way. It has little half-step chord change at the center that is also similar to the Ellington number Caravan.  So it is very evocative of Middle Eastern music.The exotic scale conjures up the paranoia Hicks said he experienced on a long drive home after a party at which he had unknowingly been slipped a San Francisco-style mickey. It doesn’t take long for this episode to morph into a love song though, a topic scary enough in it’s own way.

Providing more than a heaping helping of chills in this (and many performances of the song on the Youtube) is the electrifying violinist Sid Paige. I’m not sure pop music needs virtuosity, in fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I’ve come to that sentiment after a lifetime of listening to players who fall a couple notches short of genius chewing on the scenery and scoring points when attention to the song would have sufficed. So it is a joy to report that Mr. Paige knows how to yoke his singular talent for the greater good. His solo is every bit as wild as anything Jimi Hendrix would have conceived had he survived and somehow got asked to this session. And it’s appropriate to the topic. If what he plays in the middle of this song doesn’t give you chills, check your pulse.

This song is good enough to be an instrumental, but who wouldn’t want to sing yummy words like this? (Note: Thomas Dolby did, he covered this song in 1984 on his album, The Flat Earth)

I scare myself just thinking about you
I scare myself when I’m without you
I scare myself the moment that you’re going
I scare myself when I let my thoughts run
And when they’re running
I keep thinking of you
And when they’re running
what can I do?

I scare myself, and I don’t mean lightly
I scare myself, it can get frightening
I scare myself, to think what I could do
I scare myself — it’s some kind of voodoo…
and with that voodoo
I keep thinking of you
And with that voodoo
What can I do?

But it’s so so very different when we’re together
And I’m so so much calmer; I feel better
‘Cause the stars already crossed our paths forever
And the sooner that you realize it the better
And then I’ll be with you and I won’t scare myself
And I’ll know what to do and I won’t scare myself
And my thoughts will run and I won’t scare myself
And I’ll think of you and I won’t scare myself

© Dan Hicks

There is an ease on display here that identifies it as a Dan Hicks song. You almost feel him ad libbing the words as you listen. He may not have intended to repeat the word “voodoo,” but I sense he saw a good thing when it spilled onto the page. The first four lines of the last verse rhyme, the first verse doesn’t bother. It would earn a D minus if it was an assignment in rhyme, but there is a higher purpose, an inner logic they don’t teach.

I never noticed “Cause the stars already crossed our paths forever,” but I love it. It’s such a confident statement in such a non-confident song. There is so much about Dan Hicks that should cancel itself out. But in the logic of music anything goes so long as you are big enough to own it. Insecurity? He totally inhabits it. He is serious about his comedy and wry when he’s serious — his borders are always fuzzy, but I’ll trust the guy I caught long ago at The Cubby Bear in Chicago. As he was performing, a car swerved to avoid a bus and crashed into the front of the building. Without missing a beat, Hicks looked out the audience over his shades and in the driest of voices muttered, “I suppose this kind of thing happens in Chicago all the time.”

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