The Legacy of Dan Hicks
Musicians loved Hicks, who died last weekend. His unique songs influenced many.
First we lose Bob Elliott, part of the slyest, drollest comedy team ever, Bob & Ray. Then we lose Maurice White, leading light of the spectacular Earth Wind & Fire. Now we’ve lost Dan Hicks, a man who had more in common with Bob & Ray, but with brilliant music added. Things happen in threes, they say, and I hope it’s true. I can’t take much more of this.
Hicks, who passed away this past weekend, is probably the least familiar of the three; he never sold many records. But ask any musician where they rank him and you’ll be surprised. He is in my pantheon of great writers, wits, singers and all-around fun guys. And he did it all in a time and place where bellbottoms, long acid jams were de rigueur, while tuning and timing, well… maybe not so much.
He didn’t just ignore the mostly haphazard psychedelic bands of San Francisco in the late 60’s, he paid little if any attention to anyone or anything in rock’n’roll. He might have been risking dismissal as Tiny Tim II, but he went on to prove that freshness can be found in the oddest places. He found his muse in the Swing, Jazz and String Band music that had pretty much been given up for dead in the Summer of Love.
In fact, we did check it out in a column that goes back a little ways. His performance of the haunting original “I Scare Myself,” is a pinnacle of everything I adored about him and his band. It features a psychotically virtuosic solo by violinist Sid Page. Listen at your own risk, it’s pretty much a waking nightmare.
They say drama is easy and comedy is hard. I agree. It takes commitment and courage to stay with a comic premise for the length of a song or a routine. It also takes chops — you can’t wink or break up at your own cleverness. Hicks sustained that not only in his songs, but through his long career. As straight-faced and dry as Bob & Ray, he was an oddball completely out of time.
No one else will ever be him, few are interested really. But there is much to be learned from his hard stance against the silliness around him. Where his gift came from will be left to a good biographer, I hope. Was it from a happy place? A sad place? I suspect the latter, but either way he rose above anything that might have denied us his unusual and beautiful presence. In typical Hicks fashion, torn from his obit in the New York Times, he had this to say:
“I will always be humble to my dying day,” Mr. Hicks, tongue in cheek as usual, said when interviewed in 2013 by Roberta Donnay by of the Hot Licks. “On my dying day I will explain to the world how lucky they have been to be alive the same time as me.”
I will leave you with something I saw for the first time today, a long conversation with Thomas Dolby, a true believer who covered “I Scare Myself” in 1983. They perform it together, then, after Hicks explains how he works with bands, they end with his song, “Evening Breeze.” He was every bit as cool as the lyrics of that brilliant composition.