John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Legacy of Dan Hicks

Musicians loved Hicks, who died last weekend. His unique songs influenced many.

By - Feb 12th, 2016 01:06 pm
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Dan Hicks

Dan Hicks

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.

He did three perfect records with his amazing band, The Hot Licks, then took a decade or so off to pursue other things. It was also a time when the quote, “Music started to interfere with his drinking, so he gave it up,” was heard about him. He came back strong though, and sober. Then he made several new recordings with some original Hot Licks and others every bit as good. All in all, he wrote as many good songs as any of your favorite bands, got a bunch of them recorded and sang them all with his insanely understated and dry humor. That’s a legacy, and it’s worth investigating.

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.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Legacy of Dan Hicks”

  1. a BIG ‘amen’ for the praising of Dan Hicks, & link to an astonishing rendition of ‘I Scare Myself,’ with the legendary Sid Page taking the violin solo to the moon, & Dan upstaging Jimi Hendrix with his guitar:

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    So sad to hear that Dan Hicks passed away!

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Harvey Taylor, I just went to that YouTube link that you posted, and loved the rendition of I Scared Myself!

  4. Bill Castagnozzi says:

    Sellery Hall. The dorms. Madison, 1972. 9th floor. Getting to know a bunch of young strangers–excited, anxious, and eighteen years old. Walking the halls, one would hear the Allman Brothers, the Dead, Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens, Zeppelin, Savoy Brown, Jethro Tull, Hendrix, even a dash of Alice Cooper. All of a sudden, there was this music that didn’t sound like anything else–certainly not like the rest of what was being listened to—and like a sonic meme, it worked it way up and down the halls, from one dorm room to another.

    “Strike It Rich”, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.
    As we began building life-long friendships ( I am still, 44 years later, close to three guys from my floor in Sellery Hall), this music was in the air that entire fall–and first few notes these songs immediately send me back to that crazy, crazy time—-as we launched ourselves into all that was Madison in the 70’s (and what a decade it was!) .

    And thank you, John, for all of the thoughtful, erudite columns on great songs. I very much look forward to them.

  5. Pat Goldstein says:

    Wow—I was really surprised to see an article about Dan Hicks this morning. Having lived in S. F.. back in the day for a few years, I was lucky enough to have seen him a number of times with his band both in the park and around the Bay Area in those years. I know a number of people who used his supremely ironic line, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” to end their current relationship. Notably absent from New Years’ and other community hallucinogenic celebrations with the Dead, the Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc, Dan was following his own musical muse……

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