How did I miss Dan Hicks? His seductive blend of gypsy jazz and bluegrass, his cool and sassy lyrics, his bloody-minded determination not to fit it into any particular genre – all of that is tailor-made for me. Yet, until a couple of years ago, he was no more than a fringe figure to me. i discovered his songs, and how much I liked them, at around about the time he died, aged 74, from liver cancer.
I blame Paris. I lived there briefly in the early 1970s and missed out on a number of interesting but short-lived songwriters (Steve Goodman, Gram Parsons, Judee Sill) who were emerging in that golden age of the singer-songwriter.
Hicks was briefly quite a big star – he was a Rolling Stone cover story twice – but in around 1974 he drove his career off the road. His group Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks had been cool and sexy enough as a live act (the two girl singers were knows as The Lickettes) and his mock-cowboy persona, a precursor of our own Hank Wangford, had disguised the fact that the music they played – what Hicks called ‘folk swing’ – was out of step with pretty much everything that was fashionable at the time.
The YouTube clips from that time show a great band playing good-time music – but the good times have not reached their eyes. One journalist has described Hicks’ on-stage persona as ‘exploring the edgy no-man’s-land between jokes and insult’ and reviews from the time make it clear which of those two territories was the more occupied. A 1974 San Francisco Chronicle review had the headline ‘INSULTS, SARCASM, RUDENESS’.
To judge by a Rolling Stone feature of the time, the band’s final implosion was caused by a toxic combination of bad management, ego, booze and, above all, a serious attack of the disease familiar to many rocks stars, painintheassitis.
Hicks was a boozer and, as he said, ‘couldn’t handle success – the little I had’. After a decade and a half of self-destruction, including a couple of stays in the Old Rehab Hotel, he re-emerged in the late 1980s.
His new band The Acoustic Warriors were terrific musicians and between them they produced a sound that is unlike any other band I know. What I would have give to seem them performing, as in these clips, ‘Shootin’ Straight’ or the wonderful ‘Savin’ My Lovin”
My favourite Dan Hicks CD is, unusually for me, a live performance recorded in at McCabes Guitar Shop in Los Angeles – Shootin’ Straight (1994). Sensibly, the producer included on the CD some of Dan Hicks’ funny, mock-formal introductions to the songs. Edging his way into ‘Bottoms Up’, he says:
‘Now we have a ballad from the lady’s point of view – a kind of cocktail-hour ballad. We have the young lady sitting at the bar in the middle of the afternoon, sipping at a mint julep or something – a Rob Roy, perhaps. She’s feeling a little tipsy – she’s kind of mildly shit-faced. We have her song now – she’s talking out loud and don’t really care to who…’
It’s a song with a woozy, unfocussed – in fact, mildly shit-faced – vibe.
‘They raised my rent just yesterday
And my house is fallen down.
My little pup went out for a walk
And I found her in the pound.’
By giving it a female narrator (something I also like), Dan Hicks distances it from his own experience of booze and gives the song another, more interesting story.
‘My car won’t start but it’s all right
‘Cos I’ll be soon in gear.
And lighten up on the chatter, dudes,
I’ll pull you in, I’m in the mood…’
It’s all here – the cool chords, the great melody line, the sound of a gypsy jazz guitar, and wonderful, conversational lyrics –
‘I don’t mind drinking on my own,
If there’s moves to be made, I’ll make ’em on my own.’
This is a lesser-known Dan Hicks song and this audio version of a live performance is the only one I can find.
(I’m aware that this is the second Friday Song with alcohol as it theme – that’s a coincidence, not a cry for help.)