Genius of Cool: Dan Hicks and the Post-Ego Trip

+ Interview with Dan Hicks

“I am the only hip person there is”.
— Dan Hicks

Dan Hicks is to music what Philip K. Dick is to Sci Fi, what R. Crumb is to comics, what The Dude is to bowling: a true original in a world of copies. Imagine the sarsaparilla-sipping cosmic drifter in The Big Lebowski as a lounge singer with a musical vision of the whole durned human comedy, a band slick enough to make it happen, and one question on his mind: “where’s the money?” If such an act existed, it would have to have been stolen from Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.

Hicks’ music exists in its own space-time continuum . . . Hicksville . . . somewhere you can only reach by train . . . the train sneaks up on you . . . all of a sudden it’s there . . . red and shiny . . . bulging brightly . . . and you’re rolling . . . down the snakeskin railroad . . . the train is made of music . . . the music is a cartoon…buzzards are circling . . . spinning like the furniture in Poltergeist around a ’30s-looking cowpoke crooner who keeps saying, “ladies & gentlemen”, and dropping laconic but tricky song intros: “This is an instrumental, but it’s got some words to it”.

Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks (Sid Page, Naomi Ruth Eisenberg, Jamie Leopold, John Girton and Maryann Price) produced a musical genre, a band concept and a performance style that was unique in 1969. As the psychedelic era crashed in a tangle of feedback, smoking amps and torched guitars, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks released Original Recordings. The album title and the cover art (a faded, monochrome image of Dan Hicks in a cowboy outfit against a gray background) suggested that this was a re-release of some old-time music from the ’30s, rather than a new band’s debut album. Original Recordings helped to introduce the whole idea of “retro” into rock and roll. It also suggested acoustic jazz/swing as a possible path out of the feedback jungle. Like the Flying Burrito Brothers, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks were one of the first true “alternative” bands. Both Hicks and Gram Parsons presented the late ’60s/early ’70s rock mainstream with separate alternate futures for rock and roll, visions that combined music, style, image, fashion and attitude.

On a recent re-release, The Most of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Epic/Legacy have mixed nine tracks from Original Recordings with seven studio demos of songs that would show up in different versions on later albums. On Original Recordings Dan Hicks often sounded as if he was writing at the edge of his and his band’s ability to perform the material. The Hot Licks recorded definitive versions of amazing songs like “I Scare Myself” on later albums, but the early versions are still essential listening. They bear the fresh, authentic energy of a genius-level creative process bursting into action. The Hot Licks’ uniquely freaky, acoustic jazz noir thing is most perfectly captured on Where’s the Money? (1971), one of the few examples in the last 30 years of a live album that outshines a band’s studio releases. Their three studio albums, Original Recordings, Striking It Rich, and Last Train to Hicksville, are all gems in their own right, but the fantasy that Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks generated was of a live act, the resident band in some alternate reality nightclub, where the cocktails are spiked and the music is a dream weave of swing, jazz, folk, blues, country and mescaline. The jaw-dropping vocal arrangements, performed by the Lickettes (Maryann Price and Naomi Eisenberg) and the casual, death-defying, precision of the Hot Licks makes Where’s the Money? essential listening for anyone who loves acoustic music.

Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks have been misrepresented by critics who are uncomfortable with music that defies categories. Ralph J. Gleason, a writer who seemed to miss the point of every artist he covered, described Hicks as a “comedian/singer”. Gleason might as well have called Beck or Tom Waits “comedian/singers”. All these artists use humor as one of the shifting emotional currents in their music, but the presence of humor does not make them “comedians”.

If Dan Hicks is a clown, he is also a hipster of a higher order. His humor is both a way of seeing and of deflating the role of seer/songwriter, a role that had grown ponderous by 1969, as it passed through the hands of estimated prophets, sensitive types and would-be supermen from Bob Dylan to David Bowie. Somehow Dan Hicks detached from the modernist idea that the artist is or has a static, knowable, “self” to express, by inventing for himself a larger than life non-identity: an infinitely hip and deadpan personality, composed, in ever-changing proportions, of singing cowboy, Edwardian dandy, upscale hobo and merry prankster.

The ’60s/’70s singer-songwriter figure developed in the Romantic image of the artist as a heroic individualist, engaged in an art of “self-expression”. James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and all the purveyors of what Lester Bangs called “I-Rock”, evolved from this elite artistic ideal, an ideal that bore little relation to expressions of identity in early American folk music and popular culture. From Dock Boggs and Muddy Waters to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, the early American folk and rock and roll musicians were characters and showmen whose artistic personalities developed from the extroverted performance contexts of popular entertainment: the street corner, the juke-joint, the fairground, the hayride, the carnival, and early radio music shows. For Jimmy Rogers, “the Singing Brakeman”, Peetie Wheatstraw, “the Devil’s Only Son In Law”, Ma Rainey, Howling Wolf, Screaming Jay Hawkins and Elvis Presley, artistic identity was a performance statement, not an introspective quest.

’60s and ’70s singer-songwriters, however, rejected the showbiz “phoniness” of their predecessors in favor of a more natural pose: patched jeans, intense introspection and “telling it like it is”. The singer-songwriter embodied the ideal of frank self-expression, as opposed to the performers of the ’50s, who were seen as over-dressed puppets, mouthing the words of tin-pan-alley hacks. LSD simultaneously opened up the vistas of inner space and, as the quest for self-knowledge entered the rock and roll thematic, the singer-songwriter became a combination of soul-barer, electronic best friend and guru. The pose of naturalness and the simulation of a personal connection between singer-songwriter and listener are represented on the cover art and intimate musical style of singer-songwriters from James Taylor to Elliott Smith. The relationship between singer-songwriter and audience soon proved to be as fake and media-manipulated as the relationship between teen idol and fan, but the singer-songwriter’s role as pensive, self-fixated, poet-philosopher remains pervasive.

Dan Hicks was unique among psychedelic-influenced singer songwriters in formulating a musical identity that combined the extroverted masks of the early folk and popular musicians with the psychic masquerade of the Acid Tests. Before forming the Hot Licks, Dan played drums in The Charlatans, a pre-Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane San Francisco conglomerate, who were one of the original psychedelic bands. The Charlatans performed their first audition in 1965 at the Red Dog Saloon so dosed on LSD that the lead guitarist had to sit down on stage to observe the room pulsating. It was in this ego-shattering atmosphere that Dan Hicks developed his musical identity. A few years later he quit the drums, wrote some inspired and very unusual songs and formed the Hot Licks to play them.

Rather than using music to express himself, Dan Hicks created a self to express his music. Anyone who has seen him live knows they have witnessed one of the most subtly humorous stage performers of any time. Yet there is nothing showbiz about Dan Hicks, and in this sense he is much closer to folk artists like Dock Boggs and Uncle Dave Macon than he is to modern rock performers. At the same time, there is always a slippery, psychedelic underpinning to his musical personality, his lyrics and his deadpan onstage raps. This unlikely combination of folk trickster and psychedelic prankster is Dan Hicks’ unique contribution to the art of musical self-presentation. Unlike David Bowie’s play with creakily theatrical “personae”, the personality known as “Dan Hicks” is both utterly real and utterly unreal. Who, for example, could actually say, “I am the only hip person there is”, and get away with it unscathed? Hicks can make such an un-cool boast without losing his cool because the “I” making this statement is no ego on a trip, but the trip that dissolves ego, the prankster spirit calling us out of our heavy selves onto the dance floor.

If Dan Hicks has left his mark on modern music, it is not on a musical genre, but on certain artists, each as unique as Hicks himself. On Beating the Heat (2000), Dan is joined by friends and admirers, including Tom Waits, Brian Setzer, Rickie Lee Jones and Elvis Costello. These artists appear to have little in common at first, but when placed in the context of a mutual admiration for Dan Hicks, there are some interesting similarities. All share a retro attitude to music, image and style. All have a marked affinity for jazz and/or swing. Most interestingly, perhaps, all have, in their own ways, escaped the self-obsessing, naval-gazing, role of the “singer/songwriter” by presenting themselves as highly stylized, musical characters whose identity expresses their music rather than vice versa: Tom Waits, the barfly beat-poet/singer; Brian Setzer the ’50s greaser hepcat; Rickie Lee Jones the boho jazzer; Elvis Costello the punk Buddy Holly. This post-ego approach to musical identity is one of the hipper facets of Dan Hicks’ impeccably hip musical legacy.


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