The Dan Hicks Interview

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

“Do you want your acid before or after dinner?”

PopMatters: Can you describe your early musical development?

Dan Hicks: We lived in California, Mill Valley, San Francisco, which is light years from Santa Rosa (where Hicks later played jazz and dance music). My parents were country & western fans, and the regular station would have been country. In Junior High I started liking jazz: swing and Benny Goodman. Began playing (drums) in a band in 9th Grade — The Dixieland Dudes. I guess we played a couple of…(school) assemblies (laughs). Played in the High School band, a 15-piece with…arrangements. Some rock and roll. At 19 or 20 in Junior College I had a friend who was strumming a guitar and getting into folk and I wanted to do that too.

PM: What was your friend’s name?

DH: Dick. (Pause.) This is need-to-know information, ok? All you need to know is… Dick (laughs). We had a combo: Dick & Dan. We traveled in a VW bus, playing, went out east, New York, took in the Newport folk festival, as listeners, not participants.

PM: Were you writing songs?

DH: Let my hair grow long for the first time, I’ll tell you that. I wrote sporadically. I still have a notebook with two of those songs, later recorded by the Hot Licks. “Reelin’ Down” was one. We were traveling through…maybe Texas.

PM: I love “Reelin’ Down”. The lyric (quoting) “I never seen much coin in my bag / I soon got used to that same old jag”, sounds like it could have been written in the nineteenth century.

DH: Maybe I was being visited by some kind of muse.

PM: Describe the San Francisco music scene before The Charlatans and The Dead, the pre-psychedelic scene:

DH: (In the early ’60s) I was in the Santa Rosa Musician’s Union. Get gigs, come out and play. Four or five guys who never played together show up and play dance music. I was also developing a folk act with the guitar. There were a few folk houses, folk clubs. I don’t know if I was quite good enough, but I played a little in those. There was some rock and roll around North Beach, topless places. Some jazz, funky places with funky jazz and clubs like the Downbeat with Mose Allison, Cal Tjader, that kind of thing. Then the dancehall thing happened, if you want to call it the psychedelic scene, the Longshoreman Auditorium, and the gathering of the hippies. I lived in the Haight Asbury at the time, from’65 to ’68, something like that.

PM: That’s when you hooked up with The Charlatans?

DH: Hooked up with The Charlatans in early ’65. Somebody gave me a ride home from a gig in Santa Rosa. A girl. Said her boyfriend was in a rock and roll band, so I came over. Their drummer was on the way out. I told them I was a drummer.

PM: Joel Sevrin begins his book Summer of Love with a description of The Charlatans auditioning for their summer residency at The Red Dog Inn. The owner spiked you guys with acid before you played. What are your memories of that?

DH: We went up to the Red Dog and we all had rooms upstairs. We were there for two or three days before we played a note. They hadn’t heard us. The place hadn’t opened yet. So (before the audition) the owner passed out the acid. When you say “spiked” it means someone gave you acid without your knowledge, but he opened his hand and he had a handful of tabs, like, “Do you want your acid before or after dinner?” We were not hesitant. Nowadays it would be like, call the cops, get an ambulance, call the ER, but this was in the days of no hesitation. So we played the first couple of numbers ok, then it began to fall apart. We finally ended up, we, uh, created instruments. I was playing piano, something that should never happen. Finally I was just lying down on the stage, playing a couple of notes here and there. Everybody else was just as loaded. The owner said it was the funniest thing he had ever seen in his life, so he hired us. I haven’t read Joel Sevrin’s book in a while, but I remember that I could see little things that I’d say, “No, that’s not what happened”. Like he says somewhere, “and then Dan Hicks fell in love”. I didn’t say that. I never told him that I fell in love.

PM: But did you?

DH: Fuck you! (laughs) It was puppy love!

PM: Was that the first time you took acid?

DH: I took acid in the city (San Francisco) earlier that summer it might have been once or twice. I ended up (tripping at the Red Dog) maybe ten times. It became the day off thing. The club was dark on Mondays. Acid was kind of a thing that was done on the day off. We took one trip, got in four or five cars and headed out to the lake, this Indian Burial Ground, we made some films, super 8, you can see us running around in the dark, stayed out all night, no sleeping bags, that didn’t seem strange, just lay down on the ground to sleep, on acid.

PM: The Hot Licks were so different from the other bands on the ’60s San Francisco scene. The Dead, Big Brother, Quicksilver and Jefferson Airplane were all about loose blues jams, but the Hot Licks were so jazzy and structured. How did you arrive at that?

DH: The Hot Licks was more of a cabaret act that evolved from the folk thing I was doing before the Charlatans. It was quieter (than The Charlatans), more lyric-oriented, swinging. The stuff I liked was jazz, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band and Brazil 66. That jazz influence with contemporary tunes which somehow had a retro feel. It just sounds better to me. It’s not about retro or modern, it’s about this note or that note, which sounds better?

PM: I want you to take me through the lyric of one of your songs, “The Buzzard Was Their Friend”. What’s going on with that?

DH: (laughs) What’s going on with you?

PM: OK, here we go (quoting the lyric): “A black headed buzzard led the others on / He knew he couldn’t get nothing by staying home”. Then the lyric goes into this whole other story about someone cooking bacon. “That bacon grease don’t matter none / Let it slip and slide and run”. Then we’re back to the buzzards. “Hey hey, put in your day / See those buzzards on their way / Black head and looking slick flying right along”.

DH: I think I’m just painting a picture, getting a vision across. Then all of a sudden it switches gears with the bacon grease, you know. It don’t matter how much grease is in the pan. It is like two songs in one, different places, but they somehow fit together. I can’t remember the original circumstances, but when I first wrote the words down I gave it the title, “When That Bacon Fries”. I did the same (disjunctive) thing on “Where’s the Money” and “Canned Music”. In “Canned Music” the chorus (quotes) “Canned music, canned music, playing on the radio” has nothing to do with the story in the verses about the guy losing his girlfriend. Maybe the buzzard is cooking the bacon and when it says (quoting), “When that bacon fries I want you gone” it’s like, eat your bacon and beat it. I don’t know (laughs). I can’t tell you how the bacon got in there.

PM: A lot of your lyrics have the theme of movement: “keep moving”, “making it move”, “slow moving”–

DH: “She’s About a Mover” (laughs). Yes. Is there a question?

PM: Uh, (weakly) is that theme reflected in your life?

DH: I think it’s a good image to have happening (when writing songs). It’s not necessarily that in my personal life I got to keep moving, it’s more that it gets me moving in my head. I have even got one I’m working on now; it’s a ballad…(sings) “I could take a train to nowhere, just to get away”. It’s not that the guy is really going to get a train; it’s in his head, wanting to put some distance between him and his loved one. Sometimes too you have got to have somewhere to go (in terms of the song’s narrative development) because with the repetitive (verse-chorus-verse-chorus song structure) you just sort of keep re-entering the same thing.

PM: After the original Hot Licks disbanded around 1974, you released a solo album (It Happened One Bite) in 1976. Then you seemed to drop off the radar. What was happening during those years?

DH: I was hanging around Mill Valley, doing some radio, some commercials, sometimes being a little irresponsible…

PM: I notice on the new album you talk about asking the bartender for a “Virgin Kamikaze”. Does that mean you’re less irresponsible these days?

DH: I haven’t been drinking for years now. Something’s got to give. I don’t mind that I’m a guy that’s stopped drinking, though this interview is making me mighty thirsty. How many more decades do we have to go before we get to the new album? I’m surprised you haven’t asked me what I was doing in the years 1 through 10 (laughs).

PM: Ok, let’s bring it up to date. Last year you released Beatin’ the Heat on Surfdog Records, with cameos by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Brian Setzer and Bette Midler. How did that album come about?

DH: We had the album pretty much done and we could have put it out with or without the cameos, but we wanted to do something with people who were fans and who I was fans of. I made out a list of people we thought would go for it and we contacted them. First guy we contacted was Tom Waits and he said yeah. Some were easier than others, but everybody was cool, wanted to do a good job.

PM: Is Tom a friend?

DH: Knew him in LA in the ’70s to say “hi” to.

PM: Bette Midler?

DH: She recorded some of my songs and is a fan. She does “Hell I’d Go” in her stage act and she recorded “Up Up Up”. I said, “I want you to do this one”, and she said, “I need something with more melody, let’s do this one over here”.

PM: How about Elvis Costello?

DH: We sent him the track to England and he overdubbed his vocal there. Hey, I don’t know them; they don’t know me (laughs).

PM: Alive & Lickin’, the new live album doesn’t sound like a revival of the Hot Licks, there’s so much new material, it’s a whole new thing.

DH: I don’t think I’d want a revival. I’m not doing a tribute to myself. Hopefully I grow and change, write new things, and this band is all new people, so it’s a new feel, more ensemble stuff. We’re not doing all original songs. I’m not a guy who feels I always have to do original songs, so we do things like “Comes Love”, old standards, and “Wild About My Lovin'”, a Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band number.

PM: You mentioned them before. Who are they?

DH: They were from Boston Cambridge. They’re really good man. There’s a new compilation CD of their stuff, worth checking out. On the liner notes they talk about how if anyone carried on what they were doing it’s Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. I kind of like that idea.

PM: Any upcoming events we should know about?

DH: I turn 60 on December 9, and we’re going to have a reunion gig with everybody that’s ever played with me. It’ll be over 50 musicians, so it’s kind of a big deal. It will be somewhere in San Francisco.

PM: With the Hot Licks, how much of a bandleader are you?

DH: I pretty much outline the sound and the form. I outline when things are going to happen, when the girls sing with me or do call/response. The licks and fills I come up with. I’m not a lead guitarist, so I sing (the instrumental fills). I’m not able to say like, “this is a flatted seventh”, so I just sing it and they learn it and play it and improve on it. They’ll say, “this note would sound better than” (what I sang). What I don’t do, I don’t dictate the solos and I don’t dictate the vocal harmonies. They work that out between themselves. Then if I hear something I don’t think is right…there’s a feeling, a unity when it’s right. You’re singing and playing separate parts, but you’re making one sound.