10th February 2016
Ace’s Alec Palao remembers Dan Hicks, former Charlatan and leader of the Hot Licks, who died on 6 February 2016 of cancer.
It’s hard for me to offer the standard obituary for Dan Hicks. He really was a one-off, and I am truly honoured that I had the opportunity to work with him on more than one occasion. It’s also hard to categorize his style of music, although one oft-used description was folk-jazz, or as Dan would joke, “fo-jazz.” Western swing, bluegrass, ragtime and the blues all fit in there somewhere too, but it’s Hicks’ lyrical persona, the drily witty erudite raconteur with a keen eye for observation, that elevates him to the ranks of the truly inspired. ‘Canned Music,’ ‘I Scare Myself,’ ‘How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away,’ ‘Capo On My Brain,’ ‘Euphonious Whale,’ and so many others: his legacy is a finely-honed, devastatingly-humoured cache of brilliance.
Hicks was an anomaly within the San Francisco 1960s scene. It was serendipitous in the extreme that he landed with the Charlatans, for his self-generated repertoire meshed perfectly with their folk, country and old-timey musical direction. Throughout his tenure with the band, Hicks had continued to pen what his mother had coined ‘quips’ and while the band did an admirable job of performing them, the singer/guitarist/drummer looked to do his own thing. The original Hot Licks’ line-up was fluid while the Charlatans still existed but upon their breakup, Hicks was soon signed to Epic and “Original Recordings” debuted his parched style and is still a crucial album for the many who discovered its charms at the time. Ensuing LPs like “Where’s The Money” and “Last Train To Hicksville”, spread the Hicks gospel further, creating in the process, the cult of Dan. His discography was not huge, but it was always top-notch.
I first met Dan when investigating the career of the Charlatans over two decades ago, with some trepidation: I had been forewarned that he might not enjoy talking about his first band. It is true that Hicks could sometimes be testy, as when during the assembly of Ace’s “Amazing Charlatans” collection, he reminded me, “you know, I left this band thirty years ago” (expressing said sentiment in rather more colourful terms). Yet I always felt Dan was proud of his musical heritage; he kept elaborate scrapbooks, had a clear memory on a lot of events, and when I approached him about releasing the 1967 demo sessions that would become “Early Muses,” was enthusiastic. Frankly, I was surprised by his level of interest, as he suggested additional tracks for inclusion, and even came up with sketches for cover ideas and the like. I’m inordinately proud of that CD, not just because it gives us a glimpse of the rare genesis of the Hot Licks with David LaFlamme, but also because the music it contains is pure Dan: a collection that quite possibly showcases his songwriting and performance attributes as well as any other release might.
I’d be lying if I said Dan was easy to get to know, but I’d like to think we were friendly, or at least had a rapport. He would send out his own witty, handmade postcards advertising local shows and I kept them all, and always looked forward to his calls. Every performance I ever caught was great, and more often than not had me in stitches. In particular, Dan held a spectacular “60th Birthday Bash” at the Warfield in San Francisco in 2001, packed with associated players old and new, where backstage I got to chat to various Hot Licks alumni, all of whom all spoke fondly of their time with the band leader.
Indeed, everyone who ever worked with Hicks likely has a tidbit, and my own Dan story, while slight, might be as good as any. As the “Early Muses” project moved along, we would have furtive meetings at a coffee shop in Mill Valley near his home to discuss progress. Needing to do a proper interview for the notes, I duly received a rare invitation to Chez Hicks. On the appointed day, en route to an earlier appointment in nearby Sausalito, my car popped a timing belt, leaving me essentially stranded. I called Dan from the garage to see when he wanted to reschedule. Palpably irritated, he responded, “nah man, we gotta do it now, I’ll come to you,” grumbling that the refreshments he had prepared - fruit cup, as I recall – would now get wasted.
When he showed up some time later in a 70s era convertible, with shades and a small dog, I suggested that we repair to a local restaurant to talk, but he wasn’t enthusiastic, as “someone might hear us.” So instead we strolled across Bridgeway to the Bayfront park, Dan averting his gaze when recognized by some friendly street people relaxing on the grass. We found a bench and started to chat, his dog free to do its business. Some time into the interview, the street types in the distance started waving at us, and it was soon apparent that there were cops in the park handing out citations to people who did not have their pet on a leash. Improvising, Dan whipped off his belt and put it around his dogs neck, but before we knew it, a female officer was upon us. “Sir, there is a city ordinance against pets without a leash – I know you didn’t have one because you saw me coming and took off your belt.” “How do you know that?” he retorted. “Did you see me see you?” Sadly, I had turned off the tape recorder otherwise the priceless banter that followed would be preserved, but the end result was Dan got a ticket, which did not help lighten his mood. “Record company gonna pay for this?” he inquired, only half joking. On subsequent meetings though, we had a good laugh about it. It was a Hicks-ian moment, to be sure, and I often wondered if he might refer to it in song.
The last time I saw Dan was in June 2016 at the Charlatans’ 50th Anniversary reunion, held at the original scene of the crime, the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. Having done battle with cancer, he looked like he had been to hell and back, and was somewhat subdued, demurring when photos were requested. However, come show time, Dan stepped up in redoubtable fashion, narrating the whole shebang over the course of two lengthy sets, telling stories and re-enacting choice moments from the Charlatans’ career. What the show lacked in musical tightness, it more than made up for in emotionally-charged atmosphere and the sense amongst all present that we were privy to a special event in a special place.
A couple of weeks earlier, I’d stopped in at a rehearsal at George Hunter’s house. Nodding to an unused drum kit in the corner of the room, Dan asked, “can you keep a beat, kid?” I tapped along as unobtrusively as possible on ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ and ‘We’re Not On The Same Trip,’ and it was a thrill to do so. When, after some endless to-ing and fro-ing on the arrangements, I couldn’t resist offering a gentle suggestion about tempo, Dan loudly proclaimed, “did the drummer say something?” I had to smile. That’s how I’ll remember Dan Hicks, occasionally ornery but with a heart of gold – just like his music.