The Dan Hicks Interview

by Michael Stephens
PopMatters Music and Film Critic
                  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. 

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