Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks finally score a hit album, 'Last Train to Hicksville' — just as Hicks dissolves the band
"I was born in 1947. I got my first guitar when I was ten. I toured with Chuck Berry for a year. I was with Herbie Hancock for a good count. I've paid my dues. They were, ah, $13 an hour, I believe." —Dan Hicks, The Famous Musical Cowboy
What sort of man is Dan Hicks?
Only Jimmie the Talking Dummy knows for sure. Jimmie's had his opportunities to tell. He had half a dozen words on the first Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks album. There were two photos of him on the second album, Where's The Money? and a part in the "Dan Hicks Look-Alike Contest—Look Just Like Dan Hicks" coupon that was included in Striking It Rich.
There was a time when Dan would bring Jimmie to gigs in his own little hatbox, but only on one occasion did he ever get up the nerve to bring him out onstage. Finally Jimmie's body started to rot and in a fit of pique Dan tore him up. The Hot Licks remember being greeted as they came to one rehearsal at Dan's old Sausalito houseboat by the sight of an armless Jimmie sitting on the deck.
Today, though, Jimmy is nothing but a dummy's head, sporting a golden moustache and granny glasses, on the wall in Dan's living room.
What we're dealing with, Jimmie might have said if he chose to, is a rare talent and a mysterious temperament. A talent that has created a unique body of music and laboriously assembled an equally unique group of musicians to play it; and a temperament that decided to hang the whole thing up just before the release of his most successful album. Now Last Train to Hicksville is around No. 65 on the LP charts and the band's sitting around collecting unemployment. What sort of man is Dan Hicks, anyway?
About the talent there's no doubt. For five years he's been violating the heavy-electric and wispy-folk pop clichés alike with a band that has always featured two girl singers, the Lickettes, and at least one violin, usually no drums and never any electrified instruments. The music reflects most of the American pop tradition before the rock era: ragtime, C&W, Hoagy Carmichael ballads, Hawaiian music, mellow swing. But many people have been discovering lately, there's more to it than a nostalgia turn. "I'm not trying to write old songs," as Dan says.
One of the things Dan has done is take the occasionally arbitrary stylization of old standard pop tunes and turn it into a motif. So whether the melodies are melancholy or exuberant, whether the lyrics are of wistful romance, frustration and dismay, crazy jiving, mental expansiveness or ironic anecdote, the rhythms are extremely tight—so light, stylish and jaunty that a certain dissonance is set up with the lyrics and melodies. Music to keep on troupin' by.
The band has always looked like troupers in the noblest showbiz tradition, dressing as they do in the stagestruck duds of several other eras. In fact, they have acted like troupers, too, in spending most of the last two years on the road. Their Salvation Army vamp gowns and Hawaiian shirts not only underline the sense of tradition they work out of, they add to that stylistic complexity, that vibrating high note of sophistication that marked the Hot Licks as a band apart.
The mysterious Dan Hicks temperament is hard to separate—unfortunately, some might say—from the music. It also comes out in such things as Dan's stage patter between numbers, which can wander for minutes on end exploring the edgy no-man's-land between joke and insult. On at least one tour the Hot Licks made a deal with the lighting man to kill the stage lights if Dan's rap went on too long. That tended to hold it down, when Dan found himself singled out in a pin spot on a dark stage.
It all started, what it is now—the music, the style, even, God knows, probably the temperament—back in the earliest days of the San Francisco scene. There was a band with a funky, turn-of-the-century style called the Charlatans who had the distinction of being about the first of the city's psychedelic-era rock bands. In their Wild Bill Hickok hairdos and Mississippi Queen gambler vests they crystallized the ambience of art nouveau and Victorian stained glass that was the cultural heritage of San Francisco hippies—back in the days when the youth bohemia was in the Fillmore District, before the flowering of the Haight-Ashbury.
Their drummer was a kid in his early 20s who was getting his degree in Radio and Television Communication at San Francisco State College. He'd been drumming since the age of 11—drums as a second choice instrument when his mother vetoed the marimba—and since Santa Rosa High School had played corny dance gigs in waltz and foxtrot bars all over Sonoma County. The Charlatans were mainstays of the San Francisco scene, but Dan wasn't satisfied. "Everything you brought into the Charlatans," he says, "ended up just as a loud rock tune. It lost my kind of floating ... of a floating, linear feeling."
Toward the end of 1967, when the Airplane, Big Brother, the Dead and the rest of the San Francisco bands had become national figures, the Charlatans had been going essentially nowhere for almost three years. Dan made his own plans.
Here. Take a look at this. It might interest you."
Jaime (he pronounces it "Jamie") got up from his Olde California chair in the Marin County Big Time Dealer's Pad where he was crashing and handed over a crude early-psychedelic poster in black and white: THE ORKUSTRA ELECTRIFIED.
"The Orkustra was the Digger band," Jaime said, popping a prescription cold pill. " 'Light Shows for the Blind' was our motto—we played the old Avalon, the Panhandle on New Year's, 1967. There's Emmett Grogan in the crowd right there. Here's me"—he pointed to a group of three heavily overcoated young men—"and here's David LaFlamme, he started It's a Beautiful Day later on, and the guy in the top hat is Bobby Beausoleil."
Bobby Beausoleil of the Manson family? Associated with a happy hippie-type like you?
"Yeah. He played electric guitar and bouzouki with the band. Bobby has a natural gift, you know, but he was an incredible sort of egotist. He learned guitar all by himself, for instance. He drew this poster, in fact. He's about two years younger than me, so he was about 18 when he was in the Orkustra—it went from '65 to '67—and about 19 when the Manson business went down. I still hear from him once in a while. Got a letter from San Quentin a year or so ago.
"I went to San Francisco State in French and Russian from '64 to '66, see. It was the heyday of the Haight, and it was really hard to avoid getting swept up in it. So I played bass with the Orkustra and ... oh, I was in the film Kenneth Anger made starring Bobby, Lucifer Rising. I walked down a staircase wearing a crow's head. An Anger trip, you know, everybody parading around in costumes. A raven's head, it was. That's the film that disappeared—Bobby told me he took it from Anger in retribution because Anger had broken his bouzouki." Jaime chuckled and thumbed his lip beard.
"By the time the Orkustra riff ended I was definitely out of State, so I sold newspapers and dope in the Haight. Got busted for both, too.
"But before that, LaFlamme had introduced me to Dan. I played bass with the two of them at about ten gigs at little places around town in '67—the Matrix, the Straight Theater, places that don't even exist anymore. I made up the name 'the Hot Licks' in late '67. At least, I think I made it up—we were standing outside the Matrix before going on one night and it got made up.
"But then I spent the first six months of '68 in jail for sales. Dan was trying to get something together as usual, and when I got out he had a bassist. So I went to Portland, where my family lives, to do a bit part in Paint Your Wagon, and with that money I was going to go to Europe. I got as far as New York and lived on the street for a while—literally, sleeping on rooftops.
"Then one day I called Dan and he needed a bassist. Both the bassist and his wife, who was a singer with Dan at the time, had quit in order to get heavier into Gurdjieff. People are always quitting Dan for religious reasons, you know. Sherri Snow, one of the Lickettes who sang on the first album, quit to join Subud; her name's Halima now. And Jon Weber, the first guitarist, left for macrobiotic reasons.
"So Dan needed a bassist. I flew back to Portland to get my bass and then to San Francisco and stayed with him and his girlfriend while they were breaking up."
Thus, Jaime Leopold began five years of creative ferment and marginal living as a Hot Lick. The bland psychedelic kiddo of the Orkustra poster sprouted a moustache and started wearing Hawaiian shirts, ice cream suits and seedy panama hats. He now stood revealed in his true identity as Skippy Sanchez, a squawking auctioneer/DJ stream-of-consciousness rapper who can be heard signing off the Striking It Rich album.
"Dan's always wanted a good dummy," says Jaime/Skippy, "and while Jimmie's been deteriorating he and I've wanted to do a comedy routine, because I can always counter his riffs. He digs it if you can come back with something when he lays down that sarcasm of his."
On account of the cold pills, Jaime refused a glass of wine—uncharacteristic for a Hot Lick, since a rider to the band's contracts always stipulated that local promoters provide beer and white wine for backstage use—and fingered his cold pill bottle. "I think the group'll probably get together again," he said with a shade of doubt in his voice. "If it doesn't, I guess I don't know for sure what I'll do. There's some talk about forming an independent Hot Licks without Dan, that's one possibility. I might publish my songs, I've been writing for a year and a half. I might easily get into other things—I'd like to direct movies.
"Or I might travel ... or travel and write ... or retire on my laurels ... or fade away ... I'll probably end up pumping gas."
As Skippy Sanchez says on Striking It Rich, Symphony Sid was a child prodigy. He started violin in kindergarten, got to winning contests and by the time he was 13 he'd played with the Santa Rosa Symphony. But The Great Conductor in the Sky had not called him to be a conservatory teacher.
Dan met his former violinist in a bar in Santa Rosa, a provincial city 50 miles north of San Francisco. "He didn't look like a future employer," Sid Page recalls. At the time Dan hired him, Sid was working as a shoe salesman.
"I quit college after a year and a half when I figured out I didn't want to be a teacher," Sid recalled in a former manager's living room. "I got married and started working at the Emporium as a janitor. I was going for the big bucks.
"I was writing at the same time and branching out of classical music into pop. When Dan met me I had a little bebop-businessman's bounce group at that bar, the El Rancho. December, 1969, when he hired me, I'd made my way up to shoe salesman at the Emporium. They were sad to see me go—I was a pretty good salesman, and besides, it was Christmas week—and they told me I could come back any time if it didn't work out."
It worked out, but there were some changes along the way: dropping his wife, for one thing, and developing a great golden mane of hair and beard. His serious, classically trained manner remained, however. "In the early days," he recalls, "there were lots of 'slow down, we gotta regroup' things. There were lots of personnel changes and lots of no gigs. We were all real poor. Once I even considered working as a street musician, but ... when I got down to Union Square, I looked around and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't just fiddle on street corners. I got a job delivering telephone books instead."
Later on, his serious, dedicated approach had several consequences. It provided a high-minded background to the at least surface frivolity of the Hot Licks, and it also at times seemed to irk Dan, who referred to his music on one album cover as "the soporific strains of Sid 'When - Does - This - Stuff - Take - Effect' Page," and once fired him onstage. The clash of temperaments worked both ways, too. "Some feeling of sincere dedication has to come from a band's leader," said Sid. "When you don't get that, you lose direction. And Dan, you know, tends to sabotage his own projects. I'm not letting any cats out of the bag here—you've met him, you know when he meets people he's not exactly looking to make friends.
"For instance, the road was hard on Dan. Myself, I never mind touring; I figure it's part of the business. And maybe a problem is that very young kids can't always dig our music, but I feel that it's the musician's responsibility to set a groove. But at a concert Dan would look out and see a lot of young teenagers and say, 'They're not going to dig us,' you know, in a half-kidding way. But when he's half kidding he's three-quarters serious. And that wasn't the best kind of note to strike before we're going out on the stage."
The Hot Licks may be in limbo, pending Dan's decision whether to resurrect them or not, but that's neither here nor there to Sid, who left before the group was put on the shelf. In fact, he says, "If it hadn't been for 'I Scare Myself,' and one or two other tunes, I might not have stayed on as long as I did. That was always the freest, least structured number the band played and I could stretch out on it. A modal, serious, sober, soul-searching tune, which is what I get off on.
"It's a little difficult to leave a band that's turned you on for so long. Jaime and I roomed together for a while, you know, we were close. But money's the least important thing about my gig. I feel better leaving now during a breakup than if I left after making a bundle.
"Dan's band was a great learning band, because there was lots of variety— C&W, country swing, jazz, rock. But I don't want to play old-fashioned styles anymore. I want to play something where you know something's being created right now.
"I want an instrumental band where I can use my classical intensity. I want to break the stigma that there's only certain kinds of music for the violin. I like music like Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, anything with space in it—I'm spaced myself. I'd just like to say publicly—Come on, try me. Throw anything you want at me."
Maryann Price and John Girton
Maryann Price, one of the current duo of glamorous Lickettes (she has been known to freshen her makeup in the recording studio), lives with Mr. John "Johnny Guitar" Girton, the original Kellogg's Kid, in a drydocked houseboat on the shore of an unbearably picturesque cove of San Francisco Bay.
Shuddering and creaking with every footstep, the converted boat shares the same view as a couple of pretty posh homes and, in fact, has a better stand of foxtail and wild fennel. At the sound of a visitor's footsteps, across the resounding soundboard of the deck, Maryann trilled in an earthy contralto, "Come on in, it's nice to see somebody.
"We've been living in an iron lung, for three years. You know what being on the road is like? It's like being in the Army—you go all sorts of places on a tight schedule and you don't know anybody except the same people you've been seeing every day."
John slipped quietly into the musical instruments room and reappeared with a musician's liquor case—a Prohibition relic that looks like a miniature violin case and has a nicely padded cavity just the size of a bottle. The bottle in this case was some champagne he'd picked up at a bar mitzvah gig two years before.
Both are long-time music pros. John may have started in acting—as a kid he ate Kellogg's Corn Flakes in ads while Tony the Tiger freaked around behind him in cartoon form—but in high school in Glendale, California, he heard the sax break in Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and became an aspiring saxophonist at once. At the age of 18, under the influence of surf music, he took up guitar and spent a couple of years playing L.A. bars and giving guitar lessons. He joined the Hot Licks two and a half years ago, right after Where's The Money? had been recorded and just in time for the band's first national tour.
Maryann's cameo features, controlled contralto and strong will carried her from Baltimore, where she was singing in bars and making radio commercials at the age of 16, to the Las Vegas lounges. Basically a jazz singer, she played Vegas and Tahoe with Dante Varela's jazz band before coming to San Francisco looking for the musical creativity the city was becoming known for. "I thought I'd have to learn to sing rock & roll," she recalls, "to scream and develop nodes on my vocal cords."
Her tough Vegas training in professionalism and John's ten years of random gigging must have stood them in good stead, to judge from the stories about the band's first national tour. It was nine six-day weeks of gigging under intense psychological pressure. Dan's manager of the time, Gretchen Sherman, remembers that there was a "rotating psycho room" in the hotel arrangements, so any band member who needed to room alone for a night could do so—if he'd reserved it far enough in advance. It was Gretchen's first tour as a manager on her own without her former boss Bill Graham to back her up; it was Dan's first tour under his own name—and both parties, as Gretchen points out, were 30 years old at the time and under terrible pressure to make a success.
The tour was, as they say, "marred by incidents." Dan's guitar neck broke the second night out. The first night the Lickettes' purses were stolen. They say they were screwed by club owners all along the line. Dan had just switched from Epic Records to Blue Thumb, and Blue Thumb had just switched its distribution arrangements from Capitol to Paramount's Famous Music, with the result that promotion for the tour was confused and the crowds were small. Usually when they played a town the record wasn't in the stores. After that tour, the group broke up for three weeks.
Tours since have been smoother, although to get in on last year's tour with Elton John the band once had to accept a gig where they preceded Steppenwolf. The teens were definitely not into listening to sophisticated acoustic jazz and it was one of the band's shortest performances. Gretchen Sherman remembers that Naomi Eisenberg, with a great deal of panache, caught some of the ice cubes they were being pelted with and did a juggling act.
But mostly they were easier from a technical standpoint. The band's contract stipulated that the local promoter provide a palm tree for the stage, and mostly the promoters went for it. The group was developing a word-of-mouth audience who'd put up with any amount of sarcastic stage talk from Dan. On last December's tour the band played mostly sold-out halls and clubs.
John and Maryann lounged on their bed in the gypsy tent that is their room—wall hangings, puppy prints, ornamented fans, a photo of John with a big lipstick kiss on his bald forehead, one of Maryann en flamenco with a rose in her hair taken backstage at their Flip Wilson Show gig. They were speculating about the future, which may or may not feature a Hot Licks band.
"We're professionals," said Maryann, eyes flashing. "Why are we sitting around? How come the band isn't performing, touring behind an album that's No. 65? If you're a musician, you're a musician, right?" John nodded.
"It's a drag that the band got stereotyped as a nostalgia or novelty group," Maryann said. "I think Dan's written some very valid tunes. But I've been talking to people about going out as an act on my own and for that I'd only want to do contemporary-type material, no nostalgia reference. Some Latin jazz party music, throw in a little piano. And John on guitar. I want him to come along wherever I go." She beamed at him and gave him a squeeze in an inconspicuous place.
"I don't consider myself a writer," Maryann continued, "but a singer and arranger. I want to use contemporary composers, like John's got material he's written, like 'Flight of the Fly' and 'Vivando' that we recorded with Dan, and there are others I'd like to use. But one thing's sure. We don't want to go touring five weeks out of six anymore. Do we, honey?" John nodded with a quiet smile.
Maryann has a message for everybody: "Straight ahead and strive for tone."
Naomi Ruth Eisenberg
On Naomi Eisenberg's left forearm, there is a tattoo of a rose. On her right, a tattooed champagne glass with four bubbles and two quarter notes floating above it. She's the kind of girl who sings in the recording studio with her eyes closed and a smile on her face.
"Come September, who knows what may happen. But I feel in my mind that the group's over. I think of this interview as my last obligation to the idea of the group."
That's after two and a half years as a Lickette. Singing with Dan satisfied two of her earliest interests, acting and music. As a child she was interested in a theatrical career, and she comes from a musical family: Her sister is a classical pianist. Naomi picked up violin from her, by ear.
"I was born in Brooklyn," she said, flaunting the words like a true star and curling her fingers around a glass of white wine. "We lived in Flushing and then moved to Manhattan, where I went to Blackboard Jungle High School. I got enough school there to last me—I don't even know whether I graduated." She "dropped out and West" in the summer of '66.
"In Berkeley I was in a group called Dancing, Food and Entertainment. Dancing, Food played stuff kind of like Dan's, far-out ditties with zappy images, and we did a demo, all psychedelic with all the tracks blending into each other. They kicked me out after a while and then broke up."
She auditioned for Dan once after Dancing, Food and a year after that he still needed a singer and she answered an ad on an FM rock station. This time she was accepted the day she came in, and she soon blossomed into one of the great visual attractions of the band, with her fiddle, her Forties glamour and the ever-changing tint and cut of her hair. She turned out to be a composer as well. "Presently in the Past," the unexpectedly torchy ballad on Striking It Rich, is a song she wrote at age 14.
Like the majority of the group, she eventually found herself at odds with Stephen Pilster, the group's former manager. Steve is the charming, affable proprietor of Deadly Earnest Productions (before that of Barely Managing Co.), who started working with Dan at the same time as John Girton—on the first national tour in spring of 1971. When Gretchen Sherman quit as manager at the end of 1971 —after "too many fights and too many times Dan had embarrassed me"—Pilster stayed on as road manager, later promoted to the manager's gig the following January. Steve confesses he might have been "a little over my head" in the year and a quarter he was managing Dan, but others have harsher words for it.
Part of the complaint is that he was spending too much, thereby cutting into profits and forcing the band to spend most of their time touring. "I agree the band was spending too much on the road," Steve says in his defense. "The way I figured it, this band had to tour if it was going to survive, so I had to make it attractive to tour. And to me this meant making it lucrative and comfortable. I didn't think people really wanted to live cheaper on the road. I think I was gettin' it right from Dan on this." The expenses were things like $30 hotel rooms, unnecessary phone calls and flights to Los Angeles, chartering private planes (three times), not things that would necessarily bulk large to your average superstar electric blues band, but irritants to the Hicks band back in the days when they rarely grossed over $3,000 a night and made $100 a week in salaries.
He's also faulted for not riding herd on the booking agent more to get better-paying gigs and arrange them so that transportation between them wouldn't be a backbreaker. Everyone agrees the tours were bad for morale. One band member defends Pilster on this count: "Maybe he could have gotten better gigs. Maybe it would have been possible. You know. Tune in next week." It's also true that Steve was on the same salary as a band member, rather than being given a percentage of the income for incentive, as most managers are.
But in his leap from road manager to manager, as Gretchen Sherman points out, the very young Pilster "aligned himself with Dan in internal band politics and got caught in that." At this point the business complaints against him start blending imperceptibly into matters of lack of communication and personal differences: Steve's philosophy was, "Dan is the focus of the group, the one who originated the concept and organized it." To the band, by and large, this merely puts a plausible face on habitual ass-kissing. As Naomi explains, the band finally refused to work with Pilster:
"We had been disillusioned with him and complaining to Dan for a year but Dan would rather talk to one person than six people so he kept him on. Finally last winter we gave him an ultimatum, he'd have to get rid of Pilster. But Dan doesn't have any business head and didn't have the guts to fire him. Firing somebody's a big trauma with Dan; he's a softie at heart."
Pilster finally left the first week in April. Dan had announced in February after leaving the stage at a gig in Columbus, Ohio, that he didn't want to have the band anymore. "So I said OK," says Steve Pilster. "And I sat down and worked out a schedule of gigs that would pay off the band's outstanding debts—the band is a partnership, and the debts are common to all of them.
"Then one day, just before a gig, two of the musicians announced they weren't going to play unless they got a 300% raise in pay for the rest of the tour. I considered this very unprofessional behavior, but Dan gave in to them and said he'd stand the debts himself. I felt—I was his manager, and I was giving him the advice he was paying me for and he wasn't hearing it, so I felt I couldn't get into the same bus with him. I quit right then."
The band's version of the same events is more or less as Naomi tells it: "Dan was getting very schizzy. He told everybody he wanted to disband the group, but one day he'd be talking about the ending date as April 30th and the next he'd be full of plans to be on TV in the fall. It was like he was playing with our minds. When you're in a situation like that, when you don't know whether there's a tomorrow, you ask where's the money. As for the debts, we didn't feel they were our debts because we didn't have any say in how the money was spent. They were Pilster's debts.
"The thing that really did it was the Elliot Abbott number. Elliot is an agent with BNB Associates—he manages Randy Newman. He could work well with our record company. He was interested in the group. So after what was supposed to be our last gig—Sid took it seriously, and it was the last gig he played with us—I called a meeting at my house, the first or second of May, to ask what was happening. Dan said he wanted to keep it together and we should take some time off and he'd talk to Elliot.
"We took a couple of weeks off and then gigged some more and then took two more weeks off, this time without pay. Then Elliot flew up to tell us his plan. He had it all worked out for us to tour, possibly with Sha Na Na, hitting the main cities. And at this meeting after he had rapped all this out, Dan came out and said, 'I just wanta say one thing, I want to end this group.' Elliot was really surprised.
"I think Dan's blown the organization and lost everybody's respect. It's a survival trip now. I put in so much energy organizing the group in the last year—we all did. I wouldn't go back without a firm-handed manager behind him when he goes through his agonies, so there'd be no threats from his personality changes.
"The business side was always dragging me. The band never got into full boogie on account of it. We all loved the idea of the group, the material, the audience reactions and all that—we put up with the business side for that. The negative side. Many of the musicians could have made more money if they'd wanted to take less rewarding jobs.
"Dan was tired of being on the road all the time. Maybe he was tired of the people. Maybe he was just tired. He didn't want to be responsible for six people. I don't know what he's going to do. Maybe he'll get the group back together—but by fall he might be a DJ, or in movies, or on Skid Row."
Naomi's been gigging a little with Kathi MacDonald and a group of ex-Cockettes, but she has her eyes set on new horizons. "I want to go out on my own with my fiddle and my material and do a more theatrical thing with more dance. Throw in some James Brown, some Alice Cooper. Just write down, 'Superstar Available: Have Material, Body, Head, Fiddle.'
"I want to be the female David Bowie."
Bob Scott, the first full-time drummer the band ever had, joined it on the eve of destruction. "When I came in last December," he says, "the lines were already drawn. Just about everybody was down on Pilster. The thing was, Pilster had no respect from the group as a human being or as a businessman, and that's a very bad situation for a group.
"To me, he seemed like a good guy. A novice, but not a bad guy. He didn't seem to have much business sense, because he didn't seem to bargain for gigs. And I think it was playing lame gigs that might have burned everyone out."
Bob lives in a comfortable house in the Berkeley hills, in the sort of settled grooviness that befits the young computer programmer he was until last October when he chucked it to play music full time. John Girton, a jam-session acquaintance of his, brought him into the group in time for the latest album.
"Dan is a drummer, you know," he said in a quiet, reasonable Omaha-on-top-of-Ozarks cadence. "You can tell from how rhythmic and subtle the music is. He leaves lots of holes for drum parts in the music. I got to write the parts myself, and that was a real challenge for a drummer: The music is fast, soft and intricate, so you've got to play light and still cook." He picked up that challenge in a matter of hours. After a couple of afternoons' rehearsal he was not only playing with the band but recording with them.
"It's a good performing band. I was impressed with the musicality of the group. There's more going on musically than most people will ever notice. The material kept on being interesting every night, it kept on growing and getting more and more together. And regardless of what happened before the performance, no matter how drunk or hostile or whatever everybody was, they'd go onstage and play their asses off."
How coincidental you should call. I was just throwing pins at a little doll I'd made of you," Dan is answering into the phone. His home is finely furnished by blessed St. Vincent de Paul: old sofas, a print of Shirley Temple, sheet music for minstrel numbers, a flamenco dancer marionette with accordion-pleat knees hanging from the ceiling. Jimmy the Talking Dummy rests in a circular Art Deco bric-a-brac shelf, next to an MD's waiting room sign that reads in large letters A NOTE TO ALL MY PATIENTS. Dan's guitar with the gooseneck mike curving down toward the soundhole rests on the floor amid a small pile of instrument cases.
What sort of man is Dan Hicks? "He's a nice guy," Stephen Pilster had said, "basically a nice guy. I keep telling myself." "Dan is like a 45-year-old guy," said Gretchen Sherman; "hysterically funny, dry, sarcastic. He has a lot of charm he's unaware of. I mean, the guy's looking for love all his life, like all of us. Eventually, anybody who's around him starts falling into his style, talking like him and like that. And everybody falls in love with that loser pose of his." "I feel for the guy," Maryann said, "because I know something about his family. His father was the kind of Army man who had Dan put his shirts in the closet all facing the same way and exactly so and so far apart." "The real Dan," opined Bob Scott, "is his music."
In a way, what difference does it make what sort of man he is? His personality, like the old-timey musical traditions he uses, are merely the raw material of his idiosyncratic art. There's a direct line that runs between his wearing his Campion Champions jacket around North Beach coffee houses in the early years of the folk era—the name refers to Santa Rosa High School's world champion drill team, '56-'57—and his sardonic insistence, to the discomfort of an SRO audience that has just given him a thunderous ovation, "Boy, it's great to be popular. I sure wasn't popular when I was in high school, though. I was a nobody. I was shit on the wall," and so on for a couple of minutes until the stage lights go down and Dan finds himself picked out by a pin spot.
Dan hangs up the phone. It was actually a friendly conversation—he was no more throwing pins at a doll than he was born in 1947 or toured with Chuck Berry. At the moment, Dan's expression is puzzled and reproachful, like an elderly beagle unexpectedly thrust on an escalator—an expression his audiences have often seen. But he melts just perceptibly and heaves a sigh.
"Maybe in a couple of months I'll have eyes to re-form the band. I don't know. I just got tired of touring, of waitin' in airports and goin' to hotels, seein' the same people all the time. It'd got to the point I was just goin' through the motions onstage. The idea was in my head for a year, a year and a half.
"I don't think of the group as broken up. It's still a group; it's just not a performing group at the moment." In similar terms he pooh-poohs the notorious Elliot Abbott bombshell: "I didn't say I wanted to end the group, what I said was, 'I don't care if this group ever works again.' " Likewise his original decision this February to end the group: "I just got off the stage in Columbus one day feeling really drug and I said, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' It'd become a big business trip; it wasn't a fun music trip anymore. I wasn't in love with it the way I used to be. So then everybody started runnin' around acting like I meant the end of the group. That wasn't my idea."
But if things are uncertain, they're definitely down. "I'm gonna be makin' a slow comeback, because I'm just blown out. Because I don't think I have the confidence to even get back up on the stage.
"Can you comprehend a human mind, a state of mind, where everything bothers you? Yeah, there were pressures of touring and hassles in the band. But that ain't it. It's also, ah, the inner demons that possess me. Small, miniscule aliens from another planet."
He leans forward with a frown and says in a gruff, mock-rueful voice, "It's all that Pilster's fault. When he was my manager, that year I would just hear from him about what the members of the band wanted ... I just kind of drifted away from it.
"I'm still signed to do another album for Blue Thumb. I might do some ads, or voice work. Acting maybe. I want to write. I'm the kind of guy that most of the time my guitar stays in its case between gigs. I want to do something more independent, more responsible for myself, and give up the bandleader gig which I wasn't too good at.
"There are a couple of tentative gigs in August. Possibly I might do them with Jaime and some kind of lead instrumentalist. I don't feel I owe it to anybody, though, to say I'm gonna do anything."
It's a bad time to ask; everything's up in the air. His eyes are starting to dart back and forth a little.
"I'm not currently that ambitious. I need some space. I might wake up tomorrow ready to go to Hollywood and be a movie star."
A little later he says, "I couldn't handle success ... the modicum I had." Then changing his tack, he suggests that he should be quoted as saying, "The tin-eared, asshole American public can shove it, 'cause they didn't believe in what I was doin'."
But what's the story? What title does it have?—"Is This the Last Train to Hot Licksville?," "Has Moderate Success Spoiled Dan Hicks?" or "Crouching on the Springboard to Stardom"?
"You could call it . . . 'Enigmas on Thin Ice.' "