Loony Tunesby Richard Klin
I Scare Myself
(Jawbone Press, 2017)
The lion’s share of Dan Hicks’s musical renown came during his stint, in the 1960s and 1970s, as the front man of the sometimes madcap ensemble Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Hicks died in early 2016. I Scare Myself, his newly published autobiography, offers a start-to-finish life story that stretches from childhood to shortly before his passing.
Hicks’s first burst of acclaim came as the drummer for the Charlatans, a ’60s San Francisco band that received plenty of critical accolades—accolades that failed, sadly, to translate into substantial commercial success. He was there at the inception of San Francisco psychedelia, present at the creation of Chet Helms’s Family Dog, the shape-shifting, seminal exploration of alternative reality that found expression in dances at the iconic Avalon Ballroom. He attended the acid-soaked Trips Festival; he was friendly with pre–Big Brother Janis Joplin. (“She was kind of a rough, tough beatnik, but she was nice, and I thought she was a good singer.”)
Hicks drew from a far range of disparate musical streams; his impetus for the creation of the Hot Licks in the late 1960s was “taking the ingredients I liked, putting them together, and seeing what came out.” The “Hot Licks” name itself was culled from a Glenn Miller song—a self-conscious harkening back to an earlier musical period. That homage proved to be a constant in the Hicks oeuvre.
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks defied easy categorization. They were a musical agglomeration that demanded the use of the word hybrid. There was jazz. There were old-timey elements, country, Western swing, all inflected by Hicks’s abundant eccentricities. This zany eclecticism is reflected in I Scare Myself’s index, bearing entries that include Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mad magazine, Jack Benny, and Boz Scaggs, who wooed away one of Hicks’s love interests.
Zaniness—of which Hicks was never in short supply—rarely inspires respect. He was, though, a walking lexicon of the American songbook, able to discourse with knowledgeable ease on jazz, Frank Sinatra, the Grateful Dead, and anything else that crossed his ears. To borrow music critic Greil Marcus’s phraseology, Hicks was a true, passionate link to the “old, weird America.” The stoner jive of the Hot Licks was undergirded by a real musical gravitas: “[The] thing that’s kept me going is music. It’s not like, wake up, put in eight hours, go to sleep, have a hobby, and find something fun to do on the weekend. There’s none of that for me. I got a consistent thing I wanna do, a lifelong preoccupation, avocation, and motivation—there’s that thread running through my life.”
It is testament to Hicks’s virtuosity that he escaped being consigned to novelty-band purgatory. Most of the Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks output was produced by the legendary Tommy LiPuma. (LiPuma, who provides I Scare Myself’s afterword, died in early 2017, another poignant reminder of a musical era’s passing.) A natural assumption would be that Hicks never escaped cult status, but there was, somewhat surprisingly, considerable success: the cover of Rolling Stone, appearances on such mainstream fare as Johnny Carson and Flip Wilson. It was also, of course, a radically different era, in which the counterculture began infiltrating the mainstream.
I Scare Myself, though, is far from an amusing chronicle of groovy bacchanalia. Hicks is unflinching in recounting his massive, catastrophic dissipation: “I remember playing some show, and afterwards everybody went over to some house and smoked angel dust,” he writes. “During the Hot Licks I just took whatever came our way . . . some guy had a big buck knife with coke on the end, and he was putting it up to everybody’s nose.” The all-consuming substance abuse eventually cost him just about everything; his unflinching account is quite awful: “I hated my life then . . . I’d drink a lot and didn’t do much else. There were times when I’d stay in bed all day, then get up at night and walk to the bar in the dark.” The downward spiral continued as he was reduced, eventually, to living in a hovel.
Ultimately, there was triumph. Hicks—with lots of assistance—pulled himself together. He worked hard at staying clean and sober, got married, and resumed making music, although never with his original intensity. Nor did he come close to his original level of popularity. Which seemed—if the book is any reliable indicator—just fine with Dan Hicks.
There is a Hicksian reservoir on YouTube that conveys a strong sense of his antic virtuosity. (The Flip Wilson appearance, in particular, is really odd in a way that’s basically indescribable.) I Scare Myself can also be construed as the authoritative guide to all things Dan Hicks, with posthumous commentary and a lengthy discography that includes Hicks’s own original liner notes. I Scare Myself is, quite obviously, a labor of love. Just like his music.
RICHARD KLIN is the author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011).