Monday, January 10, 2005

Hot Licks for Neurotic Kicks

Much virtue in Herbs, little in Men. --Poor Richard

Dan Hicks is a freaky dude. He was one of the founding members of the psychedlic scene in mid-60s San Francisco. Except Hicks was and is more of a psychedelic soloist than his more communally oriented confreres from the scene like The Grateful Dead or The Jefferson Airplane.

He always seems to be talking to the multiple voices in his head at least as much as he is talking to us in the audience or us listening to his record. He was here in town last winter and I had the same feeling sitting fifteen feet away from him in the audience.

His musical style is quite eclectic. It combines Andrews Sisters style backing vocals (that are so spaced out they occasionally anticipate the Roche Sisters) with light jazz arrangements that probably come closer to sounding like Django Reinhardt's Hot Five from the Club of Paris than anything else I can think to compare them to (the Bob Wills tunes with a rhythm guitar backbeat also come to mind). The guitar comping sounds very 20s-30s, Euro-hot, and it is usually acoustic. Sid Page saws out haunting fiddle solos, just like Stephane Grappelli played with Django. (Did you know Jackson Browne's dad played keyboards with the real Django?)

A lot of his early photo-shoots seem to suggest he had major identification with the singing cowboys (Did you know Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill was originally written for Gene Autry?) Is that where the yodel comes from? But Dan is such a space cowbay, you can't call it camp. It seems a little too close to the surreality he probably lives everyday for that.

Dan is a funny guy, even if he rarely laughs at his own deadpan jokes:
Bad Grammar:
It's bad grammar baby, when you say I ain't been lovin' you good.

The backing vocals are typically written as obsessively looping voices. In perhaps his best song, I Scare Myself, they incessantly repeat over gypsy Flamenco guitar changes:

It's me I'm scared of,
It's me I'm scared of,
It's me I'm scared of

Runnin' runnin' runnin' runnin'
Runnin' runnin' runnin' runnin'

It's a haunting ode to obsessive hyper-self-conscious.

Where The Grateful Dead followed Rilke and Schelling down the path toward a loss of self in the group, Dan Hicks was singing about a neurosis that has a damn firm grip on the freaked out person in question, but it sometimes might let go for a few seconds if you get the 30s jazz groove or your dress-up costume role just right. It doesn't hurt if you throw in a pun while you're at it.

Sometimes there is a moral to the story:
Canned Music promotes live music over the zombified reprocessing of recorded music, but also warns you about the potential downside--if you dance too close to the bandstand, the drummer might go home with your girl.

Slow Movin' lays down a groove with a gypsy feel comparable to I Scare Myself, but the lyrics pull it into the reassuring and comforting stasis of walking down the sidewalk on a sunny California day to nowhere in particular.

When I feel a little too weird for this world, I listen to Mr. Hicks and his Hot Licks and he puts my mind at ease.

There is much virtue in Dan.