Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dan Hicks Too?

The Firm (Craver, Hicks, Watson, Newberry Combo) went on a road trip in early March. Stops in Portland, Spokane, Seattle, then Portland, one two three four, with a long flight going and coming. Out it was thick clouds till past the ole Mississip, then the clouds broke, and over western Nebraska I felt like the only difference I could see was apparently down there was atmosphere, as opposed to Mars or the Moon. By Saturday night, in Seattle, I was coming down with the flu. There was a late-night session at the place we were staying, an old friend from the music scene around here when I was just starting out on the fiddle, Bertram Levy had come down to see the show from Port Townsend and brought his wife and daughter, daughter Madeline being about 20 and an excellent fiddler, so the session was really a lot of fun, but it squeezed the last energy out of me, and the flight back was a blur. After that I slept for about a week, which worked out ok too, as it used up my vacation time before the joint closed down for good on April Fool's Day Friday a week ago.

Somewhere in there I recall someone, maybe it was our hosts in Portland, Nancy Conescu and Mike Doolin, noting that Dan Hicks had passed away. I didn't hardly believe it, but after I got back and more or less well I looked it up, and sure enough, Dan's gone. I'd have sent him a note. I've had a long relationship with Dan Hicks, even if he never was aware of it.

Back in '69 I took a permanent vacation from my first marriage and rode out to San Francisco with a couple of buds in an early '60s Chevy pickup. It looked like this as we started out on our adventure:

We drove out in four days, not stopping except for gas till about 30 hours into it, at Elk City, OK, where there was an inviting motel right on the highway--Route 66, which was getting replaced bit by bit with I-40. I have no idea what the name of that motel was, but there was an excellent Mexican restaurant with or very near the place, where I first had green salsa (it being 1969, these commonplaces were not such, back in lil ole NC where we started out). We pushed on after some damn good sleep, three of us on the bench, seatbelts? are you kidding. We stopped for a great breakfast in Flagstaff, and drove up to the South Rim, peered over the edge and into the abyss, then set out for Needles, Barstow, San Bernadino, with Bakersfield thrown in for good measure, where we stopped at the very apex of the famed "Bakersfield Grade" to lay a beer can on the center line to see which way it would roll, it being a quiet 3 AM or so. We motelled it again in Bakersfield, then drove up the Central Valley towards San Francisco, stopping only to put out a smoldering fire in the bed of the truck, so loaded down that the wood boards that had replaced the steel deck in spots had been riding on the exhaust pipe.

Anyways, after some days reconnoitering Height and figuring out how to hitch-hike over to Oakland to see my sister, I rode with Mac Benford and a a bunch of Oakland old-timey musicians over to the Family Dog Ballroom on the beach in San Francisco, where as I recall they opened for Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks. I'd never heard such music. Over a time I got all the records he'd made, two or three I think it was. By then I was helping to build the Red Clay Ramblers. RCR didn't do much obvious swing material, but I'd say my song Play "Rocky Top" had a lot of Dan's attitude, and was about as Django-ed as we could manage at that time. I've kept up with that one, and the Combo plays it better now than back then, on the Frizz LP, in my considered opinion of course.

I didn't know for decades what had happened to Dan. When Libby and I got together, after I'd left the Ramblers in '81, it turned out that she was a Dan Fan too. In the late '80s we worked up two of his songs, Evening Breeze and Reelin' Down. About 2001 or so Dan showed up on the calendar at the Cat's Cradle, the Chapel Hill music club that started about the same time as the Ramblers and has bounced around the streets of Heels Town, a variety of locations. I've seen some good music there through the years, and none better than that Dan Hicks show.

Libby and I had actually recorded those two Hicks' songs on our CD, "South of Nowhere." It was fairly fresh, so I brought a copy to give to the master, who was famously irascible. I spotted him at the bar, nursing a mineral water, well before show time, and approached him gingerly. "Scuse me," I said, "could I bother you for a second." The plan was to give him the CD, tug my forelock, scurry away to my seat near the front of the stage. "Naw," he said. That was that.

The show was fantastic. Tight, great playing, Dan's expected dry delivery. He put a stool out beside where he'd be standing, and put some picks and a capo on it. Deep into the show he picked up the capo and displayed it to the audience. "This is a capo," he said. "We're going to do 'I Have a Capo On My Brain' next." He put it back down on the stool, never to use it. It was a prop.

After the show I caught the fiddler and gave him the CD to give to Dan, telling him we'd covered his songs. "Hope you paid the royalties," he said. "Dan'll come after you." Fortunately we had. Possibly a letter from Dan's copyright lawyers would be of more value, looking back on it now. I'd frame it and hang it somewhere visible.

Now he's gone, this wry genius. Saw he lived for many years in Mill Valley and would say "hi" to Maria Muldaur at the PO. Here's one of his songs I never heard, performed on TV in the late '80s:

Baby Jesus is putting together a hell of a band this year.

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