Dan Hicks Countered The Counter-Culture In the Sixties and Seventies

danhicksLong before the artist known as Father John Misty was but a twinkle in his father’s eye, Dan Hicks was pioneering his own brand of offbeat and often hilarious acoustic noodlings into the world of Rock & Roll. Dan Hicks passed away last weekend, and we would be remiss not to take note of his strange and distinctive contributions.

Hicks was a part of the 1965 San Francisco music scene along with members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, which (as I noted last week for the passing of Paul Kantner) was ground zero for the underground psychedelic revolution, and the birthplace of the hippie. Hicks was a member of the Charlatans, who were more jug band and country-oriented than the Dead or the Airplane, and obviously much less successful than either.

In fact the Charlatans major claim to fame is that they are widely acknowledged to be the first band to use a psychedelic-style poster to promote a concert, an innovation in graphic design that would sweep the world in two years. The story of this June 1965 poster is amazing in and of itself.

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The poster revealed the early psychedelic movement’s infatuation with old-time Victorian styles, which could also be seen in the puffy shirts and foppy hats that people so shamelessly wore back then. Dan Hicks’ innovation was to take this old-time sensibility and apply it to the music too.

So in 1967 he formed the band Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, which featured two acoustic guitars, a violin, acoustic bass and two female backup singers. While the other psychedelic bands were achieving total heaviosity with long, screeching guitar jams, Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks were combining Django-style gypsy jazz and Louis Jordan’s swinging sense of humor, with a little Andrews Sisters thrown into the mix.

He called the music “folk swing”, and in a 2007 interview he explained his musical philosophy:

It starts out with kind of a folk music sound, and we add a jazz beat and solos and singing. We have the two girls that sing, and jazz violin, and all that, so it’s kind of light in nature, it’s not loud. And it’s sort of, in a way, kind of carefree.

While the music went against the grain musically, its contrariness certainly fit the spirit of the times. The mostly cynical and funny lyrics gave the old-timey sound a contemporary edge. The song “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away” takes the piss on country swing, and “Hell I’d Go” is sung from the perspective of a guy willingly abducted by aliens.

In “Milk-Shakin’ Mama” Hicks sings: “I saw the girl who keeps the ice cream/And now it’s I who scream for her”. Check out the band’s performance of this song above, on the Flip Wilson Show in 1972, and you get a sense of their truly off-the-wall sensibilities. I’ve also posted below “Lonely Madman”, my favourite Dan Hicks track and one I think stands the test of time.

1972 represented the height of popularity for Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Their records never sold in the millions, but they appeared often on network TV, headlined at Carnegie Hall, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. And they also opened the door for other Seventies old-timey acts like Leon Redbone and Manhattan Transfer.

Hicks, a notoriously crusty personality, disbanded the group just as they were getting bigger in 1973, and didn’t seriously revive it until the late 1990s, where it remained a post-post-nostalgic club favorite in and around the Bay Area, where it all began. Dan Hicks was 74. RIP you crazy man.


 Photo credit: By Steve Terrell from Santa Fe, USA (P6280035) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



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