I admire my father for many things, but I especially admire him for his unflappability in dealing with two strong-willed and occasionally bitchy women for so long.
While the home of my family of origin was generally a happy place, from time to time my mother and I both felt the need to assert our inalienable right to bitch, gripe and nitpick. To be a good bitch, you need to stay sharp through regular practice, and it’s tough to get a good bitch-out going when you’re surrounded by the bluebirds of happiness. Maman and I learned to survive in this irritation-free environment by becoming experts in the art of making mountains out of molehills, turning accidental slights into major crises, becoming hyper-anal about “a place for everything and everything in its place,” and using our monthly inconvenience as an opportunity to express our outrage at the only available male for being completely oblivious to our suffering. We’d strut around the place snapping off heads, criticizing on impulse and finding fault in the most trivial things in an all-out effort to bitch up.
My father usually kicked back and allowed the storm to run its course. However, even he had his limits of tolerance, so when the bitchiness seemed just about to cross the line into cat-scratching mania, he had a simple technique for restoring order to the world.
He’d put Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks on the stereo.
The effect of Dan Hicks’ music on the raging felines was magical. After a few minutes, little smiles would appear on our faces, our heinies would involuntarily twitch to the rhythms and eventually we’d find ourselves joining The Lickettes on the harmonies.
If you’ve never heard Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, you may wonder how his music could have such a curative effect on aggressive, domineering, hell-bent for leather women. Let’s start by considering the kind of music he plays:
Daniel Ivan Hicks (born December 9, 1941, in Little Rock, Arkansas) is an American singer-songwriter who combines cowboy folk, jazz, country, swing, bluegrass, pop, and gypsy music in his sound.
What? Huh? That’s quite a cornucopia of musical styles! You can certainly hear the gypsy flavor of Dan Hicks’ music, but it’s gypsy steeped in jazz like you hear in the records of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. The description omitted blues as an influence, and I’d say the hints of country in his music are certainly tinged with blues conventions. Dan Hicks himself referred to his music as “folk swing,” which I think is overemphasizing the folk and underestimating the swing.
Let’s just say that Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks really knew how to swing! Call it feel-good music if you like, but I would argue that it’s not only music that feels good but music that is designed and executed with talent and professionalism. To this day, if I really need to get out of a funk, Dan Hicks is the most effective cure I know.
Dan Hicks is a true original, and I love people who defy classification in any field of endeavor. Classification of music into genres is a consumer marketing mindset, so if you believe in genres, you believe that music is a commodity, like pork bellies or winter wheat. Much of the music produced today is commodity music, but that simply isn’t what Dan Hicks is all about. He developed his style in the San Francisco of the 1960’s, where all kinds of rules were ignored, in the jazz clubs, the coffee houses and the rock ballrooms. At the height of his success with the Hot Licks, he suddenly disbanded the group, saying he didn’t like being a bandleader and wanted to do his own thing. He’s never been a guy who chased fame, never had much in the way of artistic pretentiousness and never took himself too seriously. He simply made the music he wanted to make, made a few bucks doing it and made a lot of people happy.
Where’s the Money? is my favorite Dan Hicks record, and that preference has a lot to do with the women in the band. The first female voices I ever wanted to emulate belonged to The Lickettes, because they sounded so classy, smooth and sexy. I so wanted to be them that one year in my early teens I convinced my mother to sit down with me on the piano help me figure out both Maryann’s and Naomi’s parts on “Where’s the Money?” so we could perform them (with my Dad in the role of Dan Hicks) at the annual New Year’s bash with the Irish half of the family. We practiced our vocals every night for a month, and on the big night maman and I dressed in period-specific midis complete with boas while dad wore shades, a Hawaiian shirt with a Panama hat. Needless to say, our efforts were very well-received, especially the carefully-timed mother-daughter fanny shaking. It was a hoot!
Where’s the Money? is a live performance recorded in 1971 at The Troubadour in Los Angeles. In terms of recording quality, it’s one of the best live albums ever recorded, though it rarely makes any best album lists. The setting is intimate, somewhere between bar and dinner club, and the place has quite a history. It’s one of many places where Lenny Bruce was arrested for violating obscenity laws; it’s the venue where The Byrds first performed “Mr. Tambourine Man”; and the hot spot where Buffalo Springfield first graced the stage. Despite the history and the stature of the place, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks seem completely relaxed, and open the show with a playful introduction where Hicks intrudes on the emcee’s duties before riding a quick count into the knockout opener, “I Feel Like Singing.”
The combination of skiffle strum and soaring violin on the Bb7/A7 intro that resolves itself to G tells you right away that ain’t your daddy’s folk music. “I Feel Like Singing” is an acoustic swing number performed with precision, style and a whole lot of pzazz. Dan Hicks’ has an Everyman’s voice, approximating the notes rather than achieving perfect pitch, but it’s a very comfortable and pleasing voice to hear, and he harmonizes extraordinarily well. When The Lickettes kick in with their spot-on harmonies, the effect is sheer delight. They save their best singing for the scat passages, especially the second where Maryann Price takes the lead with Dan and Naomi Ruth Eisenberg hovering in the background until they move forward slightly in the soundscape to another part of the scale with a diddle-iddle scat, then a sudden reep-ta-doo-dee-dah, followed by a trumpet-mimicking du-reet, ree, ree, ree—and right back into the chorus with hardly a millisecond to take a breath. It’s an exhilarating number that captures the one-of-a-kind joy of singing. Great scat is driven by the spontaneous, human urge to use the voice to imitate the sound of an instrument, the reverse of the desire of the great jazz instrumentalists or classical violinists to make their instruments reflect the sound of the human voice. The yin-yang synergy of human and instrument in scat is always fun, whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald in the zone, Little Richard shouting “A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom” or Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks at their best.
“Coast to Coast” is a mid-tempo number with both blues and Latin influences, so go figure. The harmonies on the bridge are particularly delectable, and the instrumental passage after the fade on the repetition of the word “flying” allows Sid Page to fly on the violin. I love the way he’s able to change his bow stroke in mid-air from a smooth vibrato to a shuffle to support the fade. It’s followed by one of Dan’s many bits of stage patter that are hoots in themselves . . . but don’t take my word for it, buy the fucking album and cheer yourself up in time for the holidays!
“News from Up the Street” is the subject of his patter, a story about a shy guy who digs a girl who lives up the street and tries to get things moving by mailing her a letter. It’s a softer minor key song with gorgeous harmonies and superb counterpoint violin from Sid Page. The girls are particularly sweet on this number, and Sid’s solo is beautifully understated and full of empathy for the guy who’s sitting there on pins and needles waiting for his letter to arrive in the girl’s mailbox.
Without further ado, the band kicks into “Where’s the Money?” an undulating shuffle where Sid plays the intro on mandolin and Dan Hicks does this marvelous yodel-like vocal with regular octave leaps into falsetto on single syllables to vary the sound. While Maryann and Naomi sing the fragment, “keep moving” in the background, Dan gives us a sample of the regular-guy wisdom that often characterizes his lyrics:
It’s like you’ve seen a cop
And you don’ don’ don’t exactly wanna stop
It’s a motion, a notion, that makes you want to go (keep movin’)
The music has a sweet sway to it thanks to the maracas and Jaime Leopold’s steady double bass, a rhythm that works beautifully with a pattern of ascending and descending seventh chords to give it an undeniable swing era night club feel. “Where’s the Money” also demonstrates how professional singers control dynamics with great effect. The girls are gently singing the response phrase “where’s the money?” at low volume in the last verse, and then suddenly raise their voices to a level equal to Dan’s on the last “where’s the money,” where the song comes to a hard stop. Maman and I nailed it at the bash and it was one of the most exciting moments of my microscopically brief musical career!
That little hottie is followed by “Caught in the Rain,” the expression of every man’s dream of having his car break down on the highway and instead of the cops or some fat loser bubba stopping to see what’s going on, a beautiful woman slams on the brakes and offers a ride. When the guy opens the door he learns that she’s fully equipped (“Some other build/And dressed to kill/And real good-lookin’ of course”) and finds her perfume raises his testosterone levels. Nothing happens, as expected, because the point of such a story is to let the guy go back and make up all kinds of bullshit about the ride to impress his friends. This slice-of-life fantasy is well-supported by Sid and the girls, who somehow manage to capture the guy’s performance anxiety and dumb luck with their eerily lovely contributions. This is a feature of Dan Hicks’ music that people often miss: the words tell one story but the music expresses the unexpressed internal feelings. You hear it in this song when you realize the guy should sound a lot more joyful about winding up in a car with the proverbial brick shithouse. You also hear it on “I Feel Like Singing,” where the title would imply a mood of pure joy. Not so:
There are people who live for the moment
And others who don’t seem to get much enjoyment
Some are always glad, others always sad
But lately it seems that I’ve been somewhere in between
It’s a funny feeling . . . love is what I mean
Yes, I’m so in love, can’t tell down from up above,
Down, down from up above
I feel like singing.
Kinks fans should recognize the voice of the lead singer on “Shorty Falls in Love,” as Maryann Price is given the opportunity to take center stage for a few lines. After the Hot Licks ended their run, Ray Davies recruited Maryann for Preservation Act 2, where she sings the lead on “Scrapheap City.” Opening with some seriously hot fiddling from Sid, Maryann’s high-speed vocal is a winner from the get-go, as she manages to phrase the challenging first word “particularly” with syllabic perfection. This charming number expresses a strange truth about human customs: when people marry, they often go on honeymoons to allegedly romantic places. Why bother with that when all you want to do is get down and dirty with your true love? When they sing, “As we sped around the world to see what we could see . . . but I saw you and you saw me mostly,” they’re expressing both an everyday truth and the peculiar power of love to close our senses to everything around us except the one we adore.
“By Hook or By Crook” keeps things moving with shaking maracas and a blue-note dominated vocal from Dan supported with some lovely glides from the ladies. This is the strongest pure mover on the album, an ass-shaker par excellence. Sid Page’s attack here is more lead guitar styling than violin or fiddle, and it’s seriously, seriously hot. The video below is a performance from The Flip Wilson Show that combines these two songs (and features some impressive thigh exercises by Naomi).
It’s about time to take it down a notch or two, and Dan has the perfect song for the moment, “Reelin’ Down.” A bluesy country number supported by subtle but highly complex spot harmonies from the ladies, this quiet number is probably the one that best demonstrates the band’s attention to the detail in their arrangements. People who only listen to this album superficially may not appreciate that beneath the humor, the funny clothes and the throwback musical echoes are a group of very talented and serious musicians who obviously took great care in putting the pieces together. It may sound relaxed and easygoing, but that effect was achieved through hard-won effort. “Reelin’ Down” goes down easy because these musicians knew what the fuck they were doing and took the time to get it right.
Dan introduces “The Buzzard Was Their Friend” as a jazz tune, as in late-swing era Andrews Sisters. Once again, the harmonies are first-rate, especially on the blue note combinations. The song has a kind of a Harlem strut feel, a touch of doo-wop and a smattering of street lingo that make it another irresistible hip-shaker. It’s followed by the L. A.-appropriate “Traffic Jam,” about a guy stuck in traffic on his way to see an obviously dominant female who “never did like it waiting on me, waiting on me.” He arrives to find a Caddy parked in front of her house and realizes he’s been dumped for another. No problem! He just gets back into the traffic and heads over to see his backup squeeze. The music reflects a cool view of the situation at first, then, as he heads off to his second option, a growing anxiety about the traffic expressed in the louder vocals that become positively jittery on the fade.
Best described as a white trash love ballad, “Is This My Happy Home?” mixes a lovely little chorus with a rather unpleasant depiction of a man’s life with a woman who is either extraordinarily lazy or suffering from depression, as she lets the dishes pile up while the dogs and cats crap on the floor. The song works because of the contrast between the sweet sadness of the chorus and Dan Hicks’ down-in-the-mouth recitation of his troubles in the verses. Part of me wants to scream, “Get the fuck out there, she’s a loser!” and another part of me feels terrible for the guy, who obviously deeply regrets the deterioration of his relationship. The vocals on the “I’m losing you” lines are sung with heartfelt sadness.
Where’s the Money? ends with “Dig a Little Deeper,” which opens with a complex rhythm generated by guitar and mandolin. This is the most musically complex song on the album, with unusual dissonance and complex harmonies, and a very odd choice to end an album . . . not exactly a “ta-da” moment, but certainly a Dan Hicks moment of blessed unpredictability.
Based on my YouTube browsing and Google searches for song lyrics, Where’s the Money? has apparently fallen into the worst genre of all: the obscure. I’m amazed that work so fresh, alive and daring can find itself buried by the sands of time, but I should know better. Perhaps centuries from now some intrepid half-human, half-android with superior taste and intellect will rediscover Dan Hicks’ work and make him the William Blake or Emily Dickinson of the era of starships, and his music will spread across the galaxy.
An album that can make two seriously bitchy women deliriously happy deserves a happy ending.