Singer-songwriter-bandleader Dan Hicks combines old-timey jazz, Western swing and surreal folk songwriting. His band, Dan Licks & His Hot Licks, has been a cult sensation for more than 40 years, and counts among his admirers and collaborators such luminaries as Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. He’s had occasional brushes with mainstream fame, like appearing on cover of Rolling Stone in 1973. In 1965, as a member of the psychedelic band The Charlatans, Hicks participated in a legendary residency at Virginia City’s Red Dog Saloon. On Oct. 22, Hicks will return to V.C. for a concert at Piper’s Opera House to benefit the Comstock Residents Association. For tickets or more information, visit www.comstockresidents.org.
Since your upcoming show is in Virginia City, it seems like a good time to talk about the Charlatans run in V.C. in the ’60s. It’s become so legendary; I’d like to know what’s true and what’s not.
I’m not sure what those issues are, but I was there for a little more than two months. Most of the summer. When Labor Day happened everybody split. The Charlatans were more or less these long-haired, Beatle-boot-looking guys that I saw around before I joined them. I saw them on the street or out at [San Francisco State University]. I was in Santa Rosa, going home weekends. I was going to San Francisco State, and this girl who also lived up in Santa Rosa had a boyfriend down in the city, and he was one of the Charlatans, so I got to know those guys that way, and at one point, I told them I was [a] drummer, and I think their drummer just quit or moved or something, so I joined up with them. They were more or less a rehearsal band, hadn’t played anywhere, just did a lot of practicing in George Hunter’s—who was the leader—living room in the Haight-Ashbury. And this guy Chan Laughlin, “Travus T. Hipp,” was more or less a talent scout for the Red Dog. So the Red Dog was getting formed and everything, probably spring of ’65, and he saw a couple of these Charlatan guys and asked if they were a band, and he’s got a thing going up in Virginia City. So we said, yeah, we’re a band. So we went up there … I don’t think we had played anywhere yet. … So we got up there, and got settled in. We were in the rooms upstairs above the Red Dog. We hung around for a couple of days. Then we finally auditioned. They may have had a pre-opening or an opening, and there we were, the band. So we just kept going with that. There were five of us. We lived upstairs in separate rooms, and we played six nights a week, I believe. Monday night was dark. We played for a couple of months.
What was the scene like?
It was nice. It was good. I had just gotten out of college, and I’d been kind of on the fringe. Going to SF State, and it was kind of progressive and hip, so they say, and all these people were of a like-minded kind of thing, you know. Pot smokers, long hairs, all the people who were working there were all hired by this guy our age, and he was sponsoring it all. We had a big banquet table that we ate at every night, all the employees, all the carpenters, all the waitresses, all these different people, maybe 20 of them, with the musicians and everybody. It was a neat scene. And being 23, it was kind of formative.
Is it true you guys would take acid before every show?
Well, the truth was there was acid taken, usually on the dark day, on Monday. The day off. I remember … a bunch of us took acid and got in cars and went up to Pyramid Lake and just stayed there all night. No sleeping bags and stuff, just there. I guess it was warm enough. We were just all there all night, and took acid. So that was a real trip, so to speak. … We also took acid the day we auditioned. A guy came around upstairs and he said, would you like your acid after or before dinner? Swear to god. So that was kind of wild, on acid, auditioning. … I think that was time I decided—I’d been playing drums. I played guitar too, that was my second instrument that I took up 10 years later after I’d been playing the drums. So I started doing some singing. I’d been doing a little in the Charlatans, so I ended up doing some folk singing around Virginia City.
What prompted the change from drums to singing and playing guitar?
I don’t know. Maybe I was impressed by the folk boom. A friend of mine went away to Cal Poly and he came back and he had a guitar, and he started strumming it, and I wanted to do that. … We formed a little folk duo, and it just started like that. … It was just a real labor of love. I love sitting there learning tunes.
I’ve heard rumors that everyone from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix came up there and jammed with you guys. Any truth to any of that?
It was open the next summer also—I don’t think it ran longer than that. We were the only band that [first] summer. And nobody really came. Janis was around the city and around the scene, and she was joining Big Brother. I think Big Brother & The Holding Company played the next year, and I think she was in it then.
A lot of your music is characterized by loose, relaxed creativity, with a lot of improvisation. What do you like about playing that way and the advantages of improvisation?
Well, I was always a jazz fan, from playing drums and everything, and the improv there. The jazz idea. And the folk thing, you know, I sort of combined the two. Playing the guitar finally and starting to sing when I was about 20. I started to write a little bit sporadically, and then in the mid ’60s or late ’60s, when I started thinking I was going to have this Hot Licks band, I started writing a lot more. And writing for girls’ voices, the exchange, call and response, all that stuff. I like the easier stuff, like jazz. I never thought I was a rock guy, even though I was in the band. I liked that it was dance music. I’ve never really been like … some guys you read interviewed and they say, ‘we grew up on Led Zep,” and stuff. That was never me. I was into like Barney Kessell. I was that kind of cool school. That’s just the way I like to have the music, relaxed and jug bandy, my influences with the folky kind of country thing, with the swing. It’s what I like. And the improv. I like to do the in-between-tune patter and be spontaneous and entertain myself and entertain the people, and sometimes I surprise myself.