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Paul Liberatore’s Lib at Large: Remembering Dan Hicks–Marin’s most famous homebody

Marin IJ – Paul Liberatore – 02/11/16

Photo: The late musician Dan Hicks was a familiar figure along Throckmorton Avenue in Mill Valley, where he lived for many years. (IJ photo/Alan Dep)

So far, 2016 has been a rough year for the rock ’n’ roll generation. And it’s only February. The incredible series of celebrity deaths that have people shaking their heads, wondering what in heaven’s name is going on, began on New Year’s Eve with Natalie Cole dying of lung disease at 65. Then David Bowie’s death, of cancer, at 69, surprised and saddened most everyone, even the band that played on his farewell album, “Blackstar.” Glenn Frey left the planet at 67 from a variety of ailments we normally associate with the elderly, not the handsome frontman of the Eagles, the epitome of Southern California cool. I just heard that erstwhile Marin musician Billy Lee Lewis, the personable drummer for Tommy Castro, Roy Rogers and many other bands, is no longer with us, another casualty of cancer. And the passing of our own Dan Hicks last weekend only deepened our collective sorrow.

Bob Weir had it right when he said, after Jerry Garcia died, that we’d better get used to reading the obituaries of our friends and cohorts because it’s going to be happening more and more as we all get older. William Saroyan once cracked, “Everybody’s got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” Apparently, he hadn’t heard Jim Morrison sing “Five to One,” the Doors song with the lyric, “no one here gets out alive,” a line that became the title of his posthumous biography.


This epidemic of dying is disturbing, but Dan Hicks’ death, from cancer, at age 74, hits especially close to home. In a 2009 IJ story I wrote about him, I called him “Marin’s prototype hipster cum folk/jazz legend.” And that’s exactly what he was. Hits like “Canned Music” and “I Scare Myself” twice landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and could have had him touring the world endlessly with his band, the Hot Licks. But he broke up the band at the height of its success when performing stopped being fun and started to feel like work. He preferred to inhabit a smaller world, on his own terms.

Dan lived in Marin County for nearly 50 years, most of that time in his beloved Mill Valley. Instantly recognizable in his pork pie hats, vintage clothes and outasight shoes, he chose to stay at home most of the time, becoming as much a part of the character of the town as the chess players in Lytton Square and the redwoods in Old Mill Park.

“He was such a hometown boy,” Clare Wasserman, his wife of more than 20 years, told me one day this week. “In the last few days, I’ve been thinking how much he loved Marin and how much he loved Mill Valley. His old friend, Jack Nicholson, would say, ‘You’ve gotta move to L.A.’ But this was his home. He would never move.”

Clare talked about what she called Dan’s small town “rituals” — walking downtown for a bagel at Mill Valley Market, sitting on a sunny bench in the town square, going to movies at the Sequoia, chatting with singer Maria Muldaur, a longtime friend, when he’d run into her at their post office boxes.


Mill Valley musician Austin de Lone, a longtime friend who played keyboards in the Christmas Jug Band with Dan, told me about the song Dan wrote about his hometown. Sung to the tune of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” it begins, “By the time I get to Mill Valley I’ll be loaded …”

That ditty harkens back to Dan’s drinking days, not a particularly pleasant time for him, his fellow musicians or his fans. A 1974 San Francisco Chronicle review of one of his local shows was headlined, “Insults, Sarcasm, Rudeness.” But, to his everlasting credit, he found redemption. He got sober in the ’80s and stayed sober. He reformed the Hot Licks and continued to write songs, record albums and perform when and where he wanted to.

“Some of my songs are about my fantasy street life,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “I can sit here in my warm little room and lead this wild life.”

Dan was into DIY long before it was fashionable. He designed his own album covers and booklets of liner notes for the indie label Surfdog, cutting and pasting images he found in books and magazines. Then he’d have them printed at WIGT Printing on Mill Valley’s Miller Avenue.

“Each page had his words, his drawings, his cartoons, and it was all done here,” his widow said. “He had a visual sense of what the music was, and he wanted to do it all at home.”

And that’s where he died, at home. Tom Waits once described Dan as “fly, sly, wry and dry.” That sensibility informed his sardonic anthem “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” Since he left us in the early hours of Saturday morning, he’s answered his own question…

Posted by Teri Perticone


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