Playing His Solo

Dave Hickey on Art, Music, and Democracy


AIR GUITAR:Essays on Art & Democracy.

Back in the late fifties and early sixties, there was a magic moment when the University of Texas seemed full of promise. Under the leadership of Harry Ransom, the liberal arts and the libraries were rising to a prominence previously enjoyed only by the engineering school and the football team, and suddenly it appeared that the educated world was discovering Austin. During this period – roughly bookended by T.S. Eliot reading in Gregory Gym and Norman Mailer performing a bad impersonation of LBJ in the Texas Union about ten years later – almost anything seemed possible. And Dave Hickey was the smartest guy on campus.

Hickey had grown up in places scattered over Texas, Oklahoma, and California, but his primary roots were in Fort Worth, and he had attended T.C.U., where he brushed shoulders with John Graves and Larry McMurtry. In Austin, Hickey was an early editor of the new student literary journal, Riata, and right away he made his mark, writing remarkably unstudent-like short stories and reviews. His early heroes were the writers John O’Hara and Donald Barthelme, and after a visit to New York in 1964, the pop painters Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.

Dave dropped out of graduate school in 1967 just short of a Ph.D., and he and his wife Mary Ann opened what most people still consider Austin’s best art gallery, A Clean Well-Lighted Place. After a few years happily championing Texas artists and running a small business, the Hickeys moved to New York, where Dave assumed the editorship of Art in America. What happened next is a little vague, but Hickey has written that after some point in New York, he fell into serious drug use and proceeded to live the life of a freelance art writer, rock and roll musician, and country song writer, hanging out at different times with the likes of Terry Allen, Waylon Jennings, and Dave’s musical girlfriend for some years, the six-foot-tall South Carolina rock chanteuse, Marshall Chapman.

Through the seventies and eighties there would be Dave sightings (and citings) and old friends (I am not one, although we have met) frequently reported on his latest piece in an obscure art magazine, or repeated his latest bon mot. There were dark rumors surrounding his return to Fort Worth in the eighties, where he was said to be delivering flowers for his mother’s florist shop. Whatever happened, he was apparently living at home in Fort Worth, and soon began reviewing art for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram – daily art writing in Texas never had it so good. Soon Dave and his art critic girlfriend Susan Freudenheim were off to San Diego. In Southern California, her career took off (she is now art critic for the Los Angeles Times), and Hickey found new worlds to conquer. He was soon a regular contributor to the Los Angeles journal Art Issues.

In 1989, the late Suzanne Comer, then the Assistant Director of the S.M.U. Press, had the fortitude to attempt to put Hickey between the covers of a book. She published his story collection, Prior Convictions, which did little more than bring together his sterling student work from his U.T. days, but it included a new piece, “Proof through the Night,” addressing his abandonment of fiction. Terry Allen did the jacket art and Larry McMurtry did the blurb and that was that. But to Dave’s fans, anything by Hickey between book covers was fine, even if it was twenty-five years old.

In the meantime Hickey was more active than ever before in his art writing, and by the beginning of this decade he had become a venerated figure in the world of contemporary art, delivering lectures, curating shows, and sitting on National Endowment for the Arts panels. The typical Hickey appearance in print became an introduction to a museum or gallery catalog, or occasionally a full-fledged lecture published by a university. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, published in 1994, contained many of his formalized thoughts on art during this period. The book won the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award and opened up more doors for Hickey, including a series of lectures at Harvard. Then word was that he had a teaching gig at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and that he really liked it there, and his occasional piece that surfaced (usually photocopied and passed from hand to hand) indicated that Vegas was where he had found his true home.

Now comes Air Guitar – a collection of twenty-three of his Art Issues casual pieces – and it provides a brilliant reminder of Hickey’s unmistakable voice and of his unique place in Texan and American letters.

Dave is an enthusiast and given to the list, so let us flip through Air Guitar and make ourselves a partial catalog of his enthusiasms: Lawrence Sterne, Gustave Flaubert, Johnny Mercer, Norman Rockwell, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Dickens, florist shops, Santa Monica in the fifties, Liberace, Julius Erving (“Dr. J”), the Allman Brothers, Edward Ruscha, Andy Warhol paintings, hot rods, Luis Jiménez, George Barris (the L.A. car customizer), Chet Baker, Lowell George (of Little Feat), Charlie Parker, Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground), LSD, the Rolling Stones, Billy Joe Shaver, Billy Lee Brammer, James Naismith, (the inventor of basketball), Michel Foucault, Waylon Jennings, Siegfried and Roy, Andy Warhol films, Jacques-Louis David, Tiepolo, Grover Lewis, man-to-man defense in the N.B.A., Cézanne, Hank Williams, Thomas Jefferson, Perry Mason, and Las Vegas at night.

Hickey begins with Las Vegas. He is strangely convincing when he says that this rain forest of neon placed in the desert, founded on the principle of fools and money soon parting, is not only perhaps the most beautiful spot in our country but also the one that best embodies Jeffersonian notions of democracy.

Most importantly for me, Vegas is a town that can serve as the heart’s destination – a town where half the pick-up trucks stolen in Arizona, Utah, Montana and Wyoming are routinely recovered in casino parking lots – where the vast majority of the population arises every morning absolutely delighted to have escaped Hometown America and the necessity of chatting with Mom over the back fence. This lightens the tone of social intercourse considerably. To cite an example: While I was having breakfast at the local IHOP the other morning, my waitress confided in me that, even though the International House of Pancakes wasn’t the greatest organization in the world, they had transferred her out of Ogden, Utah, and she was thankful for that. But not so thankful, she said, that she planned to stay in “food.” As soon as she got Lance in school, she was moving up to “cocktail” where the tips were better. She was looking forward to that, she said; and, to be honest, it’s moments like this that have led me to adopt Las Vegas as mi varrio. I mean, here was an American, in the nineties, who was thankful for something and looking forward to something else. (“A Home in the Neon”)

Hickey is pretty deadly when he describes his visits from conventionally elitist academics or writers, who are typically confused by Las Vegas’ non-hierarchical culture: “In any case, when visiting culturati actually start shivering in the horizontal flux, I take them to one of the restaurants in town where tank-tops are (sort of) discouraged. This is the best I can do to restore their sense of propriety, because the “secret of Vegas” is that there are no secrets. And there are only two rules: (1) Post the odds, and (2) Treat everybody the same. Just as one might in a democracy….”

“A Life In the Arts” is Hickey’s meditation on the life, art, and death of jazz trumpet player and singer Chet Baker, the hero of his boyhood in Fort Worth. As the son of a would-be modern jazz player, Hickey soon discovered Sumpter Bruton’s record shop close to the T.C.U. campus. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of a good record store to an aspiring young bohemian, and it was there that Dave bought Chet Baker Sings, “my all-time favorite record – and, not coincidentally, the best make-out record of all time.”

My dad had been a jazz musician – an old swing guy with aspirations to bebop. My friends were all hillbillies. Chet Baker’s music was in some new place between them. It was horizontal music that flowed in a steady groove and sang those haunting double lines that – from Bob Wills’ twin-fiddles to The Allman Brothers’ twin guitars – put unrequited sadness into country music. Chet, however, infected that Oklahoma lonesome with L.A. city-lights tristesse, so, the songs seemed to glide past me like low-riders down Pico Boulevard, sleek and self-contained, with the fleet glimmer of the city chasing down their dark reflective surfaces.

Dave then examines Baker’s seemingly chaotic life – in and out of legal trouble for heroin use and other hard drugs, and finally, a life of jazz exile in Europe where he played for ecstatic audiences. His life ended at the age of fifty-eight, when he fell out of a hotel window in Amsterdam.

In fact, Baker’s life was in no sense a tragic one, nor was his talent wasted or unappreciated. Given the opportunity, I’m sure he would say of himself as he said of Charlie Parker: “He had a very happy life.” He lived fifty-eight years, recorded sixty albums, played ten thousand gigs for millions of people and died with gigs left to play, thus deserving the freelancer’s ultimate epitaph: “If This Dude Wasn’t Dead, He Could Still Get Work.”

Hickey then links Baker’s music to a later generation of rock and roll:

[Baker] provides the classic model for a new tradition of steady-state, postmodern popular music which is probably best exemplified by Lowell George’s Little Feat and Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground. These bands operated on Baker’s premise: that the song plays the music and the music plays the player and that, consequently, the song as played is not a showcase for the player’s originality, but a momentary acoustic community in which the players breathe and think together in real time, adding to the song’s history, without detracting from its integrity, leaving it intact to be played again. “The thing you learn,” Lou Reed told me in an interview, “is that popular music is easy. The song will play itself. So all you need to do is make it sing a little, make it human, and not fuck it up.”

Dave looks back on his Texas days in a number of pieces, including “Dealing,” his account of leaving graduate school before he defended his dissertation, and instead making the liberating decision to start an art gallery:

Over the intervening years, between that time and now, I have been asked a lot of questions about A Clean Well-Lighted Place, because it did have its moments. But I am never asked the same questions for very long. Back in the nineteen seventies, people always wanted to know if it was any fun, and I always told them yes, it was a great deal of fun…. In the nineteen eighties, people wanted to know how much money we made, and they were shocked and dismayed to learn that we didn’t make any money. We made a living. We paid our bills, paid our artists, and eventually paid off our note. We had a place to live, food to eat, work we liked doing together, and no “spare time.” Had I been more candid, I would have confessed that we were totally disinterested in making money. That was what my professors at the University did. They “made money” working in a vicious bureaucracy, so they could spend it in their “spare time” doing exactly what they liked – which, as far as I could tell, was writing crummy novels about working in a vicious bureaucracy, and summering in Italy. Thus I have always associated the desire to make money with a profound lack of confidence in one’s ability to make a living, to make one’s way in the world through wit and wile.

Hickey’s ode to psychedelic drugs, “Freaks,” likewise finds him reminiscing about old days in Austin.

My contemporaries, under the influence of psychedelics, tended to understand things rather than see them. In fact, the only people I know who actually saw things were the two Billys. My friend Billy Joe Shaver, the songwriter, saw Jesus, but that didn’t surprise us much, since Billy Joe also saw Jesus when he got drunk. My friend Billy Lee Brammer, the novelist, who was a fool for glamour and for grammar, saw Kim Novak reciting from Tender is the Night against a field of stars, but this didn’t surprise us much either, since we were all familiar with Billy Lee’s aspirations.

One of the few times in Air Guitar where Hickey cuts loose with some honest-to-God contemporary art writing is in this piece, when he contemplates the visual and literary impact of psychedelics:

In my own experience, it always seemed as if language were a tablecloth positioned neatly upon the table of phenomenal nature until some celestial busboy suddenly shook it out, fluttering and floating it, and letting it fall back upon the world in not quite the same position as before – thereby giving me a vertiginous glimpse into the abyss that divides the world from our knowing of it…. Because it is one thing to believe, on theoretical evidence, that we live in a prison-house of language. It is quite another to know it, to actually peek into the slippery emptiness as the Bastille explodes around you. Yet psychedelic art takes this apparent occasion for despair and celebrates our escape from linguistic control by flowing out, filling that rippling void with meaningful light, laughter, and a gorgeous profusion.

You may take my word for it that Hickey’s report on the opening of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas (“The Rhinestone As Big As the Ritz”) is a perfect take on the commonplace absurd that he delights in in his hometown, and that “The Glass-bottomed Cadillac” is about the funniest thing you’ll ever read. This is a letter written from Heaven by Hank Williams in which he reveals that there is no Hell, meditates on the phenomenon of the country music groupie, explains the differences between southern men and southern women, and extends greetings to his son Bocephus (Hank Junior) by passing on the advise that Hank received from his father: “Don’t get any on you, pipsqueak.” That other country music philosopher, Waylon Jennings, provides Dave excellent cautionary advice about what happens after you become a success:

“Right now, hoss,” he says, “it’s completely out of my hands. I’m looking at those people out there, but I don’t know what I’m seeing. And they’re watching me too. But they don’t know what they’re looking at. My best guess is that they’ll keep on loving me till they start hating me, or their Waylon duds wear out. Because they already hate me a little, just because I’m me and they’re them. That’s why they always go on about how talented you are. Because they hate you. Because if they had this talent they would be you…. My real people, they get jealous because their girlfriend thinks I’m cute and try to kick my butt. They get envious because singing pays better then roofing and try to kick my butt. But, basically, they understand that I do this job for them – that I’m up on stage with my Telecaster, sweatin’ in the lights, coughing in the smoke, and trying to hear the monitor – that they’re sitting out there all cool and comfortable with a bottle of beer and a bowl of peanuts. So when all this blows up, I’ll just go back and do that, find out if I’m still me.” (“Romancing the Looky-Loos”)

The most affecting essay in the book is “Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhyme,” in which Dave sentimentally juxtaposes his love for his dead father with the platonic ideal of an unlikely group of Americans gathered together to play jazz – the essay pulls together many of the other themes in the book having to do with community, individuality, democracy, and art. Hickey begins with a personal anecdote about going, at the age of eight, with his fathe
to a Saturday afternoon jam session with other Fort Worth jazz enthusiasts. It was a motley group of Texas eccentrics, including two black beboppers wearing zoot suit high-ride pants. The piano player was a jolly German Jewish woman who fled Germany during the war (the jam session would be around 1948), who cannot believe her good luck, playing Duke Ellington songs in Texas with real jazz musicians. Thinking of this small-town yet swinging group of musicians, Hickey wonders who could do justice to this living room scene in art:

…to my own surprise, I came up with Norman Rockwell of the Saturday Evening Post. For worse or for glory, I realized, he was the dude to do it – that, in fact, he probably had done it – had painted that scene in my head, because when I was eight years old, Johnny Mercer was teaching me how to listen, and Norman Rockwell was teaching me how to see. I was a student of their work, and they were good teachers. Years before I heard of John Donne, I learned about the intricate atmospherics of ‘metaphysical conceits’ just by walking down the sidewalk singing: Fools rush in / Where angels fear to tread. / And so I come to you my love, / My heart above my head.

Moreover, I have no doubt that Rockwell taught me how to remember that jam session, because I could never polish it. I clung to the ordinary eccentricity, the clothes, the good-heartedness, the names of things, the comic incongruities, and the oddities of arrangement and light. So, it has always seemed to me that Rockwell and Mercer must certainly be important artists, not so much because people love them (although that is part of it) but because I had learned so much from them – and because they both denied it so strenuously…. To put it simply: Norman Rockwell’s paintings, like Johnny Mercer’s music, has no special venue. It lives in the quotidian world with us amidst a million other things, so it must define itself as we experience it, embody itself and be remembered to survive.

Dave’s father did not survive, dying by his own hand three years later, and Hickey marks the sea change in his life with a light touch:

After that, our life remained improvisational, but it was never as much fun. So I kept that musical afternoon as a talisman of memory. I handled it carefully, so as not to knock the edges off, keeping it as plain and unembellished as I could, so I could test the world against it, because it was the best, concrete emblem I had of America as a successful society and remains so. My dad is part of it, of course, but I see him differently now – not as my dad so much, but as this guy who would collect all these incongruous people around him and make sure that everybody got their solos.

That so gifted a literary man is relatively unknown outside the esoteric confines of contemporary art criticism only adds to the discovery of the riches in Air Guitar. Of the fine American stylists, Hickey is sui generis, but his psychedelic hipster exterior and the humor and sweetness of his writing is reminiscent of that other Texas expatriate who wrote like an angel, Terry Southern. Dave paid a visit to Austin a few weeks back, giving a talk at the new downtown art museum. I decided to watch the San Antonio Spurs game that night, a decision Hickey would endorse I think. Reports from my wife and friends indicate that he looked good, got off some wild riffs, performed his humanizing song in real time, and to all appearances had successfully moved up from “food” to “cocktail.”

Dick Holland is the founding director of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State, and served for ten years until his retirement in 1997. He edited Larry L. King’s A Writer’s Life in Letters, Or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, available this fall from T.C.U. Press. (Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar is available primarily by order [213-876-4508] or in museum bookstores.)