Notes on Brian Hicks (1970-2010)

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The first time I ever saw Brian Hicks was a couple years before I actually met him, when his old band Gizzard opened for the Rollins Band at the Milk Bar in 1996. It was my first time writing a concert review, and my only time in a mosh pit. Hicks was probably the first professional musician I’d met in Jacksonville—the first on many, almost all of whom were friends of Brian. If you ever met him, he was your friend. When Brian died on Independence Day, the memories rushed back like floodwaters.

That summer night, not too terribly long ago, I remember being crowd-surfed from the front of the stage all the way back to the bar. I landed next to a fella (here un-named) who was then writing about music for one of the local rags, recognizing him, I humbly solicited advice for getting established in local journalism. I’ll never forget the half-smirk/half-sneer on his face as he turned his back, dismissing me, and I vowed at that moment to always do business the right way.

Brian did his business the right way, too. He played bass and guitar here and there, but his creative legacy resides mostly with wind instruments—Hicks was one of only a handful of musicians playing flute in a modernist setting. His was arguably the alto saxophonist of his generation, much like the way that Eric Riehm currently defines the tenor. Hicks’ natural versatility was a function of his openness to life, to new people and new experiences. I can’t imagine how much practice it took to make it look so effortless!

Brian was basically the first good friend of mine to die by some means other than murder. But then again, when I think on what he had to endure during last few years among us, the word “murder” seems to jump out. Cancer is one of those things you just can’t control; it seems to be different for every person who faces it. It would be simplistic and presumptuous to say that Brian, who beat cancer at least once before, might have beaten it again and still been alive if he were rich. The truth, of course, is that when it’s your time, it’s your time, and no amount of money or power can obstruct that course. But money remains a factor—the stress, the uncertainty.

I remember sitting and talking with Brian a couple years ago, outside the Starlite, which is now Birdie’s—a place where Tropic of Cancer played regularly for years. I saw that band perform more than any other musical group. It was mid-afternoon, or what musicians and reporters call “time for breakfast”; I drank whisky, he drank water, and he talked about what he was going through. The physical stuff was terrible, of course, but I was struck by all the other ancillary matters on his mind.

It made me so mad, I never spoke of it. I found it hard to even attend the various benefit shows held on his behalf over the last few years. A guy like that should have never had to worry about anything but feeling better, and if this was a country that had any respect for the things that really matter—like truth, love, beauty, the joy of family and friends—then a guy like that, who provided so many people with so many happy memories, would have never wanted for anything.

But the lesson of living in this city is that, time and again, it is the very best of us who get it the worst. It’s never the rapists who get raped, never the bullies who get bullies, and it is almost never the true cancers of society who get cancer themselves. Brian Hicks’ death came just two days after another friend was viciously attacked out in Riverside. I was giving thanks to God two days earlier, and now I’d reverted back to my usual skepticism. Better, I think, to be thankful for having known him at all.

Brian’s courage throughout his long battle with cancer was truly amazing and humbling for someone like me, and I’m hardly alone in feeling this way. He was the kind of man every parent prays their son may become some day. A teacher, a leader, a friend to pretty much everyone he ever met. He used to work at Starbucks, where my aunt gets her morning coffee. She knew him only in passing, and he hadn’t worked there for years, but he left enough of an impression that she often asks how he’s doing.

Brian’s memorial service was held at the Five Points Theatre on Saturday, July 10. A standing-room-only crowd shared in music and memories all day, and well into the night. For all the tears, there were more laughs, more hugs, more reunions of old friends and colleagues. Members of his old bands Gizzard and Helm played together for the first time in years, while Tropic of Cancer opened the event, playing together for the first time without their leader. They played hard—drummer Colin Westcott was especially good—with the elegiac grace of a “Missing Man” formation.

Jon Bosworth did yeoman work from the MC spot—surely one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, but he manned up admirably. I regret not taking the mic to offer a few words; I have some mental block formed against public speaking, and I’m not sure why or how it exists. Probably the highlight was the spontaneous standing ovation given Brian’s mother during her turn on the mic—I’ll never forget that!

Tropic of Cancer didn’t record nearly enough, and that fact for me amplifies the sense of loss, like it’s the end of an era. Maybe the worst thing about Brian Hicks dying is that there are so many out there who will never know how good he was, because he chose to live and die in a city sorely lacking in respect and support for all the incredibly talented artists and musicians working here. Hicks, who was also a highly skilled audio technician who produced probably dozens of albums over the years, was working on the new Tropic CD at the time of his death; its posthumous release will stand as a mini-monument to his talent, but the real monument is a scene that is stronger than ever, and easily on the verge of some truly explosive growth in its national profile.

The only consolation to be had, however small, is this: Tropic played at Birdie’s once more, celebrating the band’s 10th anniversary on March 12, and he sounded as good as he ever had, and he knew it. His last performance was at Underbelly, just a few weeks before he died, and even then his alto sound rang with that sweet clarity of tone that was as much a part of this city as the river itself. We’ll all carry that sound in our hearts and minds forever, or at least until we can hear it again. RIP

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