The Struggle Against Futility: A Tribute to Jeff Hickey

jeff5The Struggle Against Futility

Last time I wrote about The Falsity of Struggle and how we sometimes contradict ourselves in the messages we create in our music and how that contradiction can spill over into our own psyches; the way we are affected by struggle and the terms we may unnecessarily accept as artists.

This time I want to spill my heart a little bit about another level of struggle that is far more deep and personal.

I was utterly saddened to learn of the death of a very good man, Jeff Hickey. I met Jeff in 2003 and he helped to get Rick’s Café off the ground by delivering them in the city. Not only was he a great guitarist and a compassionate observer of the world, he could get downright ticked off about the state of things. It seemed to me that whenever we spoke, he was a bit deflated, a little down, a little accepting that maybe this whole thing wasn’t going to amount to much. He had a sense of humor, though; there is no question of that. I don’t think Jeff felt like he deserved the Madison Area Music Award that he won for Best Acoustic Album in 2004. He was always a little self-deprecating in that way.  If he was so good, why was everything around him so bleak and why was the world so fucked up? Why couldn’t he seem to do anything about it?

I remember his acceptance for his award. He went on comically about his “beautiful… beautiful… sexy… very sexy wife” and how much he loved her. I don’t remember if he stated it out loud, but there was certainly the underlying insinuation that he didn’t deserve her.  It wasn’t the only time I heard him speak this way. He was serious about honoring his love for his family in his music. I think his favorite one to play was “New Kind of Love,” a song he wrote for his daughter soon after she was born.  He was reluctant to put out more music after his album Loose Ends. I remember him saying this to me, “because then the world gets to judge it.”  Jeff didn’t think he was a special guy at all…which is exactly why he was.

It reminded me of the intrinsic struggle we all face, day in and day out. The one with our existence; the struggle against futility.

I can remember when I was young; an ambitious, though highly undereducated (and under-practiced) musician. I just couldn’t imagine my life going on to completion without some kind of big splash. You know, playing in front of large crowds, traveling, not because of the ego stroke but because it would mean the music mattered. More so, it meant that, just maybe, the music would make a difference to others, even be important in their lives. 

As time went on – and on – and it became apparent that the tour bus was indeed, not pulling up to the door to pick me up, the focus of that lens began to narrow. I used to play a lot of shows at the Riley Tavern in Verona, a small place nestled in the hills far out of the city. Forty people would make the place uncomfortably crowded. It’s the kind of place where you push the pool table aside to make room for the band. Though this was a far cry from the type of performing I had hoped for, I remember taking it very seriously on a musical level. Of course I wanted people to just have fun, forget their troubles, dance, etc, etc. But there was always a serious intent in the music I made. I just couldn’t help myself from wanting to impress upon someone the effect a song could have on a person; the way so many songs affected me and made such a difference in my life. I remember psyching up in my car on the way, warming up my voice but also meditating a bit. “Just one person…” I’d say to myself.

At the same time I was going through a transformation. I was letting go. One day, as I was driving my Union Cab, I gave a ride to a girl I once knew. I picked her up at a rehab center. I didn’t even recognize her at first; nor her I. She looked a little pensive and preoccupied. Finally I asked her if she was, indeed, the girl I knew from several years ago. Yes, as it turned out, she was. She went on to say how she had been listening to my CD the whole time she was going through her own struggle. How it affected her and helped her get through it. She was so thankful toward me. That was it; my artist’s life was complete right there. I had found the one person who validated all my insecurities and struggles. Soon after I started the newspaper and realized I could make a difference in another way. The MAMAs were also opening another avenue of giving back to the community. Maybe we can open a door for some kid who might just go on to make the one song that makes all our lives worthwhile. I let the dream that had consumed my entire life go.

When I heard of Jeff’s passing, and as I fought back the tears I felt for the wife and family he loved so much, I wondered if he had ever had a moment where he realized his music made a difference.  He taught me, in one whimsical acceptance speech, the meaning of family. So in some way, though it’s too late to say it to him, I want him to know that he did matter. Maybe he’s listening in. Jeff, we loved you. And to all the “Jeff’s” out there – keep going man, until you find that one person.




← How I Came to Play, Part 3: Mark Fredrick The Falsity of Struggle →

About the author

Rick Tvedt

Rick is publisher of Local Sounds Magazine, formerly Rick's Cafe, Wisconsin's Regional Music Newspaper. He is also the Executive Director for MAMA, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces the Madison Area Music Awards and raises funds to promote youth music programs.

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  1. joe martin
    August 18, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Jeff and I played the same venue for years, and I saw him play some magical tunes, but I’ll always remember bringing my infant daughter Eliza to El Dorado grill one Sunday brunch, and Jeff playing “New Kind of Love”, with a smile, for my daughter. See you at the benefit.

  2. Kristy Larson
    October 2, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    I knew Jeff through Bill C.Malone and his ‘Back to the Country’ show on WORT. Jeff engineered for Bill, kept up an on-air banter with him, reading the folk calendar while Bill moved his car, joyously pledge-rapping away with Bill, filling in as host when Bill was out of town, and just relished being a solid member of the WORT family. I’m a local musician and visit the show lots, delivering my show announcements, helping out at pledge time and enjoying the musical comraderie. Jeff’s car accident and subsequent death is sad beyond words… His family, his WORT family, fellow musicians…it is so painful when love can’t cut through… we as a culture are not very kind to artists… thank you for your kind words and thoughts as an individual and fellow musician. I hope Jeff feels them somehow.

  3. Brendan Hickey
    November 20, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Thanks for all the kind words. It’s surprising how many articles like this I’ve found over the years like this, talking about how much Jeff meant to the people who wrote them. Every time I read one, I have the same thoughts over again, realizing just how highly some people regarded him, and thinking, “damn, I’m that guy’s son”. Although I’m used to him being gone now, I’ll never stop missing him. Thanks again for all the kind words, it’s great to see he’s being remembered. I appreciate it, and so does the rest of the family.

    Sincerely, Jeff’s ever-loving son.

  4. Rick Tvedt
    November 21, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Thank you. I can’t imagine what it’s like losing your father. He was a great guy and yes, you should be proud! Best to you always and stay strong.

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