The Legend of Billy Hicks

Or, why sax player is no longer a viable occupation in rock and roll

By Zac Crain

published: May 26, 2005

There was a time when being a saxophone player and being in a rock band were not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately for every ambitious high school geek with a pocket full of reeds, this is not that time. Being a sax player in high school is like majoring in Latin in college: There is absolutely no future in it. That ship has sailed, friends, and docks now only when VH1 airs a weekend-long I ·· the '80s marathon. Every episode is like an archaeological dig, exhuming the dusty bones of the now mythic sax player and giving young viewers a chance to see him in his (formerly) natural state.

The Me Decade was also the Reed Decade, an absolutely glorious time to be a sax player, rivaled only by the early days of rock and roll. (You know, Bill Haley and his Comets, and so on.) Think about it: Clarence Clemons was the linchpin of Bruce Springsteen's crowd-pleasing E Street Band. Kirk Pengilly more or less defined INXS' sound. Johnny Colla from The News (of "Huey Lewis &" fame) didn't bring much to the table, but he certainly didn't take anything away. There was Glen Frey's genre-defining "You Belong to the City," not to mention most of the Miami Vice soundtrack.

Tons of other bands diversified their guitar-bass-drum attack with the help of a sax player: The Motels (Marty Jourard), Men at Work (Greg Ham), the Waterboys (Anthony Thistlewaite), Roxy Music (Andy MacKay), Quarterflash (Rindy Ross). Sure, they're now graying at state fairs and/or dodging Aameer Haleem's Bands Reunited cameras, but back then, they had hits. And sax players.

But those are all just footnotes, minor details. Here is the backbone of this particular theory: Billy Hicks. Now, Hicks is not a real person; neither is his group The New Breed Band. Hicks is a part played (to some acclaim, mostly from teenage girls) by Rob Lowe in the TNT New Classic St. Elmo's Fire. But here's the thing: Hicks did nothing but play saxophone, and he was the absolute star of the aforementioned New Breed Band. His searing solos caused a younger, pudgier and far more realistic-looking Demi Moore to borderline mouth-rape him in one memorable scene. To paraphrase my mentor Jay-Z, R-O-B was running that sax shit.

Would that fly today? Not bloody likely. If they remade St. Elmo's Fire with, say, Ashton Kutcher in the Billy Hicks role, two things would happen: 1) Demi Moore would almost definitely still borderline mouth-rape him and 2) Hicks would now be the hot-shit guitar player. This is not even up for debate. This is the first note a studio exec would make in the margins of the script. Why? Because no one in his right mind would buy the fact that a mothereffing saxophone player could front his own band, unless it were a jazz combo, and let me tell you, that's not putting asses in the seats. You think Kutcher would take even five minutes off his busy schedule making sure Wilmer Valderrama has enough street cred to bang up-and-coming starlets long after That '70s Show wraps to learn how to fake-play a sax? Bitch, please.

But why can't it happen? Why, with bands like The Killers and Franz Ferdinand (to name a few) bringing back the '80s, has no one brought back the sax along with it? Sure, a few hip groups--and by hip, I of course mean they've had their music on The O.C. --like Spoon and Phantom Planet have buried a sax part in the mix on a song or two. Adam Green used a sax solo on his straight-faced cover of the Beach Boys' "Kokomo," but then, if he had deleted the solo, it would have killed the joke. Dana Colley had a decent run with the sax while Morphine was still around. There is even a local band, [DARYL], that counts a sax player among its members. But most sax players would take the advice of my good friend and tennis partner LL Cool J and refuse to call that a comeback.

There are a few people out there who still believe. I came across one when I was trying to find information on Timmy Cappello, also known as the creepy, ponytailed, greased-up sax player who made his mark on the 1980s with a cameo in Lost Boys and a few tours supporting Tina Turner. As it turns out, the "sweaty sax player from Lost Boys"--which brought up five hits on Google--has a Web site. A pretty fancy one, actually, at www.ultimatetimmyfanz.com. So I contacted the guy who created it, J.D. Summar, to ask, well, why.

"I knew there had to be other Timmy fans out there, and I was right," Summar says via e-mail. "We appreciate him as the performer, singer and musician that he is." He also writes that Cappello inspired him to pick up the sax himself in junior high. Which is noble, I guess. Music departments at junior and high schools need every bit of support they can get, and if someone, even a shirtless dude who vaguely creeps me out, can make even one more person pick up an instrument, that's great.

But beyond wondering why someone would spend his free time crafting a shrine to a man whose name took me several minutes just to come up with, I wanted Summar's insight. As someone who appreciates the sound of a finely (or, in my estimation, merely competently) played sax, why does he think no one employs it anymore?

"I believe the ease of creating music (synthesizers/keyboards and sounds/beats at the touch of a button) has killed music that used to be played by real musicians," Summar writes. "To the producers of today, it's easier and probably more affordable to have a machine play music than a person. I'm sorry but computers can't play the same way a human can. You can't get Timmy's sound or any other known sax players out there that way; there's no 'individualism' to the music. Because any kid in their garage with the right equipment can make nearly any sound they want, I think that there are some people who don't care about playing a real instrument or even trying to learn. Plus, the majority of music out there today doesn't lend itself to sax performances, unfortunately."

That last bit is probably the real reason. But just because there doesn't seem to be a place for it doesn't mean it can't work. For example, who'd have thought a fey kid from Omaha, Nebraska, who basically sings the contents of his LiveJournal in a voice that cracks like a wicker chair and does so via a label without any major-label support could sell a million records? But Conor Oberst will probably do that before the year is over. You have to combine the sales of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn to do it, but still. Point is, some things that sound like they wouldn't work probably would, if someone would just try.

So listen up, Franz Ferdinand and The Killers and The Futureheads and all you other retro-leaning bands out there. The gauntlet has been thrown. The game is afoot. Come next year, I want to see new albums with sax solos on them. Make it happen. Or don't, if you don't feel like it. I'm fine either way. Really. Couldn't care less. I played tuba in high school. My dream died a long time ago.