Anyone who has ever read Tony Hicks’ twice-weekly humor lifestyle column in the Contra Costa Times, might think this witty, sarcastic, self-deprecating writer would be a cool guy to hang out with, and you would be correct. After months of trading emails and Facebook messages, our mutual admiration society had finally scheduled its first meeting. Tony and I met one afternoon at Peet’s Coffee in Walnut Creek. When I arrive, he is engaged in a whimsical conversation with a political surveyor collecting signatures for a bill or petition. He is casually attired in cargo shorts, Vans and a cool Star Wars t-shirt depicting four Imperial Storm Troopers wearing the very identifiable “KISS” face paint. Tony has a collection of tattoos on his stocky frame and is easily recognizable by his trademark billy-goat scruff facial hair (he was in the process of growing his beard out when we got together to shoot photos for the article) which is visible in the headshot shown above his newspaper column. As we talked about a variety of topics over the course of a couple of hours, Tony reminded me of what the character John Bender, portrayed wonderfully by Judd Nelson in the popular 80s movie The Breakfast Club, might resemble as an adult. He is laid back and affable, but possesses the keen ability to provide humorously insightful observations of people, places and events.
Whenever I’m asked who has influenced my writing style in the magazine articles I’ve done for ALIVE, four names come to mind; Dave Berry, Scott Osler, Rick Reilly and Tony Hicks. When I shared this with Tony, he blushed like a little school girl. While Tony is almost 6 years younger than me, I’ve always admired that he can churn out two columns a week in addition to his twice weekly People Column responsibilities and his occasional feature pieces. When asked where he comes up with the ideas for his column, Tony says inspiration comes from personal experiences (parenting and growing up in the shadow of Mt. Diablo) or things he picks up in the media. “Most of my columns are written at home (often times in bed) and I’m a really poor planner so it’s usually just something that strikes me at the time.” I can totally relate to that as a fellow procrastinator.
Tony grew up in Walnut Creek, but his family moved to San Ramon when he was twelve. After graduating from Cal High School in San Ramon in 1985, despite having rock star aspirations as the drummer for the pop-alt band Nag Nag Nag, Tony left the group before the band relocated to Southern California and enrolled at Diablo Valley College. Tony says. “I wasn’t in any hurry to leave and there was plenty of partying to do while still living at home.” Despite receiving praise for his flair with the pen in a creative writing class at DVC, Tony felt like he had made a mistake by not going to L.A. with his band. ”I decided to move down south hoping the band’s new drummer would eventually quit”. After initially finding an apartment in Korea Town, which happened to be in the heart of rival gang territory, Tony eventually did rejoin the band and find a new place to live. Nag Nag Nag became a recognizable member of a group of promising So Cal bands known as The Alternate Power Source. However, after a couple of years of establishing their place in the club scene (amongst the popularity of grunge and metal acts), Tony left the band again and headed home… to be a writer.
The year was 1993 when Tony re-enrolled at DVC with aspirations of being a sports writer, and in the perfect world, the Warriors beat writer. After signing up for journalism courses, Tony joined the staff of the DVC Inquirer. Initially a staff reporter and later the Editor-in-Chief, Tony would go on to win a countywide creative writing competition sponsored by the East Bay Press Club. “Jake Williams, Deputy Editor at the Contra Costa Times, was a judge for the contest and we hit it off right away.” “I got a call a couple of weeks later from someone at the Times asking if I would like a few hours of weekly work reporting on Caltrans road work and street closures. As dull as that sounds, I thought I had hit the big time.” Ironically, it was around this time, mid 1995, that the band came calling again. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Nag Nag Nag’s lead singer was now playing in a band called Green Jello, which was getting some play on MTV and the group’s drummer was happily honing his craft as a writer.
Working an assortment of jobs at the Times gave Tony valuable experience in record research, city government and real estate editorials. He was also given the enjoyable task of covering sports on the weekends.After reading the book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson and following the 2002 Presidential Election, Tony’s interest in politics blossomed. During this time, Tony and his earliest mentor, Jean Dickenson (his advisor at DVC) continued to stay in touch even after he transferred to San Francisco State to earn a degree in journalism. It was Jean the editor for the Valley Times (owned by Lesher Communications) who called after having interviewed Tony for a summer job as a fill-in for the day cop reporter. “I misspelled Lesher, but luckily Jean vouched for me.” Tony went on to fill-in as the Moraga beat reporter for the paper, where he eventually met his first wife. At 30, Tony did become a husband and step-father and by 2002, the two had a daughter, Olivia. Originally Tony and his wife had planned for a water birth delivery and had several false starts commuting from their home in Cordelia to the birthing facility in Pleasanton. Ultimately, the baby was delivered in the more conventional manner. “No, I wasn’t enamored with the idea of a water birth.” Tony states. The couple divorced in 2006, which was very tough on Tony at the time having just bought a new home ten months earlier and not getting to see his young daughter every day.
While his personal life was in state of turmoil, Tony was happy as the music critic for the Contra Costa Times. Having covered the local music scene in 1999, as a six month fill-in for the regular music critic, Tony then transitioned into covering the Berkeley beat for the West County Time in the spring of 2000. “If you can’t find something to write about in Berkley, you shouldn’t be a reporter”. Eventually he landed the dream job of full time music critic in July of 2001. “I worked my butt off covering concerts, conducting interviews and churning out articles”, Tony says. “I loved it.” When asked about his favorite memories, Tony recalls an hour long interview with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, befriending Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, receiving a bottle of Cabo Wabo Tequila from Sammy Hagar and recording a jam session with former Metallica bassist, Jason Newsted. “Jason was getting ready to go on the road with Ozzy Osbourne when he invited me to jam after our interview. That didn’t suck”, Tony proudly admits. Surprisingly, it was a review of a show featuring Chrissy Hynde and the Pretenders that drew his biggest negative reader response. “Chrissy made some disparaging comments during the show about the terrorist attacks of September 11th and people attributed them to me as the writer. It got really crazy.”
Tony does credit his column for finding his current wife, Michelle. “In 2007, after dropping 30 pounds and getting his life together, a co-worker told me that one of her friends really enjoyed reading my column.” Using Myspace (pre-Facebook), they initially connected over the internet. Both being single parents of young daughters, they set up an innocent play date at Heather Park in Walnut Creek. The next day they met up to watch the Super Bowl and have been together ever since. Today, they call Concord home and together the loving couple have a beautiful three-year old daughter, Lucy. Tony is once again attending his favorite community college in Pleasanton Hill as a 43-year old senior. Despite completing the required journalism classes, with a minor in political science, he still needs to finish up a few general education credits to earn his degree later this year. “Yes, yes, yes, life kind of got in my way,” Tony sheepishly admits.
Tony enjoys hearing from his loyal readers and gets email virtually every day, including occasional notes from that dork who writes personality profiles for ALIVE magazine. “I’m actually not as funny or interesting in person,” the big guy confesses, although I would disagree. As long as there are still stories to tell, Tony Hicks will always be a cool guy to hang out with and/or follow in the rags.