Staring at hands clasped on the fret board, shaping chords and mimicking notes, Johnny Hickman replicates the fingering of one Puerto Rican grandfather.
As a 12-year-old military child who spoke little Spanish, Hickman learned to play guitar from a man who spoke no English.
The older man, the grandfather of a local friend, pestered Hickman with the Spanish phrase “Mira, mira” or “Look, look,” in English, vying for the attention of the future musician.
“Every time I played a note wrong, he’d hit me in the head with a pillow,” Hickman says.
The man, whom he referres to as “Abuelito,” taught Hickman how to tune his classical guitar, which he received as a gift from his father.
After lessons, Hickman would return to the military base and use his newfound knowledge to dissect and recreate Beatles songs.
Upon return to the states with his family, the young musician snatched up gigs in clubs at the ripe age of 14.
“I’d have to stay backstage until the show because I wasn’t even allowed to be in the place,” Hickman says.
Flash forward nearly 40 years, Hickman stands backstage at the Aggie Theatre Tuesday night, waiting to take the stage as a full-fledged rock star in front of his hometown friends.
That’s the way the Cracker crumbles
Hickman described the Los Angeles punk scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s like the scene in New York: very small and exclusive.
While frequenting the scene, he’d often see the same crowd from show to show, including David Lowery, a friend who would change his musical career nearly a decade later.
At the time, however, Hickman was pursuing a solo career as a folk acoustic performer, and later joined the pop-punk group, The Dangers.
But in 1991 Lowery, returned to Hickman’s life.
“We met up again and, as friends, started writing music,” Hickman says. “After his band Camper Van Beethoven broke up, he and I began writing experimentally for a band.”
A year later, the project morphed into a band, Cracker; an album, ‘Cracker Brand’; and a record deal with Virgin Records.
Cracker slowly made its way through the California music scene, gaining exposure on local radio stations and with MTV.
“We got Sunday night air on MTV’s ‘Freakshow,'” Hickman says. “We were a little odd for mainstream. We still are. But it got our foot in the door.”
Hickman worked side jobs during the day, including painting houses, for bars and a mortuary. By night, he’d practice or play shows.
“We were no overnight sensation,” he says. “We worked our asses off.”
But in the early ’90s, the band began touring and developed a cult following. These self-named “Crumbs” traveled for hours to see Cracker.
“They’re a younger, modern version of Grateful Dead fans,” he says, referencing the infamous Dead Heads.
Crumbs have even ventured overseas to see the band in little towns in Germany and Spain.
“We’re really lucky to be in these times because of the Internet. People can click a link and see where we’re playing,” he says. “They’ll go across the ocean and see four, five, 10 shows. It’s a loose extended family.”
Most of all, these fans pushed Cracker to elite musical status, cementing the group as one of the most notable bands of the ’90s.
The band’s sophomore album “Kerosene Hat” streaked upward, eventually hitting gold record status, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
The album propelled its single, “Low,” to 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, eventually peaking at 64. The track is still in rotation at many alternative rock radio stations.
To this day, however, Hickman remains modest.
“We’ve never gotten rich or huge,” he says. “But the average lifespan of a band is five years, and we’ve hit 19.”
Bringing the melodies to FoCo
Cracker released its latest album, “Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey,” in May, pulling on their power pop-punk roots.
Hickman and Lowery wrote three of the songs, but the majority was a collaboration with the rest of the band members, Frank Funaro, drums, and Sal Maida, bass.
“There’s a little more tug of war going on, but that’s where you get your creativity,” Hickman says.
Since the release of the album, Cracker has been scouring the country. Fort Collins hosted the band Tuesday, with The Piggies opening at the Aggie Theatre.
“There is a really diverse music scene (in Fort Collins). There’s history,” he says. “I love the fact that it’s really diverse. Indie, country, punk, rock and jam scene. There’s so many genre crossovers.”
Now that Hickman calls close-by Loveland home, he said he has formed closer relationships with those in the music scene.
“I play with The Piggies a lot, and other local bands. Even though I live closer to Loveland, I consider Fort Collins my home,” he says.
The recent album also contains a few tracks recorded at legendary The Blasting Room in Fort Collins. It will be released in Europe in October where Cracker will visit Germany, Sweden and Norway.
This will be one of nearly a dozen tours Cracker has performed in Europe since it was created.
Staff writer Kelly Bleck can be reached at email@example.com.