Her voice is so sad. You just know she was never on top of the world. She was never on top of anything.”

Dave Hickey is sick—he has a fever and would be better off at home in front of the TV watching college football. Instead he’s tooling his white Cadillac El Dorado through the sunburned October streets of Las Vegas and singing along with the woman on the car stereo: “I’m on the top of the world, lookin’ down on creation… ” He’s on his way to speak at an art opening on the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and he’s dressed entirely in black, down to his cowboy boots. Feverishly he taps his free hand to the corny rhythm. But this isn’t the song he wants me to hear, and he interrupts it, fast-forwarding the tape. “Now, this is one of my favorite songs,” he says, as the woman’s voice fills the car again and we pull into a parking lot at UNLV. “It’s incredible. And it’s all wrong as far as pop music is concerned.” The famous art critic, never at a loss for words, gushes over the blasting speakers. “Incredible,” he says again as the second verse begins. I laugh nervously. Hickey guides me through a dissection of the four-minute song’s sophisticated structure—the turnarounds and verse extensions, the modulation—getting more excited as the last part approaches. I know what’s coming. I’ve heard the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” since I was a teenager. I hate this song.

The final chorus fills the parked car, 75 seconds of the seventies—Karen Carpenter’s multilayered ah-ah-ah-ah and a fuzz-tone guitar. “This is the most beautifully structured rock guitar solo,” Hickey says, singing along and pointing out highlights. “Then he does this little kind of Scarlatti figure …” Scarlatti? “Yeah, Baroque figure.” The song ends and Hickey, who at sixty looks like a cross between Ed Asner and Uncle Charley from My Three Sons, turns the tape off and quickly sobers up. “Anyway, that’s really cool,” he says in his soft Texas drawl as we climb out of the car. “But it’s like a perfectly made little machine—signifying nothing.”

I’ll say. But as we walk across the campus where he has taught since 1989, I’m humming that damn chorus, thinking about poor Karen Carpenter, and thumbing through the files in the back of my brain. I love a good pop song as much as the brilliant art critic does, and I’m wondering whether I’ve blindly dismissed the Carpenters all these years. Or whether Dave Hickey—former engineering student, short-story writer, music journalist, Austin gallery owner, New York editor, Nashville songwriter, and postmodern fringe-dweller who snorted speed with Billy Lee Brammer, drank codeine with Townes Van Zandt, and hobnobbed with Andy Warhol—is just pulling my leg.

A lot of people are wondering the same thing, now that Hickey has become the best-known art secret in the country. Hickey’s second book of essays, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, published in 1997, has sold 20,000 copies in a field where 3,000 is a big success. (His first book, The Invisible Dragon, has sold about 15,000.) His guest lectures at universities are crowded with the young; his ideas are picked over by the cognoscenti. And though being a top art critic is not going to get you on Letterman, Hickey shows signs of breaking out of cult stardom and into the mainstream—if against his wishes (he regularly turns down requests to be on the NewsHour). “You can make the case that he’s the best critic in America,” says Robert Christgau, the dean of the world’s rock critics. Says Los Angeles art writer and teacher David Pagel: “He’s less of a critic and more of a philosopher. He’s in that great American tradition of Emerson and Jefferson—the public intellectual.”

Beauty is Hickey’s old-fashioned touchstone. In an era in which, as critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker recently, art theory has “carefully excluded—or downright insulted” beauty, Hickey has written that “Nothing redeems but beauty, its generous permission.” While many modernists celebrate form and concept, Hickey seeks out the beautiful—and finds it where others find banality (Norman Rockwell), phoniness (Liberace), or sordid pornography (Robert Mapplethorpe). Hickey sees sanctimony where others see sanctity (Mark Rothko) and integrity where others see glitz (Las Vegas). He loves the silly and hates the solemn, and his essays are a constant granting of permission to viewers to do what he does: like what they like without fear. “Art ain’t rocket science,” he has written. He relentlessly attacks the art establishment—universities, museums, foundations, and critics—anyone who would tell anyone else what he or she should like or admire. Hickey himself is more like a supercharged cultural guide than a critic, making connections between, for example, Jackson Pollock, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Dickens in an essay that begins with Warhol and ends with the Rolling Stones.

For Hickey, it’s all about looking at the art, not thinking about what the artist meant to do—or about what critics, teachers, and art historians say the artist meant. This bothers some writers, who call Hickey a reactionary for what they say is an outmoded beauty standard that ignores history and, especially, modern understandings of racial and sexual dynamics (“Beauty is what makes you feel good,” he says). “It’s a very dangerous thing to call for a return to such a notion of beauty,” says Amelia Jones, a professor of art history at the University of California at Riverside. “There’s a long history of that being invoked to exclude [what isn’t thought beautiful] and to empower the person making the call.” (She also thinks Hickey is a hypocrite: “One thing that really bothers me about him is that he markets himself as being outside of the Institution while he teaches at UNLV. It’s self-serving and not accurate.”)

Hickey thinks such criticism is all too politically correct. Ignore the gallery card next to the painting, he says. Look at the picture. “‘What does it mean?’” he asks mockingly. “‘What does the artist feel?’ I don’t care. I care about what the art does. I’m interested in consequences.” He celebrates the fact that the market helps determine value; most art purists don’t. Nor do they share his insistence that pop culture is as worthy of attention as high culture. “There’s no difference between the highest art and the lowest art,” says Hickey, “except for the audience it appeals to. I have never seen more art and craft and thought and gift and talent and learning go into anything as watching Allen Toussaint produce a Meters record in New Orleans. That was real art.” Though he’s a big fan of modern artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Ruscha, he also loves Victorian fiction, Perry Mason, and the doe-eyed sadness in Karen Carpenter’s voice.

And so, maybe secretly, do Hickey’s fans. Or perhaps they just like the hard, funny way he writes about serious, often ponderous subjects. Hickey’s essays are like prose pop songs, written, like good songs, according to certain rules: Keep it short, make it sweet, give us something to hum along with. Hickey’s prose flows like music in your head. His connections—Pollock, Gillespie, Dickens—snap like bubblegum-pop hooks and his riffs resonate like multilayered harmonies:

“Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.”

” [In] the twentieth century, that’s all there is: jazz and rock-and-roll. The rest is just term papers and advertising.”

Is Hickey an aesthete’s Martin Luther, telling people to ignore the priests (the critics and the professors) and go to the source, or is he just a smartass kid, lighting stink bombs and pissing off the Establishment? Like many grand weirdos, Hickey is both prophet and troublemaker. He was born in 1939 in Fort Worth and grew up there and in Dallas, Louisiana, and Southern California. His father worked for General Motors but played jazz saxophone and clarinet in his spare time; his mother, an economics professor with Marxist leanings at Texas Christian University, painted in hers. In one of the more moving essays in Air Guitar, Hickey remembers a Texas jam session that included his father, his father’s redneck buddy, a Latino bongo player, two black beboppers, and a Jewish neighbor who had fled the Nazis. Less than three years later his father would kill himself; he wasn’t the first in the bloodline to do so.

Hickey enrolled at Southern Methodist University at age fifteen as an engineering student. Three years later he transferred to TCU and changed his major to English after taking a class from John Graves. He eluded the draft in the early sixties by enrolling in graduate school in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. “I worshipped at the Church of Difficult Art, Improvisational Politics, and Dangerous Drugs,” he later wrote about his time in Austin. He was crafting gorgeous short stories (many of which would be collected in the 1989 book Prior Convictions) and writing and editing articles for Riata, the campus literary magazine, and the Ranger, the humor magazine. A 1964 trip to New York and Europe introduced him to the paintings of Warhol, Ruscha, and Roy Lichtenstein. Three years later Hickey dropped out of grad school and he and his first wife, Mary Jane Taylor, opened a pioneering contemporary-art gallery in Austin, A Clean Well-Lighted Place. He was already indulging his passion for both the High and the Low—selling modern art, playing in rock bands, doing drugs.

In 1971 Hickey and Taylor moved to New York, where he hung out with Warhol and got a job running the Reese Palley Gallery in SoHo. Hickey spent a year editing the influential magazine Art in America before going freelance in 1973 and writing about rock and roll and country music for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. “I was always pretty good about sensing continental drifts,” he says, including the Outlaw country movement, which he was the first to write seriously about, giving it its name in a 1974 Country Music magazine piece. At the same time he was one of the first chroniclers of the nascent punk rock scene at CBGB’s in New York.

Hickey wasn’t always easy to work with. One editor remembers going over copy with him. “Dave was often enhanced,” he says with a laugh. “I had a small office, and it was like trying to handle a hundred-and-eighty-pound pinball machine.” Another editor remembers Hickey coming in just before deadline and pulling scraps of paper from his pockets: “Some just had a name written on them, or a year, but many had a phrase that was either a good image or the germ of a good idea. I kept those and told him what I thought he needed to do and gave him a pep talk. Two days later he turned in a typically brilliant Hickey piece.”

In the late seventies Hickey lived in Nashville and wrote songs, some of which would be covered by such redneck connoisseurs as David Allan Coe and Bobby Bare. Sitting in the Las Vegas apartment he shares with his second wife, writer and art professor Libby Lumpkin, he pulls out an acoustic guitar and plays me a song he says country statesman Porter Wagoner recorded but never released, a ballad of the common man with a pretty melody and Rockwellian images. In a high, almost breathless voice, he sings, “In the last light of evening, is there anything that’s sweeter/Than a house on a street in a town beside the road?”

After eighteen years of the freelance life, when he was 52, Hickey took a job as an associate professor at UNLV. He jokes that it was his need for health insurance that forced him to join the enemy, academia. “I’m the catcher in the rye,” he says with a laugh when I ask him how he justifies the move. “That’s my job—to protect them, not from life but from school.” Childless, he calls his students “my kids” and hangs their artwork on his walls. He is clearly energized by their enthusiasm and attention. Indeed, it is Hickey’s sway with the young—the way they gather around him for autographs after lectures—that seems to particularly gall his critics. And his peers. Once, when another UNLV professor told him they had to be role models for their students, Hickey says he replied, “Well, great: ‘Kids, take drugs for thirty years and live in your car as much as possible! That’s what I did!’”

Sitting at his dining room table, Hickey breaks into a mischievous, chattering laugh, punching out clouds of smoke from the Marlboro Lights 100’s he keeps firing up. He doesn’t drink anymore or do drugs, except coffee, which he swallows as if fatigue were the ultimate enemy. A gambler, Hickey loves Las Vegas, which he says is egalitarian and honest about its deceit. It’s a place where an optimist like him can have some fun. But the veteran hedonist has always had a ferocious work ethic, getting up five days a week at three in the morning and writing until eight—producing, lately, twelve vignettes based on Zodiac personality characteristics for Stardumb, an illustrated short novel that came out in November. He’s also working on a screenplay for a movie about the Allman Brothers Band, even though he hates movies: “Movies generally suck. They don’t have real stories anymore—they’ve been ruined by writing programs.”

He also claims to be not particularly fond of his home state. “It’s the most profoundly anti-intellectual environment,” he rants, “and I have never been able to figure out why. The damn place can’t keep certain kinds of eccentric people. It ran John Rechy to L.A. It ran Don Barthelme to New York. It ran Robert Rauschenberg out. It runs out anybody that’s queer or critical or witty or angular.” He has always been critical of Texas writers who can’t write about the modern world—especially those who write “narcissistic redneck melodramas. You know, ‘I love you more than a bottle of Wildroot Cream Oil.’” He loves Barthelme and his mentor Graves; he doesn’t like Cormac McCarthy. “I was about fifteen pages into The Crossing when some Mexican guy on a horse looks off and says, ‘It is a very old country,’ and I just said, ‘Cormac, I’ve seen this movie. I’m out of here.’”

The truth is, most of his Texas diatribes are just show. “He loves Texas,” says Jack Massing, half of the Houston postmodern duo the Art Guys. “He just loves to tell people how horrible it is here.” The other Art Guy, Michael Galbreth, remembers a dinner party in San Francisco where Hickey, who likes to talk and knows people like to listen, went on a tear. “Dave didn’t let up, giving Texas artists hell,” he says. “‘All art in Texas sucks! I’ll never set foot in that goddam state again!’ We were dying laughing.” In fact, Hickey comes to Texas several times a year, as he did last summer for photographer Nic Nicosia’s show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. If anything, Hickey is loyal to Texas artists to a fault, and his support is a link between such disparate and far-flung eccentrics as the Art Guys, Rauschenberg, Nicosia, and Terry Allen.

To say that Hickey delights in chaos and confusion would be an understatement. But, he says, there has been a logic to his life: “When you’re a third-generation suicide, you can’t ignore it and you can’t cure it. An ordinary life of quiet desperation is not sufficient to overcome the invitation to oblivion. So any risk is worth taking.” And for all his troublemaking, Hickey clearly enjoys his current position as top dog, no matter how much he sometimes mocks it. “Good artists want to win,” he says. “I want to win—I want my views to prevail.” He’s a lot like the complicated, peculiar, doomed artists he writes about—his father, Liberace, Brammer, Mapplethorpe, Warhol, Carpenter—each an acolyte of beauty, in his or her own fashion, and each redeemed, if at all, by light, color, and four-minute blasts of pure pop nothingness.