Dereck Higgins: Omaha's Post-Punk PrometheusJul 01, 2022 11:07AM ● By Julius Fredrick
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Released by French independent music label Sordide Sentimental (noted for capturing isolated flares of new-wave supernova Joy Division prior to their cataclysmic end), 1986’s Essence & Charm LP includes an informative note on the back, fuchsia and gold block-letters leaping past jewel case glare:
“Music of intense charm…The music of Digital Sex is superb, very melodious, enchanting and marked by strange vigour, seductive and nervous,…for they are made of the stuff of authentic creators and not that of imitators…”
While this note, and the front cover’s casual, albeit illustrated, nudity, is very much de la mode Françoise, it’s for good reason: while Essence flew over the heads of many Midwestern listeners, it landed a No. 1 single in Southern France—prompting the above rerelease (with additional tracks)—and Nebraska’s first contribution to the CD format.
This is due, in large part, to one of progressive rock’s most enduring, yet combustible, artistic forces: Omaha’s own post-punk Prometheus, Dereck Higgins.
“With Digital Sex, when I started that band, the idea was ‘let me see what can happen,’ it wasn’t the idea like when Rush said ‘We’re gonna make it!’” Higgins recalled, “my thought has always been ‘I love the music and I’m pretty good, so let’s see what happens.’ I never wanted to be rich and famous, I wanted to know that I was good, that I could come up with music that’s original…And I’m still going, yeah, I’ll be 67 in July.”
With John Tingle’s guitar riffs, Stephen Sheehan’s vocals, Greg Tsichlis’ drumbeats, and Higgins’ bass smoldering with the airy, portentous weight of a cumulonimbus, Digital Sex eventually drew attention stateside, culminating in an appearance on MTV News. Yet, as often occurs at the melting point of drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, the chemistry proved tricky.
“Yeah, we broke up constantly. We started out in about ’82, and we got the album out by ’86, but we kept getting back together into the ’90s because what were doing was so potent, you know…”
In time, Digital Sex’s brand of bottled lightning would lose its lid completely, grooves of controlled chaos worn down by mounting creative impasse.
The breakup hasn’t deterred Higgins’ ambitions, though, and judging by his borderline superhuman output in the decades since, one might conclude—as the Nebraska Music Hall of Fame did in 2019—that it had the opposite effect.
That’s because a Higgins blood test is incomplete until measured in treble clefts, octaves, and time signatures—revealing a double helix of musical virtuosity and relentless self-expression inseparable from his DNA. Apparently, the condition is hereditary.
“Both of my parents were musicians, they met on the road. So I grew up in a musical household here in Omaha,” Higgins said. “My parents told me I was rockin’ to music before I could walk, you know, Chucky Berry, Little Richard, and the Everly Brothers were the ones that would just trip my trigger when I was a baby.”
While growing up, his father, brass man James “Red” Higgins, introduced young Dereck to a number of larger-than-life figures.
“North Omaha is criminally ignored, historically, it was a hotbed for music, everyone from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, Count Basie to Miles Davis…they all played over here on the North side,” Higgins said. “It’s separate from the white circuit, called the Chitlin Circuit, these amazing musicians would stay with us, and we’d have dinner with them.”
“Yeah, I sat on John Coltrane’s lap, true story,” he said with a grin.
These fond family memories are in sharp relief for Higgins, with the 2021 death of his brother, Patrick, still heavy on his heart.
“I discovered my brother dead in his apartment last year…traumatic as f**k, wasn’t expecting it,” Higgins said. “My brother was one of my biggest fans, and a very talented jazz guitarist…I was trying to encourage him to get back into the game because he was battling addiction and had two heart attacks in five years…that’s what took him out. Damn.”
Such loss underscores Higgins’ belief in the transformative, healing power of music—and the tragedy of its absence—strengthened by a 27-year tenure as a licensed mental health specialist. This sentiment not only extends to blood relatives, but also the brothers and sisters he’s made in rehearsals, on stage, and in the recording booth. Some, like 24-year-old Chemicals bandmate Jacob “Cubby” Phillips have come to view Higgins as a father figure.
“He is so supportive of my passions,” Phillips said, “and his commitment to his own passions—he could’ve decided to pursue more typical life paths—but he didn’t because he loves this sh*t so much, he loves his music and he needs it. That’s inspiring to me, extremely inspiring.”
Phillips’ praise is well-founded. Higgins keeps busy with his music label DVH Recordings, activity in as many as 10 local acts at a time—punk band ATF, progressive outfit inDreama, the Dereck Higgins Experience (D H X), David Nance Group, and the aforementioned Chemicals, to name a few—plus a YouTube channel broadly focused on his world-renowned record collection (numbering over 27,000 subscribers at time of writing).
He offered the following advice to Phillips and other aspiring artists: Maintain harmony.
“The creative process is the management of the highs and the lows,” Higgins affirmed, “wait for it, you can’t push it, it’s like they say with birth, don’t push 'til it’s time to push…believe in yourself. Just let it roll, you know?
“Let the music come to you.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.