Even though he’s been dead for seven years, the savage political satire of Bill Hicks makes more sense than ever. Chris Hall spreads the word.
If you mention to any intelligent individual under the age of 25 that you saw Nirvana and The Pixies live you’ll get a response along the lines of “you lucky bastard”. However, if you say that you saw Bill Hicks live, the reaction is qualitatively different. There is a crestfallen look. For those fans who have come to worship him from his albums and videos, it only reinforces the knowledge that they will never see this late and very great comedian for as long as they live. He died in February 1994 from pancreatic cancer at the pitifully young age of 32.
I only saw Hicks play the once but the memory of that evening is as seared into the cerebral cortex as so much steak on a griddle. I still have the fading ticket: “Bill Hicks. Brighton Festival. Sun 10 May 1992. 8pm. Comp.” Complimentary because this was also my first review for the university magazine I wrote for. The expectancy of that evening was immense. There had been a Channel 4 programme on him and we had picked up snippets from time to time from the NME and Montreal Comedy Festival clips. Here was someone taking an interest in the outside world again, not ploughing a furrow of flim-flam – Is It Me Or Is Airline Food Really Bad? For my friends and me, just on the evidence of that evening, Hicks was the greatest comedian there ever had been, or ever would be.
For some, humourless PC types, his “goat-boy” persona threw them off track. It was the side of Hicks that mined personal, rather than political, obsessions (of course, not necessarily his own obsessions). It was difficult for some to square the Marxist, sub-Chomsky perspectives with a man who would talk about renting “Clam Lappers” and “Anal Entry volume 500” from his local video store. Live, Hicks was more extreme in all directions. The time I saw him, people in the front row must have been deafened by his screams of admonition to boy pop bands of the day to “Play with your fucking heart!” (How perceptive I was in noting in my review, with what I obviously thought of as devastating understatement, that Hicks was “more Lenny Bruce than Lenny Bennett”). He also had a peculiar air of physical omniscience over the spatio-temporal coordinates of the room, where he cadged a Silk Cut from someone at the front of the audience and dropped it only to catch it without looking at it and without his eyes straying from us to say nonchalantly “I doubt it…” before lighting it in one graceful movement.
Even though the act was honed and down pat so that he could riff around it (“excuse me why I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one more time”) when I saw him at Brighton he was consummate in fielding questions from the audience (on subjects as diverse as the then recently launched Euro Disney in Paris to how Labour lost the 1992 general election).
I thought of Hicks as soon as Dubyah “won” the US election. One could simply replay the Hicks material about George Bush from the time of the Gulf War and apply it to Bush II. History repeating itself first as farce and then as a Bill Hicks routine. Where was Hicks when we needed him during Clinton’s dreadful Presidency? The Lewinsky affair, the impeachment hearings, the Presidential pardons – you feel that he would of made such an incredible impact had he lived. Who knows, perhaps he would of given direction to the growing Western response of anti-capitalism? He was that inspirational.
Hicks used comedy in a way that Lenny Bruce had used it in the Sixties, as a consciousness-expanding one. The appeal was one of a manichaean righteousness that could of course slide into savage arrogance. There is a joke he tells about a waffle waitress who, seeing him reading a book, asks him “Why y’all reading for?” to which he replies, and it’s hard not to blanch from the savagery of it: “Well, I guess I read for a lot of reasons, the main one being so I don’t end up being a fucking waffle waitress.” So there we have it – comedy that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, but which makes sure to afflict the afflicted as well.
In the evolutionary sense, a subject he was particularly interested in, Hicks’s lines continue to be highly successful memes: “You’re not human till you’re in my phone book”, “Human beings are just a virus in shoes”, etc. I can’t of been the only one to notice in the dark poetry of Hicks’s faux heartfelt tribute to his dying Grandma who he wants to see used in stunts in a martial arts film, the intimation that here was potentially a great writer too: “Do you want your grandmother dying like a little bird in some hospital room, her translucent skin so thin you can see her last heartbeat work its way down her blue veins? Or do you want her to meet Chuck Norris?”
Hicks arrived, in mass media terms, at the tail end of those seemingly monolithic Republican and Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 1990s and what a fillip it was to have such a hardcore exorcism of our anxieties and anger. We loved the fact that here was someone you genuinely knew would never sell out (hear Hicks’s response on Rant in E-Minor to a British company that wanted him to advertise their “Orange Drink”). For a while, my girlfriend and I kept our own “Artistic Roll Call” on the wall, where we would strike through the names of “artists” who’d just appeared in an ad for family hatchbacks or a new online banking service (“Do an ad, and you’re off the artistic roll-call for ever.”). It was a depressing and shaming list.
Part of the sadness at Hicks’s death was the sense that a powerful, not just a very funny, political critic had been lost, and one who was irreplaceable. He has cast a very long shadow for comedians since his death. Someone that unique is always going to bring out the imitators, the paraders of his feathers (the lamentable British film Human Traffic has a Hicks segment on drugs, and even has the gall to end the film with one of his lines).
One doesn’t have to strain that hard to hear the tropes or cadences of Hicks in any number of present-day comedians. I saw Rich Hall, a Perrier Award winner no less, shamelessly adapt Hicks’s Jay Leno fantasy routine where Leno, the straw man who has the revelation “Oh my God! What have I done with my life?”, shoots himself and a spray of blood in the shape of the NBC peacock is produced (with the venomous pay-off: “A corporate man to the bitter end”). But righteous anger is not so easily commodified or corrupted, as Denis Leary must have realised by now. To my mind, Rob Newman is the only comedian to have come even close to Hicks’s level of insight and intensity.
Mark Thomas said witheringly in interview, “If he couldn’t be angry when he had a few months to live, then there’s something wrong.” (Thomas told me rather laughably that he felt that “Hicks is the American Mark Thomas” and that Hicks was doing very similar material to him when Thomas went to see Hicks at Edinburgh.)
What’s even more galling is the conflation in the minds of some people of Hicks with Leary. Yes, they both smoked a lot, yes, they both wore black. End of similarity. Leary is (or should I say was?) a one-trick hack, the one trick being No Cure For Cancer, who ended up taking “cameo” roles in films like Judgement Night and Demolition Man while advertising piss-weak beer (“Another corporate shill at the capitalist gang-bang”).
The appetite among his fans for all things Hicks is partly a function of the lack of a biography – the Nick Doody biography has been due to be published for years.- or much new material since the posthumously released Rant in E Minor and Arizona Bay. Given that Hicks was gigging from the age of 14 in Austin, Texas (incidentally where Jenna Bush, Dubyah’s 19-year-old daughter, was recently arrested for under-age drinking) right through to his death aged 32 there must be a lot of material that hasn’t been seen yet. Hicks’s friend Kevin Booth, who ran Sacred Cow Productions with him, runs an excellent website dedicated to Bill Hicks, www.billhicks.com, which occasionally adds new audio and video clips of Hicks.
In America, as far as I can gather, he was a genuinely marginalised figure, and continues to be. There was a sense, though, that, as in the case of that other great American maverick export Jimi Hendrix, it was maybe going to be a case of Hicks making it in Britain first. I met a journalist in San Francisco, Jack Boulware, who interviewed Hicks for Arena magazine in the States. He told me that the reason he thought Hicks was beyond the pale in America was simply that he seemed to be so anti-American. It’s often said, quite rightly, that Hicks was in essence a preacher (indeed he admitted it himself) and I’ve always thought of him as Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, choosing not self-aggrandisement but enlightenment, beating sense into comatose America with those fists marked love and hate.
A fascinating Index on Censorship article from December Issue 6 2000 details the machinations that prevented Hicks’s segment from being broadcast on an edition of the David Letterman show (he’d appeared 11 times before on the same show). Hicks’s letter to the journalist John Lahr – his Dear John letter to life in some ways – is a cri de coeur: “Jokes, John: this is what America now fears – one man with a point of view, speaking out, unafraid of our vaunted institutions, or the loathsome superstitions the CBS hierarchy feels the masses (the herd) use as their religion.” One of the “hot points” that CBS highlights as “unsuitable for our audience” is the following “pro-life” skit:
Bill Hicks: You know who’s really bugging me these days. These pro-lifers … Smattering of applause. Bill: You ever look at their faces? ‘I’m pro-life!’ (Bill makes a pinched face of hate and fear, his lips are pursed as though he’s just sucked on a lemon.) Bill: ‘I’m pro-life!’ Boy, they look it don’t they? They just exude joie de vivre. You just want to hang with them and play Trivial Pursuit all night long. Audience chuckles. Bill: You know what bugs me about them? If you’re so pro-life, do me a favour – don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries. Audience laughs. Bill: Let’s see how committed you are to this idea. (Bill mimes the pursed lipped pro-lifers locking arms.) Bill: (as pro-lifer) She can’t come in! Audience laughs. Bill: (as confused member of funeral procession) She was 98. She was hit by a bus! Audience laughs. Bill: (as pro-lifer) There’s options! Audience laughs. Bill: (as confused member of funeral procession) What else can we do? Have her stuffed? Audience laughs. Bill: I want to see pro-lifers with crowbars at funerals opening caskets – ‘get out!’ Then I’d be really impressed by their mission. Audience laughs and applauds.
Hicks ends his letter to John Lahr with a passionate plea for sanity: “This is what I think CBS, the producers of the Letterman show, the networks and governments fear the most – that one man free, expressing his own thoughts and point of view, might somehow inspire others to think for themselves and listen to that voice of reason inside them, and then perhaps, one by one we will awaken from this dream of lies and illusions that the world, the governments and their propaganda arm, the mainstream media, feeds us continuously over 52 channels, 24 hours a day.
“What I realised was that they don’t want the people to be awake. The elite ruling class wants us asleep so we’ll remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers and non-participants in the true agendas of our governments, which is to keep us separate and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems, that they, and only they, might somewhere, in the never-arriving future, may be able to solve. Just stay asleep, America. Keep watching television. Keep paying attention to the infinite witnesses of illusion we provide you over ‘Lucifer’s Dream Box’.”
For anyone doubting the veracity of Hicks’s analysis, a good recent example of news being managed in such a way that it keeps us “passive non-participants” is the virtual US press black out over the recent Kyoto protocol all under the guise, no doubt, of it being of no interest to the American public that the US has an appalling environmental record.
Hicks has his revelation while watching the Letterman show the week after being pulled. The scales fall away from his eyes, and he’s looking at the real reason. He’s looking at a “pro-life” commercial.
Gore Vidal once gave a definition of real politics as “Who collects what money from whom to spend on whom for what” with the corollary that “no politician in the US dares address that subject for fear we’ll discover who bought him and for how much.” Follow the money, indeed. And what was one of the very first things that Dubyah did as President? It was to cancel the funding of abortion clinics abroad.