Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bill Hicks - Tribute to a Personal Hero.

Today marks 15 years since the passing of Bill Hicks.

It's tempting to say 'since the death of Bill Hicks'. And of course, it's literally true. On February 26th 1994, Bill (William Melvin) Hicks succumbed after a brutal battle with pancreatic cancer.

But in a way, it's misleading, as the man seems more alive now than ever. His body of work is as resonant, his anger as honest and unabashed, his love boundless and his words heard by a far greater number than any during his short life.

I first heard the name Bill Hicks in 1993 when he was doing the TV rounds to drum up an audience for his Melbourne Comedy Festival gigs. While he certainly made me (and my brother, also a devoted fan) laugh, I have to confess paying little attention to the man until a few years after his death.

It wasn't until 1997 that I was struck full force by Bill's brilliance, and it came in the form of a little quote in a magazine promoting his stand-up collection on CD. I've heard the bit in context many, many times since, but even out of context, it was funny, poignant, incisive and beautiful:

Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we are the imagination of's Tom with the weather!

I read it, loved it, then promptly forgot it until our older brother Sean died of cancer in early 1998. My brother Conor and I were talking on the phone not long after. We'd had a number of conversations of a spiritual nature and in his prolific reading at the time, Conor, I guess, was attempting to get a handle on the idea of a universal or cosmological 'totality'. We had touched on it a few times during the latter stages of Sean's illness. It's a hard thing to get a handle on. I suddenly remembered the thrust of the Bill 'bit' and raced to get the magazine.

It was really Conor who set the ball rolling for our interest (to put it mildly) in Bill. He uncovered bits of audio and stuck 'em on cassette for me, he found the infamous 'Bill Loses It' segment on video...and I lapped up every word. Even after years of listening to and watching an extremely finite body of work, Bill still makes me laugh, cry and think.

Even though Bill died only a couple of months after his 32nd birthday, he'd been working solidly as a comedian for over half his life. Bill started so young he was required to get a special work permit that would allow him to play in licensed venues. A Georgian by birth, Bill considered himself a Texas boy, his family having moved there when he was seven. They were mild-mannered Southern Baptists who lived in a nice part of Houston. His Dad worked for GM, his mother was a home-maker and active in the community. His older siblings, Steve and Lynn, had successfully tackled tertiary education. Like many teenagers, Bill often withdrew to the solace of his locked bedroom. Unlike many teenagers, he spent hour after hour writing jokes.

Bill's early bits were heavily influenced by Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, and much of his material came straight from his home life. He lampooned his father's obsession with 'the lawn' and his mother's incessant talk about friends with tumours. Bill loved his family very much and they him, but his father especially was a source of great frustration, and as a result, great material. A tiny example:

"I never got along with my dad. Kids used to come up to me and say, 'My dad can beat up your dad.' I'd say 'Yeah? When? He cuts the lawn on Saturdays. Nail him out there.'"

One look at the very limited amount of early Bill footage shows that, even in his teens and early 20s, he possessed perfect timing and a mastery of the room:

A confident, stage-wise Bill moved to Los Angeles in 1980. He worked out of Mitzi Shore's Comedy Store, ostensibly as an odd-job man (I once read somewhere that one of the odder jobs was picking up Mitzi's son, Pauly, from school). He eventually impressed enough to get some stage time, sharing the bill with nascent performers Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and that great lump of idiot Andrew Dice Clay. Mitzi was sufficiently impressed with Bill to recommend him for work elsewhere. Though some Hicks fans might find it hard to believe or accept, he was cast in a pilot called Bulba with Lyle Waggoner and Armin Shimerman. It didn't get picked up, and after a time, thoroughly dissatisfied with himself and LA, Bill moved back to Texas.

It was when he was back working in the South that Bill began, slowly, to develop what became an indelible mark on stand-up, comedy and performance in general. For a long time Bill had been interested in the search to expand his consciousness, embarking on meditation retreats and flotation tank exercises with his friends Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth and the softly spoken David Johndrow. Dwight, a talented stand-up in his own right, was there at the start, a high school friend and the other half of Bill first attempts at stand-up. Kevin, a little older, provided more than just clandestine transport to gigs. Bill and Kevin were simpatico in so many areas, especially in creative fields. Their bands (Stress and later, Marblehead Johnson)and their film project Ninja Bachelor Party are a testament to this.

From what I can gather, Bill's relentless quest to be the best, most impacting comedian he could be stalled when he came to the realisation that many of his idols, including Richard Pryor, George Carlin and, from Bill's own eyewitness accounts, Sam Kinison, had all taken their journey via intoxicants. Bill followed suit with zeal and the results were sacred and profane, sublime and ridiculous.

He'd become part of a group of comedians known as the Outlaw Comics and during this period his comedy grew razor sharp thorns. Often those thorns seemed to grow inwards. Many's the tale, usually apocryphal, of beatings at the hands of drunk and disgruntled audience members. This immersion in drugs and drink made Bill virtually unbookable, but it served to distil his work into what became the finest, most acutely observed comedy and social criticism for many years.

Bill got clean and sober in New York in 1984. Through all of it, he continued to work tirelessly. According to Cynthia True's biog American Scream he was an avid attendee of AA meetings, scoping out locations ahead of time while he dotted the country playing club after club. Jay Leno, who'd seen and advised Bill when he was in Texas, got him a gig on Letterman. It was the first of many.

Despite this increased exposure, Bill struggled. His material was far too unabashed and 'deep' for audiences. His anger scared them. His drunk ranting might have been dismissed by the punters as just that, but a clean, sober, articulate and insightful Hicks was a 'threat', and could not easily be ignored. He shook people to their core.

Bill took aim at all our great taboos and misconceptions: sex, drugs, rock & roll, politics, religion, governmental control, spirituality, TV & the media, entertainment, violence, war and he crystallized every issue in a way that not only made them make perfect sense, but forced the deepest laughter from the core. He rattled people out of their lethargy. He woke people from a collective coma of easy, lazy and uncritical thinking. To the critics who said 'I don't go to comedy clubs to think', Bill replied, 'Where do you go to think? I'll meet you there. We don't have to do this here.'

There've been a few times writing this little tribute where I've considered saying 'Bill once famously said' but took it out. It wasn't true. There was no fame or decent recognition for Bill Hicks until he left America and appeared at the Montreal Comedy Festival. This led to great success in the UK & Ireland, which I'm sure must have been gratifying for a man who, after his transformation into 'The Dark Poet', stoutly refused to sell his soul to a sitcom on 'Lucifer's Dream Box' or the corporate machine.

A few people I know really like some of Bill's work but dismiss portions, especially his more overtly sexual content, like Goat Boy. This misses one of the essential facets of Bill's work. His attempts at shocking his audience were to keep them from the comfort of complacency. He self-deprecatingly mocked straying into such territory, and on one occasion explained the history of theatrical unity and catharsis:

"The Greeks used to put in their plays lot of bodily functions and graphic sexual material, because they believed that, in performing that way, it released the demons of shame from the audience, which is the same way I believe. 'Cause I think we're all pretty much the same and we're all grown up with that shame-based thing that America deals with, right? And to sit there and hear someone talk about their love of having sex or love of sex or whatever, makes you feel like you're not alone with your own, what you think maybe are dark twisted thoughts. 'Cause you're not, we're all share these thoughts."

Others treat Bill as a misanthrope and curmudgeon. Sure, he got angry at humans. He called us a 'virus with shoes'. But Bill's more voluble and exclamatory material was not borne of hatred. To label his anger as some kind of schtick is to fall way short, and suggests you need to 'proceed correctly' as Bill would say. Underneath all of his frustration lay an abiding optimism and unconditional love, and the hope that as a species, we could be better. How many people, let alone stand-up comedians, have that as their guiding principle?

Thankfully, the beginnings of Bill's success brought with it a much more complete record of his amazing gifts as a bringer of laughter and perspective. Bill and Kevin produced the video 'Sane Man' in 1989 and his first album 'Dangerous' was released in 1990, but it wasn't until he left home that people began to see the master at work. Here's a bit of intense Bill in Montreal in 1991, part of the Relentless tour. It's not just a fine example of his rage, but also his amazing 'bathetic' ability:

As I mentioned earlier, Bill's success overseas never translated to success at home. He brought this annoyance into the introductory salvo of many shows:

'Y'all are starin' at me like a dog that's just been shown a card trick...'

'I've had more people in bed before than this...'

'I’ve been doing comedy for fifteen years now, so bear with me while I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one more time...'

and...the clincher:

'Thank you. How you doing folks? Me too. You gotta bear with me, I'm very tired, very tired of travelling, and very tired of doing comedy, and very tired of staring out at your vacant faces looking back at me, wanting me to fill your empty lives with humor you couldn't possibly think of yourselves. Good evening.'

Bill was in Australia when he became ill, and a short time after he returned home he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take him away. Typically, he kept working hard. On October 1st 1993 he appeared for the twelfth time on Letterman. Bill's segment was cut from the broadcast. Over time his non-appearance became a scandal to everyone who's ever doffed their hat to Bill Hicks and has been much talked about for over fifteen years. Bill was distraught. Then-producer Robert Morton blamed CBS Standards & Practices for the excising of the segment, though it was later revealed that this was untrue. Letterman and Morton were responsible.

Writer, critic and avowed Hicks fan John Lahr (author of the biography of another 'hero' of mine, Joe Orton) weighed in after Bill sent him an impassioned letter (edited highlights here). Lahr ran with it in a landmark New Yorker article.

In the Hicks documentary It's Just a Ride, made not long after Bill's death, one can tell David Letterman had serious regrets about cutting Bill from the show.

These regrets have obviously lingered. Just a few weeks ago, Letterman invited Bill's mother Mary onto the show, made an obviously heartfelt apology, and ran the excised segment, fifteen years and four months after it was first performed:

A magnanimous gesture. Thank you, Dave.

I have written and re-written for hours and know I can capture neither the essence of Bill Hicks man or my love for him. He may be gone in a physical sense, but his passing only serves to give a clearer definition of the term 'a celebration of life'. Not just his short and incandescent life, but the potential for all our lives. If we so choose.

If you've never heard of Bill, hopefully this has piqued your interest. If you have and hunger for more, keep looking. I found new bits and pieces in the preparation of this post.

Much more Bill can be found on youtube etc. as well as at Kevin Booth's site,Sacred Cow Productions. Kevin has written a biography of Bill called Agents of Evolution. Go looking.

I'll leave you with Bill where I started with him.

Note: The best book I've now read on the subject of Bill Hicks is Kevin Booth and Michael Bertin's Agent of Evolution.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Spoon bending, faith healing, cold reading and other trickery.

As my few devoted readers will attest, this blog is much like any other insofar as it's merely a place to indulge in sharing/venting thoughts, grievances, annoyances etc. It was not started with a mind to write exclusively or even regularly about one topic. It's an intellectual and emotional purgative covering whatever happens to be floating through my head on a particular day.

There is a subject, though, that does frequently cross my mind: the so-called 'psychic, supernatural and paranormal'. Over the coming weeks I'll devote a little more bigmouthery to these very interesting, captivating 'phenomena'.

Let me begin by saying that I have no wish to rule out completely the existence of such 'forces' in our lives. I've had a few experiences that defy explanation, so it would be churlish to state unequivocally that the 'supernatural' is pure myth. Why? Because they 'defy explanation', certainly by me and, from what I can gather, by everyone else. But it's as important to point out that, just because something appears to have no immediate, logical or easy answer, we're not justified in inventing an answer out of some desire to have our lives appear to make more sense.

Herein lies one of the problems. As humans, we have immense curiosity and an overarching need for every question to be answered. This is one of our great strengths. Alongside that, though, lies the potent desire for answers and within that, the potential for creating an answer with no reasonable basis in fact.

We cheat because the questions are often so perplexing, it hurts our heads to the point where inventing an answer, no matter how ludicrous, goes some way to providing a measure of faux-peace. Of course, it has to be done on a grand scale in order for it not to appear as cheating. If one person cheats, it's regarded as reprehensible. But if huge swathes of people are in on it, cheating is transformed into a truth. An ugly, perverted truth. This is one of our great flaws.

It's very sad, and it holds us back. But we're all prone to it at's not a trait that's going away anytime soon. So, y'know...I'm not going to judge it too harshly.

This rather clumsily brings me to the people who DO piss me off (we had to get there eventually), namely, those who prey on this flaw in our make up.
I am referring to people who falsely claim some kind of mystical, supernatural power, not only for financial profit, but also to win the adulation (and I'm sure in some cases, adoration) of an easily gulled and answer-hungry public. It's bad enough that they're money-grubbing attention whores, but possibly worse, they jolt us away from looking for real answers to life's imponderables.

In our first wee delve into the lucrative world of the 'miraculous', let's have a look at one of the Western world's most famous 'mystic': Uri Geller.

Geller has been internationally known since the early 1970s, and is perhaps most famous for his ability to bend spoons, allegedly with 'mind power'. After a stint of national service with the Israeli army, Geller spent the last part of the 1960s as a male model and nightclub magician. He is also famous for his supposed gifts as a dowser & psychic. Geller has claimed that his 'abilities' were received at the age of four when he was hit by a bolt of light from the sky. Soon after this event, he was eating a meal and his spoon bent in his hand and broke.

Geller has made some large claims during his 40 year career. He's successfully dowsed for mining companies, he possesses alchemical powers, he can make compass needles move with only the power of his mind, he received his amazing gifts from a being called 'IS' ('Intelligence in the Sky') that hailed from a distant (and hitherto unknown) planet called 'Hoova', he has the ability to bring about world peace and...well, lots more. When you claim to possess such abilities as the latter, why bother outlining them all?

This man has been fĂȘted by some almost to the level of demi-god. But is this all there is to know about Uri Geller?

Geller made his name and fortune traipsing all over the world destroying cutlery and claiming to fix watches and move compasses, all with mind power. He appeared on countless talk shows worldwide, peddling the line that everything he did was as a result of a special ability outside of the very clever skills possessed by avowed magicians.

He's even claimed to have been scientifically proven as having genuine psychic abilities. In the early 1970s he was 'tested' by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). They came to the conclusion that Geller demonstrated genuine psychic abilities. More on that later.

Here's Geller bending a spoon on Swedish TV in 2003:

There were (and still are) many people completely mystified and enthralled by the 'powers' of Uri Geller, but he's had his detractors, going all the way back to the point where Geller started to make a name and career for himself internationally.

Enter Canadian-born American James Randi, magician, escapologist and most importantly, scientific skeptic. Randi is probably the most famous investigator of 'psychics', 'paranormalists' etc. and has for many years offered a cash prize (once US$10000, for the last few years US$1 million) to anyone who can provide proof of psychic abilities under controlled conditions. Many have taken the challenge, but Randi still has the million bucks (incidentally, the offer runs out next year, so if you're a miracle worker, get your skates on or you'll have to settle for lesser amounts offered by others).

A skilled practitioner of his art, Randi first challenged Geller's claim to special abilities in 1972.

How? He duplicated Geller's demonstrations with what is commonly known as 'trickery'. He bent spoons, keys and moved compasses and said it was all magic tricks. He's famously quoted as saying, "Uri Geller may have psychic powers by means of which he can bend spoons; if so, he appears to be doing it the hard way." (Source.)

Obviously Geller has considered Randi a bit of a fly in the ointment (if not the bane of his existence) and has sued him a number of times, and with one exception, it has proven costly for Geller, who has built as much of a reputation for litigious behaviour.

It also did not help that Geller's former manager, Yasha Katz, alleged on an Italian TV show that Geller cheated.

None of this seemed to have much impact on the public, though.

The first widespread evidence that Geller might not be imbued with such powerful 'gifts' came in 1973 when he appeared on the late, great Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show'. Mr. Carson was well-known to have been a magician in his earlier days, and more well-known as having a low tolerance for fakery masquerading as the genuinely supernatural.

Here's what happened (the meaty bit starts at 5:39, with commentary by James Randi, ends at approx 8:00):

This, of course, is not proof of a lack of psychic ability. And as stated earlier, Geller was tested by the SRI, specifically Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ. Both men were convinced of Geller's abilities as a 'remote viewer'.

However, the veracity and accuracy of their observations were called into question by many colleagues in the scientific community. This alone does not prove their findings false and I can find no concrete evidence that the findings are false.

Having said that, there are pointers to a certain amount of possible flim-flammery on Geller's part and wishful thinking on the part of the SRI researchers.

Again, this does not prove Geller was faking or that the scientists were in on anything. Re-enter Randi, quietly. He set out to show that even scientists could be easily fooled...with Project Alpha.

Geller enjoyed many years of success in his chosen field, but genuine or not, if you can't offer much more than spoon-bending and remote viewing to an audience, your act will become pretty stale. Especially if you're spending a good deal of time fighting off the skeptics (and losing).

It's interesting to note that, even as early as his Israeli nightclub days, Geller was the subject of court action. A man was awarded costs and the refunding of his ticket price when he complained that Geller's abilities were magic tricks and not psychic, as apparently advertised. Through all of the investigation, claims of fraudulent behaviour, skepticism, lawsuits and inability to perform on cue, Geller breezed along, attracting more and more fans willing to believe in something that cannot rationally be explained.

Now, this has all appeared so far to be a nice little nostalgia trip back to the 70s and early 80s. Man claims supernatural abilities, makes a lot of money, certain people attempt to expose him as a fraud with good evidence but limited success, man fades from view.

But Geller appears, slowly, to be priming the pump for a major comeback. And it is this This time though, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the road might be a little more rocky.

In 2006, Brian Sapient,a member of a group called the Rational Response Squad posted a video on Youtube featuring footage from --well, if you've read this far, you've already seen it. It's the 'James Randi Exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff' video above.

Geller issued Youtube with a takedown notice in early 2007, claiming eight seconds of the footage shown infringed copyright under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Sapient bringing an action against Geller, which was settled out of court. Rather than go into boring detail you can see a summary here. You don't really need to read anything to know who effectively won the case; the video, as you can see, is readily and legally available all over the Intynuts.

Geller obviously saw plenty more on Youtube that displeased him, such as:

Busted bending:

Busted bending:

Having the compass moving trick duplicated:

Busted with a magnet (my favourite, watch his hands and left thumb from 1:19):

It's possible the posting of these videos went some way to Geller saying in late 2007, "I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed." As this was in a German magic magazine (Magische Welt), it didn't receive much attention. I suppose the fact that Geller was only a saleable commodity in Germany and Israel in 2007 didn't help to get the word out either.

This 'reversal' suggested that Geller might have finally admitted he had no special abilities outside of being a good magician. A stark contrast to the many amazing claims he'd been making for 35-plus years that he never involved himself in trickery or magic.

Problem is, the guy, despite his admission, still seems to be flogging the line that not only has he special gifts, but that all of the people watching videos of him looking very 'un-special' on Youtube are really providing him with a career boost. This is akin to saying that everyone watches serial killers out of adoration. If you read his post, it's apparent that, like self-confessed fraud James Hydrick, adulation is very important to Geller.
Could it be, though, that many of the people who've watched the Geller 'debunking' videos over the past few years are doing so 1) they can have a good laugh at his expense and/or 2) to show others how easy it is to be taken in by spurious claims?

This is why I'm singling him out. Geller uses very different language on his new website, calling himself not 'psychic' but 'mystifier'. His biography still says he has 'unusual powers', though. He also says that he's lining up big TV deals for franchising his little Israeli and German TV shows.

It's fine for someone like a Blaine, Copperfield, Angel or Mumford to make a lot of money as a magician. People are still blown away by magic tricks and will be for a long time to come. But to use the same magic tricks and pass 'em off as being genuinely supernatural? Sickening. There should be no elbow room allowed for Geller to make any kind of comeback to a wider audience. It would be nice to say we've grown up a little bit since the 1970s, and roundly reject Geller's brand of 'entertainment'.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Marysville, Victoria.

There's nothing that can be said or written that will lighten the tremendous burden being carried by those struggling with the loss of life and property in Victoria.

A massive debt of gratitude is owed to emergency service people involved in fighting the fires. A massive debt is owed by those who lit the fires. It's now suspected the fires in Churchill and possibly Marysville were the result of arson.

There's been a world of footage from the fires, all of it heartbreaking. I've seen little more affecting than this wordless piece, shot by the CFA in Marysville last weekend:

Tomorrow the Coles chain of supermarkets is donating all of its profits to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal. I know that those unable to help out directly feel pretty bloody useless right now. But if all you can do is have a big grocery shop tomorrow, it's better than nothing.

Normal 'service' on the bigmouthery blog will resume this weekend.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Last weekend I started writing a blog entry on the veracity of claims made by certain paranormalists etc.

In light of a few recent events (including the fires in Victoria), the blog entry will be delayed.

Bushfire Hotline - 1800 240 667
Victorian Bushfire Fund - 1800 811 700
Red Cross Bushfire Appeal