Wednesday, 25 February 2009
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 ourselves...here'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...'
'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.