At some point in our lives if we’re incredibly lucky we stumble across something or someone that fundamentally changes us. For some people this might be a musician, a band, an album. For others a writer whose work speaks to them on a strangely personal level. A movie, a civil rights leader, a relative, a social or political cause, a craft… hell, it could be anything. And if you’re luckier still, you may even find several of these life altering influences dotted throughout the years.
For me, Bill Hicks was one of these influences.
A product of the South (much to his eternal bemusement), Hicks aspired to be a comic from his early teens, was performing in local comedy clubs by the time he was 15 and left to seek his fortune in L.A only 3 years later. After several years performing in clubs and appearing in a supporting role on a dreadful TV sitcom, Bill soon set out for life on the road, performing the club circuit around the entire U.S.
Traveling for more than 300 days per year, Bill’s on-stage persona developed. He drank and smoked far more than was healthy. What others perceived as oftentimes extremely dark and bitterly cynical material Bill himself saw as clear-headed, logical and extremely sane, hence the title of his debut comedy album ‘Sane Man’.
Inevitably Hicks would turn his attention to what he felt were the talentless demons ruling pop culture in the late 80’s / early 90’s. Debbie Gibson, Rick Astley, Madonna, New Kids on the Block and George Michael were just some of his favorite targets.
What makes Bill still relevant is that if you were to substitute the names Myley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, the Jonas Brothers and… uhh… George Michael… the exact same material is still just as pertinent.
And as for his legendary attacks on the Gulf War and George Bush… well, we need only add a middle initial and they still ring true also.
There were no sacred cows to Bill Hicks; everything that he perceived to be nonsensical or bullshit was rife to be skewered on stage. The JFK assassination, anti-smokers, evolutionary theory, the Waco-Texas debacle, his love of perception altering drugs like mushrooms and absurd U.S drug federal policies, the pro-life movement and the idea that everyone’s child was special (“They’re. Not“). They ALL felt Hicks’ acerbic wit.
Hicks was a classic example of what author Will Kaufman called the ‘Irony Fatigue Theory‘. Hicks was a social critic who was desperate to be taken seriously, however his role as a comedian and his style of delivery meant that he was always destined to be ‘too funny’ to reach his audience on the same level as a Noah Chomsky, one of Bill’s idols.
Bill Hicks died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer in 1994, aged just 32. He’s been ripped off by hundreds of comics ever since; Denis Leary in particular built an entire career on pillaging Hicks’ material. Bill was finally starting to receive the recognition he richly deserved when he passed away quietly in his parents home in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was nominated for the American Comedy Award that same year. Less than 2 weeks after his death, the award went to Carrot Top. I think Bill would have found that quite funny.
Hicks polarized many an audience; people either loved him or they hated him. Too dark. Too sexual. Too cynical. I saw in his material not cynicism, but an incredible sense of frustrated optimism. Bill Hicks saw so much potential in the world, and what we could be.
He said it better than I ever could…
God could we have used a Bill Hicks over the last 10 years.
For more of Bill, I recommend the albums ‘Sane Man’ and ‘Relentless’, the DVD special ‘Revelations’, and Cynthia True’s biography ‘American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story’.
Rest in peace, Bill. We still miss you,