hat this house notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 33; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers."
Stephen Pound MP
UK Parliament, House of Commons Early Day Motion (EDM) 678 25.02.04.
“…because I hope you know this, I think you do…all governments are lying cocksuckers.”
Bill Hicks, Relentless
Anniversaries. Good times and bad times; remembered, relived, regurgitated. The world ten years ago was unpleasantly similar to today: Western Powers loitering in the Persian Gulf, an inbred dolt winding the Armageddon clock in the White House and, somewhere else, a country readying itself to be bombed back to the stone age because yet another fair-weather dictator needed to be reminded who’d been paying his weapons tab. In the midst of these bad TV-movie headlines people huddled together, anxiously saying to each other: “can you believe this shit? Am I the only person that thinks this is insane?” Yet back then, the people asking the questions were lucky enough to have a pernicious little bastard in their corner, a man who wouldn’t sit down and wouldn’t shut up, a man who came in the guise of a comedian yet combined the ire of a Baptist preacher with the cool logic of a Greek philosopher who just happened to have a fondness for Clam Lappers, Vols. 1-30. Because, back then, there was Bill Hicks; but he’s dead, now. Yet, thanks to the persistence of a few good people, his recorded legacy is alive and well; and damn, do we still need it.
In the ten years since his death, Hicks’ star has risen and stayed ascendant. There’s a biography (American Scream by Cynthia True); Rykodisc are forever adding to the Hicks legacy with new concert CDs and rare material; and new DVD material is slowly being released. Every day, new audiences are able to discover the “Hicks effect”: his ability to educate without pretension, to point out the absurdities in the world, to throw you directly into the wind tunnel of one of his on-stage rants and come out the other end feeling cleansed. When you listen to one of Hicks’ CDs you feel like you’ve finally found someone whom understands that it feels normal to be confused, to be asking questions, to be annoyed at the sheer gall of the shriveled little men that are dragging the world through the gutter. Bill Hicks was “Chomsky with dick jokes”, as the man once described himself, and he wasn’t half wrong.
Yet there’s no little irony in the fact that, throughout the course of his career, Bill was better known outside the US than he was at home. Right up to the end he was balancing the paradox of playing packed theatres in Europe and coming home and confronting 100-200 seat venues full of apathetic tourists. His lifelong friend Kevin Booth remembered the paradox: “Y’know, Bill’d never brag about how big he was [in the UK]. Only at one point, where he got a little egotistical; that was the only falling out that we ever really had. But he would come back, saying ‘Kevin, they treat me like a God over there. We’re going to be able to do all this cool stuff!’ But in general he played it very low key”.
It’s Booth that we should primarily thank for still being able to enjoy listening to Bill in the way that nature intended. While his first two albums Relentless and Dangerous were composed entirely of stand-up, for his third album, Arizona Bay, Bill wanted something a little different; a “comedic Dark Side of the Moon” as he’d later refer to it. An innovative mix of Bill’s comedy with music that fades in and out, Arizona Bay is an album that you either love or hate. Surprisingly, all of the music is just Bill and Kevin; Bill on guitar and Kevin on pretty much everything else, their tunes weaving in and out of Bill’s 66-minute-long cry for LA to fall into the Pacific, leaving just a new coastline called “Arizona Bay”. It took them some time to decide on the final format for the album: at first, they tried to have Bill do his thing over pre-recorded music, but found that it just didn’t flow—Bill needed an audience to riff off. So, finally, after taping several shows at the Austin Laff Shop Bill and Kevin chose the best and sat down to score it with music. At its best, on the track “The Elephant Is Dead”, you might wonder why more people haven’t tried to present comedy in this way. However, not all of the feedback that Kevin got was quite so positive. “I really felt that, a lot of the time, I was the only one fighting to make sure that the music, the way that Bill wanted the albums to come out, was actually the way that they were released. But you get one bad review, a couple of stupid critics, and it’s like that’s the way that everyone thinks. But for every bad comment I got about Arizona Bay, for example, I got 100 good ones; ‘we love the music and the comedy, it’s like totally different to what I expected, but it works’”.
After Arizona Bay was completed, Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He never got to hear the follow-up, Rant In E-Minor, considered by many to be his best work. Rant is Bill taking aim at every piece of unacceptable injustice that he saw around him, and rarely missing. No punches are pulled, all safeties are off: it’s an intense work that represents what I think is the best summary of Bill’s scathing social commentary to date. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not Howard Zinn, but on Rant Bill managed to articulate the righteous rage of a sane man stuck in a universe of hateful radio-show hosts, hypocritical Pro-Life groups and weak, corporate rock. But we almost didn’t get to hear it like that.
After Bill’s death, Kevin was facing up to the fact that he’d have to make sure that Rant captured all of the things about Bill that had been so far edited out or cancelled from TV and talk show appearances. “If you ever saw Bill on TV, like on Letterman, it wasn’t really him. Even the Revelations show (filmed in the Dominican Theatre in London), like, that only played a couple of times on HBO; I remember watching it with Bill, thinking that this wasn’t the best treatment of that material. With that kind of show, you only get one shot on one set, whereas, when I was filming Bill, we could do composites of a number of shows; like the albums, cut the best pieces of the shows together. Like with Rant in E Minor; I felt that that was part of the healing process for me. When I saw what some other editors have done to Bill’s material, I wanted to present Bill in the way that I would want to hear him, going off on some tangent, riffing on a topic, going somewhere totally different from the rest of his material”. Booth edited Rant together from a number of different performances, splicing and cutting material together so that you get Bill at 100%, all the way through, no pit stops, no stalls, just that third eye beaming out and letting you know that all of your worst nightmares about the government and the way the country was run were true.
Booth has more Hicks in his archive to release: future discs should include some very early Bill (from around 1983, an album that’s likely to be called The Outlaw Years). And there’s a lot more Booths and Hicks music, too, currently being examined by producer RaZor, whom you might remember from his work with Killing Joke and that little Irish band, U2. There’s still more Hicks to come, basically, and even when that source has run dry, we’ll always have his words to get us through. As Booth says at the end of our conversation: “I just feel that, someday, if there’s any history left, Bill will be listed there, somewhere, as a fighter”. Amen to that.
By: Dave McGonigle
Published on: 2004-04-26