In case you didn’t catch my review of Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection from last fall, it is an appropriate companion piece for yesterday’s take on the new Hicks documentary. If you are new to Hicks and looking to understand what all the hype is about, start with this stuff.
It’s a crying shame that Bill Hicks is no longer with us; we sure could use him right about now.
It’s a laughing shame (the sort where you laugh until you cry) when it occurs to you —and if you’re a Hicks fan it’s always occurring to you— how relevant his material remains. Of course this has less to do with Hicks and more to do with us: our collective chicanery copies itself, evolving with each succession of charlatans who occupy our public offices. And, naturally, there is never a shortage of slack-jawed and self-righteous types in our media, our academic institutions and especially our self-worshipping entertainment industry. In fact, as they get better (i.e., worse) with each new wave of mutilation, truth tellers like Hicks are more essential, if elusive, than ever. And his routines and ineffable one-liners still kill, allowing you to actually laugh while you weep.
They say geniuses are seldom recognized, or appreciated in their lifetimes. They also say the good die young. They say a lot of other things, and whether or not any of them are true, here are two facts: Bill Hicks is, as hindsight makes increasingly clear, the most gifted and enduring comedian of his generation, and he died entirely too young—at 32—intolerably too young. It makes you want to destroy something, like your TV, if you linger on it. But keep your boob tube intact and pop in some Hicks. While we’re fortunate to have the recordings and videos, up until now the sample size of available material, considering Hicks’ brilliance, is painfully slight. It is, therefore, a most welcome development to get a new and exhaustive installment. And this should tide us over until the next batch of unreleased goods are released from the vaults (we know there’s more in there and we want it).
Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection might not be the ideal introduction for prospective Hicks fans. Those folks should probably begin with the DVD Sane Man or the compilation Bill Hicks Live –Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian in order to see him bringing his fully-formed A game. For anyone who already has the available merchandise, this set should answer some prayers. For Hicks freaks, this qualifies for pinch-yourself status. An extremely generous four-disc package comprising two CDs and two DVDs, along with an online code for an album of original music, this sucker is well worth the price for the video footage alone.
The two CDs constitute a “best of” culled from his seven official releases, including a handful of unreleased nuggets. Quite simply, whether considered as an introduction, bonus material or a refresher course, these discs are just a jukebox of comical bliss. Some of his immortal bits are represented, like “Marketing and Advertising” (“if anyone here tonight is in marketing, kill yourself”), “What is Pornography?” (“the Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic that causes sexual thoughts. No artistic merits and causes sexual thoughts. Hmm…sounds like every commercial on TV doesn’t it?”), “Burning Issues” (“no one has ever died for a flag…they might have died for what the flag represents, which is the freedom to burn the fucking flag!”).
The DVDs, however, are where things get really interesting. The first disc, featuring four sets recorded in his hometown of Houston (and one in Indianapolis), covers the years 1981 —when Hicks was still a teenager— through 1986. The quality is hand-held sketchy, but it is remarkable that this footage exists at all. We see the actual development of Hicks, both in terms of his material and his incendiary stage presence, as it occurred in real time. From the start, a disdain for authority and an astute eye for sanctimony were the obsessions that informed his sardonic observations. It is fascinating to see the whip-thin comedian initially deliver PG-rated material, then slowly incorporate topics like drugs and a new cigarette habit into his routine. (“Can I bum a cigarette from someone? I left mine in the machine.”)
By the 1985 (Indianapolis) show Hicks is sufficiently confident to begin working in his airtight —and hilarious— eviscerations of the carnival of hypocrisy that is our American Fundamentalist Christian/religious right-wing. Needless to say, it’s a topic that provided him with ceaseless ammunition, and while he relished tipping over those sacred cows he was, as usual, distressingly prescient about the political clout these cynical hucksters (and their obedient flocks) would bring to bear in the ensuing decades.
The 1986 Houston (in two parts) gig illustrates the first signs of serious envelope-pushing, with Hicks testing —and occasionally cajoling— the crowd to see how far he could go. It is worth mentioning that Hicks never crossed the line unless it was in the service of hammering home a point. And if he succeeded at anything, his special gift was in delineating the prurience —and profit-seeking— that has always hidden in plain view beneath the puritanical façade our politicians, priests and TV producers obligingly maintain. Another classic bit all Hicks fans will recognize is his vision of the ultimate advertisement; the one they want to show: it involves nudity, flirtation and an almost incidental mention of the actual product. We’re not there yet but we’re a hell of a lot closer than even Hicks would have imagined 20 years ago.
The second DVD contains the oft-bootlegged, much-discussed cult film Ninja Bachelor Party, a multi-year side project/drug-inspired labor of love Hicks worked on with good friend Kevin Booth. This will be a huge draw for the people who follow Bill Hicks the way some folks follow Harry Potter; for almost everyone else it will qualify as a semi-amusing lark that won’t require repeat viewings. The other interesting, ultimately expendable feature is the inclusion of Lo-If Troubadour, a collection of original Hicks songs available via a download card. Hicks, as his act repeatedly indicated, took music very seriously and he spun gold out of observations that venerated his heroes (think Hendrix) and annihilated the hacks (think Debbie Gibson and Billy Ray Cyrus, among many others). Hicks is a competent guitarist and he acquits himself more than respectably. The lyrics, alas, are a bit embarrassing and his voice, while intriguing, probably won’t make many people wish he’d spent less time on his comedy.
The real gift, from the second DVD, is The Austin Bootleg Series and it includes gigs from 1991, 1992, and two from 1993. This is Hicks while he shone brightest, just before cancer overtook him in early-1994. This material was recorded at and around the same time he was doing the material collected on CDs like Arizona Bay, Rant in E-Minor and the DVDs Relentless and Revelations. There is less politics (though there is plenty to savor: commenting on the shameless spectacle of well-remunerated politicians admonishing the citizens to tighten their belts —sound familiar?— Hicks volunteers to tighten his belt—around their necks) and more sociology, and it is clear he has spent time tweaking—and perfecting—his carefully cultivated sad clown/angry guy misanthropy. Segueing from a scorched-earth bit about abortion and pro-lifers, Hicks teases the parents in the crowd and reminds them that their kids are not “special”: “I’ve wiped entire civilizations off my chest with a grey gym sock—that’s special.”
His riff on “company man” Jay Leno will make you cringe and then laugh, loudly. He dismisses fellow comedian Carrot Top by describing him as the alternative for people who didn’t “get” Gallagher. And then there is the stuff that is at a whole other level, like the famous “Positive LSD story” (“Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we’re the imagination of ourselves…here’s Tom with the weather!”) Suffice it to say, the outlaw comic is firing on all cylinders, and this is exactly the soul medicine we count on from Hicks.
So what else is there to say, other than suggesting you make it a priority to own this set? A few final words might be in order. Read the liner notes, watch the interviews, go to the Internet: try to find someone, especially a comedian, who was not impressed with or influenced by Bill Hicks. (Take Denis Leary, please. While the damning and irrefutable evidence of Leary’s wholesale thievery is well documented and old news, seeing vintage Hicks skits again is an often painful reminder of the career Denis built on Bill’s coattails.) Speaking of painful: boy is it enticing to imagine what Hicks would have made of George W. Bush, The Patriot Act, Katrina and Change We Can Believe In. By losing Bill Hicks we lost incalculable opportunities to laugh, learn and “explore inner and outer space together, in peace.”
When we discuss our departed artistic MVPs, too often it involves the clichéd and tragicomic self-induced sabotage by drugs or drink. More distressing, and inexplicable, are the geniuses who are almost cruelly snatched out of their own rarefied air. Hicks, though he had an appetite for destruction for many years, was clean, sober and stalking the world like a lion when Fate intervened. Life is just a ride, he often said at the end of his shows. He knew it and was probably better prepared for it, however short it turned out to be. Perhaps, in the final analysis, it wasn’t so much that he died but became, suddenly, extinct. We certainly won’t ever see anything like him again in this world.