The Greek God of Walks Gets An Appropriate Walk-Off

Sometimes the gods smile.

(Speaking of gods and the whole “Greek God of Walks” thing, that of course was a mistake made in the seminal Moneyball, when Youk, because of his name, was assumed to be Greek. He is, of course, Jewish. One of the great moments in modern Sox history –speaking of the gods smiling– occurred when Sox fanatic Denis Leary was in the booth with Don & Jerry. Hilarity, then fortuity, ensued.)

So: getting back to those baseball gods. They seem to enjoy karma, eh? How wonderful for Youk, and the fans, that he was able to crank out a hit in what turned out to be his last at bat. At Fenway, on a hit that epitomized Youk’s tenure in Boston: a nice jolt that he turned from a double to a triple, hustling his never-svelte body down the base-paths (one of my favorite Youk quotes was provided by the beloved and dearly-missed Tito Francona, who once claimed “I’ve seen him in the shower: he’s not the Greek God of anything.”)

Anyway, it was genuinely moving to see Youk get serenaded by the crowd and he got the fondest farewell one could imagine. (Wait until he makes his first return to Fenway: the ovation will be long and loud.)

It sucks to see him go, but it always sucks when sports relationships, which seldom end well, sour and terminate. He still has some ball to play, and I hope he gets a fair chance in Chicago, trying on some white sox for size.

I always loved him and always will. Without him, the ’07 rings would be worn by another team, plain and simple. For that alone, he should never buy a beer in Beantown.

Yes, his intensity irked many. But real fans, and especially underdogs and overachievers can –and should– admire and emulate Youkilis. He has made a career squeezing every smidgen of talent out of his body, equal parts practice, will and a pig-headed refusal to quit. For a culture that correctly laments how many naturally talented individuals (in sports; in all endeavors) squander gifts and spoil opportunities, Youk is a perpetual poster boy for making (or, taking) the most out of whatever you’ve been given.  People who thought Youk couldn’t lighten up need to remember his intensity was focused on one thing: winning. When they won, he lightened up quite nicely, thank you. One of my fondest memories of him will be his demented pas de deux with Papelbon after the Sox clinched the ALCS in ’07.


‘American’: The Bill Hicks Story

Not familiar with Bill Hicks? You need to be. Check this out:

Coming so soon after last fall’s release of Bill Hicks: The Ultimate Collection, getting a full-blown Bill Hicks documentary may seem almost too good to be true. The fact of the matter is that American: The Bill Hicks Story has been around for a while, and is only now being released stateside. Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, this film was actually released in late 2009 in the UK, which is not as surprising as it may sound, considering that Hicks was far more popular there than in his home country before he died.

For the growing legion of Hicks fans who can’t get enough, there is much to recommend in this new feature. For those who haven’t seen any of his performances, this may not be the most appropriate or enlightening introduction. Certainly this documentary goes to great lengths to explain and discuss Hicks, but without the context of his material, it may not make sense why it’s important to watch a full documentary (plus an additional five hours of bonus material) about him. It is, and you should—but you may first want to check out some of his readily available, and essential, performances.

Even for the faithful to whom Hicks is quite familiar, American may invite more questions than it answers. The filmmakers, presumably in an attempt to get the “true” story of the “real” Bill Hicks, conduct extensive interviews with his family (his mother and his older brother and sister) and several of his closest friends, some of whom were/are comedians in Houston. On one hand this is an effective decision, since these intimate sources most definitely have personal, often touching stories to relate. On the other hand, a great deal of time is spent on these recollections which, even when revolving around Hicks, call attention to the peripheral subjects doing the speaking.

After a while, one can’t help wondering if no effort was made to contact established comedians and critics, or if those individuals were unwilling to participate. The latter scenario seems unlikely, since so many comedians are already on record, and their approbation of Hicks is pretty well universal.

Many, including myself, are of the opinion that Hicks is far and away the best—and most important—comedian of his generation. Having done, and enjoyed, the homework to understand and appraise his evolution from teenage phenom to (very) angry young man and finally to the unadulterated genius he became, the evidence is already there. The existing footage, as well as the sparse but intense accolades from fellow artists, makes the case quite compellingly.

While welcome, it’s not clear how necessary it is to have family and friends reminiscing about how special Bill was or how he influenced their lives. On the other hand, it could be argued that it’s equally questionable how useful more encomiums from famous and influential comics would be.

Here’s the deal: even after watching (and enjoying) every second of this exhaustive feature, I found that there are still many issues unresolved. Indeed, there are quite a few matters that are never addressed at all. With a talent like Hicks, whose life was not without controversy, this seems more than a little negligent. Worse, it tends to confirm that the ultimate endeavor here was more about beatification than explication.

For example, it’s well documented that once Hicks began drinking to excess (and abusing drugs), his moods—and his act—became increasingly dark and a great deal of anger obviously festered inside him. Understanding that he was raised in a religious household, and initially made the (mostly loving) mockery of his parents a cornerstone of his routines, one might suspect there was some resentment or confusion. However, all the interviews with his mother would lead one to believe that there was a minimum of tension and turmoil in the Hicks’ household.

This unwillingness to dig under stones of deeply personal family history is understandable, even respectable. However, any documentary that declares itself “The Bill Hicks Story” does everyone a disservice by not finding—and presenting—some countervailing intelligence.

In an era when we have ridiculous reality TV shows wallowing in—and profiting from—unfortunate Americans’ problems, I’m not remotely suggesting that this documentary should have plumbed deeper into whatever uncomfortable depths did or do exist. In fact, there’s absolutely no question that Hicks loved his parents and got along with them remarkably well: the fact that he chose to be with them in the months before his death says all that needs to be said.

Still, in the context of the hours (!) of conversation, whatever issues preceded and exploded during his extended period of excess are mostly tip-toed around. (That Denis Leary shoehorned entire chunks of Hicks’ act into an HBO special called No Cure For Cancer, which promptly made him wealthy, while Hicks died…of cancer, is equal parts ironic and intolerable. Leary is mentioned exactly zero times in the course of these five-plus hours, which is odd. For now, any further details or insights must remain between Leary’s soul, the devil and the deep blue sea.)

That said, it’s often amusing, and frequently wonderful, to see and hear how much love Hicks attracted. His family adores and respects what he accomplished and the man he became; his friends remain in awe of him, and one gets the sense that he was a special person in many senses of the word. James Ladmirault aka “Jimmy Pineapple” (who gets name-checked in Hicks’ Sane Man DVD) admits that he may not have achieved sobriety without Hicks’ assistance and encouragement.

Childhood friend, and working comedian, Dwight Slade, with whom Hicks was inseparable through high school, has several hilarious and heartwarming stories. One in particular: on their football team the two boys wore numbers 9 and 20; this became their secret code during phone discussions. When Slade learned Bill died at 11:20 (in Texas), he realized he had been onstage, the night before, at 9:20, Canadian time.

Of course, the impressive trajectory of Hicks’ career is abundantly and competently covered. From appearing at local nightclubs while still a minor to forgoing college and driving directly to Los Angeles, it’s abundantly—and sometimes painfully—obvious how difficult it was even for a comedian with his ability to break through. In fact, he spent most of the next decade not breaking through.

Early support from Jay Leno landed him on Letterman’s show, where he would return many times (infamously just before his death, where his act was censored, something Hicks never got over and Letterman claims to have always regretted). His dangerous dance with the drugs and booze can and should serve as a cautionary tale; his dedication to sobriety and the subsequent productivity he enjoyed are genuinely inspirational.

The last years of his life remain difficult to reconcile. Finally finding rock star-level fame in the UK (as well as Canada), his confidence was uncontainable. He was also playing his guitar, and the documentary spends time illustrating how important making music remained for him, even when he got sick. After his diagnosis, Hicks shared the news with as few people as possible and kept working as much as he was able. As much as he always hated traveling, he continued to do it because he had to. He also maintained, understandably, that when he was on stage everything else went away.

The recordings made during these last shows represent some of his best work (see Arizona and Rant in E Minor). It’s still excruciating to experience the cognitive dissonance of this footage: pale and entirely too thin, Hicks is still full of passion and it’s as though he can barely keep up with his mind. Clearly he was in a zone, eager to express these thoughts, share that energy, and do his best to get it all out. A few months later he was dead, at 32.

It’s easy to recommend American because anyone who makes the Hicks connection is going to want everything they can get their hands on. This documentary does not tell the whole story, however, but it doesn’t need to. It provides a valuable service by collecting the recollections and impressions of the people who knew Hicks best.

In terms of the critical insight (and/or input) missing here, that seems a minor quibble: if one thing is certain it’s that Hicks is only getting more popular with each passing year, so there will be many more features in our future. This is a good thing, since it’s unlikely we will ever stop evaluating, mourning and celebrating the man and his work.


Laugh While You Weep with ‘Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection’

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.