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satirist, social critic, stand-up comedian
B I L L H I C K S
Bill Hicks bio by Paul Outhwaite
With American comedian Bill Hicks there was always an awareness of other people, of how our society links together. With this came an idealism and a vision of what the world could be. But first he had to slay all the “fevered egos” polluting the planet. He saw himself as a flame, Shiva The Destroyer, using comedy as a weapon to expose truths and show people how governments are screwing us every day of our lives. He also happened to be achingly funny such was the accuracy of his comedy. At the age of 13 Bill Hicks did his first gig. Six weeks before his death, aged 32, he did the last. In the intervening years he frequently did over 250 gigs a year. He tried to reach as many people as possible, to put them in touch with inner and outer space in a majestic flight of One Consciousness thinking. Those he inspired haven’t lost the ability to take a ride.
People use and misuse the word “tragedy” all the time. It seems to accompany the death of anybody famous. But the real definition of tragedy evokes a sense of loss and poignancy, a sense of someone dying before they really gave everything they had to offer. Without hyperbole, Bill Hicks’ death was a tragedy, for there was so much still to come from this creative, imaginative talent. When he died in 1994 the world lost a rare talent, but his spirit and philosophy still live on.
“As long as one person lives in darkness then it seems to be a responsibility to tell other people.” This encapsulated Hicks’ philosophy; that we are all one consciousness, that it is the role of every individual to do something to enhance the human condition. Unlike those we place our trust in – politicians and all manner of professionals – Bill wanted to have a lot of fun doing it.
William Melvin Hicks was born on December 16th 1961 in Valdosta, Georgia. The family (father Jim, an executive at General Motors; mother Mary, a teacher; and elder brother and sister, Steve and Lynn) lived in Florida, Alabama and New Jersey before moving to Houston when Bill was 7. They lived in the Memorial area to the west of the city, a place called Nottingham Forest, a “strict Southern Baptist ozone”, as Hicks later called it. There, with friend Dwight Slade (both aged 12), Hicks formed a comedy double act. Bill was bored with the area and mystified by the appeal of living the so-called American Dream. “One time a friend of mine – we were nine – runs over and goes 'Bill,I just saw some hippies down at the store.' I go 'No way' and he goes 'I swear' and my dad goes 'Get off this property! We don’t swear on this property!'”
When he was young Bill Hicks wanted to be Woody Allen, buying his records and stealing his jokes. At his first stand up gig, a church camp talent show in Houston, Bill did Allen’s joke about breastfeeding by a woman with falsies. “People laughed, then looked at me like I was the antichrist.” It was an early indication that Bill Hicks had no time for a didactic morality. Hicks locked his bedroom door at home and typed comedy routines into the early hours. His bedroom, a guitar and shelves filled with books the only adornment on the walls, was Hicks’ self-contained universe where his ideas and routines flourished, developing a number of characters with Dwight: Goober Dad, Dumb Jock, Mumsy, Maharishi Fatso. Bill attended Stratford High School, honing his talents by performing in front of the class. His English teacher gave him five minutes at the start of lessons in the hope that it would get it out of his system. He ended up taking the whole lesson, enthralling his classmates. One of his routines was lip-synching to Elvis Presley songs.
In 1976 there were no comedy clubs in Houston. Bill and Dwight cycled to auditions, making tapes to send to agents. One liked a tape enough he got them a gig on Jerry Lewis’ telethon, a slot from 2.00am to 2.45am.They didn’t have enough material, and anyway, their parents wouldn’t let them. It was probably a good decision at the time (they were both 14),allowing Bill and Dwight to develop characters like Goober Dad. There was always affection in the routines he developed around his parents; a gentler kind of comedy, the kind his parents could appreciate. Mary and Jim saw the warmth, much as audiences did. Whereas they connected with Bill as a son more than a comedian, audiences were able to connect with him on every level, not just emotionally and spiritually, but even at the basest levels; anger, hate, lust. With experience and understanding he could look on all subjects with the detachment of a neutral. He saw the positive and negative, the grey area.
It wasn’t easy at first though. Bill’s parents took him took a psychoanalyst when he was 17. The therapist was unable to see anything wrong with Bill; he’d pretty much enjoyed the trip Bill had taken him on and joked he was more concerned about Bill’s parents. As Hicks’ brother Steve said, “What he was actually doing was extremely hard to grasp, although the support and love was always unconditional.”
In 1978 the Comedy Workshop opened on San Felipe in Houston. Hicks began visiting whilst he was still in High School, best friend Kevin Booth driving Bill and Dwight. Sometimes Bill was allowed to perform. When the manager, Steve Epstein, saw Bill he was amazed at the 16-year-old’s sharpness and confidence. He had to sneak out of his house at night, playing records loudly like Elvis Presley, Kiss, Alice Cooper and B.B. King, his ruse to make his parents think he was still at home. At one club, anarchic comedian Sam Kinison introduced himself to Bill by jumping off the stage with a pair of red panties on his head, landing on Bill. Kinison was to prove an inspiration to Bill as they became friends, Hicks taking Kinison’s anger and some of his political ideology and shaping it into something more metaphysical.
In the autumn of 1978, for five to six weeks, Tuesdays at the Workshop was for stand up, then a party at the Zipper Club (a lap dancing dive). His routines were shaped by his experiences, still somewhat limited: “Our father’s very lazy. He once worked in a mortuary measuring bodies for tuxedos. But then he was fired. He was accused of having an intimate relationship with a corpse. The family was shocked. We all knew it was purely platonic.” But he got laughs and he got noticed. Bill and Dwight performed five times before Slade moved away. “There is a rapport with Dwight that makes me come up with things quickly,” Hicks said at the time. Later, he built that same rapport up with audiences, able to connect with them, confident enough to make it up as he went along. An onstage philosopher, he thought on his feet, taking off at tangents, the ideas and narrative forming and developing with ease.
Hicks then concentrated on his solo work and anarcho-punk band Stress with Booth. He and Booth had the same imaginative capacity and for years they worked together on music, film and comedy. It was Booth who later produced Bill so effectively on his albums. Hicks was the youngest comic at Houston’s Comedy Workshop, but that didn’t stop him from holding back with his material. Early on there were doubts; “Sometimes you feel in control, and it’s great, but sometimes you just don’t feel in control and you really have to struggle to get laughs.” But as his understanding and technique matured, more people came to see him.
In Bill Hicks’ senior year his parents moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. Bill stayed at home and began doing comedy every night. He graduated in 1980, barely,he acknowledged: “I was what they call an underachiever,” and in the spring of that year he moved to L.A., living and performing there, becoming a regular at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, sharing the bill with Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Gary Shandling and Andrew Dice Clay. He was unlike any of them, although some critics lumped him with the gratuitous and obvious Clay, of whom Hicks once said, “consider me the antidote.” In L.A. he did a short-lived sitcom, Bulba, moving back to Houston in the winter of 1982, living with girlfriend Laurie Mango. Working with Kevin Booth and artist and film student David Johndrow, he toured constantly, became an underground star, his majority of gigs in the south where he came up against redneck ignorance. With an attitude that believed President Ronald Reagan “a criminal against humanity” he was bound to upset some “patriots.”
In 1982 he formed ACE Production Company (Absolute Creative Entertainment) with Booth (later to become Sacred Cow). In 1983, struggling with his art, feeling he was going nowhere, he got into drink and drugs and got angry on stage, enjoying heated verbal arguments, lambasting traditional attitudes, mocking hypocritical beliefs. Drugs helped Bill explore expanded awareness, use his intellect and imagination to travel. Kevin Booth said of Hicks, “Bill was the first person I ever met whose goal it was to become enlightened.” Together they got into meditation, astrology and telepathy. At first it was explosive rants to bludgeon his audiences into submission. At one gig two Vietnam veterans took exception to his routine and broke his leg. At another, a heckler, unable to keep up with Hicks’ returned arguments, pulled a gun on him. Hicks left the stage but it didn’t weaken his determination to say what had to be said. But he got noticed because he was actually funny with it. For all the unchecked anger there was an insightful perceptiveness which simultaneously made audiences think and made them laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Hicks was in touch with aliens, he’d seen Jesus riding a unicorn, and he didn’t have time for petty politics. He became one of Houston’s self-styled Outlaw Comics, along with Sam Kinison, Ron Shock, Jimmy Pineapple, Carl LaBoue, Fred Greenlee and Robert Barber. He indulged in a variety of substances (LSD, mushrooms, cocaine, Quaaludes, ecstasy, meth amphetamine) over subsequent years, always remembering the experiences for his acts.
In 1984 Hicks got his first Letterman appearance, Jay Leno having engineered the appearance, aware that Bill was too controversial for the more traditional Tonight Show. Hicks did a five-minute slot, then slumped down in the guest chair and lit a cigarette. This wasn’t allowed on the show, but the attitude won admiration and further bookings. He went on to do eleven further broadcast shows, hugely popular despite the fact that his routine was somewhat watered down from his stage shows. Letterman later said of him: “What I liked about Bill was, here is a guy that nobody knew, myself included, who had a swagger to his demeanor, both physical and emotional. And I just liked that. For no good reason, no justifiable reason, 'I’m cocky. Nobody knows me. Too bad.' You could almost see him turning his shoulder to the audience.”
It was on Letterman that Hicks did his Elmer Dinkley character, a southern caricature frequently requested at subsequent shows. In many ways a throwback to the characters he’d developed in his bedroom, character voices was another part of his comedic range, something he played on throughout his career, though the full range is perhaps best viewed in the low budget cult film, Ninja Bachelor Party.
He continued partying and taking drugs; at one notorious three-day party someone brought an oxygen tank for the Outlaws to experiment with. Hicks found himself broke in January 1986, having spent all his money on a variety of substances. In 1987 Rodney Dangerfield was given a tape of one of Hicks’ shows. He was so impressed he invited him to appear on Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special. Hicks moved to New York in 1987, playing clubs like Catch a Rising Star and touring with the likes of Melba Moore and Ray Charles, his reputation continuing to grow, critically if not in terms of audience size. For the next five years he did about 300 gigs a year. Hicks was at ease with his audience, enthralling them as he opened their minds. “He’s the comic other comics go to see,” said Sandy Marcus, manager of Houston’s Laff Stop. Yet he was still playing small venues, his so-called Flying Saucer Tours “...I too will be appearing in small Southern towns.” Hicks, the confrontational comic, true to his beliefs, wasn’t interested in furthering his career by having his own talk show. He was an original comic whose routines and stage presence were not manufactured to land him in a big time sit-com or movie. For him television was “Lucifer’s dream box” and he could see The Simpsons as the only show with anything to offer him.
With drink and drugs came some wild routines in which Bill tapped into his dark little poet persona, indulging his dark, angry ideas. Some bad shows got him a bad rep at some venues, prompting him to question his reliance on substances. In 1988, realizing he was surrounded by people offering him drugs all the time, he quit. He now took up smoking with a passion: the worst drug, the most addictive: “I’m a heavy smoker. I go through two lighters a day.” With this new sobriety he could look back on his experiences objectively, but unlike so many stars he didn’t rail on about the hell of drug addiction, instead using his awareness to enlighten. “I’ve had some killer times on drugs” he would say, promoting their legalization. One of his most inspired routines picked out the irony of the U.S. government losing the so-called 'War On Drugs'. He went on to rail against news coverage which always focused on bad drugs stories, Hicks instead hoping for a different perspective: “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 is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.” Within that little gem he had connected with us, taken us on a ride there, using words economically to help us imagine a picture in our heads. It lasts a lifetime; each pocket of One Consciousness he opens.
Post-drugs was the beginning of the most productive period of Hicks’ career. He knew his comedy, his words, had power: “Listen, the next revolution is gonna be a revolution of ideas. A bloodless revolution. And if I can take part in it by transforming my own consciousness, then someone else’s, I’m happy to do it.” In 1988 Hicks released his first video, Sane Man. It is an awesome performance, tenacious and charismatic and utterly irresistible: “As long as I’m going to live in this world, I might as well make it the most enjoyable and fun and fair place I can make it,” he said in an interview at the time. Opening with grainy footage of Hicks shuttling between venues, his voice over wearily says “God help me. I’m so tired. I need my sleep. I make no bones about it. I need eight hours a day, and at least ten at night...” It perfectly captures a hard working, relentlessly gigging Hicks about to unleash his most explosive comic moments to date. He enters the stage (dressed in black against a dark background) to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” playfully and confidently strumming along. Through his Waffle House routine he begins poking fun at his own Southern background. He talks of road signs which say “speed limit enforced by aircraft,” able to see the absurdity of life; a thread which ran throughout his career, perhaps a driving force: humans take life too seriously and invest too much time being concerned with unimportant things. He prowls the stage, thinking on his feet, reciting lines from the Dylan song. When introducing the topic of smoking he seems to be whipping up the crowd to mock smokers, like some P.C. comic as he talks about coughing up a “phlegm”. He questions how many non-smokers there are in the audience, getting them to cheer, before altering perceptions with “What a bunch of whining maggots,” nonchalantly pulling out a cigarette.
Hicks’ persona was now more clearly defined, the “dark little poet,” entering the stage through smoke to blaring rock music: Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” or “Voodoo Child,” sometimes The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “Music is a great energizer. It’s a language everybody knows,” Hicks said, in keeping with his philosophy of a universal coming together. Music was important to Hicks, an interest that could take him from Bob Dylan to Beethoven to Lyle Lovett. In his act he castigated manufactured pop stars - Debbie Gibson, George Michael, MC Hammer - as “ball-less, soul-less suckers of Satan’s cock.” He thought “we live in a backwards universe” where John Lennon is shot yet Barry Manilow continues to make records. Hicks’ fiery rant against corporate musicians on the Relentless video is one of the darkest and most passionate routines he ever did. Several rock bands have made dedications to Bill Hicks on their records: Radiohead’s The Bends, Super Furry Animals’ Fuzzy Logic, Tool’s Aenima as well as The Bluetones, Pitchshifter and Rage Against The Machine.
There followed in 1990 his first album, Dangerous, to rave reviews. The style and delivery, though unique to Hicks, still has something of a foothold in the traditional comedy album. An HBO special, One Night Stand and a short film, Ninja Bachelor Party added to his output, Hicks working ceaselessly to spread the word. He was on a mission to wake people up; “Aren’t people frustrated by the lies being told daily in the name of God and country?” His 1990 performance at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival received glowing praise.
Hicks’ first introduction to Britain came in November 1990 when he was one of eighteen comedians in Stand Up America!, a six week engagement in London’s West End. His perceptiveness and sense of irony went down well in the U.K. and in 1991 he won the Critics’ Award at the Edinburgh Festival. He toured Britain and Ireland extensively to sympathetic and responsive audiences. Explaining his success Hicks said, “People in the United Kingdom and outside the United States share my bemusement with the United States that America doesn’t share with itself. They also have a sense of irony, which America doesn’t have seeing as it’s being run by fundamentalists who take things literally.”
Hicks’ growing sophistication continued to receive the critics’ praise: his material about the Gulf War was telling people things they really hadn’t been allowed to be aware of because of media manipulation. He altered people’s perception of events, made them see things from a different angle. Hicks wasn’t chasing easy targets, and in 1991 he was again at the Just For Laughs festival whilst also recording the Relentless album and doing two extensive British tours. Relentless is a more sophisticated album than its predecessor Dangerous, Hicks more at ease with the format, his routines seamlessly interwoven around his thought processes.
In 1992 Hicks recorded the Marble Head Johnson music album as well as doing another tour of England ending in an appearance at the Queen’s Theatre in May. He also met Colleen McGarr, who was to become his manager through Strauss/McGarr Entertainment. They fell in love, something which seemed to mark the beginning of Hicks’ most accomplished material and performances.
In November 1992 the booze, drugs and cigarettes were behind him when he recorded the Revelations video for Channel 4 in England. Filmed at the 2,000 seat Dominion Theatre, Hicks is at ease with the crowd, drawing them in, puncturing hypocrisy with his sharp humour. As writer and actor Eric Bogosian said of Hicks, “There’s this sort of tornado moving around the stage and cycling around and throwing all this energy at you.” Into 1993, Rolling Stone voted him “Hot Stand Up Comic.” He moved to L.A. and continued gigging relentlessly. Things seemed to be coming together, Hicks a success on his own terms, his creativity never more focused. He and Kevin Booth even filmed around the Waco siege, analyzing the situation to uncover truths about the FBI and ATF’s murderous role. In later routines he would say, “If the FBI’s motivating factor for busting down the Koresh compound was child abuse, how come we never see Bradley tanks smashing into Catholic churches?”
But in April 1993, whilst touring Australia, Hicks was eating badly, feeling sharp pains down his left side. Still, in May he began work on Counts Of The Netherworld for Channel 4 in England, a show with Kansas City comedian Fallon Woodland. In it they would play two Victorian-era counts who chat and philosophize with guests. In mid-June, though, Bill Hicks learned he had cancer. He only told his family, close friends and Colleen McGarr (then his fiancée), and after only a few days in hospital he left to do a gig. Hicks worked fast with producer Kevin Booth, all guns blazing in the angriest of shows, recording two albums worth of material. Arizona Bay, an album with his and Booth’s musical score was what Hicks described as his “comedic Dark Side Of The Moon”, an all-encompassing view of America as a microcosm of the world.
He was also writing constantly; books, screenplays, newspaper articles (he’d already had a column for British humour magazine Scallywag and had recently been offered a column in the American periodical The Nation). At the same time, his confrontational gigs were making a huge impact. More people were waking up to Hicks’ uncompromising brilliance: “I get a kick out of being an outsider constantly. It allows me to be creative. I don’t like anything in the mainstream and they don’t like me” he told The Chicago Sun Times on June 25th. The reviews for his scathing shows were excellent; “Hicks may be the freshest – surely most daring – voice in stand-up in years... Midway through his act, I realized just how banal and predictable comedy has grown,” wrote The San Francisco Chronicle on August 8.
Weekly chemotherapy – with Hicks still touring the country – brought some hope, and at one time the tumors decreased in size. Dr. William T. Donovan of The Good Samaritan Cancer Institution had nothing but admiration for the way Bill handled his illness; when first told he had the disease, “...it was as if somebody had shot him, because he was a bright person and he knew what cancer of the pancreas meant,” said Donovan. But through the weeks there was never any anger about his condition: “He was just a very gentle person,” added Donovan.
October 1st 1993 saw Hicks’ 12th and final Letterman show, from which his routine was axed as it was felt the material might not go down well with the show’s sponsors. His act had attacked pro-lifers: “If you’re so pro-life, do me a favour: don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries.” He became the first comedy act to be censored at CBS’s Ed Sullivan Theatre. Hick was so incensed he wrote a 39-page letter to The New Yorker’s John Lahr. It all became clear that the corporation was behind the censorship when a pro-life commercial appeared during the Letterman show.
By December, Hicks’ deterioration was evident and he knew he was dying, moving back to his parents’ house in Little Rock in January 1994. On January 6th, his health clearly failing, he played his final show in New York. In his final weeks he played his mother music by John Hiatt, Miles Davis and Elvis Presley, showed her documentaries on Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. He read Huckleberry Finn again, tried to get his father to take mushrooms. He worked on a book, variously titled New Happiness or New Beginnings. There was a sense of optimism, engendered by Bill’s belief in a one-consciousness universe. According to Colleen McGarr, “He was getting a lot more light-hearted, because he felt really good.” He was at peace with himself and the world, able to face death because he knew there was a God, not tied to any religion, just some very creative being out there. He realized that life was too goddamn weird for there not to be anyone out there, perhaps a “prankster god”. He looked forward with hope, readied himself for the next life, calling his friends to say goodbye before ceasing to speak on February 14th.
At 11:20pm on Saturday, 26th February, he died in Little Rock, Arkansas, buried in the family plot in Leakesville, Mississippi. At the memorial service Hicks’ brother read out a piece Bill had written and requested be read:
“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
Bill’s spirit then floated up into the cosmic One Consciousness where he continues to enjoy the ride throughout eternity and infinity...