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Saturday 20 Jul 2024

Bill Hicks
dr george pollard

Source: The Guardian

Bill Hicks had a brief, but full life. He was a fearless satirist. Some thought he was dangerous, maybe subversive. He remains relevant and his reputation grows because of substance.

Paul Outhwaite offers the most recent biography and he lets Hicks vanish in a mares nest of unstrung factoids. Kevin Booth and Michael Bertin supply a laundry list of information about Hicks thats mostly available elsewhere; Bill deserves better. Cynthia True sets the context, signals the key facts and lets Hicks speak for himself; most important, she recognizes the contributions of Colleen McGarr and Duncan Strauss to the work, legend and life of Bill Hicks.

Love All the People is autobiographical. Intelligent, honest, clear and passionate, Bill Hicks speaks best for himself. Hicks the thinker comes through, clearly. Fan or not, read this book.

Bill Hicks Live gives the fullest idea of how he worked. The intelligence, incisiveness and intensity are clear. This DVD is exhaustive and exhilarating, mental gymnastics for the strong of mind and stout of heart.

Among the many CDs of performances by Bill Hicks, Salvation is best. Most Hicks CDs lack coherence and sell him short. Salvation confirms Bill Hicks is a satirist for the ages.

The contributions of Bill Hicks are remarkable. He chased the elusive ideal of a common good. No tepid voyeur, he advised us to be wary, especially of those who want to lead us. The satirist as altruist, thats Bill Hicks. His work is too important to overlook.

Bill Hicks was a chain-smoker, who made fun of cancer, says pop culture maven, Bruce McEwen. In 1990, Bill Hicks said, Ill smoke. Ill cough. Ill get the tumours. Ill die. [Is it a] deal? He did his part, dieing of pancreatic cancer, at age 32, in 1994, says McEwen.

The life of Bill Hicks was brief, but full. As Kurt Cobain, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Marilyn Monroe, among many others, Hicks lived hard, died young and left a lasting image. Thats good show business. These days, it means heirs have a revenue stream.

Some thought Bill Hicks was dangerous. They said he was a lone gun, a Sam Spade. Hicks thought of himself as Wyatt Earp.

As Earp or Spade, Bill Hicks worked for a greater good and menacedt the pithy cowpoke hero of a John Ford movie. He couldn't be an aw-shucks kind of guy and lookout for you and me.

Many saw Hicks as threatening. He saw through selfish politicians, greedy business people and those who would wreak social havoc for their own ends. Hicks didnt like opportunistic power grabbers, and they didnt like him. His every set was high noon.

Others, whom you'd not suspect, also saw Hicks as threatening. Two successful comics, with careers spanning more than 30 years, begged off talking about him. Neither fellow was clear about why they needed to distance themselves from Bill Hicks, but did.

The mood of the day may have something to do with the reluctance to talk of Bill Hicks. 9/11 abruptly closed an era of abject success and wealth, dumping Middle America into a maelstrom of doubt. Maybe the Hicksian frame of reference, that is, wariness and deep questioning of leaders and leadership, was a comfort during good times. Some, today, might say its unpatriotic to embrace the Hicksian view. As a result, Hicks may have less mainstream currency than he once did and will, again.

Bill Hicks was bold, not a cookie-cutter, comic. I dont write jokes, Hicks said in an interview for Whats on In London? Im burnt-out on comedy. What I do is serious topics discussed whimsically, and my forte is tying things together in a unified world. Comedy was the shtick; satire held the message.

The work of Bill Hicks persists and grows because of substance. He had a gimlet eye and a nimble mind. He told us what he saw and believed we needed to know. His message was to watch out. His style was much the same as a revivalist preacher, but his goal was a better here and now.

A successful comic leaves the audience laughing. A successful satirist leaves the audience thinking. Hicks left us laughing at what we were thinking. Ghandi, Hicks said, killed; Martin Luther King, killed; Robert Kennedy killed; Regean wounded. Satire was his game.

Hicks was a satirist masked as a comic. He, as Groucho and Andy Kaufman, fooled us into believing he was just a clown. Our guard down, he injected what was good for the soul, collective and individual, and it made us feel good and be wise

The Hicksography includes three biographies and a collection of his writing. There are a few biographical articles, and a textbook chapter on Hicks as ironist. In the end, a DVD and CD reveal the most.

Paul Outhwaite offers the most recent biography of Hicks. "One Consciousness: an analysis of Bill Hick's comedy" (2005) is from DM Productions. The book, writes Outhwaite, has been around since December 2002, when about 20 copies were released. A second, revised and still limited edition circulated in February 2003. It was a means of testing the water, writes Outhwaite. The response was encouraging, and a fuller text is now out.

One Consciousness reflects a deep interest in Bill Hicks, and enthusiasm for his method and meaning. The title draws from a satirical bit by Hicks, and the book reveals a passion for Bill Hicks, his ability to notice and express what he notices. The book thus deserves a respectful reading, but otherwise offers little.

There isnt much insight into the work of Hicks in One Consciousness. The book is confusing and chaotic. In Chapter 3, Whats New, Pussycat, Outhwaite bounces from comic to comic in a way reminiscent of the chase scene near the end of the movie of the same name. On page 25, Outhwaite drops a few biographical facts about Woody Allen. He then segues to and through Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Bob Newhart, among others. He returns to Allen on page 32 to make a minor point. Bill Hicks often seems incidental in One Consciousness, and sometimes vanishes into the mares nest and expressive chaos.

One Consciousness might be of interest if youre trying to catch up on random information about known comics. Take notes to keep track of the Indian-rubber-ball-in-a-concrete-room line of thought. Passion shrouds revelation in One Consciousness. Outhwaite, for all his passion, is no Boswell.

Kevin Booth and Michael Bertin offer little, in "Bill Hicks: agent of evolution," from HarperCollins (2005), that isnt available elsewhere. As a laundry list of information about Bill Hicks, the book is tops. There's at least a passing reference to most everything said or written about Bill Hicks. Even evil Robert Morton gets his say, only to lodge his foot firmly in his mouth.

Booth and Bertin dont explain their claim Bill Hicks was an agent of evolution. Although he was, they're unable to make the case. The title, as the book, seems no more than words on pages. There's much description, as many who grew up or worked with Hicks retell adventures, and little else. Pasting the book together must have been fun for those involved.

Any hint of analysis or insight is absent from Agent of Evolution. A thoughtful reader will draw a conclusion, here and there, despite the best efforts of the authors to purge such urges. Hicks deserves better. The photographs, in Agent of Evolution, of Hicks, his family home and his friends, tell the tale. There he is as a child, a teen and a few weeks before he passed away. In the photographs, the story plays out; the inevitable happens, you think, what if

There's much more to Bill Hicks than Outhwaite and Booth and Bertin suggests. The essence of Hicks is missing from both. There is hope.

"American Scream: the Bill Hicks story," by Cynthia True, is from HarperEntertainment (2002). True, like Outhwaite, never met Bill. She sums up whats available about Hicks, sets the stage, provides detail and context, then steps aside to let Bill speak for himself. This makes her book a good read, the best of the three biographies.

True relies on Colleen McGarr and Duncan Strauss to open the door to Bill Hicks. McGarr and Strauss managed Hicks from the middle1980s onward. Bill Hicks was the most famous unknown satirist of all-time, largely because of McGarr and Strauss.

Outhwaite ignores McGarr and Strauss. Booth and Bertin, it seems, include them as unavoidable. Both books suffer for the omission, but True picks up the gauntlet.

True doesnt let McGarr and Strauss fall through the cracks. The essence of Bill Hicks lies with McGarr and Strauss. McGarr, especially, is sensitive to everything Hicks.

McGarr, more than anyone, understands Hicks as an artist, not merely a comic or jokester. She recognizes the sources of outrage and compassion that drove him and his work. [Bill] never left the house, she told me in August 2005, without change to give the [mendicants]. She knows hes on a mission, not only seeking fame and fortune, but reform and justice for all, not just those who can afford it.

Manager, lover or friend, Colleen McGarr is the key to knowing Bill Hicks. Her experience and insight lead to satisfaction with American Scream. Outhwaite may ignore McGarr because hes an acolyte. The Booth and Bertin book is mostly an idealized account of teenage male bonding, with no place for McGarr.

Love All the People, is a collection of Hicks material, published by Constable (2004). Bill Hicks was more popular in the United Kingdom than, at home, in the USA. Its fitting a UK company comes out with what amounts to his autobiography

Most of the best Hicks sets are in Love All the People, word for word. There are also reviews, interviews and comments, and the full letter, from Hicks to John Lahr, about the infamous Letterman Show incident. The book is a treasure trove. Bill Hicks, thinker, comes through in Love All the People. His intelligent compassion, keen eye and sharp mind are obvious. His mission transcends the medium. Spoken or written, his message is clear: why not?

Many passages in Love All the People capture the spirit of Bill Hicks. The last two paragraphs, of Thoughts on Love and Smoking, reveal depth and passion Alone, in a hotel room, he wonders about a lover,

I sit staring at the phone and my pack of smokes, which sit side by side on the table before me. The cold grey skies bring out the veteran Heathcliff complex [that] resides in me, near the surface, always ready to rise. Shed never been to England. She would love it here. My hand reaches towards the table, tentatively rests on the phone. Shes a call away, waiting. Pain is one plane flight away. Ecstasy on delivery. My hand leaves the phone and swoops up my pack of cigarettes. I light one up and inhale deeply. No, I wont call. I must drop these habits one at a time. And I must start now, with her. Goodbye, Catherine, Heathcliff whispers from the thickening cloud of smoke that surrounds him to this day.

The woman remains an enigma. After I read the passage to Colleen McGarr, she didnt think she was Catherine. Somebody suggested it was Laurie Mango, who Bill claimed was his first love. Most likely, the woman, Catherine, is a blend of all the women Bill loved, and who left him.

Intelligent, honest, clear and passionate, Bill Hicks speaks best for himself. Love All the People is a book to read. Hicks fan or not, read this book and know what's possible, but denied.

The work of Bill Hicks is revealing. Art, as work, is about decisions. Do this, not that; put this in the set, leave that out. Choice exposes the spirit of the artist, Bill Hicks.

Several Bill Hicks DVDs and CDs are available. Of the DVDs, Bill Hicks Live is most representative. Its manic and exhaustive, a runaway locomotive of cogent satire. It contains three standup sets, and is a solid introduction to the work of Hicks, in his own words. Here are three excerpts from each of the three sets on the DVD.

The first examples are from One-Night Stand, performed the Vic Theatre in Chicago, in 1991. Dear God, says Hicks, in the micro-documentary that opens the set. Im so tired. I need my sleep, I really do. I need eight hours a day, and about ten at night. Then Im good. He says,

You're at a [concert] and someones really violent and aggressive and obnoxious. Are they drunk or smoking pot?

I had a vision, he says, of a way we could have no enemies, ever again,

One decisive act and we can rid the world of all our enemies. [The] money we spend on nuclear weapons and defence every year [is] trillions of dollars. Instead, we spend that money feeding and clothing the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over; not one human being excluded, not one. [With whats left over,] we could explore outer space together, in peace, forever. His cadence sells the piece; his innocence is reassuring. The message is clear. A joke about sleep, comedy about drugs and satire about politics suggests its a matter of action. Inaction, silence, in particular, is the enemy of freedom, progress and posterity. Hicks believed life would be better tomorrow. An old slogan used by General Electric went, Better Living Through Electricity; Hicks said, A Better Life by Taking Action.

Scorn is the tone of this set from at the Montreal International Comedy Festival, in 1991. About the 1991 USA invasion of Iraq, Hicks says, There never was a war. A war is when two armies are fighting. The comment rings truer for the 20 March 2003 invasion.

Have you ever watched CNN Headline News, he says, for any length of time? Its depressing : war, famine, homelessness, death, recession, depression, AIDS; war, famine, homelessness, death, recession, depression, AIDS. You look out your window, [birds are] chirping. Where is all this shit happening? Is CNN making it all up, he wonders? Today, hed turn the spotlight on the Fox News Channel, and let loxed-out CNN pass peacefully.

If youre a smoker, says Hicks, all kinds of technology can help you [live longer]. Nothing can be done for those of you who dont smoke. Start smoking, I guess, we need a pay off for the massive investment in medical technology.

These excerpts mock. Extending US influence, fear mongering and treating the victims of bad habits are serious profit centres. Life without meaning is alright, if it contributes to cash flow.

In 1992, the Dominion Theatre, in London, England, hosted this set. Bill Hicks says, George F. Bush tried to buy votes towards the end of the [1992] election. [He went] around selling weapons to everyone, getting that military industrial complex vote happening for him. Sold 160 fighter jets to Korea and 240 tanks to Kuwait, and then goes around making speeches [about] why he should be commander in chief: We live in a dangerous world. Bush should know; he made it that way.

Why is marijuana against the law, asks Hicks. It grows naturally [on the] planet. Doesnt the idea of making nature against the law seem to you a bit paranoid? One latent result of the Industrial Revolution was convincing us the synthetic is preferable to the natural.

Bill Hicks decides,

the choice, right now, [is] between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself [away]. The eyes of love see us all as one. Fear breeds apprehension, confusion and the willingness to embrace anything that promises to remove fear or doubt; this is not in the best interests of those who depend on fear to prosper.

The ideas of Bill Hicks thread through the work of Michael Moore.

Satire surpasses comedy in this set, too. Bill Hicks demands we think about what he says. Distracted, we fall for the political bait and switch war, misused science and fear instead of peace, honesty and nature. He suggests we shouldnt tolerate these tactics; we must act to reverse the tide.

CDs of performances by Bill Hicks are many. Somebody exploits his every utterance. Content of the CDs is repetitious. Its often thoughtlessly complied, and poorly mastered. That his insight and expression is timeless and worthy of more dignity seems lost on whoever controls his legacy.

The CD to hear is Salvation, a two-disc set released in 2005. Salvation is an ostensibly unedited version of an 11 November 1992 two-hour set at the Oxford Student Union, Oxford, England. Portions of the recording, reads an advisory, were released as Live at the Oxford Playhouse 11.11.1992 , which is also known as Shock and Awe. This is an example of Hicksplotation.

Although the material is otherwise available, this performance is remarkable. Salvation is Hicks at his best. The exploited outdoes the exploiter, which is the Bill Hicks philosophy.

The Oxford Union set covers a lot of territory. Organization, balance and pacing define this set. The telling is authoritative, and the flow dramatic. Most Hicks CDs lack coherence, and sell Hicks short. Salvation confirms Bill Hicks is among the best satirists. This is the set of his life, the one to remember him by and the surest route to understanding his work.

On Salvation, Hicks savours the Clinton victory over Bush, the elder, in the 1992 US Presidential Election. The audience chuckles, settles down only to come alive, again; they realize just as Hicks says, and with his loss [goes] half my act.

His ability to compel an audience to laugh as he forces them to think is clear. Spattered laughter erupts after a comment, lapses, briefly, then reignites wildly. Listening, carefully, you can hear the audience processing his comment and deciding, Oh yea; %$#@ing right, Bill!

Saddam, says Hicks on Salvation, is still around. The CIA has a plot to get rid of him. Its a plot theyve used before to get rid of a world leader. Only problem [the CIA] is having is convincing [Saddam] to go to Dallas. The CIAs immune to denunciation, but imputing ties to a trauma of American life evokes the right idea.

The live audience is clearly at one with Hicks. He has no need to rant at mindless tourists, who often comprised his US audiences. On Salvation, Bill Hicks preaches to the converted, who want hallelujah moments.

Its always best to let Bill Hicks speak for himself. Salvation, the CD, shows his ability to expose convention, and make the audience ponder and laugh, at the same time. The DVD, "Bill Hicks Live," is a solid summary of how Hicks thought and how his physical performance to helped make points.

On a 1998 CD, Dangerous, but not Salvation, is prime example of Hicks at full satirical speed,

I've noticed anti-intellectualism in this country. Last week, I was in Nashville, Tennessee. After the show, I went to a waffle house. Im not proud of it, but I was hungry. And Im sitting there and Im eating and Im reading a book. Right. Im alone: I dont know anybody. Im eating and Im reading a book; fine . Waitress comes over to me. [He makes gum-snapping noises.] What you reading for? I said, Wow! Ive never been asked that. Gawd dang it, ya stumped me. Not, what am I reading? But, what am I reading for? I guess I read for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is so I dont end up being a waffle waitress. Yea, that would have to be pretty high on the list. Then this trucker, in the next booth, gets up, stands over me and says, Looks like we got ourselves a reader. What is going on here? [Did] I walk into Klan rally in a Boy George costume or something, ya know. This is a book. I read. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet?

It doesnt matter if the incident happened or not, the tale is precise. A strong mind, a reader, is always under suspicion. The ostensible transparency of a stout heart has more currency. Harper, Bush and Blair, among others, who thrive on filling bellies and emptying minds, would cast Bill Hicks as a threat for this observation.

In the biographies, there's much writing about irony, which is part of satire, but little about Hicks as satirist. Satire is the way to comprehend Bill Hicks, a fact, it seems, only Colleen McGarr recognizes. Satire is thus mostly absent from the biographies. On the DVDs and CDs, the satire comes through loud and clear. Makes you wonder how the biographers, allegedly steeped in the work of Bill Hicks, missed the satire.

Bill Hicks grew, from joke teller to comic to satirist, steeped in irony. The evidence is clear in the examples noted. Jokes amuse, and cause you to smile. Comedy rouses you to laughter, and, as an old-time movie, makes you feel happy. Irony reveals action worthy of ridicule. Sarcasm is the penalty hypocrites pay for the hypocrisy they practice. Satire includes amusement, comedy, irony and sarcasm, joined in an effort to cause change.

The depth of satire ensures satirists have a lasting effect. The ideas they tender cycle through the mind, for a lifetime and across time. Bill Hicks is a satirist for the ages.

Once into the Hicksography, satirical euphoria takes hold. It feels great, and wont release. Hes what your mind craves and your soul needs. Hes the air you should breathe. Hes the addictive prescription for what ails you, with benefits including a fuller life and greater awareness, but no bad side effects.

Wading the Hicksography, a few conclusions are clear. The contributions of Bill Hicks, during a brief life, are singular. His relevance will out last those he satirizes.

Many suggest irony was the Hicks shtick. Close attention reveals otherwise; irony is opposition, satire is insight and urges change. An ironist, of course, Hicks aimed for a better life, for all, through satire.

Hicks performed with unusual intensity and sincerity. Some speak from the heart. He spoke from his soul, says Colleen McGarr, He was a nuanced and sophisticated thinker, which is rare in any line of work.

The passion of a Bill Hicks performance seems reflective of Hicks the person. He isnt doing a job. Hes telling us what he believes we need to know, and think about, says McGarr. He cared; this is why Bill Hicks is compelling and convincing.

A satirist makes you think. Bill Hicks invites us to think about war, the self-interest of politicians and their fear mongering. Notice, he urges, when somebody tries to deceive you and repel them.

Decide to act. Inaction is dangerous and unhealthy. Decide to act to stop the abuse or decide to let it continue, aware of the mess and not caring. It matters not. A thoughtful decision is all that Hicks, the satirist, asks. He knows, instinctively, that thoughtful action is most often right. The Hicks plea is for an awareness of what goes on around us, and wariness of those who want to lead. One for all and all for one is the message; come together, well take advantage of those whod take advantage of us. The satirist as altruist, thats Bill Hicks.

Missing from the Hicksography is any effort to put his work in context, to root his satire. There isnt much scrutiny of Bill Hicks. A lot of the writing about him is by those who allegedly knew him well. Sadly, theyre content to skim the surface, repeating details, avoiding or unwilling to plum any depth. Who was Bill Hicks? What influenced him? How did he see himself? Answers to these and related questions may begin to put his work in context.

The material on Bill Hicks Live and Salvation seems as relevant now as when first performed. Comedians have their moment: Carlin, Black or Cosby. Satire is for all time. Bill Hicks, as Groucho and Andy Kaufman, is a satirist. Groucho is penetrating. Kaufman is stunning. Bill Hicks is demanding.

Bill Hicks chases the elusive ideal of a common good. He urges wariness; dont trust politicians or rely on institutions. He urges thoughtful questioning, of leaders and their paths, and knows why its in our best interest. He tells us those whod make us puppet people chip away at the common good, and unnecessarily widen the gap between haves and have-nots.

In some brave new world of the future, consuming magical pharmaceuticals will transform us all into puppet people. Bill Hicks warns of that future. He urges we act, speak up and look out for each another. We are all one consciousness, he says, which we experience alone, but among others.

The satire of Bill Hicks is too important to overlook. Bill Hicks wouldnt put up with the demon of hypocrisy, and neither should we. In Bill Hicks, we can trust.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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