Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bill Hicks: Comedian, Social Commentator, Prophet

When I was a kid, I pretended to be a lot of different people while I was playing. While playing whiffle ball in the yard, I could be Steve Garvey, Johnny Bench or whichever major leaguer was hitting me right that day. While playing football, I would always want to be Roger Staubach, Steve Largent, or Tony Dorsett. Age hasn't really kept my imagination from having fun once in awhile as Rock Band emerged and allowed me to unleash my inner Lindsey Buckingham, Don Henley, or George Harrison. Having a fertile imagination and allowing yourself to wipe out the grind of every day life can be a useful tool and provide a lot of fun when goofing off with friends. There is one philosophical question that I've asked others and been asked myself; if you could be anyone else, who would it be? It's a fun question, but at it's heart, if taken to a degree of conversational seriousness, it can be quite a vexing enterprise to come up with a suitable answer. I've never really been able to pin down an answer and mostly, I attribute that to my family and friends. If I were someone else, I wouldn't get to share my life with these people that I love. 

Recently, I have found the answer to that question. If I could go back to the start and live someone else's life, I would choose Bill Hicks. No, not very exotic or exciting, but then, if I were thinking in only those terms, there are dozens of actors, musicians, writers, and athletes that surely have lived the high life in a way that makes them the envy of most men. Me being me, I don't always choose the obvious, although a couple of people probably don't find it surprising. Hicks profession and worldview are appealing to me. The former as a "if only I had..." thing and the latter as a reality. I'm not in lockstep with his worldview, but I have a lot of commonality with it. I've now read two biographies on Hicks, I've seen his "specials" at least 5 or 6 times each and I have watched the two documentaries about him (both are excellent snap shots in distinctly different ways); "American: The Bill Hicks Story", and "Just A Ride". I've absorbed a lot of his material and have been exposed to almost all that a common fan out here on the wide world of webs can see and hear. Even though he didn't make it "big" in the USA (he was very popular in the U.K.) and he died at 32, that's a life that was truly lived. Going out into the world and entertaining people and being persistent in trying to turn others on to the horrors, banality, and stupidity of modern life. At the same time, he offered ideas on how to fix our problems. How to love and how to care. He, at times, let us know that hope was in our control. If we wanted a different world, we had to act differently. Our evolution is still ongoing and when all the fog of day to day life is burned away, we know that we haven't gotten to where we need to be as a species or as inhabitants of a minor planet in a minor solar system in a minor galaxy in what may well be a minor universe. Being awake (which I've covered a lot on my blog over the years, so I won't rehash, they are saved on previous blog pages here) is one of the great blessings in my life and to see that rarest of state of minds in someone else, that I can recognize and empathize with, is quite exciting. With that, I want to talk about Hicks' work and more specifically, how to ingest it. He had a long career but a short life, so many of his "bits" were works in progress and you can tell as a few years pass in his work that he honed his message and got better at rounding it into a palatable "act". I discovered Bill Hicks through Netflix a few years ago and have slowly evolved into a fan and I suppose in many ways, a "follower". I mean, "follower" in the same way I would discuss Alan Watts or Sam Harris, in that I want to hear as much as possible from them on how they see the world and why it's important to consider what they are conveying through their words. 

 To be clear, this is for me and anyone that may be interested in learning more about Bill Hicks. I may say some things that Hicks would find false in his own motivation or belief, but I consider the man to have been an artist and like John Lennon, Stanley Kubrick, and Hunter Thompson. His art can be interpreted by the individual in a way that isn't critique or review, but is meaningful as a way of thought or meditation on the message and how it can be applied to one's own psyche. Bill Hicks has been an agent of change in my life and for the better. I pay homage to him with this blog. 

As far as an introduction to Bill Hicks, I don't know if it's better to see the slick BBC documentary "American" or to watch his HBO "One Night Stand" special. Context is key and I feel like you have to try to watch Hicks work from the perspective of 1988 to 1993. What has happening in the world? What was on TV? Who were our best selling musical acts? What was OK to discuss on TV or in public? These questions have a lot to do with how Hicks' comedy can impact a person. I don't see Hicks as just a comic. I see him as a prophet. Twenty-four years after his death, so much of his material is still very relevant to our country and world. He had been looking behind the curtain, while the rest of us were going about our daily business of accepting a society that was becoming more narcissistic and driven by commerce and commodity instead of compassion, justice, and critical thought. Remember this is a pre 9/11, pre 1993 Trade Center bombing world. His political points should be outdated, but they are not. In many ways, his views on the military and war are still 100% relevant. We are currently paying the price for playing policeman and cowboy all over the planet with our sometimes imperialistic, hawkish, neocon actions. We continue to forsake feeding people for killing them. We make budget cuts to education and healthcare, yet use those cuts to make increases to developing weaponry. I wonder what Bill Hicks would think about the state of the world if he were still here, or hell, even more interesting would be if he could suddenly be awoken from his death slumber and shown what's going on. He could just pick right up where he left off!

As quotable as his acts could be, this one (below) really resonates with me, almost as much as the "It's Just A Ride" commentary. It's the root of his deepest works. We have the capacity for being better, smarter, more compassionate, and loving as a why are we not doing that? While guys like Burr and Stanhope share his resentment of the stupid, ignorant, and dangerous, I don't know that he ever wanted a great "thinning of the herd" as much as he felt like we should simply be enlightening one another.

OK, so I settle on watching the HBO "One Night Stand" first. It has the famous "think pieces" but also should be a little more accessible to the modern stand up fan. The "preaching" is still there, but he runs a tight set and from start to finish it's strong with pure laughs while still trying to drop little thought nuggets into your mind. With the shots that he fired at George Bush and the anti-intellectual Christian conservatives, it's no wonder I never found him when he was in his prime. I would have dismissed his words out of hand. I was a much different person then and didn't have room for differing worldviews. If you are the type, like me, that as soon as he gets turned on to something,  wants to find out all he can on a topic, the next thing to do is to watch "American; The Bill Hicks Story". It's a modern and entertaining documentary with a fairly broad look at who Hicks was and why he mattered to people and to comedy as an art form. Understanding a little bit about who he was will make the next step much more palatable and it should be considered a "prep" course on his "manifesto" (my word, not his). After watching the Hicks documentary, "Sane Man", should be watched and explored. It tends to touch on some of the same stuff as the HBO special, but it's much more targeted to people that have an open mind and can look at Hicks as a social commentator that is going to deliver the laugh, but he's going to make you think for it. He broadens his topics. It's almost like a directors cut of the HBO special, but it doesn't feel redundant. "Sane Man" was actually shot two years before the HBO special, but it's just not as slick and "customer ready". This seems to be for the more seasoned Bill Hicks fan or those that tend to be open to receiving information or comedy in a way that is not always conventional.  I believe to experience Hicks you have to be willing to put yourself in his time and you have to be willing to consider his point of view on topics that you may really disagree with him on. It's a challenge. It's art. He is asking you to take a little peak behind conventional wisdom. Who is pulling the strings? Maybe you should figure out why you believe what you believe? 

To this point, I've advised "HBO One Night Stand", "American", and "Sane Man" as the viewing order. If you have the means, the next thing I would suggest is the short documentary "Just A Ride". It's short, but gives an interesting insight to how contemporaries and friends saw him. It gives a perspective on Hicks that is a little bit grittier than "American". After all of this, if you are still clamoring for more or you have at least stayed interested enough to go the full nines to satisfy that you have done all you can to embrace his genius, then it's on to his greatest two works; "Relentless" and "Revelations". Both were released in 1992 and they, in my opinion, are companion pieces. There are not many audiences that want to endure two hours of cerebral comedy and social commentary (preaching?) so seeing this as two halves of the same piece can help a person understand the total Bill Hicks. Hell, "Relentless" even ends with Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and then is back as his introduction music for "Revelations". Oddly enough, both of these specials were shot on foreign soil ("Relentless" in Canada and "Revelations" in England), which sort of tells the tale of his being accepted everywhere he went, except in his own country. The media was keeping a close eye on what was acceptable to be talked about and what wasn't (sound familiar?) and when you learn about the "inside baseball" that went on between Bill Hicks, TV producers, and other commercial entertainment enterprises, it's really no surprise that he didn't break out in the United States. 

"Relentless", in my opinion, is his most satisfying, consistent, and targeted work. He was on. Hicks gave a performance. It was physical. It was mental. It was funny. His timing impeccable and passion on display, Hicks was giving the audience what he wanted them to have. He was bringing you into his mind and asking you to not recoil, but to accept and think critically about what you were hearing. He is telling you that he knows he doesn't fit into this world and has trouble understanding it, but feels compelled to share who he is, even if it's rejected. This is his Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in "There Will Blood" performance. He can seem angry, resentful, and even puzzled by our culture, country, and civilization, but at his core, he believes that love, honesty, and integrity are what can and will make us great. He didn't believe we were done evolving and when you peel back the layers of this particular performance, you get a sense that this is a sensitive person. The jokes also may have tinge of pity for his subjects, but there is also the feeling that we can't continue to suffer fools if we want a better world. In the sarcasm and darkness, there is definitely a pleading to get people to acknowledge that we need to start making progress as a species.

 The second half of what I call the "Hicks Manifesto" is "Revelations". This pretty much picks up where "Relentless" left off, although it's a bit more challenging and probably would be considered a chore to endure for the uninitiated or for someone that doesn't watch it in context of its' time. Sure, all the societal, political, and entertainment stuff is there, but he also lifts the veil a little bit into the motivation of men and what, at a primal level, we really are or can become if we were to strip away our cultural evolution to expose a basic instinct. The "Randy Pan the Goat Boy" segment is just that. He jumps in and out of this character at the midway point of the show. It quickly becomes annoying for the person that is looking for the joke in the language. It's not the words that are necessarily the point in my opinion. It's the attitude and process. It's a "man thing". Yes, my dear, I'll play the dating game, but really, I'm more interested in the mating game. Goat Boy is just below the surface and we would do well to acknowledge that and it's not such a bad idea that women understand that it's there too. Hicks, for all his preaching was letting you see the truth behind the truth as far as he was concerned. We all have evolutionary urges and despite the suppression (which is a good thing for an evolving social creature, such as the human being) and lack of acknowledgment, try to know yourself. Many of his bits are just masquerades for greater points. Sometimes it's easy to get the point, but other times, it's not. That's what makes his work so "re-watchable". Like The Beatles or Bob Dylan, there are layers to some of his work and if you want to understand the artistic value, you have to spend some time with it. 

"Revelations" is fantastic, but I recommend trying to find the full version that has the introduction and ending attached. There are versions that have cut those things out, but I feel they are vital to the overall piece. Hearing Bill give you a little clue of how he sees himself is important to understanding why he does his comedy the way he does it. 

Bill Hicks has a lot of history and stories packed into his 32 years. He started sneaking into bars at the age of 16 and owning a decidedly adult audience. He was different from the start. He was an artist and he really did move the dial forward for stand up comedy. He stood on the shoulders of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin and these days there are countless comics that are standing on his shoulders. You can hear his jokes being told by Paul Mooney (Hicks used the "we have the receipt" line for our weapons of mass destruction sales to Iraq, 20 years before Mooney got laughs for it on the Chappelle Show), and Denis Leary pretty much stole and caricatured Hick's persona along with quite a few of his bits. Politics, religion, sex, abortion, warfare, advertising, artistic value in music.....all of these topics were touchy back in the "heyday" of Bill Hicks. You didn't oppose the war and you damn sure couldn't say anything negative about our imperialistic endeavors, lest you be admonished by the conventional wisdom of emerging right wing leadership. Yeah, it's a nice punchline to say if we can shoot a missile down an air vent a thousand miles away, why don't we start shooting food to the hungry?; but the message of that "joke" is that we use all of our knowledge and resources to build better killing equipment, yet we don't use them to solve a more human problem, like hunger.You could talk about religion, but really couldn't get away with hitting Christianity on a personal level in the mainstream. He chased down the anti-intellectuals. He chased down the musicians that he felt were shaming the good name of rock and roll and called them out by name. Again, at that time, you didn't do such things. He had a bit about his starring in a show where he would hunt down and shot gun Billy Ray Cyrus, MC Hammer, and Marky Mark. He felt he was right and that he was answering their shit by revealing some truth (as he saw it). Why should they get to cheapen and dumb down music and he not be able to say it? He was a "truther" in the best possible way. His "It's Just A Ride" closer to "Revelations" is all over You Tube and is one of the cornerstone's of how I want to view life. I don't always live up to it and I sometimes drift away from believing it, but I find myself going back to it. I will post a couple of videos of that below. One, as it is, on the performance and another that has him mixed and auto-tuned in with the great George Carlin, that I find both entertaining and inspirational.  

Hicks & Carlin: The Big Electron

I will probably think of more to say about Bill Hicks and my relationship to his work after I publish this, but as a free flow piece, I'm satisfied with what I've said. There is quite a bit more I could get into about Hick's influences and even some of the more negative traits that he had. He was a human being. He contradicted himself at times, but I believe at his core, he was a prophet. He couldn't have been truly understood in his time, but only in the context of seeing that time as a part of history and how it continues to impact us now. We have learned some things over the past 24 years since Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer, but we have also stood still and perhaps even regressed. Today, as much as ever, Bill Hicks can make an impact on our society and it's evident as he has stood the test of time. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi giving in to Darth Vader, "If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can imagine", Hicks is still a "Force Ghost" for so many comics today, like Russell Brand, Doug Stanhope, Joe Rogan, Jim Jefferies, and so many other modern day truth seekers. He is relevant and is more popular now than he was during his prime. 

You can find almost every special or documentary I have mentioned on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, or by purchasing them online. I highly recommend catching the David Letterman apology and I have linked a YouTube video on that below. Letterman made a mistake with Bill Hicks shortly before his death and eventually was able to try to make up for it, if not for Bill, then for his family, friends, and fans. 

It's Just A Ride

Mary Hicks on Letterman