"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.”
-Paul Outhwaite, biographer
”Hi, my name’s Bill, My Mommy never beat me and my Daddy never fucked me…that’s it.”
In Valdosta, Georgia, one thousand nine hundred and twenty eight years, two hundred and forty days after a man in his early thirties, who had spent his life preaching peace, love and tolerance was executed, Mary Hicks was giving birth, Jim Hicks may have been at her side, but history does not record this detail. It does record, however, that they named their child William Melvin.
Billy (as he referred to himself when he was in good spirits) moved a lot when he was young, living in Florida, Alabama and New Jersey before moving to Houston at age seven. It was here, in the great state of Texas that he picked up his distinctive accent. The area they lived in was a pretentiously named place called Nottingham Forest, or, as Hicks called it, “a strict Southern Baptist ozone.” Perhaps it was this moral atmosphere, combined with the fact that his mother was a teacher and therefore on government parole, and his father was an executive for General Motors, and so part of the corporate machine, that gave young William his universal hatred of the American Dream.
Hicks began writing comedy when he was twelve. He and his friend Dwight Slade would develop a rapport that Bill believed helped him come up with ideas more quickly. At the time he wanted to be Woody Allen, and would copy and elaborate on the comic’s jokes. At his first gig, a church camp talent contest, he performed Allen’s joke about breastfeeding by a woman with falsies. According to Hicks: “people laughed then looked at me like I was the antichrist,” from then on he only did comedy for himself, sucking the audience into his way of thinking, instead of pandering to theirs. After all, if he could get a church congregation to laugh at a dirty joke, he could do anything.
Bill worked on his routines at night, tapping at a typewriter for hours on end, practicing and refining his technique. His bedroom was his office, it contained only books and records, and of course his guitar. Music was important to Hicks, and his later rants about the evils of manufactured pop reflect this. Hicks honed his routines at his Stratford High School, and it was here that he experienced his first distortion of time, when the five minutes at the beginning of class that his English teacher gave him to get it out of his system lasted for entire lesson. It was in High School that Bill came up with characters such as Dumb Jock and Maharishi Fatso, caricaturing the people he met in real life, and applying them to situations. He found that he could present the absurdity of some realities in a humorous way, enthralling the class and his teachers alike.
In 1976, due to a chronic lack of comedy clubs in Houston, the only way that Dwight and Bill could get exposure was by sending tapes of routines to agents, in the hope of being spotted. When they were fourteen one agent did get them a three-quarter of an hour stint on Jerry Lewis’ telethon. Unfortunately it was at two am and their parents wouldn’t let them go. The upside to this was, it enabled the creation of Mumsy and Goober Dad.
Bill and Dwight had a lucky break in 1978 when the Comedy Workshop opened in Houston in 1978. Kevin Booth, their best friend drove them there, and sometimes Bill was allowed to perform. Steve Epstein, the manager of the club was impressed with the sixteen year-old Bill’s wit and confidence. Unfortunately, to be able to perform, Bill had to sneak out of his house at night, fooling his parents by playing Elvis Presley or Alice Cooper at high volume in his room. At one club, Bill was landed on by the anarchic comic, Sam Kinison, who jumped onto the stage wearing red panties on his head. Kinison became one of Bill’s greatest influences, his anger, and some of his political philosophy featuring strongly in Hick’s acts, if with a more metaphysical approach.
Bill’s parents supported him one-hundred percent in everything he did, but in doing so, they did worry. When he was seventeen he was taken to a psychoanalyst, to find out if his behaviour was normal. Far from finding anything wrong with the young comedian, the shrink thoroughly enjoyed the journey Bill took him on, and reported that Hicks was as sane as any teenager. So, although Bill’s family found his work hard to grasp “the support and love was always unconditional.”
Bill started “living the life” in autumn 1978, for a month and a half he spent his Tuesday nights doing stand up at the Workshop, then going to a party and the local lap dancing place called the Zipper Club. Although his technique was improving, the routines were still limited to set-ups and punch lines. One of these early routines involved a purely platonic relationship with a corpse, if that gives any indication as to the quality of the material at the time. Unfortunately, Dwight had to move away in the second last week of his stint, and Bill was left alone. Refusing to be put off, Bill developed the rapport he once had with Dwight with the audiences, making up routines as he went, philosophising on stage, going off on tangents, becoming much more like the comedian/preacher he would grow to be.
Bill also concentrated his energies on the anarcho-punk band Stress with Booth. He and Kevin were very much alike in terms of imagination and vision, and Booth would later become Bill’s producer, manufacturing the hugely successful albums of Hicks’ later years.
As Bill’s technique matured, he became more popular with audiences, people came to see him, rather than the other comics. Bill was learning to connect to the audience on an emotional, even spiritual level, fuelling their emotions, making them angry, happy, sad, or indignant with a simple turn of phrase. He allowed them to follow through his arguments and jokes, coming to conclusions and punch lines themselves. His skill with dealing with hecklersalso increased, moving from simply ignoring them, to including them in his act, and arguing with them as he went along.
In 1979 Bill’s parents moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, Bill decided to stay in Houston to finish his senior year in High School. With his parents no longer controlling him, he began performing comedy every night; unfortunately this effected his schoolwork, and nearly caused him not to graduate, “I was what they call an underachiever.”
Sex Drugs and… Comedy
”This doesn’t get said a lot, I had a great time on drugs!”
In spring 1980, Bill moved to Los Angeles and began performing as a regular at the Comedy Store in Hollywood. He shared the bill with some famous faces, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Gary Shandling and Andrew Dice Clay, (who some critics compared Hicks to, inspiring him to refer to himself as Clay’s antidote). Whilst in the City of Angels, Bill worked on a sit-com, “Bulba,” but it was to be short-lived, and Hicks moved back to Houston in winter 1982, with his then girlfriend, Laurie Mango. It was then that he began his relentless tour of the south, working with his old friend Booth, and a film student, David Johndrow.
It was while touring in the south that he and Booth formed Absolutely Creative Entertainment (ACE) Production Company. They later re-named it Sacred Cow.
In 1983, after weeks of playing clubs and gigs in which the right-wing patriotic audiences didn’t really get his leftist-libertarian humour, Bill began to struggle. Drink and Drugs seemed to help him, enabling him to express himself more fully, he would get angry on stage, argue heatedly with the audience often mocking their traditional attitudes and hypocritical beliefs, but he could be funny at the same time, throwing gags into his arguments, making the audience laugh, but also making them think. Bill claimed that his ambition was to become enlightened, and together with Kevin Booth, Hicks got into meditation, astrology, and tried to develop telepathy.
Hick’s flaming performances seemed to be designed to hammer the audience into submission. This could lead to problems, for instance at one gig, two Vietnam veterans, angered by Hicks' take on the war, broke his leg. Another time Bill was arguing with a heckler, Bill seemed to have won when the heckler, frustrated by the comic’s returned arguments, pulled a gun on Hicks. Sensibly Bill left the stage, but the irony wasn’t lost on him. In fact he believed that the incident proved his point about US gun law.
Bill continued to expand his mind with drugs, taking LSD, mushrooms, cocaine, Quaaludes, ecstasy, meth amphetamine and of course marijuana. Hicks claimed to have been abducted by aliens, (he was high at the time, but he claimed it was unrelated), other drug influenced visions included Jesus riding on a unicorn, and a dancing Hobbit. All of these he remembered for his acts, it should be noted, that contrary to government propaganda, he never saw an egg turn into a brain. With his drink, drugs and sex lifestyle, combined with his lack of respect for petty politics, Bill became an underground star, an outlaw comic, following in the footsteps of Sam Kinison, Ron Shock, Jimmy Pineapple, and other self-styled comedians.
In 1984 Hicks appeared on the Letterman show (Johnny Carson's Tonight Show was too traditional to show the controversial comedian. Hicks came on the show and went through a very watered down routine with the host, but what really got him noticed was his attitude. After his bit was over, he sat down and lit up a cigarette, something which was not allowed on the show, ultimately it was this sort of controversial performance that made him a popular guest, and, more importantly, got him eleven further shows. When asked to comment on Bill, Letterman said “What I liked about Bill was, here is a guy that nobody knew, myself included, who had a swagger to his demeanour, 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 the final addition to Hicks' assemblage of characters was conceived. Elmer Dinkley, based on the southern rednecks that had given Bill such a hard time on his tours, was a classic character, and was often requested at his stage shows. Elmer, and other creations, appeared in the low budget cult film, “Ninja Bachelor Party.”
The Flying Saucer Tours
”I too will be appearing in small southern towns in front of groups of Hillbillies.”
After Letterman, Bill continued his touring lifestyle, playing gigs, taking drugs and generally having fun. During this time, Hicks was spending a lot of money on a variety of substances, still using the experiences for his acts, unfortunately in 1986 his was forced to cut back a little due to the fact he was completely broke. To pay his way, Hicks gigged relentlessly, even using his lack of money as a source for routines in his acts. In 1987 Rodney Dangerfield saw a tape of a show Hicks had performed while desperate for cash and, more importantly, the experiences cash buys. The tape won Hicks a place on “Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special,” this coincided nicely with Bill and Kevin’s formation of Sacred Cow Productions, to work on albums and film and the two ventures together allowed Bill to move to New York City, later that year.
In New York Hicks found himself with a new source for routines, and began playing at clubs such as “Catch a Rising Star” almost immediately. His reputation growing, and gigging with the likes of Melba Moore and Ray Charles, Bill embarked on the busiest period of his life. His so-called “Flying Saucer Tours” took him back to the small southern towns, one he often referred to in his act was “Fife; Alabama” where he was “doing their annual rickets telethon… or I dunno what the fuck that thing was anyway…” he found himself playing an average of three hundred gigs a year. He developed a reputation of being “the comic other comics go to see.” Hicks was unlike anyone else, he was not aiming for hitting the big-time, he refused offers of his own talk-show, referring to TV as Lucifer’s Dream Box, (although he did like The Simpsons), and, too few years later when he knew he was dying gave even less of a shit than usual, claimed that the people at CBS would produce anything that “has titty.”
In 1988 Bill quit drugs. He had had a run of some bad shows in which he over did his dark, angry routines, sacrificing comedy for pure rage and drug induced ranting. Suddenly, realising that people offering him drugs surrounded him, he knew he had to kick the habit. His method of quitting was fairly standard, he transferred his addiction and took up smoking. Heavily. He would claim that someone on two packs a day was a “pussy! I go through two lighters a day man!”
Unlike most ex-drug users, Hicks saw his experiences whilst on drugs as a positive thing, always presenting the other side of the coin, the counter to the government’s arguments. "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." It was with routines such as this that Bill gained a huge following, like many of his routines; it was one that sticks in the mind and provides a radical twist of perspective.
In 1988 the first Hicks video was released, Sane Man. The video is worth watching, although in the UK, I have found copies hard to come by, but after tracking one down in East Gate Market, Gloucester (yes it was a legal copy), I can tell you that this video captures all that is brilliant about a performance by Bill. It includes the infamous smoking routine, and other little gems about he absurdity of life in late eighties America, set to the background of Bob Dylan lyrics. One of the incredible things about the performances Hicks gave at this time is their longevity, even today, nearly ten years after his death, the same comments and jokes are just as effective as they were a decade ago.
After the video came out Hicks began to use music much more in his acts, "Music is a great energizer. It's a language everybody knows," as Bill said at the time. Music became something of an obsession and his rant against the manufactured pop today is one of the most heartfelt and angry routines he ever performed. “Debbie Gibson, George Michael, MC Hammer all ball-less, soul-less suckers of Satan's cock every single one of them.” He considered the assassination of John Lennon one of the most heinous acts ever committed, he also considered the fact that Barry Manilow is allowed to continue making records as proof that the universe is backwards. If people ever told him that he was talking about musicians who died a long time ago, he’d start talking about his love for Beethoven.
Two years later the album “Dangerous” was released and instantly received critical acclaim and glowing praise, this was followed by the HBO special “One Night Stand” and his film “Ninja Bachelor Party,” helped to spread “the truth.” Bill found it amazing that people appeared not to be frustrated by the “fact that we are being lied to each and every day of our lives.”
”YOU DON’T BOIL PIZZA!"
Bill first travelled to Britain in 1990 for “Stand Up America!” in London. Hicks' sense of irony and sarcastic manner went down well on these shores, and a lot of his anti-patriotic acts found a connection he had never had before. "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."
For the next two years, Bill toured the UK, returning to America intermittently, especially for elections and wars. The Gulf War provided a wealth of new material for Hicks to work with, he showed the public the war from a different angle to the one they had been shown by CNN. His comments are just as relevant today, as the posthumous album, Shock and Awe, which is a recording of one of his performances in the Oxford Playhouse, makes clear.
It was also at this time that Bill recorded what is arguably his finest work. His Relentless album is reviewed elsewhere on e2, but it is a much more polished work than Dangerous and the feeling is generally less cobbled together.
1992 was the year in which Hicks finally gave up drink, drugs and cigarettes. He met the love of his life Colleen McGarr while he was recording the “Marblehead Johnson” music album, she was to become manager of the company he was thinking of having produce it. Hicks grew a little, not much, but a little more light-hearted after meeting Colleen. He proposed to her a few months later.
November 1992 saw the recording of the Revelations video for Channel 4 at the Dominion Theatre, which, it should be noted, sat 2000. Early in the next year he was voted the “Hot Stand Up Comic” by Rolling Stone magazine. Hicks at last was becoming a success on his own, without corporate sponsorship, without “Doritos Commercials” and without a chat show. He was free to focus on his obsessions, relentless gigging and conspiracy theories. He and Kevin Booth were able to film around the Waco siege, believing that the American government was in someway conspiring to murder these people since; "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?" Unfortunately, just as he was finally making it on his own terms, disaster struck.
”I want to get the fuck off of this planet”
Bill was in Australia at the time, he had been touring, still playing at least one gig a night, when he began eating badly and feeling sharp pains down his side. In May 1993, clearly suffering, he began work on a show called “Counts Of The Netherworld” with Fallon Woodland in which the two comedians would play two Victorian counts and entertain guests using philosophy and political discussion, and of course; humour. The scripts for these shows are avaliable commercially, and it is a crime that they were never made - it would have been one of the most unique shows on television. Unfortunately, the pains continued and Bill had to go to the doctor. Prognosis was grim.
In June 1993 Bill Hicks found out he had pancreatic cancer.
Bill refused to let it get him down. He had cancer, so what? His philosophy was that life is just one of the experiences the universe has to offer, and if it was time for him to move on to the next ride, he was ready. Leaving hospital after a few days, he continued gigging, recording two more albums, “Arizona Bay” and “Rant in E Minor,” usually considered to be his darkest, most angry, works. The musical score on Arizona Bay was considered by bill to be the “comedic Dark Side Of The Moon.”
By now Bill had several columns in various comedy magazines, and newspapers were practically queuing up for an interview. Bill told no-one but his close friends and family he was dying, and continued to write more and more controversial articles, knowing that he wasn’t likely to be on this planet much longer, and therefore had no more reason to care. On the 8th of August 1993 the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that "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,"
Chemotherapy sessions were now weekly, and Bill was still touring, at one point there was some hope, his tumours decreased in size, but then they began to grow again, and in October 1993 Bill did his final Letterman show, he included his rant about “pro lifers” he was irritated by the fact that they were linking arms and blocking medical clinics, he advised them to “lock arms and block cemeteries.” He was cut from the final showing. After writing a 39 page letter of complaint to the New Yorker, Hicks still recieved no good reason. However, later a pro-life commerical was shown in one of the show's commercial breaks and he strongly suspected that was the reason.
In December 1993 Hicks realised he was dying, and he moved into his parent’s house in Little Rock. He played his final show on January 6th in New York. Strangely he became more light hearted, working on a novel and trying to get his father to take mushrooms. He was happy, he realised that life was too weird for there to be no God. He believed in a creative being, a prankster god and that he would become one with it. He ceased to speak on Valentine's Day 1994.
At 11.20pm on Saturday 26th of February 1994, Bill Hicks died.
”I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
- Sane Man
- The inner sleeves to his albums
- Ninja Batchelor Party
- the Guardian reviews section.
- Love All The People - a collection of Bill Hick's letters and performances