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BIll Hicks

Sunday Herald (December 2002)

The call came on a Friday afternoon in 1984. After a few years of playing his hometown of Houston, Texas, first as a one half of a schoolboy double act and then as a sardonic adult solo performer, Bill Hicks was deemed ready to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman. He was told to phone in later that afternoon to discuss a booking. The only problem was that this heavy drinking, chain smoking, self-styled rock’n’roll comedy outlaw had already made other plans.

Hicks and fellow comic John Farneti were due to take some magic mushrooms and go on an “urban hike”. A former devotee of transcendental meditation who’d found psychedelics through his interest in spirituality, Hicks would later claim to have boarded an alien craft while on mushrooms. But this was a rather more earthbound experience. The pair wandered around Houston struggling with the mechanics of making a pay phone call for hours and when they finally got through, the booking agent had left for the weekend.

“Did I just fuck up?” Hicks asked his friend as he hung up. Farneti tried to raise his drug buddy’s spirits but Hicks rapidly became hysterical, shrieking “there’s no business like showbusiness” and howling like a maniac. At which point, he spotted a plane high above towing a banner. He stopped, squinted, and very slowly read out the words: “You…fucked…up…pal. You…know…who…I’m…talking….to.”

In the eight years since his death at the age of 32 from pancreatic cancer, tales like this – alongside the tragic allure of his early demise of course - have helped create a rabid cult following for Bill Hicks. While most stand-up comics are seen as simple entertainers, Hicks is discussed in far loftier terms. He was, say his acolytes, the Kurt Cobain of comedy, a philosopher who struggled with hedonistic, almost self-destructive urges, while fearlessly holding up a mirror to the rotten state of American society. In the film “Human Traffic”, one character even refers to Hicks as a prophet.

Were Hicks still around today, he would have delighted in tearing this kind of rampant hyperbole to shreds. In two new live albums released this month, “Love, Laughter And Truth” and “Flying Saucer Tour Volume One”, he comes across as a mischievous clown as much as an enraged visionary. For every tirade about American foreign policy or the virtues of smoking/drinking/drug taking, there are routines about sex, pornography and women that are only a genial chuckle away from the “dick jokes” that he affected to stand against. What tied it all together and made Hicks a true cut above was his dedication to honesty. No matter the direction of Hick’s train of thought, it was always fuelled by a desire to put the world to some kind of honourable rights and to be funny about it along the way.

“I love his complete devotion to free thinking,” nods Cynthia True, author of the excellent Hicks biography “American Scream”. “In an age when you’re constantly assaulted by conventional wisdom, his ability to question everything and be uncompromised about that, no matter what the pressure, was really pretty noble. He was also an incredible joke writer. That’s something sometimes people don’t appreciate. Because the content of what he’s saying is so powerful, it’s easy to forget that at heart Bill was an incredible technician of comedy.”

“Hicks was a philosopher, no question,” says John Farneti. “Had he continued to mature, ultimately he may have been a major religious figure. But at the same time, a lot of what he had to say was very juvenile. Once his popularity had peaked, the revisionists would have turned on him and said, ‘hey wait a minute Mr Champion Of Free Speech, you’re tracking down Billy Ray Cyrus and killing him because he does a song that’s played on stations you don’t even listen to? What would you say if Ronald Reagan had said that?’ There were times when he was a brilliant philosopher and times just a silly little boy.”

Rock’n’roll needs both stupidity and genius to function, of course, and Hicks’ ability to straddle both cemented his reputation as an edgy, maverick performer. In the six years that he drank and took drugs – mostly mushrooms, ecstasy and cocaine - between 1982 and 1988, Hicks ricocheted between his natural gentlemanly state and something far darker.

“Bill could be a very mean drunk,” says Cynthia True. “Trashing clubs, being really rude to comics.” Farneti agrees. “He had the x factor which means you’re the type that when you drink gets out of control and negatively so. He’d take a while to reach that point but he used to do things like kick and punch down a porch. Very unpleasant. There were a couple of times when I just said ‘oh man. It’s just such a drag to be around him like this’.”

One infamous example of Hicks’ bad behaviour ended up with him breaking his leg in a drunken fight with a barman. “I was trying to see if we could pursue a case against the bar for negligently hiring a violent bar tender,” says Farneti, a lawyer by day. “When I asked the policeman who spoke to Bill at the emergency room, he said ‘hey, he’s the kind of guy who can really piss you off’. Bill was just drunk and mouthing off. He pretty much asked for that.”

Despite Hicks’ raucousness, his friends thought of him as a gentle, kind soul.

“He’d spend the night at my house with me and my wife and our small daughter and he was the nicest, politest ordinary person,” confirms Farneti. “He’d just kill the Reagans onstage.” There was clearly something disturbing brewing deep inside Hicks, though. He refers to himself during “Love, Laughter And Truth” as a “hate camel”, sucking in the evil of the world and storing it until it spews out in a torrent of invective and bile. He obviously wasn’t joking.

“Bill definitely struggled with depression in his twenties,” says True. “Whether the drinking and the drugs was as a response to that or as a side affect, it’s hard to say.” “Almost never would he feel good and secure,” adds Farneti. “He told me he had a breakthrough which was ‘if I appreciate something, it’ll be taken away from me.’ There’s no way you can ever be secure in that.”

Even after he’d given up any kind of intoxicants, that sense of dissatisfaction still lurked within Hicks. “Bill was never happy with any performance,” says Mike Hedge, who effectively managed Bill while he was in Britain. “He’d come offstage and he’d often be beside himself. ‘That was shit, I’m never fucking going onstage again’. And I’d have to say to him, ‘Bill that was fantastic, the audience were on fire, they loved it.’”

Was there ever any point where Hicks seemed self-destructive? “Oh yeah. Enormously so,” says Farneti. “He never harmed himself. He never drove a car into anything. He was self destructive in the sense of he drank at a pace that would kill a person, as well as do coke that if you continue doing that much it’s gong to catch up to you. He and I watched a documentary on Elvis, and after it was done he shook his head and said ‘I can not relate to any Elvis except the fat, bloated one who was killing himself.’”

Presley was a Hicks favourite. Farneti remembers nights when Hicks would channel Elvis’ spirit for the entertainment of everyone present. “Elvis just cracks me up,” Hicks once told a reporter in America. “He had everything he could possibly want and he was still completely miserable.”

The decision to quit drink and drugs helped Hicks focus on what he really wanted to achieve with comedy. He still advocated drug use, but the subtext became political: “It’s not a war on drugs,” he’d say. “It’s a war on personal freedom. Keep that in mind at all times.” When he announced in Leeds in the early nineties that he’d given up smoking the audience were extremely hostile, calling him a traitor and throwing cigarettes at the stage. Part of the Cult Of Bill, it seemed, depended on his outlaw status.

“They seemed genuinely hurt,” Hicks told Southampton’s listings magazine in 1992. “I told them the point of that smoking routine was that I should have the right to smoke, even if you don’t think I should. Now the whole point is, I should have the right not to smoke, even if you think I should. The point is my right to choose.” Hicks’ fans were clearly worried he’d lost his edge. “The targets are the same,” he reasoned. “The voice of reason in an insane world. That’s my whole act.”

The right to choose was central to the most notorious episode in Hicks’ life. In October 1993, Hicks recorded what was meant to be his twelfth Letterman appearance, but producers feared he’d cause offence with lines like “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”, and the entire routine was censored. The resulting publicity storm did more for Hicks than his previous eleven appearances put together. With an American book offer (“New Happiness”, about his triumph over drugs and alcohol) and a British TV show commissioned (a political talk show called “Counts Of The Netherworld”), it looked like Hicks’ career was about to skyrocket. Only, by then, he knew he was dying of cancer.

It’s impossible to cite cause and effect in a story like this, of course, but Hicks’ early death does dovetail eerily with the blind hedonism of his youth. John Farneti actually believes the two may be linked.

“He told us that one time on acid he re-enacted his birth with his girlfriend and then called his mother and asked if it was a difficult birth,” Farneti says. “She said ‘yeah, you were the last one, it was much more difficult’. He said he thought he’d been maybe taken out with forceps because he always had this sensation in what turned out to be where his pancreas was. It’s certainly conceivable that when he was delivered damage was done to him that caught up over the years. And I think your body knows you’re going to check out early and is quite pissed off about it, without delivering the full knowledge to the front of your brain. He made a lot of comments through his life, that in retrospect showed he had the sense that he was going to die early.”

The question of what Hicks would be doing were he still alive today is one that haunts many comedy lovers. In the last year of his life, he wrote a film script about a serial killer who murders hack comedians and had begun to contribute to the American political magazine The Nation. The options might have been endless.

“He would have conquered Hollywood,” opines Mike Hedge. “He was a great writer and he had these film scripts inside him and he would have been able to perform in the films he wrote. I think he would have had two or three Oscars by now. He could have done what Woody Allen and Steve Martin had done but better. We lost a genius.”

Cynthia True thinks politics would have been a far stronger draw. “Bill would have had a Noam Chomsky-type following,” she says. “He was really finding his place as a social critic and a lot of people would have been looking to him as an alternative voice. He would have been pretty fearless, even post 9/11. We really feel that void now. I really think we lost our guy.”

Whatever Hicks had turned his hand to, he’d have definitely left you gasping for breath. Even in the instances when he said things “that would have a room bulging with stunned silence”. Just ask John Farneti, the guy who was there when Bill Hicks was told he was a fuck up by a passing plane.

“Oh my god,” he roars, when reminded of that day in Houston. “You know how funny that is? Imagine hearing that on mushrooms. With Bill Hicks’ delivery. How I survived the laughter, I don’t know.”

We certainly did lose our guy.


Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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