“How can the life of such a man / Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?” – Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”
Farcically tonight, there were as many people turned away as paid in. It is sad to see the legacy of this great stand-up comedian mishandled. Paying £6 in to view “previously unseen in the UK” Hicks movies, we head up the Zumbar stairs to find nothing but a TV high in the corner of the back disco room, perched on top of a bass bin. We sit on the floor and stare up at it, waiting for the promised ‘Sane Man’, an eighty-minute live set from 1988. Later, downstairs, we’re trying to watch footage of Hicks playing live in London, trying desperately to ignore the horrendous buzzing emitting from the AV equipment.
Bill Hicks’s material is too good to remain a secret and although those of us who were fortunate enough to get in revelled in the previously unseen footage, it was only the extreme quality of Hicks’ talent that redeemed the evening. His is not a legacy which should be lost in the flow of history whilst inferior lights are remembered and celebrated. ’Relentless’ is as good a place to start as any – get it on video – and the audio CDs ’Arizona Bay’ and ’Rant In E-Minor’ are essential too.
In the last interview he ever did, which is aired tonight as ‘United States of Advertising’ to a fascinated crowd, Hicks describes how his material comes from listening to an internal ‘voice of reason’, a voice deserves to be heard far more widely than it currently is. The reality, it transpires, is that in Hicks’ lifetime, America wasn’t listening. He notes that his appeal was far more widespread in England, where he was booked to play concert halls, than in America, where he could never move past small comedy clubs and where his few mainstream TV appearances were censored. His final set for David Letterman’s ’Tonight Show’, recorded in London, was rejected, because his material referred to Jesus and Pro-Life groups. The week after the show was broadcast, Hicks states, Letterman’s network was broadcasting advertisements paid for by Pro-Life groups.
In a country with a mania for patriotism, Hicks was standing on stage declaring that the United States was not the earthly paradise its leaders would have its people believe. In fact, he dared to suggest, its foreign policy was endangering the safety of the world, whilst American citizens were kept stupefied by consumer goods and television programmes. Hicks was startled to find that Britain, “where George Bernard Shaw used to hang out and note things down”, exported “American horeshit” to fill its own televisual schedule. No wonder then, that he never made the impact that his pure talent deserved.
For Hicks was an incredibly gifted comic. When he wasn’t criticising his country and even when he was, Hicks hit the nail on the head every time he delivered a punchline. Watching him live, you realise that punchlines, well delivered, should have exactly that - punch. Hicks is fearless and razor sharp and approaches all subjects in the same way – extremely acutely. If he’s going to be rude, he’s fucking rude; if he’s going to be political, he sticks his head firmly on the block. He pulls no punches and goes directly for ‘The Truth’ at all costs.
For it’s truth, it turns out, that is funny, that is vital, that is compelling. Hicks’ absolute honesty and artistic integrity kept him from the corporate networks, who, logically enough, refused to air his message that “Americans are free to do what ever they are told”, that marketing and advertising people should kill themselves and that the government were “liars and murderers”.
So, considering his anti-corporate manifesto, it makes sense that a Hicks event will be rough around the edges, lo-fi. And it’s fun, sitting with a beer in a gig crowd, watching one of the finest minds in modern comedy first give an all-cylinders firing live performance, then answer the questions of bemused and bemusing local schmoes on a no-budget, public access TV show, fronted by a longhaired metal behemoth. The presenter’s sheer size is offset by the perceptible frailty of Hicks at this late stage in his life. It’s tragic to contrast the swaggering, vibrant Hicks in his prime in ’88 and the thin, pale man fighting cancer in 1994.
In ‘United States of Advertising’, Hicks states that his ideas are being kept from the American people out of fear of the effect that they might have. He also claims that they’re just jokes, which is slightly disingenuous, because by this time, Hicks was beginning to see himself as a social commentator and to approach his subjects in a new way.
At a telling moment in ‘United States of Advertising’, Hicks fields a question about current musicians. Famed for his routines describing modern pop stars as “ball-less, soulless, spineless suckers of Satan’s cock”, Hicks is asked if there is anyone around he actually rates. He mentions that he has used Rage Against the Machine and Tool as backing music to come on stage to. The caller starts to choke on his words and stammers something about Rage promoting killing. With infinite patience, Hicks explains, without sounding patronising, that ‘”o, Rage are questioning what the killing is for and saying ‘how about peace?’” A man famed for his on-stage ire shows nothing but cordiality and respect to individuals. His criticism was aimed squarely where criticism should be aimed – at the leaders.
One of the brighter callers quotes Alexis de Tocqueville at Hicks and another is anxious to know his opinions on the Arab/Israeli conflict. “Why are you asking me that question? I’m a comedian”, Hicks offers, politely. Hicks fans look up to him as a fierce, politicised intelligence, rightly, but the man himself shows his evident frustration at a society where political questions are being thrown at a stand-up comic by young people, not at those policymakers who are accountable for America’s actions in the world. Hicks repeatedly advises his callers to read Noam Chomsky, question everything and use their own judgement. To stand up and be active in their own lifetimes. To take pride in their principles and to stand by them.
And of course, as Sane Man displays, he told great dick jokes. The man was an animal and continues to be an inspiration, but needs a wider audience than he gets. Go seek him out.