When William Melvin Hicks (“Thanks dad!”) died in 1994, not only did the world lose a great comic talent, but also one of the most biting political satirists and social commentators, a man who destroyed the myth of the American Dream and exposed the true nature of political power and propaganda. He once described himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes” and it’s not difficult to see why, with much of his material – particularly in his later period after coming off drugs and alcohol – infused with harsh condemnations of American foreign policy married with an astute understanding of mass media manipulation and rampant, soulless consumerism. “Go back to bed, America. Here is American Gladiators. Here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!”
Born in 1961, Bill Hicks began his career in comedy at an early age, performing routines borrowed from Woody Allen intermingled with his own material alongside his friend Dwight Young, sneaking out at night to perform at Houston’s Comedy Workshop. Trading on his boyish looks and quick observational humour his latent talent was obvious from the start, but after seven years performing stand-up Hicks realised that he would need to adapt and grow if he was to achieve the same success as his idols like Richard Pryor. At the age of 21 he underwent a rapid turnaround in his attitude towards drugs and alcohol, going from a non-smoking teetotaller to prolonged sessions consuming magic mushrooms and a period of heavy drinking and cocaine snorting. This was somewhat paradoxical in that it was without a doubt Hick’s most self-destructive period, yet it also paved the way for his rebirth as a politically and socially aware comedian not afraid to speak his mind and take his audiences into new, darker territories where their perceptions of the world would be challenged.
It was this move towards comedy with a conscience that Hicks saw as the obstacle to his success in the United States. American audiences were reluctant to listen to what they perceived as a lecture in politics intermingled with comedy; as one audience member once said to him, “We don’t come to comedy to think!”, to which he replied, “Gee! Where do you go to think? I’ll meet you there!” His experiences with the TV networks – particularly Late Night with David Letterman – quickly taught him that the mainstream wasn’t about to accept his message in a raw and undiluted form.
Given that Hicks based much comedy on delivering scathing critiques of the American way of life, it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually find the fame and recognition he deserved outside of the States. He made his first major foray onto the international comedy scene at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal where his firebrand style made him an instant success. From there he quickly ascended to fame and popularity in the United Kingdom after an acclaimed performance at the Edinburgh comedy festival, fame largely assisted by Channel 4’s unedited, unexpurgated airing of his sellout Revelations performance in London. Contrasting with his treatment at the hands of American media outlets it’s little wonder that Hicks compared his situation to that of his hero Jimi Hendrix, who also found a more appreciative audience in the UK after years of trying with little success to achieve recognition in America.
Bill Hicks – Revelations:
After his success in the UK, Hicks appeared to be increasingly motivated to delivering his message to as wide an audience as possible, and he returned to the US determined to capitalise on his recent exposure. When he discovered that he had pancreatic cancer and only a short time to live he became even more driven to peforming and pushing forward new projects in music and television (particularly a project with Channel 4 in which he planned to fuse comedy with guest appearances by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Terrence McKenna). His material during this sadly all-too-short period is some of the most articulate, enlightening and yet still hilarious ever performed by a comedian, and not without reason has earned Hicks a posthumous reputation as something of a prophet.
Hicks himself could never quite decide what he actually was, rarely referring to himself as simply a “comic” and instead sitting somewhere between “social critic” and “shaman”. Some of his more philosophical moments certainly lend that label a great deal of credence; his love of psilocybin (which led to his encounter with a UFO) and his enthusiasm for the spiritual side of life matched in energy his despair at American political corruption and cultural banality. It is his message of peace and love above all which stands as the true message of Hicks’s performances, a refusal to stand idly by as “the demons run amok” and ruin all things good in the world, and an unshaking faith in the essential goodness of the human spirit.
Poet, iconoclast, radical activist, philosopher and comic, Bill Hicks isn’t easy to categorize and nor should he be: as he says in his last words, “I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit”.
The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.
Bill Hicks – Public Access TV interview