My name's Bill Hicks, and I'm dead now
It's now February 26th. Ten years ago today, Bill Hicks died.
I can't remember exactly when I first became aware of Bill. I can remember back sometime around 1992, Select magazine gave away a free Just For Laughs
tape that had two Bill Hicks routines on it - Smoking and Flying Saucer Tour, if I remember correctly, I don't have the tape anymore - and I bought tapes of Relentless
on the back of that. I already knew of him before that, though, as I'd definitely heard the smoking routine before, and not just through the thieving lips of Denis Leary.
Non-smokers die every day
This was comedy unlike anything I'd heard before. I was too young to have heard Lenny Bruce or Peter Cook in their prime and my frame of reference was limited to the British alternative comedians of the 80s and assorted American standups, whose routines who all seemed at the time to be basing their routine on how bad airline food was. This was different, this was a comedian who wasn't pandering to his audience and giving them what they thought they wanted, but giving them the truth as he saw it. This was a man who'd seen the absurdity of the world we live in and knew the only response was to laugh.
There's dick jokes on the way, please relax
What was important about Bill was that he commanded the stage in a way few acts before or since have managed. He seemed to spring fully-formed into our consciousness sometime in the early 90s, but that overnight success was built on ten years of work beforehand. Ten years slogging his way round the Comedy Pouches in places like Possum Ridge, Arkansas, years of criss-crossing America carrying a drug and alcohol habit that sometimes reached life-threatening proportions, years of learning a craft, becoming a master of the stage. He'd reached a point where he could control the pace of his act, letting him speak with a natural rhythm, a true voice, not the speeded patter of thousands of hack comics rushing through their material, desperately seeking the next punch line before the audience turned on them.
You're about to go down in history as the worst audience ever
I've seen what happens to most comedians when they lose the audience, that moment when they realise whatever jokes they've got aren't good enough and the hecklers are going to win. That's part of the magic of Bill Hicks, that he'd never be beaten by an audience. Some of the most popular bootlegs of Bill available on the web are the Chicago gigs where he ends up almost at war with the audience, and the first volume of the Flying Saucer Tour
series to be released is a gig in Pennsylvania where it all goes wrong. For other comedians, this would be recordings to be tracked down and burned, forgotten about and cast into a deep dark memory hole so no one could ever hear them. Hicks, though, thrived on the antagonism he felt from these audiences, feeding back their own anger to them in a heightened and purified form, finding new comedy peaks. He was always a man who was set against the world, and it's though these performances you can see that, a righteous anger that won't settle or accept second best.
A clear beautiful serenity called Arizona Bay
He's been dead ten years, but he's not forgotten, and every year it seems more people become aware of him, more people get the joy of hearing him for the first time, more people discover that comedy doesn't have to be safe and comfortable and can go way beyond what you've heard before. He's known as an angry comic, a political animal raging against the machine, angered by the world around him, but there's one part of all his material that I always remember, one part that's already inspired many people and is going to go on for years to come.
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. And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it's very brightly coloured and it's very loud and it's fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time and they begin to question, is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say, "hey - don't worry, don't be afraid, ever, because, this is just a ride..."
And we... kill those people.
"Shut him up. We have 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 just has to be real."
Just a ride. But we always kill those 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 anytime we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money. A 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 that we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.
You're in the right place. It's Bill.