American Scream: the Bill Hicks story, by Cynthia True

Life is just a ride. A very scary one
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The essential history of post-war American stand-up comedy can be told in six words: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks. The Texas-born Hicks, who died in 1994 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 33, was a fearless guerrilla comic who aspired to be "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes" and whose outrageousness blended seamlessly with his left-libertarian, humanist vision. In the notes for an American Comedy Awards ceremony, his entry read, "Pornography is good. All drugs should be legal. War is wrong. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Thank you. I'll be here all week." Needless to say, he did not win.

In his definitive film Revelations, recorded in London in 1992, we see him striding on stage like some avenging anti-hero of the Old West, part-gunslinger, part-preacher in his black cowboy hat and duster coat, swaggering through a sheet of flame to the strains of his hero Jimi Hendrix. Hicks took no prisoners: his apogee as an outlaw comic came four months before his death, when his routine was axed by the producers of The Late Show With David Letterman despite every line having been previously vetted. Its subjects included the Pope, the "pro-life" movement and a proposed TV show called Let's Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus. "Why," Hicks asked, "are people so afraid of jokes?"

Onstage and off, he was a creature of extremes. Sometimes he was vegan, detoxed, studying Zen and doing yoga; or he would marinade himself in Jack Daniels and stay roaring drunk for weeks, vacuuming drugs (magic mushrooms were his favourite) and chain-smoking. As one of his oldest friends put it, "I can't figure out if he is near enlightenment or a black beast. He's a genius and a putz and a child and a Master all in one."

Hicks started young, regurgitating Woody Allen routines for friends and family, but he got original fast. By his mid-teens, he was packing nightclubs before he was legally able to drink in them. His conservative Texas Baptist upbringing provided him with a ready-made source of home-grown material. Like Bruce and Pryor, he opened himself up onstage, exposing his own contradictions and forging a dialectic between his high-minded vision and his sex-drugs-and-rock'n'roll appetites. One moment the philosopher, the next the lascivious sex-addict "Goat Boy", he took listeners on a roller-coaster ride through himself.

Also like Bruce and Pryor, he had his very own Mini-Me in the form of Denis Leary, who co-opted not only Hicks's black-clad, splenetic, smoke-wreathed persona, but some of his best lines. Leary is to Hicks as Eddie Murphy was to Pryor: younger, better-looking, louder and less complex; setting his artistic sights far lower, but commercially more successful.

The irony didn't escape Hicks, who knew that there was a lot more to being an authentic radical than being offensive. His work was genuinely challenging, and despite his leftish slant, PC liberals could not expect an easy ride. His 1991 show Relentless contained an attack on working-class single mothers which would not have been out of place in a Jim Davidson set.

Cynthia True, comedy critic for the New York edition of Time Out, never interviewed Bill Hicks, but this book is no mere cut-and-paste job. She has met colleagues, relatives and old friends, one of whom provided her with the intensely revealing answering-machine messages from Hicks which serve as epigraphs for each chapter. Conscientious, perceptive and affectionate, this book demonstrates that she understands her subject perfectly. Hicks's final view on life was that "It's just a ride." Full of thrills, spills and chills, his own ride was a scary and exhilarating one.

Why, Hicks once mused, did the mass media never carry any positive stories about drugs? "Wouldn't that be newsworthy? Just once? 'Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration and that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death, life is only a dream and you are the imagination of yourself. Here's Tom with the weather.'"