That was Bill, the funniest man I ever saw

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The Independent Online
On stage, Bill Hicks wondered if some day a TV newscaster would finally read a positive story about LSD: "Today a young man on acid realised all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration; that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively; there is no death; life is just a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves." After a pregnant pause, he would resume: "And now, here's Tom with the weather."

Hicks was a natural, a theatrical performer with a gift for mimicry, mime and gesticulation. His comic timing had a quartz-like precision. He was the funniest man I ever saw.

But what made him great was his fearlessness. His was a one-man mission to rouse America from the banality, conformity and social torpor induced by 12 years of right-wing Republican government. He believed TV was the principal instrument of America's ignorance and lethargy. As if to prove his point, an attack on "pro-life" anti-abortionists got him axed from the David Letterman Show just a few months before his death. "If you're so pro-life," Hicks told the studio audience, "don't lock arms and block clinics. If you're so pro-life, block cemeteries. I want to see pro-lifers at funerals, opening caskets and shouting, `Get out!'."

Where other comics are careful not to cross certain lines, Hicks would stomp all over them, then draw new lines of his own. He challenged bigots of every political hue by taking their twisted logic and fashioning a semantic noose. It worked well with Christian fundamentalism. He recalled how, after a show in the deep south, three rednecks approached him. "Hey buddy," they called out, "we're Christians, and we didn't like what you said in there." Hicks shrugged: "So forgive me."

Despite his shameless sexual fantasies and his shambolic, pot-head persona, Hicks' position was philosophically and morally unassailable. "You know what we should have done?" he would ask. "Instead of bombing the Iraqis, we should have embarrassed them. We should have assassinated Bush." He posed Obvious Questions That Seldom Get Asked. With all the suffering in this world, he wondered, why do we build more weapons? What business is it of yours, he demanded, what I do to my own body or mind provided I don't harm anyone else?

These questions sink easily into a bog of vapid righteousness, but Hicks' manic lucidity was coupled with an unswerving instinct for outrage, and that was his genius. "He was an ass-kicking comedian," said John Lahr, the New Yorker critic, "the only, the best kind. His jokes were meant to kill."

Hicks had honed his skills since the age of 13, sneaking out at nights to perform at Houston's Comedy Workshop. At 15 he was topping the bill, drawing capacity crowds - to the chagrin of older, more established comics. He pounded the road, performing up to 280 shows a year. Following critical acclaim at Montreal's Just For Laughs festival, and Edinburgh in 1991, two sell-out British tours established his UK following.

By autumn 1993 he was filing a monthly column for Scallywag, writing film and TV scripts, and discussing a feature-length film of his work with John Magnusson, producer of Lenny Bruce's concert footage. There was a prospective Channel 4 series in development, and he was about to release the debut LP by his band, Marblehead Johnson. Though he knew death was imminent, he kept going. He died a year ago tomorrow from pancreatic cancer. He was 32.

There are no second acts in American lives, but the Hicks story has a coda. This spring sees the release of Rant In E Minor, the first of two live LPs recorded before his death. Arizona Bay - his speculations about life after California has plunged into the San Andreas fault - will follow. The new material is "Bill at the peak of his powers" according to his former fiance, Colleen McGarr. "The shows are seamless, and hilarious. He barely takes a breath. And the subject matter has become even more topical."

Hicks was more than a champion of psychedelic creativity - he was the perfect advertisement for it. He had wisdom, disguised as laconic wit. He had attitude to burn and the fury to ignite others. But most importantly he had compassion. He concluded his shows by inviting his audience to choose, right now and for every moment of their lives, between fear and love. Fear, he would say, leads us to shut out the world and die in isolation. But with love, anything is possible.

It was not just a platitude. By pursuing his folly, the fool had become wise. Bill Hicks was a shining example to us all.

For further information on Bill Hicks, write to: PO Box 26231, Austin, Texas 78755, USA.

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