Twenty years on from his death, Bill Hicks’s impact is still felt. Comedian Robin Ince pays tribute
Time to realise you are aging and to face up to the fact that the early Nineties wasn’t “recent”. That when you were a teenager, people like you looked old. That The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation is as distant now as Elvis Presley’s Mystery Train was to the newly-formed Sex Pistols in 1976. That Bill Hicks has been dead for 20 years.
This year sees the 20th anniversary of the death of five counter-cultural icons whose art meant something to me then and now – film directors Derek Jarman and Lindsay Anderson, writer Dennis Potter, musician Kurt Cobain, and comedian Bill Hicks. Now I am in middle age, I wonder which contemporary artists fill their shoes? Have so many of the possible cultural kinks been ironed out by the weight of a mass media driven by its need to sell you everything, that such independent voices would now be ignored?
All of them questioned the rise of the consumer regime, the fear of a zombified population manipulated and dull-headed. But it is Hicks I’ll use my 1,000 words for.
Bill Hicks polarises. There are those that elevate him to the Olympian heights of a stand-up god, while others sneerily dismiss him as a brash and precocious comedian whose stand-up career would have faltered and faded had he lived to middle age.
There are now professional stand-ups who weren’t even out of nappies when he died. Some barely know his name. Was his work, attitude and artistry important enough to live on or will he, like most beloved entertainers, fade from memory as his fans shuffle to the cemetery?
I was on tour with Stewart Lee and Kevin Eldon, watching the story of Fred West’s garden unravel on a Birmingham student union TV set, when we heard Bill Hicks was dead.
I had met many who had a disciple’s gleam in their eyes when they talked of their first Hicks experience, but having missed him live, I did not view him with idolatry. I found him impressive, though was a little apprehensive having seen some of the sneerier versions of US stand-up he was sometimes lumped in with. I had seen Denis Leary on the Edinburgh Fringe, and I found him cold and cynical.
But with Hicks, the more I watched, the more it became clear his audience didn’t just love him because he amused them, but because he made them question the status quo and the myths of establishment.
He could have an audience enraptured without always making them laugh. Some criticise him by saying, “Well, he wasn’t that funny.” Can’t enthralling be enough?
He became the comedian that comedians wanted to be and a vivid illustration of what stand-up was capable of. His was the time that “alternative” comedy had gone beyond its phase as being an art-school outlet to “the new rock’n’roll”.
As time has passed, it has become clear that it is the new rock’n’roll.
Not because of bacchanalian excess and idol worship of Presleyian magnitude, but because there have never been more ways of ripping off the audience and artists while coldly building up acts as consumer product. Beware going on stage before your agent has organised your makeover.
But Hicks was a comedian whose love of Hendrix-style rock gods was conveyed in his production values. No shambling to the mic in his second-best Doc Martens – it was a cowboy silhouette framed by flame that strode on to the Dominion stage for the ‘Revelations’ show.
Chomsky with dick jokes
For some comedians, that was as far as they wanted to go in aping Hicks. The walk on to metal music, fused with a punkish “f*ck you” attitude that masked their insecurities; they were very much the Cliff Richard to his Elvis.
For others, the mere act of being cocky, or almost arrogant, on stage, of smoking a cigarette and swigging a beer, striding about in black and talking of drugs and excess, made them a new Hicks in their own eyes.
Bill Hicks wasn’t a comedian that exuded the shambling, “love me, love me” air. He walked and talked like someone who was going to tell you what was in his mind whether you liked it or not. Like George Carlin, he didn’t seem burdened by a fear that he wasn’t worthy of the love of an audience. The audience were there, and he had things he had to tell them. If they found it funny, all well and good, if they didn’t, well to hell with them.
It is a hard attitude to pull off. Though UK audiences may well know Hicks as a rising behemoth with an adoring audience, he wasn’t just preaching to the converted. When touring across the US, he still came up against audiences that didn’t like the cut of his jib, his questioning of the establishment, his vivid abuse of the moronic, the thoughtless, the government. There are recordings of him standing in clubs, frustrated by audiences that seem to just want the dick jokes without the Noam Chomsky bit, playing to increasing silence interspersed with heckler abuse. You don’t hear a comedian panicking, searching for a laugh by any means necessary, you hear the fury, because he believes he has something to say and something they need to know. It is more than just jokes.
In the video biography It’s Just A Ride, Bill’s mother Mary tells of warning her son that he might veer from being a comedian into being a preacher, to which Hicks replies, “Momma, I am a preacher.”
In contemporary comedy, I am drawn to acts that I believe, stand-ups who really mean it. Comedians who, if confronted by angry audience members, can’t just defend themselves with, “Hey man, it’s just a joke”, because what they are saying isn’t just a line whose sole purpose is to engender mirth. I love acts who are just jokes too, whether it’s Frankie Howerd or Milton Jones. But there is a bravery and possibly a foolishness in standing on stage and saying, “I really mean this. I am not just your jester.”
Hicks was about ideas. When he railed about television as a soporific drug to lull the populace into a state of complacency and consumerism, or the Rodney King trial, or his more psychedelically inspired visions of a universe of vibrations, he was selling an agenda. He was punching at the establishment and the status quo and his stand-up was a statement saying our world can be better if we start thinking and questioning it. His fans didn’t just go out and buy the CDs and videos of his shows, they went out and bought Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn books, too.
A powerful voice
Twenty years on, there is a generation of now middle-aged humans who were given the tools to question the establishment, not by a sociology tutor or politics professor, but by a comedian. And on top of all that, he was a magnificent, charismatic, natural performer.
As Carlin, once said, “stand-up is a low art, but it is a very potent art”, and few were as potent as Hicks. Still, it is no use imagining what he would be saying now had he lived beyond 32.
What is remarkable is that when most stand-ups don’t find their voice until they get into their thirties, Hicks was cut short, but had already spent a decade as a powerful voice, an enfant terrible, an auteur of stand-up. He was cocky, charismatic, fascinated and curious.
His legacy is to inspire performers to do what they want to do, to say it because they must, to be what he was most of all: a freethinker.
Bill Hicks Lives! 20th Anniversary Tribute Night is at Dingwalls, Camden on 26 February with a Q&A from Bill’s brother Steve Hicks. Tickets are available via Eventbrite. Ince is touring his new show; robinince.com