The Unholy Ghost: Is the Late Bill Hicks the New Comic Messiah?

The comic is the guy who says "wait a minute" as the consensus forms. He's the antithesis of the mob mentality. -- Bill Hicks Bill Hicks is one comedian who will never get a sitcom, host a talk show, or pitch products. He's dead. And perhaps not coincidentally, he's a legend in the making. Even before his death from cancer three years ago at the tender age of 32, the journeyman performer was being mythologized by fans-among them many of his more commercially successful peers-as the second coming of Lenny Bruce, a foulmouthed avenging angel sent to blast away the encrusted complacency of American comedy. Hicksmania began in October 1993, when the last of his 12 appearances on David Letterman's show was cut from the aired version of the program. Letterman's producer at the time, Robert Morton, objected to material that skewered pro-lifers and Christian rituals and touted an alleged new Hicks project: a TV series called Let's Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus. (A sample of the scissored material, included on the comic's newly rereleased album Relentless, include this observation on the wearing of crucifixes: "Nice sentiment, but do you think when Jesus comes back, he's really going to want to look at a cross? Ow! Maybe that's why he hasn't shown up yet.") Hicks' censorship battle drew the attention of New Yorker writer John Lahr, who wrote a worshipful profile of the comedian. Lahr's November '93 story, "The Goat Boy Rises," didn't mention that Hicks had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; he was dead four months later. In the summer of 1994, Comedy Central aired a documentary, It's Just a Ride, that introduced a mass audience to Hicks' angry, uncompromising style. Posthumous profiles the same year in Entertainment Weekly and GQ touted his growing legend. And now Rykodisc has unleashed the comic's complete recorded works on four CDs-reissues of the hard-to-find early-90s albums Dangerous and Relentless, plus Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor, both recorded in the last year of the comic's life and released for the first time. And while Lenny Bruce's title of the Great Comic Martyr appears safe, there are enough jolts of profane brilliance scattered throughout these four recordings to make it clear why many comedy connoisseurs consider Hicks special. The comedian grew up in suburban Houston, and his hatred for bland middle-American sensibilities turbocharged his humor; he referred to America as "the third mall from the Sun" and television as "Lucifer's dream box." As a staple of his act, he exhorted advertising and marketing executives in the audience-"Satan's little helpers"-to do the honorable thing and kill themselves. Hicks refers to Beelzebub frequently over the span of the four Rykodisc albums, often punctuating his Satanic verses with a terrifying, Sam Kinison-esque sound effect: the devil's voice as an elephant's roar. Like the late Kinison-who started his career performing with Hicks in Texas comedy clubs-there was a lot of the preacher in Bill Hicks. But while Kinison, for all his horny-l'il-devil shtick, never fully escaped his prudish, Bible Belt-bred hang-ups (women and gay men brought out ugliness in him), Hicks thumbed his nose at any and all of his audience's cherished conventions and prejudices. It was probably no accident that during his life he was a prophet without honor in his homeland (though, oddly, a big draw in Great Britain). It's striking how often-and how unblushingly-Hicks' fans and peers compare him to another stand-up moralist: Jesus Christ. In It's Just a Ride, for example, comic Brett Butler describes her buddy Hicks' style as "Christ at his angriest," the guy who threw the money-changers out of the temple. Sentimental hyperbole aside, the comic and the carpenter did have something in common besides death in their early 30s: Both thought big. Hicks didn't waste much time on trivialities. He took on the world: war (he was against it), organized religion (against), patriotism (against), political power (against), crime (against), capitalism (against), drugs and sex (for, especially psychedelic mushrooms and porn). His Big Theme was integrity. Although his value system will never endear him to traditional moralists on the Left or the Right, his fierce commitment to it-in an era when even "hip" comics do commercials and fear alienating their audience with unpopular stands-is bracing. At times it sounds lonely too. Over the sprawl of more than four hours of recorded ranting, Hicks refuses to coddle the crowd. Rant in E-Minor includes a chilling montage of the comic's attacks on hecklers. Relentless includes actual booing, as a Hicks routine about unwanted babies veers into misanthropy. He would bait and switch his audience, and one of his bravest attempts is on Rant in E-Minor, when he brings up the then-current gays-in-the-military flap. "Here's what I think," he posits, and the dramatic pause fills with titters as the crowd no doubt awaits a buggering-in-the-barracks joke. Then Hicks opens fire: "Anyone dumb enough to want to be in the military should be allowed in." He bayonets military brass and pundits who worry about esprit d'corps: "Excuse me, aren't y'all fucking hired killers? Shut up! You people are thugs, and when we need you to blow the fuck out of a little nation of brown people, we'll let you know." Heard chronologically, the four albums show the arc of Hicks' rapid growth. Dangerous and Relentless, recorded in 1990 and '92, respectively, exhibit too many adolescent growing pains to qualify as classics, although they have their redeeming moments, Relentless especially. Dangerous finds Hicks killing too many flies with a bazooka, wasting firepower on such easy and dated targets as Debbie Gibson and George Michael, and railing against motel maids who ignore do not disturb signs. He's also a little too immaturely intent on waving his freak flag, touting the joys of getting high and the horrors of a redneck childhood. (Young Bill to chatty, morbid Mom: "Do you know anyone who doesn't have a fucking tumor?!") Relentless finds Hicks maturing and looking beyond his teenage wasteland for inspiration, and finding it increasingly in the news (the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Gulf War) and in a mushroom-triggered, heal-the-world spirituality. (He interrupts a sermon on how psychedelics caused the scales to fall from his eyes to reassure the squirmy audience: "There's dick jokes on the way, don't worry.") Hicks rails against pop stars here too-specifically "rockers against drugs"-but by now the wild threads of his philosophy are starting to weave together. He no longer hates commercialism because it isn't "cool," but because it numbs consumers and lulls them into conformity and low expectations. By the time of Arizona Bay, recorded in the months leading up to Hicks' June 1993 diagnosis, and Rant in E-Minor, taped mostly in the few feverish months afterward, Hicks had developed a nearly Oliver Stone-like (but more plausible) set of conspiracy theories. Both albums display an increasingly focused urgency (Rant is probably the best place for the curious to start sampling the comic's legacy). Arizona Bay-Hicks' name for the placid pool that would result if California dropped into the Pacific-is a big leap forward. He's done bitching about motel maids; here he revisits the Gulf War, and nails the United States' tendency to bomb Third World nations after selling them weapons: "We're like Jack Palance in Shane, throwing the gun at the sheepherder's feet." He takes on the L.A. riots-both the kangaroo first trial of Rodney King's attackers and the beating of trucker Reginald Denny; a bit in which Hicks mimics news commentators in various countries watching the live CNN footage of Denny's attack, and wonders why the trucker doesn't simply step on the gas, is both rude and ripsnorting. Word of warning, though: Arizona is not an entirely successful experiment in mixing comic segments with incidental music. Hicks-a favorite of several rebellious rock bands-was, like lots of comics, a frustrated musician. But for all his tirades about wimpy pop stars, his own guitar picking-thought surprisingly earnest- and his droll, thin warble wouldn't exactly land him an opening slot on a Metallica tour. Some of the rippling instrumentals work well as segues between segments, but producer Kevin Booth (who plays all the other instruments under Hicks' guitar and vocals) unwisely lets some run underneath the comic's words; the verbal and musical soundtracks compete for your attention. Rant in E-Minor takes Hicks' finely honed rage and puts it front and center. The album's 36 short tracks hammer at his obsessions: spirituality, politics, capitalism, the moral bankruptcy of modern show biz (a viciously funny fantasy about simpering "whore" Jay Leno blowing off his "Doritos-shilling head" might explain why Hicks never appeared on The Tonight Show), and most of all, integrity and power: I have this feeling that whoever's elected president ... when you win, you go into this smoky room with the 12 industrialist capitalist scum fucks who got you in there ... and this film screen comes down ... and it's a shot of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you've never seen before, but which looks suspiciously like it's off the grassy knoll. And this screen comes up and the lights come up and they go to the new president, "Any questions?" What's thrilling and tragic about Rant is that it shows Hicks realizing his potential as a truth-teller just as his performing life was ending. The trivialities have been almost completely sifted out of his brain pan. Whether he would have acquired such a no-nonsense focus without facing mortality so young is an open question, but the fact remains that Hicks took the freedom for untrammeled honesty that all stand-up comics have-when not beholden to TV networks, sponsors, and film companies-and used it fully (obscenely and angrily, but fully). That so few of his survivors in the funny business follow his brave example is the real tragedy.

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