"This machine kills fascists."
Those were the words scrawled on Woody Guthrie's guitar, but the same proclamation could just as fittingly have been etched into the microphone of Bill Hicks, the Houston, Texas-raised comedian who was on a mission to expose repression, hypocrisy, and greed through humor until he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in February 1994. Using his voice of reason like a machete on such targets as patriotism, religion, drug laws, corporate America, the media, and the military, the baby-faced laugh assassin didn't merely "question authority," like so many bumper-sticker comics. Hicks hacked authority into guffaw-size pieces and asked questions later.
His theory was that the power elite does its best to lull society into some sort of enchanted trance , and it was his job to say, "Hey, wait a minute." When the rest of the country was spellbound during the Gulf War, for instance, watching the high-tech weapons at work, Hicks wondered out loud why the same technology couldn't be used to shoot food at hungry people. A wide-ranging idealist who often ended his shows with an uplifting vision of world harmony, Hicks stood at the midpoint between the way things are and the way things could be.
"I was born screaming in America" is how the narration to his HBO special, Revelations, begins. The shrieks of indignation only got louder as he got older. But don't worry -- as Hicks used to say in the midst of heavy moments -- there are dick jokes on the way.
Like Lenny Bruce, who died 30 years before him, Hicks went for the throat of forbidden topics and had the moral courage to back up his fearless stance. But where Bruce was more groundbreaking and insightful than ha-ha funny, Hicks was piss-your-pants hilarious.
Although he died ridiculously early, at age 32, the sixteen-year comedy club veteran left behind an incredible body of work, including four brand-new CDs released by Rykodisc -- Hicks's brilliant first two albums, Dangerous (1990) and Relentless (1992), as well as the Los Angeles-bashing Arizona Bay, which was completed before his death, and Rant in E Minor, assembled and produced by his friend Kevin Booth in Austin, Texas. The latter two albums are curiously colored (and somewhat weakened) by the Pat Metheny-like soundtrack music Hicks wrote and played. The material is savagely funny at times, especially Rant's observation that Rush Limbaugh looks like "one of those gay guys who like to lie in a tub while men piss on him," but the music attests that if Hicks had any downside as a comedian, it was that he was a musician on the side.
Hicks was treated like a rock star in England, which he attributed to the fact that his first brutally funny HBO special was shown, uncut, on BBC. He also was idolized by a host of rock bands, including Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead, and Hamell on Trial, who all wrote songs or dedicated albums to Hicks.
But Hicks was not a "rock and roll comedian" in the way his mentor Sam Kinison was. Instead of trying to rock out and party down with the bands at the Rainbow, Hicks usually hung with his friends from high school when he came back off the road. He did introduce Tool at a concert in L.A., but not until he asked the kids to stop moshing so he could look for his contact lens in the pit.
Because of his dedication to his craft and his nonstop touring schedule, Hicks didn't use standup as a springboard to sitcoms or movies. Getting in front of a crowd with only a microphone in his hand and a script of topics in his head was all Hicks ever wanted to do. And he could do it for two hours at a time, where most comics start scraping bottom after about ten minutes. "Let's not mince words," he'd say. "Our very lives depend on the truth."
And no occupation comes with a license for candor like stand-up comedy. Virtually naked, with no rock beat to hide behind or other actors to play off, comedians practice pure art. They don't have to answer to a boss or a corporation or a studio or a network. They need answer only to themselves, and that's a task to which Hicks was born.
Deemed too "over the top" to be booked on the Tonight Show (even when it was taken over by Bill fan Jay Leno), Hicks was a semiregular on the later, hipper Late Night with David Letterman. He played the program eleven times in three years, but on October 1, 1993, in his first appearance after Letterman had moved to CBS in an earlier time slot, Hicks became the first comedian to have his segment completely cut from the show. He pushed too many hot buttons, Letterman producer Robert Morton said of a six-minute set during which he attacked the religious right on the abortion issue and wondered why Christians wear crosses around their necks.
"Nice sentiment, but do you think that when Jesus comes back, he's really gonna want to look at a cross?" Hicks said in the excised routine, which has still never been aired on network television. "Isn't that a little like going up to Jackie Onassis wearing a rifle pendant?" he continued. "Just thinkin' of John, Jackie."
In the Hicks documentary It's Just a Ride, Letterman aired his regrets about the treatment of the censored comic and said it was unfortunate that the comedian died before amends could be made. But in November 1993, fresh from being vindicated in a lengthy feature by John Lahr in The New Yorker, Hicks appeared on a Wayne's World-esque show on access TV in Austin and announced he was done with network TV because of the Letterman debacle. It seemed like a tough decision at the time, but what no one except his immediate family knew was that Bill Hicks was dying.
Activist Jerry Rubin once said that the most oppressed people are in the white middle-class, because they've got nothing to rise up and fight against. But Hicks, raised in the affluent Nottingham Forest subdivision of West Houston, had plenty to rebel against in a world he called "the third mall from the sun."
The cliche often used to describe the suburban family is that it contains 2.3 children -- and in the case of the Hicks family, Bill was the .3. The third and final child, Bill often took a book to the dinner table and read as he ate. When we was done, he'd go back up to his room and close the door.
On the outside, quite literally, everything looked pristine with the Hicks family. "They used to have a contest for Yard of the Month in our neighborhood," says brother Steve Hicks, shedding some light on a regular Hicks topic. "And after a while they just left the sign at our house year-round. My father's a master gardener, and our lawn was always perfect."
Besides his father's love of his lawn, another staple of Bill's early routines was the family car trips he hated. "We couldn't get along together in a five-bedroom house," Bill would say. "My dad's idea was to pack us all in a car and drive for hours through the desert during the hottest time of the year. Good call, Dad: Let's confront our tensions."
When Hicks complained of the heat, he said, his father would refuse to turn on the air conditioner because it ate up gas. "Take my college money, then, and turn on the a/c, buddy," Hicks would shoot back in his act. "I'm not going to end up a sunstroked Mongoloid just so you can save two fucking cents a mile." He also riffed on his mom's nonstop talking. "I've been listening to you for ten hours now, and I've got a serious question," Bill would say. "Do you know anyone who doesn't have a fucking tumor?!"
But, of course, that was only in his act. Off-stage, Hicks couldn't use any bad words, even those of the d and h variety, around the house. "Bill's parents were strict Southern Baptists, and he was real rebellious," says friend Dwight Slade, Hicks's first stand-up partner, who's now a comedian based in Portland, Oregon. "There were problems."
It was Woody Allen who first showed Hicks how to turn his despair into yucks. "In the eighth grade, Bill saw Woody Allen in Casino Royale and he liked how bizarre he looked," Slade recalls. "Then we ran across [Allen's] book Without Feathers, and that sealed it. We knew that we had to write jokes, to work on material.
"When we were about fifteen, everybody knew us as comedians. So some kids would come up and say, 'You gotta hear the new Richard Pryor album. He says fuck and calls himself a nigger.' And me and Bill were going, 'That's funny?' Then the movie Blazing Saddles came out, and everyone was raving about the farting-round-the-campfire scene, and we were like, 'That's so juvenile.' Even though we were in the tenth grade, we took comedy very seriously." By the next year, Hicks was heavily into a Pryor phase.
At sixteen, Hicks started playing the Comix Annex in Houston, where the top comedian was Sam Kinison. Dubbing Hicks "The Little Prince," Kinison took the teen under his ample wing. After Hicks graduated from high school his parents wanted him to go to college, but he wanted to move to L.A., where his comedy career could take off. Mary and Jim Hicks eventually relented, but only after Kinison came over for dinner and convinced them that Bill had a great future as a standup. "Okay," Bill's parents said. "We'll give you four years, just like if you were at college." So his parents paid his "tuition" to learn comedy.
"My dad always said that he hoped someone like Bob Hope would discover Bill and show him the ropes, but instead he had Sam Kinison," Steve Hicks says. "My parents just didn't understand this new shocking comedy. To them, comedy was Bob Hope."
One of Hicks's strengths from the beginning was in offering fresh takes on tired topics such as sex, drugs, and rock and roll. More a philosopher than a joke teller, Hicks was that rare comedian who'd lived in both L.A. and New York, yet didn't have in his repertoire a bit about how the two cities are different.
An advocate of the mind-expanding properties of psychedelics, Hicks went far beyond the usual Cheech and Chong-isms when delving into the topic of drugs. "You never see a positive drug story on the news," he'd say. "It's always the same story -- a man on LSD thought he could fly so he jumped out of a building.... But I'd like to see a positive news story on LSD, just once, to tell what really goes on." Then he'd switch to newsman mode and report, "Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."
Pornography was a topic dear to Hicks, as was masturbation, and some of the material he did on those hand-in-hand taboos was where no other comedian had gone before. "I have this fear that I'll go to the video store for some porno videos," he relates in Rant, "and when I get up to the counter, this banner will drop and horns and sirens will go off -- Congratulations! You've just rented your one-millionth porno video."
Another of his fears, which he turned into an especially revelatory bit, was that he would die and his parents would come to his apartment for his belongings and find his vast collection of porno videos. "Look at my Bill in his Cub Scout uniform. Look how cute my baby was," Hicks would imitate his mother looking at old photos in a sniffle of tears. And then a pause. "I wonder what's in this box over here."
The Hickses were proud of their son: They even rented a hotel room to watch Bill's HBO special because they didn't have cable, but they didn't understand why Bill had to use the f word. "This box over here," it turned out, was their son's comedy of rage, which they now own and administer to his growing legion of fans. "If anyone continues to care," Hicks wrote in the will that bequeathed his material to his parents, "please see that my message gets out."
When Bill Hicks died at 11:20 p.m. on February 26, 1994, the world lost a lone voice that stood for freedom and resonated with the truth. "Bill always told me to not focus on the words," Mary Hicks says over the phone. "'Listen to the message, Mom ' -- that's what he used to say. And when I thought of it that way, I understood what he was doing a little better."
Bill Hicks spent the last month of his life in Little Rock, Arkansas, with his parents and a tag team of visitors, including brother Steve, sister Lynne (a pharmacist), and girlfriend-manager Colleen McGarr. He explained the Tibetan Book of the Dead to his mother and handed out copies of A Course in Miracles to all his relatives. He sat on the phone for hours, calling all his friends to say goodbye.
Hicks started smoking again and went back to Fredericksburg, Texas, the place of his earliest hallucinogenic experiences, to do mushrooms one last time. He even tried to convince his father -- the drawling, repressive "goober" of so many Hicks bits -- to take mushrooms. "Bill said he could talk Dad into trying mushrooms," brother Steve says. "And I said, 'There's no way.' We bet $500, and about a week later Bill called and said, 'Dad asked me what mushrooms taste like.' He was rubbing it in, like he was going to win the bet." But in the end, it was Steve who won the wager he knew he'd never be able to collect.
"Bill didn't want to die; nobody wants to die," Steve says. "A couple of weeks before he passed away, Bill told me, 'I've worked my whole life to get here and told a million jokes along the way. And now I realize that the joke's on me.'" But for a man who worked so fervently toward the truth, he must've known he had made a big difference, even if his life meant playing the Comedy Pouch in Possum Ridge, Arkansas, every fucking year.
"For all the talk about Bill being like Hendrix or Dylan or Jim Morrison or Lenny Bruce," comedian Brett Butler says in the Hicks tribute documentary, "it was Jesus that Bill wanted to be. He wanted to save us all. But Bill got freeze-framed in the scene where Jesus went through the temple and said, 'This is my father's house, and you've turned it into a den of thieves.' Bill wanted to be Christ at his angriest.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.