God Wept

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"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.

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Michael Corcoran