Go To Sleep America…and Surrounding Areas… on Bill Hicks

here is unedited version of my article for Shortlist about Bill Hicks 

Time to realise you are aging, to face up to the fact that the early 90s wasn’t “recent”, that when you were a teenager, people like you looked old, that The Prodigy’s Music for a 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 twenty years. 

2014 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, and Kurt Cobain and Bill Hicks. Now I am in middle age, I wonder what 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 1000 words for today. 

Bill Hicks polarises. There are those that elevate him to the Olympian heights of a stand up god, while others sneerily dismiss him as 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 the 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 Bill 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. Infuriatingly, I missed Bill Hicks, but I had seen Denis Leary on the Edinburgh fringe, and I found him cold and cynical.

The more I watched, the more it became clear his audience didn’t just love him because he made them laugh, but because he made them question the status quo and establishment myths. 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, 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, artists and coldly building up acts as consumer product. Beware going on stage before your agent has organised your makeover.

 

But Bill Hicks was a comedian whose love of Hendrix rock gods was conveyed in his production values. No shambling on to the stage in his second best Doc Martens, it was a cowboy silhouette framed by flame that strode onto the Dominion stage for the Revelations show. 

For some comedians, that is as far as they wanted to go in aping Hicks, the walk on to metal music, fused with a punkish “fuck you” attitude that masked their insecurities; these were as Cliff Richard was to Elvis.

For others, the mere act of being cocky, 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 seemed 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 the audience, an audience 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 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 replied, “Momma, I am 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 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.” Bill Hicks was about ideas. When he railed about television as 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, 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. 

Twenty years on, there are 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 George Carlin, once said, “stand up is a low art, but it is a very potent art”, and few were as potent as Hicks. It is no use imagining what he would be saying now had he lived to middle age, perhaps in some hallucinogen brain dream he might have seen a many worlds interpretation of his existence that saw another Hicks living beyond the one that died of pancreatic cancer, but that is of little use now. 

What is remarkable is that when most stand ups don’t find their voice until they get into their 30s, Hicks was cut short, but already had 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 a freethinker.  

I am touring my new show about the human mind across the UK, first up Falmouth, Norwich, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol and so on Details HERE
And here is trailer (incl stupid Stewart Lee impression) for my brand new DVD HERE

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9 Responses to Go To Sleep America…and Surrounding Areas… on Bill Hicks

  1. Rob John says:

    Bill Hicks was and always will be a legend.

  2. Balkan says:

    Yep, you get Bill Hicks. He challenged us all to question the status quo and even the very nature of human existence, but wrapped it all up in some of the funniest stand-up ever and with perfect delivery.

  3. John Rockley says:

    I saw Bill Hicks at Nottingham Polly… it’s Trent University now… and it was more like a rally than a gig. We were all cross-legged on the floor gazing up at him in awe and wonder. For a boy (I was 15 or 16) from a mining village in North Nottinghamshire it was an intense and life affirming/changing experience, but he was preaching to the well converted. Glorious.

  4. I like to think he would have found love, and compassion. That he could celebrate good. There needs to people who will fight and decry and also people who can love and rebuild. I think he was good enough to do both. What I really think is he never lived in any of those multiple worlds.

  5. If I had the power to make it happen, Bill’s ‘just a ride’ bit would be taught in every school in the world. Forever.

  6. ianbolton says:

    Imagine the new Bill Hicks on Mock the Week. Imagine Russell sat next to him. You can’t can you? You can’t imagine it, because your lame excuse of an imagination has been destroyed by modern popular culture. And you’d be hard-pushed to see anyone with such views on Mock the Week. That’s why you watch it, because it’s easy. You don’t have to think for yourself. You don’t have to get angry watching it. You just sit on your sofa, probably picking your nose thinking ooooh, look how big my fucking television is.

    Not you Robin, you know I don’t mean you!

  7. Mumbles says:

    Good article. Like you I missed the chance to see Bill Hicks live but have devoured every morsel he left behind in recorded form. He taught me that only comedians can tell the truth in public and he never seemed to shirk the responsibility of that privilege. He was and still is the most credible comedian to have ever taken to the stage and is still sorely missed. The closest contemporary for me these day is Doug Stanhope. He seems to be coming from a similar place as Bill Hicks, though perhaps lacking the desire for humanity to improve itself that was essentially at the heart of what Bill was about. 20 years down the line in a world without Bill Hicks and that’s understandable though.

  8. BaldySlaphead says:

    That Stewart Lee impression’s let itself go.

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