Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bill Hicks, American Rebel

I found a book called American Rebels at a used bookstore for 3$ and purchased it after being delighted to see in the table of contents none other than Bill Hicks and Frederick Wiseman. It was sorta like finding Lord Byron in Russell's History of Western Philosophy -- that is, until I looked through the book a bit more and saw that it was trying to be an alternative anthology of America. So, instead of being grateful that it had included some neglected figures, I was left thinking about all the people it could have had in it instead of, say, Mario Puzo and Frank Sinatra. Sadly, the day when I find the likes of Bill Hicks and Frederick Wiseman in a serious book on America -- listed alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln (Byron is sandwiched between Hegel and Schopenhauer in Russell's book) -- will have to wait. Until then, enjoy this short article on Hicks by Tom Gogola. It isn't half bad. (Do I recommend American Rebels? No. Unless the publisher stumbles here and reads this illegally reproduced excerpt. In which case I change my answer to: "Three-dollars was barely too much for this fascinating book!")

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"They never tell you just how funny the meetings can be. Sure, there's a passing reference in the Big Book to AA-style laffs, but not much detail, not much in the way of expected punch lines. The humor is almost never light -- how can it be? -- but rather the humor that induces one to lowering one's head, rubbing one's eyebrows, and shaking one's head as a fellow addict shares a story that all too often sounds suspiciously like our own. In the immortal words of Alfred E. Neuman, it's humor in a jugular vein. They don't tell you this, possibly because to do so would violate the spirit of anonymity in "the room," but the stand-up aspect, at times, runs particularly strong. I've seen it happen again and again: The lights are dimmed and the "qualifier" is suddenly deadpanning his way through one tragicomic episode after another, preaching to a cramped room full of the fully converted and the counting-days alchs -- and earning those grimace-grin nods of recognition and a few belly laughs along the way. Sometimes there's a well-timed but not-so-funny punch line that caps off a qualification and punctures the reverie, hammering the don't-drink message home. "Then I shanked my grandmother with a pair of scissors and did twelve years upstate." Silence. Chairs scrape. "Show of hands?"

But mostly you are left feeling relieved, franchised -- "I'm not the only one who flushed $6,000 worth of pot down the toilet!" "I'm not the only one who seems to have misplaced the month of August 2002!" "I'm not the only one with an unrelenting, raging hatred for humanity!" These are the axioms that keep you coming back, the shock of recognition that makes the whole world go round, sans the room spinning -- even in the face of the occasional dud qualifier who can't get off the subject of his poor cat with an eating disorder and then my mother died and I started wearing her wedding dress to work and got fired fuck them. Such are the perils of getting sober in Greenwich Village.

The AA-as-Caroline's Comedy Club routine puts catharsis first and clever last, generally eschews irony -- except for the meatfist irony that this is the last place you'd thought you'd end up -- and never laughs in the face of death, since, as we all know, death will always get the last laugh.

If there ever was a poignant reminder of this fact, it is found in the story of the late comedian Bill Hicks, an epically funny man who could leave you gasping for air at the observational power of his left-leaning invective, the brilliance of his avowedly un-PC misanthropy, and the sheer raging funny that poured out of his clever, sick, ecstatic mind.

Hicks died a classic drinker's death, succumbing in 1993 to the incurably unromantic pancreatic cancer at the ripe old age of thirty-two. From the department of Life's Unfair, Hicks had largely conquered his "demons" by the time he died -- they apparently were legion and included just about every chemical agent found in a typical "garbagehead's" arsenal of oblivion. But he had purged his kit bag of just about everything by 1993, save psychedelic mushrooms and cigarettes. And, one is compelled to assume, pot. He is the only comedian that I know of ever to have cited 'shroom guru Terence McKenna in one of his bits, and not in that profoundly irritating Dennis Miller way of referencing for the purposes of deliberate obscurantism. (After taking a McKenna-prescribed, so-called heroic dose, five grams of mushrooms, Hicks reported with great aural fanfare, that his third eye had been thoroughly squeegeed -- he considered psychedelics to be evolution enhancers, and would also cite Jung to advance this argument.)

Hicks was Southern-born and raised, was never married, and was known for his relentless touring schedule; all those podunk nights on the road -- sixteen years' worth -- had the net benefit of leaving him totally at ease with his audience. There is an unforced intimacy to a Bill Hicks performance, like you're at a party with a particularly funny guest who has something to say about everything, and everyone, and even though he's hogging up all the conversation, you're rapt in his presence, and put up with the occasional meandering anecdote because you know the funny is right around the corner. Hicks could be brutally self-deprecating one moment and shitting all over his audience the next, expressing open hatred for them, and then becoming aghast at the knee-jerk self-immolation he was engaging in -- and the routine never failed to endear the room to him. His touchstones were Control and Complacency -- he could be vicious in his jeremiads against distraction-addicted fat Americans and their equally despicable blubbery children. One of his most infamous, and therefore beloved bits involved telling the parents among his audience that their children weren't special at all. He knew this because after engaging in Onan-the-barbarian activities, he's wiped "entire civilizations off my my chest... with a gray gym sock."

There are many reasons Hicks was the best comedian of his generation, and the most-missed chronicler of the vulgar machinations and paradoxes that characterize American politics and culture. During a time when the dominant observational posture was one of ironic detachment, an unfortunately long-lived modus operandi of the putatively engaged-and-literate set, Hicks was blunt, mortally engaged, and totally unshackled when it came to venting his rage. He had the strength of will to grapple mano-a-mano the absurdities and outrages of, say, Waco, or of the first Gulf War, without stooping to the smug-n'-clever level -- he was, in fact, as equally scornful of the sunken-chested fence-sitters of the irony era as he was of their over-the-horizon targets. Yes, that means you, Dennis Miller.

Plus, in true antihero fashion, he was big in England, and pretty much a cult sideshow in the States. Just like Noam Chomsky. In a way, Hicks was like the funny version of ol' Noam, except that unlike the linguist-provocateur, Hicks headed straight for the personal motives of the involved players to get a laugh, whereas Chomsky, to his ever-loving detriment, generally deems such motives to be irrelevant -- ours is not to wonder why George Bush, Jr. invaded Iraq, ours is only to decry. Realizing full well that the aforementioned conjecture is perhaps a little too reductive for some, it nevertheless brings great pleasure, to imagine what Hicks might have been saying about the younger Bush. During the first Gulf War, Hicks had flipped the "Support the Troops" slogan on its head and repropagandized its gotcha message: "I support the war, but oppose the troops." No doubt, this time around he would have connected Saddam Hussein's 1991 claim that he would watch the senior Bush's head rolling down the equivalent of Main Street, Baghdad "like a soccer ball," with his eager-to-please draft-dodging former cokefiend of a son rolling the Abrams tanks, at long last, into said city to vindicate his prudent pappy. And we'd be laughing with him, bitterly and with no small measure of say-it-brother fellowship, all the way to the looted Bank of Baghdad. It's not ironic, it's RPG comedy, and Hicks would also no doubt say, the joke is on you, America. Now go fuck off and get back to your Webster reruns.

Hick's death is all the more embittering when you consider the torrents of media-generated gibberish, horrifying cultural trends, and plain old bad shit that have flowed down the pike in the decade since his passing. In 1993, he was railing against American Gladiators, Waco, and the pro-life movement. In retrospect, it all seems so... innocent. On the latter issue, it is worth noting that the Letterman show torpedoed a Hicks appearance some months before his death because the comedian had made the pretty uncontroversial, if not outright goofy suggestion that if those folks were so pro-life, they should stop picketing medical clinics and instead "link arms and block cemeteries." It's a little silly, but c'mon, the image is priceless. As it turn out, the Late Show on which Hicks was to appear happened to have as one of its sponsors... a pro-life organization. [see this post for more on the Late Show debacle, including a link to the performance.]

Anyway... media generated gibberish, horrifying cultural trends, and plain old bad shit. Of course, it seems that the past decade has had more than its fair share, that there has been an exponentialized acceleration of junk culture, jackass politics and endtimes mayhem in the U.S.A., but that may be only because it suits the writers' agenda to have it so. Still, it has been a doozy of an intervening decade -- the O.J. trial, Monica Lewinsky, Survivor, call phones, Fox News, Fear Factor, Princess Di, the Gingrich Revolution, Woodstocks II and III, Chadgate, JonBenet Ramsey, Columbine, OKC, SUVs, The O'Reilly Factor, WTC, the Genome -- and had Hicks been around to chronicle it... hmmm. Dunno. The only certainty is that most Americans still wouldn't know who the hell he is." --Tom Gogola