Bill Hicks Live Review
A brilliant and rabid iconoclast, the American writer, social critic, satirist and stand-up comedian Bill Hicks assumed the role of comic-as-truthsayer, a position that many felt hadn't been filled as completely and sincerely since the days of Lenny Bruce. Like Bruce, Hicks entertained a prodigious intake of drugs and alcohol, both of which formed hefty chunks of his material. Unlike Bruce, he swore off them (even giving up his beloved ciggies) and continued expanding and improving his material - working up to 300 shows a year - until his tragic death from pancreatic cancer in 1994.
In a nation that praises the ideals of individuality and freedom of speech while being extremely censorious of anyone who voices an opinion contrary to the status quo, Hicks rebelled against being told what to do and what to think. Anti-authoritarian and pro-choice, he had not only the courage to speak his mind but - crucially - he also had a mind worth speaking. Insightful, perceptive, well-informed and brutally honest, Hicks set the sights of his prodigious satirical ordnance squarely at America's fatuous, conservative, right-wing, ignorant heart, firing salvo after salvo of invective at fundamentalist Christians, pro-lifers and moronic, gun-toting hillbillies. He was no kinder to the left, skewering wimpy liberals, west-coast corporate whores and smarmy, self-satisfied politically correct 'progressives' with equal skill. This new DVD release gathers three stand-up sessions; 'One Night Stand', 'Relentless' and 'Revelations', plus the HBO documentary 'It's Just a Ride' made after his death.
In the half-hour 'One Night Stand' show recorded in Chicago in 1991 Hicks pinpoints and ridicules the narrow-minded strictures of a hypocritical conservative mind-set (the majority of his act was developed and performed during the Reagan administration) that publicised its own 'War On Drugs' while covertly aiding South American military dictatorships that used cocaine sales to fuel their economies. His own take on drugs is documented in great style on this DVD, which features several different takes on the 'all of the great musicians were high on drugs' skit: "The Beatles were so high they even let Ringo sing a couple of numbers."
He's equally acute on pornography, which at the time was defined by U.S Supreme Court as something which '...has no artistic merit and causes sexual thought', a definition which Bill notes could apply to virtually every commercial on TV. Cue his own version of a future ad, featuring a completely naked woman fondling herself with the simple admonition: 'Drink Coke'. It's worth noting that while at the time this seemed ridiculous, looking at the increasingly graphic and perverse nature of ads nowadays it's easy to see that Hicks was just being ahead of his time. This phenomenon - prescience through exaggeration - is the hallmark of the soothsayer throughout history.
But more than simply ridiculing the unthinking attitudes and knee-jerk prejudices of a society terrified of questioning its relationship to sexuality, Hicks peels back the layers of lies, delusion and self-deceit to query the motivating forces at work beneath. "When did sex become a bad thing?" he asks, wondering at the demonisation of pornography, "Did I miss a meeting? Here's what causes sexual thoughts: having a dick." His target, as was often the case, was the fundamentalist Christian right who, he noted, wanted to ban sexual thoughts but also wanted the population to be fruitful and multiply. "Seems like they'd be for promoting sexual thought, maybe put a centrefold in the Bible; Miss Deuteronomy! Turn offs: floods, locusts..." Jokes like this got him into trouble in some of his country's more backward Bible belt States and gave rise to the famous incident in Alabama when he was threatened after a show by three God-fearing thugs who said: "Hey buddy, we're Christians, we don't like what you said." "So forgive me," he answered.
For all the accusations of cynicism, Hicks made his humanist allegiance clear at every gig he did. "We always kill the people who try to help us and let the little demons run amuck," he noted, "John Lennon: murdered. John Kennedy: murdered. Martin Luther King: murdered. Gandhi: murdered. Jesus: murdered. Reagan... wounded. Bad fucking choice!"
In the 70-minute 'Relentless' set, recorded at the Montreal Comedy Festival in 1991, Hicks outlined a joke that expressed at least part of his relationship to life:
(Stranger to Hicks): "You know it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile?"
(Hicks to Stranger): "You know it takes more energy to point that out than it does to leave me alone?"
His material here ranges over the personal ("I don't know if you've ever watched CNN for more than... 20 hours at a time... I've really got to cut that out.") to the general ("What's the big deal about the beach? It's where the dirt meets the water,") to the quizzical ("What did moths do before the electric lightbulb was invented?") to the political, specifically the Gulf War and America's method of prosecuting it: "Couldn't we use the same technology [used for Stealth missiles] to shoot food into starving people's mouths?" and "I guess the most amazing thing about the war is the disparity in the number of casualties - Iraq: 150,000. U.S.A: 79. Does that mean if we'd sent over 80 guys we still would have won that fucking thing?"
As always, Hicks is never less than sharp about his fellow countrymen. "People say: 'Yeah Bill, but Iraq had the fourth largest army in the world.' Yeah well, after the first three, there's a real big fucking drop off; the Hare Krishnas are the fifth largest army in the world. They say: 'The war made us feel better about ourselves.' Could I recommend instead of a war to make you feel better about yourself, you try... sit-ups?"
The American fascination with weaponry is also to the fore when he recounts a recent trip to the southern states. "I was down in Alabama recently. They bring weapons to UFO sightings. Kind of brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'You ain't from around here, are you boy?' " This section also features the sequence in which Bill describes being accosted by a waffle waitress and a trucker in a diner, for reading a book, leading to his observation that publicly reading a book in the south is like going to a Klan meeting dressed as Boy George.
Hicks also pinpoints the high level of anxiety deliberately fostered by CNN through their hysterical overestimation of the 'Elite Republican Guard' during the Gulf War. "They went from the 'Elite Republican Guard' to the 'Republican Guard' to 'The Republicans made this shit up'." Although it was an observation made over a decade ago, state-sanctioned engendering of fear and uncertainty through the media as a means of control could hardly be more current. Michael Moore (a big Hicks fan) in his hugely successful documentary ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ pointed out the systematic campaign of intimidation and alarm undertaken by the Bush administration in the months and years following 9/11, one week announcing Alert Orange (!), the next assuring the population everything was OK, reducing the vulnerable and weak-minded masses to a pavlovian state of obedience which, one might argue, helped contribute to Bush's recent Presidential victory.
From politics to sex, then, and what was for Hicks the eternal question: were there any women in the world who didn't enjoy giving blowjobs? "If guys could blow themselves, ladies, you'd be in this room alone right now, watching an empty stage." Cue his theorising that it was just that one vertebra in the male spine that was holding back the entire tide of evolution.
The appeal of Hicks, to those that liked him, was that he was an obviously intelligent, widely-read, independently-minded individual whose demeanor assumed that you were the same. If you shared his views, it was rather like getting taken into the confidence of a more daring, outrageous, articulate version of yourself (which has always been the lure of great performers). Similarly, to watch Hicks was to see your own views and opinions expressed with a confidence, passion and humour that one could only envy and applaud. He made those vague, half-formed thoughts that flitted around the edges of one's consciousness clear, concise and - most importantly - funny.
This is made clear near the end of the Montreal set where Hicks rants about the poor state of contemporary, state-sanctioned pop, the kind of tuneless, harmless pabulum hailed by the authorities as representing 'a good image for children'. "Since when did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children to listen to people who fucking ROCKED! I don't care if they died in puddles of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! 'Mummy, mummy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble coming from his nose!' 'SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO HIM PLAY'." This followed by an astonishing sequence of mimed obscenities; an image summoned up of clean-cut New Kids on the Block fans goose-stepping, giving the Hitler salute and shouting 'Heil! Heil!' then ‘sucking Satan's cock’. It's the intensity of sequences like this which earned Bill lifelong fans and equally dedicated enemies.
Bill ends the Montreal show with his 'positive LSD news story': "Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration; that we are all one consciousness, experiencing itself subjectively; there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."
'Revelations', recorded for Channel 4 at the Dominion Theater in London in 1992, comprises much of the material from the previous two shows, plus a lot else. The English location draws forth some interesting observations on British porn ("What are all those blue dots doing in there?") British airplanes ("There's no smoking but they allow children?") and the then British Prime Minister's Denial That We Sold Weapons to Iraq ("Oh, did we... um, let me see... gosh...").
Best of all, there's an extended Goat Boy improv that literally had me rolling on the floor for nights on end. As Goat Boy, there is no sexual activity that Hicks will not name, no act fostered in the darkest corners of the human imagination that he will not give voice to. Some viewers may find the material extremely worrying. Hicks leads into Goat Boy with "Bill's capsule review of Basic Instinct: piece a shit! " He goes on to ridicule the movie and note that the 'lesbian sex scenes' were cut out of the film because the test audience found them 'a turn off', causing him to remark: "Boy, is my thumb not on the pulse of America." Goat Boy then comes to call it as he sees it. Having watched this sequence many times, it's fascinating to see how Hicks switches from personality to personality, becoming first Goat Boy, then the young girl he is seducing, then a more timid, childish version of himself at confession (and the priest giving it), then a bystander commenting and so on.
He raves on at the priesthood: "I appreciate your quaint traditions and superstitions. I on the other hand am an evolved being who deals with the source of light which exists in all of our hearts. That middle-man thing, it's wacky and I appreciate it. Gotta run, there's a voice a-calling me [cue Goat Boy chuckle]."
There's also fiery admonition directed at Government-sponsored disinformation; "They tell you pot smoking makes you unmotivated. Lie! When you're high you can do everything you normally do just as well, you just realise it's not worth the fucking effort."; Fundamentalist Christians, ("Do you ever notice how people who believe in Creationism look really unevolved?") marketers ("Kill yourself. Right now.") and, yep, the Government again: "Go back to bed America, your government is in control," Hicks shouts: "YOU ARE FREE, TO DO AS WE TELL YOU. YOU ARE FREE, TO DO AS WE TELL YOU." And an image of the American flag burning fades in. "I'm tired of this false fucking sanctimonious morality about 'life'," he rages, dissing the liberal media's concern over excessive violence in the then-popular show 'Gladiators', "Fuck you! If they want to kill each other I'm filming it."
Hicks' material was deliberately provocative - often out and out offensive - but never thoughtlessly so. The fact that he wrung laughs from extremely dark material shouldn't be mistaken as being sensationalism for its own sake. Some of his most appalling pieces were beautifully written, exquisitely timed pieces of comedy that were simply continuing his ruthlessly honest thought processes through to their logical conclusion. The sequence in 'Revelations' where he discusses using terminally ill people as stuntmen is a case in point. Crucially, Hicks sets a context by allowing for the fact that people find the idea cruel but stating that his idea of cruelty is letting loved ones die alone in a sterile hospital room surrounded by strangers. Then he produces the 'dark poetry': "Do you want your grandmother dying like a little bird in some hospital room, her translucent skin so thin you can see her last heartbeat working its way down her blue vein...? Or do you want her to meet Chuck Norris?"
The DVD ends with the 45-minute documentary 'It's Just a Ride' featuring a brief overview of Hicks' career, from his earliest appearances at the Comedy Workshop in Austin, Texas in the 1970s to his final show at Carolines in New York in January of 1994, and includes cameo appearances from Eddie Izzard, Sean Hughes, Jay Leno, David Letterman and others. Actor and performance artist Eric Bogosian relates how one of America's leading comedians told him during Desert Storm that he was personally against the Gulf War but would never do material on it as it would cost him too much money and trouble, two things that Hicks never cared about. The most affecting comments, however, come from Hicks' parents and his buddies Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth and David Johndrow, who appear to describe some of the gang's early experiments with drugs. Jay Leno, now ruler of the late-night airwaves in the US but in 1980 another struggling L.A comedian along with Hicks, Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling, turns up looking uneasy, obviously aware of the extremely savage material Hicks wrote about him, naming him as a corporate sell-out ("...another whore in the capitalist gang-bang,") and sucker of Satan (although it's worth noting that Leno was instrumental on getting Hicks onto the David Letterman show – proving that Hicks was always willing to chew the hand that feeds – so his appearance in this documentary can be seen as a sign of the man’s unselfishness). Letterman himself appears, admitting to feeling regret that, after 11 outstanding appearances on the show, Hicks’ final set - recorded a few months before his death - was cut by network censors. Hicks wrote a furious 39-page letter to John Lahr, critic for the New Yorker, who appears to applaud Hicks' stagecraft and anti-authoritarian stand.
A final note: The DVD comes with a one-page insert that is nevertheless packed with information and nicely designed (but the menu screens do look a bit cheap).
Bearing in mind that these performances are filmed-for-TV specials from over 10 years ago, they don't look bad. There's a major dip in video quality during 'Relentless' and the DVD gives you the choice of watching the segment either with or without this section; a bit of a formality (who would want to miss any Hicks?) but one appreciates the effort. 'Revelations' comes out looking best. The footage for the documentary is drawn from many different sources and varies wildly in quality; some of it is appalling, while the interview sequences with Leno and Letterman provide a dramatic leap in quality, being the best looking images on the disk. Overall, you're not going buying this for pin-sharp transfers but if you've been relying on dodgy VHS copies for years, then this will come as a pleasant surprise; you can see every expression he pulls, every obscene gesture, every mimed atrocity.
Again, this isn't going to win any awards for sound quality but you can hear everything the man says clearly and without distortion... OK, often when he's shouting and screaming it distorts but that's not the fault of the DVD (and is kind of the point anyway). Not really any problems here.
Like that other sorely-missed American creative genius, political agitator and iconoclast Frank Zappa (who focused his extraordinary talents in the musical sphere but whose recordings and shows were full of satirical humour), Hicks died too damn early and is sorely missed. The 'Revelations' set appears not to have been available on R1 DVD before, although both it and the documentary appear on the R2 'Totally Bill Hicks' DVD released two years ago and 'One Night Stand' has been available here for the same amount of time. Anyway, this is three and a half hours of one of the most articulate, passionate and outspoken comics and free-thinkers of our time, in truly excoriating form. Not to be missed.