May 15, 2005

Just a ride

By: Shawn Macomber

It’s a symptom of the modern age that those who build receive all the praise. The ultimate test of our leaders these days is whether or not they are capable of the metaphysical act of feeling your pain and uniting where others might divide. Meanwhile, those hammering away at the foundations of progress are condemned to an endless litany of indictments beginning somewhere around plain old meanness and ending in the neighborhood of bane of human existence.

As kindly and simple as that set-up sounds on the surface, it leaves a key question unasked: If we lived in a world of builders without a single soul willing to throw a brick or set a fire, how would we ever know whether any of these monuments, physical or otherwise, are worthy of our awe and respect? Throughout history, after all, people have united to do some fairly idiotic things, to say nothing of the periodic horrifying atheistic genocides and various misdirected religious crusades of the human race. Without the destroyers we would have no idea of the true value of anything.

The late comedian Bill Hicks was among the great fire starters: brilliant and hilarious, but also harrowingly antagonistic, at times. Hicks was a man with a big enough love for humanity that he spent his life going from one dingy club to another berating small crowds for their collective stupidity in the vain hope that perhaps our evolution was not yet complete.

“To me the comic is the guy who says, ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms,” Hicks told The New Yorker‘s John Lahr. “He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame-like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are.”

Since the comedian’s tragic, untimely death of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32, the cult of Hicks-loosely united under the banner of the apparatus he jokingly referred to as the People Who Hate People Party-has grown by leaps and bounds, beginning with a breathtaking crash course in the world according to Hicks, the CD Philosophy: The Best of Bill Hicks, in 2001, and followed quickly thereafter by Rykodisc reissues of all his recordings. Last year the DVD release Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian allowed many new fans to see Hicks perform in a physical context for the first time, and new compilations of material culled from the comedian’s huge archives by his friends and estate are now seeing the light of day.

Now Soft Skull Press has added something indispensable to the mix with the release of Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines, a beautifully chosen collection of material that goes beyond what Hicks did and uncovers, in the comedian’s own words, what he was trying to do.

Here, sprinkled throughout extensive, unexpurgated transcripts of his best bits, are interviews with Hicks from every point in his all too short journey, from a chat with the high school paper when he was a senior to his own short farewell letter written for his friends on his death bed.

“Here’s what I try and do,” Hicks told Allan Johnson in 1989. “To me, there are so many comedians out there. And they’re so prevalent, and they (the audience) see it constantly. I try and give them a little twist on it. One way that I do it is by being intense.”

It’s sort of an understatement for anyone familiar with the Hicks legend. The comedian, for example, once so badly mocked a heckler that the man pulled a gun on him. Another time, an after-show discussion with some unhappy audience members in a club parking lot ended with Hicks’ leg being broken. Clearly this was a man able to touch a nerve.

But there was a vulnerable side as well. In a letter to John Lahr after he unceremoniously became the first ever comedian to have his appearance on the David Letterman show axed by CBS censors, Hicks seems honestly hurt and baffled.

“They are just jokes,” he writes. “The censors say, ‘I’m offended.’ Well, good. I’m offended by a lot of stuff. Where do I send my list? Life can be offensive. Why can’t you just be an adult and move on.”

Without a doubt, Hicks leaned left politically; during the last year of his life he was a columnist for The Nation. But his approach to politics maintained an iconoclastic flavor that could appeal to anyone uneasy about the two-party monopoly or the excess of state power.

“I’ll show you politics in America right here,” Hicks told audiences, miming like a puppet master. “‘I believe the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’ ‘Well, I believe the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’ Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding up both puppets! ‘Go back to bed, America, your government is in control. Here’s Love Connection, watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer.'”

Here’s another gem from the book:

“I’ll tell you who the threat to the status quo is in this country-it’s us. That’s why they show you shows like Cops so you know that state power will win and we’ll bust your house down and we’ll bust you anytime we want. That’s the message. Why don’t they just have a show called Stormtrooper? Or better yet, IRS.”

“The richest kind of laughter is the laughter in response to things people would ordinarily never laugh at,” Hicks told the Texas Monthly, and his act certainly lived up to that advertising. Hicks could be insanely crude, which, as anyone who has been to a comedy club can tell you, is nothing unique. What was special about Hicks was his ability to intertwine the anger and baseness with a philosophical beauty.

“The world is like a ride at an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are,” Hicks began telling audiences at the close of his shows towards the end of his life. “And it’s fun for awhile . . . Some people have been on the ride for a long time and they begin to question. ‘Is this real? Or is this just a ride?’ And other people have remembered and they come back to us and say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.'”

In his farewell note to friends and loved ones penned just days before he died, Hicks wrote, “I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love, and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”

Love All the People is a worthy monument to the paradoxical blend of love and rage that was Bill Hicks. Many of his fans today seem to relish gleefully the idea that Bill Hicks would be utterly miserable if he were alive today. Yet, the evidence on hand suggests something much more reflective than simple blind rage.

“I believe the cost of life is death and we all pay that in full,” Hicks wrote in 1988. “Everything else should be a gift. We paid the cover charge of life, we were born.”

While it’s certainly true that Hicks would probably not have mellowed enough for an Everybody Loves Raymond sitcom, it’s difficult to believe that he would not have found some satisfaction in the fact that so many people have embraced his calls for a New Evolution and a New Happiness.

Shawn Macomber is a freelance writer in Boston and runs the website

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