Bill Hicks: Better Live than Dead
by Shelton Hull
The fact that Bill Hicks (1961-1994) died at the age of 32 is kind of frightening, when you consider how good he was at that point. Many stand-up comics have barely found their voice by that age; most are still struggling to emerge from the anonymity of the comedy club scene. At 32, Hicks was at his creative peak, but dying from pancreatic cancer. His global profile has increased considerably in the ten years he’s been gone, and much of this is due to the efforts of Rykodisc.
Having already released four original Hicks albums and two compilations of the material presented therein, Rykodisc took it up a notch by releasing Bill Hicks Live (Ryko RDVD 10691) in 2004. The performances on this DVD all date from that first magical year of the New World Order (which he anticipated), 1991. It was the year he broke through big, and it’s easy to see why, in retrospect. Comedians as diverse as Denis Leary, Lewis Black, David Cross, Margaret Cho and Chris Rock owe a certain debt to Hicks, who of course owes a huge debt to masters like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
“One Night Stand” begins ironically, with Hicks sitting in an airport, en route to Chicago, while he fantasizes in voice-over about hijacking the plane. This material is pretty light by his standard: tourist-bashing, the usefulness of drugs, the venality of anti-smoking crusaders. He ends by suggesting that, if the US spent its arms budget on feeding and clothing the poor, “the human race could explore space in peace and harmony forever.” Then the sound of fake gunfire, and Hicks collapses, almost as if in anticipation of the martyrdom that never came, because his mode of resistance was never a significant threat to the elements of society he was most infuriated with.
A different Hicks in on display in “Relentless,” taped at the 1991 Montreal Comedy Festival. In no other segment is the viewer more conscious of the fact that Hicks is dead; the video plays like a communiqué from the other side. He even references mortality, telling the audience that “non-smokers died every day. . . . It’s you people dying from nothing that are screwed. I’ve got all sorts of neat shit waiting for me–oxygen lungs, tents. It’s like going to Sharper Image when I die!”
The segment begins as he emerges from white light and artificial smoke, dressed in all black with slicked-back hair and glasses; the image is eerily spectral, and the material scorches. He puts a lot of time into making fun of Gulf War I, which he claims was not an actual war because “a war has two armies fighting.” Hicks was clearly put off by the “Highway of Death” and other incidents that presented the image of a war of extreme force and heavy civilian casualties. “I was in the difficult position of being for the war, but against the troops,” he says, bringing to mind the many triangulations of John “I actually voted for the war before I voted against it” Kerry.
The DVD has two versions of “Relentless” for view; the longer one has extra footage that was unavailable in pristine quality, and edited out of the shorter one. The viewer must watch the longer one, because it is precisely in the grainy footage that Hicks’ comic vision crystallizes in a riff on the commercialization and misuse of music. Between the Satan sounds and the inadvertent Nazi salutes that punctuate his shouting (which calls to mind the late Sam Kinison, who died just months before Hicks), It’s very dark but really funny, and relevant to today– although one does get a sense of Hicks going “off the chain” and inviting some of his later heat. Indeed, the most striking thing about Bill Hicks’ best stuff is how contemporary it feels on many fronts today.
Whereas “Relentless” has a cosmic, ghostly vibe, right down to the Earth picture atop the backdrop (which suggests the performance is taking place on the moon), the later “Revelations,” filmed in London, is more frankly apocalyptic. The opening montage features Hicks riding a pale horse through the darkened West; Hicks takes the stage in darkness, again, appearing to entry literally from the gates of Hell. The moon is shown on stage, suggesting the performance is taking place on Earth.
What this DVD represents is a warning about the present future that was not heeded in its’ creator’s time. Bill Hicks was a comedian, but he was also a Texan who understood the power of symbol and myth, and the susceptibility of people to external influence. He tried to warn his people about the easy money and cheap gimmicks that would pervade our nation in the 1990s. He tried to warn us about the contradictions in policy that left us vulnerable to demagogues, domestic and abroad. He tried to warn us about how religion would be used as a weapon against the faithful. His payback was to die young, in pain and in relative obscurity, to have been double-crossed at his last TV appearance– the censoring of a dying man who was right.
Also included in the British documentary “It’s Just a Ride,” which features a lot of Hicks’ personal friends and professional allies recalling their impressions of a man whose loss then still left a gaping void in the overlapping spheres of stand-up and social commentary. He stopped talking toward the end; he’d said his peace. Given how the world has changed since 1994, it’s quite reasonable to say that Bill Hicks could have gone anywhere and done anything from the brilliant peaks he hit in 1991. Instead he left everything behind, and we’re all left to ponder his message.