Anniversary Waltzing part 2…

Bill Hicks died ON THIS DAY (26th February) in 1994. A moment, people, I beseech you.


That’s kind of it, really. If you know Bill Hicks’ work, if you grew up (in whatever sense you want to take that) in the 1990s and 2000s knowing his work, then you too will have a little moment for Bill today.


If you don’t really know Hicks’s work… I mean, you have watched a few YouTube clips and thought “He’s not all that,” or read a couple of deflationary articles and decided to give him a swerve… then you will probably be wondering what all the fuss is about. He was just a stand-up comic, wasn’t he?

Well… yeah… but… There has been and will continue to be articles like this one, critiquing, praising, or with links to new material that always ends up being an iteration of already existing material. As a not-uncritical long-term fan of Hicks, this is my two penn’orth. I won’t link to Vice magazine, or The (Manchester) Guardian, or any of the other overly didactic/provocative views that hold he was “not all that”. While he wasn’t the messiah – and I don’t think he thought of himself as that, either, just to be clear – as a cultural commentator, he was, in fact, all that. No one was doing the same kinds of material as well as he did, I think. In his pomp, to use a couple of hackneyed phrases, he spoke the truth to power in a way that has remained as marginalised as much as it is now seemingly accepted.

Regarding the anti-Bill Bill celebrations, the 20th anniversary of Billdeathmas is proceeding much as the 10th did. Scottish publication Product Magazine marked the 10th aniversary of Hicks’ untimely death (from pancreatic cancer at age 32) with an article challenging the sacred comedic (and cash) cow that Hicks had begun to become. It was in Product 9, April-July 2004.

In one of the few occurrences of my actually carrying out a threat to write a stiff letter, my dander up, I had to reply. My original response was a 1,500 words gust of snooty just-got-a-degree efflatus, which the editor wisely – and generously – allowed me to waft away at until I got to the 500 word point. I’m still quite pleased with it, obviously, but don’t intend to rehearse the entireties of the original article or my response. Here is an ‘executive summary’ of common Bill arguments. Re-reading my frankly awesome writing, it struck me how much I could be saying the same things now. So, er, I did:

Critiques of Bill Hicks and any artist are important, particularly when the artist’s work is based in challenging consensus opinion.
However… such critiques, particularly Billular critiques, are too often ad hominem, based on attacking the person. This avoids focussing attention on what should arguably be the true object of the critique, namely, his subjects, including the political and moral complacencies or hypocrisies of contemporary culture.

There are dick jokes on the way, please relax.

“There are dick jokes on the way, please relax.”

One of the main flaws of pieces criticising Hicks is that they tend to assume Hicks would be essentially exactly the same person now.
Criticising a dead person for intransigence in their opinions is a peculiarly obtuse exercise.

People get Hicks wrong.
I mean, just not getting it. For example, in Product 9, 2004, the writer asserted that Hicks’ response to ‘post 9/11 society’ would probably be to engage in ‘gleeful, knee jerk anti-Americanism. And, er, that’s it.’ JUST talking about this comment, it is not only a circular argument, presupposing what Hicks may have said in order to criticise him for it, it is also deeply misrepresentative of what we can make of Hicks’ views on “America” from his transcripts. His “Persian Gulf Distraction” routines were soundly reasoned polemics against (both) Gulf Wars, and the dangers of fundamentalist thought of whatever stripe. He was profoundly sceptical of knee-jerk patriotism and the modern idea of “war”. At the time of his performing the routines – and 10 years on even more so, and 10 years on from that maybe a bit less so, but still – this was an uncommon position.

If, incidentally, you’ve never watched him, you have to see his act. He was a great physical, as well as verbal, comedian. Some material aspects of his act that people tend to foreground, such as smoking, “conspiracy theories”, his take on what constitutes “real soul” in music, the tendency to have a go at the audience if they weren’t listening… these are worthy of discussion, but not to the exclusion of his way with the microphone, his voices, his asides, his references, and his own critical engagement.

The ‘Hicks consensus’, his perceived widespread popularity and influence, is often uncritical.
“Oh, the Bill Hicks dollar? Huge dollar right now. Huge.” However, critics dismissing Hicks’ takes on pornography, drugs and the government as unevolved are, again, criticising the dead for not evolving. He was at least dealing with his own prejudices and opinions in an open way. “The Goat Boy also rises.” Hicks seemed ready enough to admit the paradoxes in his work. He may have felt the same about some (frankly shonky sometimes) sexual politics today… he may have changed his opinion.

He was a mystic and full of drugs and woo.
It is fashionable to deride anyone attempting to have a conversation about drugs or spirituality as being full of drugs and/or woo. Chemical change, myth and metaphor are deeply important to human understanding, and we don’t REALLY understand “why” (as if we need a reason). If life, an enjoyed life, were only about the appliance of science, we might be striding the dimensions like the gods we are. One could suggest we would benefit from further study of the Hicks Boson.

People not wanting to enjoy Hicks as an important performer often take a wilfully antagonistic stance, sacred cow bashing, contrarianism. Well, fair enough if you’ve watched all his stuff and had a think. Such a stance berates Hicks, deceased, for not changing the way one might think critically about him now, instead of commenting on, perhaps, the absence of his kind of critical thinking in a society that idly canonises controversial yet safely dead entertainers. In 2004 – and I will quote this – I wrote:

A society where the hip, smart, graduate cop-in with ADHD writing in the review pages of the Metro free paper is a cultural arbiter.

Then the Nathans took over the world and Michael McIntyre strode stages in stadia and Phil Kay released unironic documentaries about how his Oirish gyppo routines have amused millions, and no one seemed to blink when hundreds of satirical comedy panel shows said precisely nothing about anything. Ooh, you’ve gotta larf, aintcha?

You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do as we tell you!

You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do as we tell you!

While I think mainly a lazy way to discredit alternate ideas and views as emanating from some lunatic fringe, lumping Bill Hicks in with today’s challengers of the consensus like infowarrior Alex Jones (a fellow Texan) is probably not far off the mark. Bill’s vocal modulation and sense of irony, his distance from his own obsessions, was arguably superior. And as to his possible work over the last 20 years, given Hicks’ stance on marketing, for example, it’d be nice to think he would have avoided the bottled beer and Sandra Bullock movies trajectory his copyist contemporary Denis Leary followed… but then that’s me indulging in wish fulfilment, assuming the projected Bill Hicks of the Now would have been unchanged in a good way. Maybe he’d have nuzzled gladly on Satan’s scaly pecker to sustain his career. WHO CAN SAY?

Personally? I was fortunate enough to discover Hicks’ comedy and politics while he was still alive. Late night Channel 4, Just for Laughs footage from Montreal, and Revelations, his classic filmed appearance in Britain. You can probably get these on the Channel 4 player, and he’s all over the video channels. Then he died, so you just have to take what there is for what it is.

I liked him, anyway. So, love, laughter, truth, all that. Just thinkin’ of Bill (mimes pancreas giving out).