The legend of Bill Hicks. There it is. A legend. Ripped off by Denis Leary, feted by Radiohead and Tool, proclaimed by Rolling Stone, host of his own HBO specials and a semi-regular on Letterman in the 80s and early 90s. And yet when the name of Hicks is uttered in the mainstream, it is as if he operated in this cloudy underground inhabited by marginal funnymen who were not quite up to the Big Time. Colleagues such as Sam Kinison, Jerry Seinfeld, Gary Shandling and, yes Leary, went on to great riches and fame.
But only now is Hicks being lionized as a Lenny Bruce-ish figure who blazed trails in a world he understood a little too well. [although Your Flesh actually covered Hicks back in the 90s a short time after his death]
His world was a common sense stew in which a person’s sexual orientation didn’t impair his or her ability to be a military killing machine, kids on airplanes were (and are, for that matter) a bad idea and drugs were responsible for a lot of good things as well as bad.
That stew is presented with a completist’s careful detail in the Essential Collection, which features two discs of prime Hicks from his previously released CDs and some unreleased stuff, plus two DVDs with five hours of interview footage and live video of him doing mostly the same material on the CDs in Houston an Austin, Texas, and Indianapolis between 1981 and 1993.
Also included is a download card that gives access to previously unreleased musical material, as well as a mercifully brief booklet that includes the standard “he was great” essays with contributions from Eric Bogosian and British talk show host Clive Anderson.
For the uninitiated (and they do exist more than they should), Bill Hicks was a Houston-bred comic who wanted to be a veterinarian until he caught the comedy fever watching Carson in the 70s. But Carson’s benign, smart-assedness hardly seems the catalyst for what would become Hicks’ stubbornly acidic, intelligent humor.
He performed as a teenager in area clubs, moving on to the big leagues of Los Angeles, failed, and returned to Houston.
A 1984 appearance on Letterman brought him into the comic game in earnest, though, and was the catalyst for what we have here in Essential; hours of Hicks material riffing on handgun deaths, smoking, the Warren Commission, pornography and Elvis (the latter was blatantly appropriated by Leary and can be found on the No Cure for Cancer release). His imitation of Jay Leno is killer, as is his wish that he will be watching when Leno “blows his Dorito-shilling head off.”
It’s not as if Hicks were some Van Gough, as some of his hyperbolic fans might say. True, his due didn’t come until some years after his early death of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32.
Hicks was not a one-line nor a punch line comic. He had the ability to take a subject and keep it moving through various forms in a deceptively high-minded rap.
“Here’s the deal; I editorialize for 45 minutes, the last 15 minutes we pull our parachutes and float down to dick joke island together,” Hicks says at one point, jokingly demurring to the lowest common denominator.
One thing missing here is a crucial footnote to Hicks professional life; the lost 1993 Letterman episode, available on YouTube. It was taped in October 1993, four months after Hicks learned he had cancer and was likely to die sooner rather than later. For the 12th time in his career, Hicks taped a Letterman show in the early evening, only to find later that the bit had been cut from the show because censors felt it was too controversial. In 2009, Letterman had Hicks mother, Mary, on the show and featured the excised appearance. Of course it was terrific, with Hicks beating on Billy Ray Cyrus (“jar head, no talent cracker idiot” with a “fruity little pony tail”), riffing on women’s relying on a man’s dance move to indicate his fucking skills (“if a guy is on a dance floor really getting into it and enjoying himself, expressing himself, what does it matter how he is in bed? He’s gay!”) and pro-lifers (“If you’re so pro-life, do me a favor and lock arms and block cemeteries”)
Some of these segments are on Essential because it’s important stuff. A TV audience was denied the material in the early 90s, but dying has a way of greasing the skids. It would have been nice to see a deal struck to put that Letterman stuff, including the mom interview, on one of the DVDs.
The late tribute to Hicks in a wash of documentaries, articles and unreleased material is itself a tribute to the love of his family which has given of the Hicks treasure trove in a munificent fashion with no apparent greed, an affliction that too often mars the legacy of great artists. Not so the Hicks family, who sees that great art is its own reward, and money has little value in that world. [Ryko]
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