Bill Hicks: Still Essential

The Hicks Family

There are more than a few great artists whose legacies might have been handled dubiously.  The easy cynicisms fall on the estates of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Tupac Shakur, whose copious musical output from beyond the grave can’t help but arouse suspicion.  That posthumous skepticism is wholly absent from the domain of comedian Bill Hicks, whose family he left in charge of caretaking his legacy.  Rather than cashing in on the fame that was still in the process of explosion at the time of Bill’s death in 1994, the Hicks family has spent the sixteen years between then and now as modest curators of a massive library of Bill’s work, neither opportunistic, nor starstruck, nor pretentious, nor shy about sharing Bill with any who ask.  Their most recent project is Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, an extensive audio/video anthology which goes well beyond the established Bill Hicks routines.

In the course of speaking with Bill’s mother, Mary Hicks, and his brother, Steve Hicks, it became clear that both of these very warm and engaging people are enthusiastic about Bill’s work and treat the responsibility of preserving it as a humbling honor.

Currently living in Little Rock, Mary Hicks spends her time maintaining the Bill Hicks archives.  Before having children she worked as a teacher, but she stayed at home with the kids after their birth.  “Other than substituting,” Mary said, “I had not really done anything until after Bill died.  Since [then], I have been working with his material to be sure that it’s used correctly and that it gets out.”

Steve Hicks is Bill’s older brother by five years.  He lives in Michigan, works in retail, and is married with two kids and a dog.  “My life is very unexciting during the day, but on nights and weekends, along with my mother and sister, I also get to help manage Bill’s stuff.  It’s a labor of love, and it’s great for us to be able to share Bill with the rest of the world.  As long as people are interested, we’ll keep sharing what we have of Bill with them, and that seems to be the case.  Actually, the interest has increased over the years.”

Mary remembered Bill’s formative years as tumultuous, with the future Outlaw Comic developing his sense of insurrection.  “Bill was a sweet, loving little boy,” she said.  “He was that way until he hit his teenage years.  While we had some rough times, we had some fun times.  We could always find a laugh in there, but I would have liked for him to not gone down some of the paths he did.  But he was trying to find his way; he was not going the 9 to 5 route and he didn’t know what he was going to do.  We were trying to keep him on the path that we thought he should follow, which was to finish high school and go to college and discover something that he was interested in.”

Bill wasn’t keen on that route, but his parents forced him to graduate high school – sort of.  “The teachers loved him, but they did not want him in their class,” Mary said.  “He did what he wanted to do, which was mostly to sit in the back of the room and read.  Yet he passed, but just passed.  He knew exactly how many points he had, and how many he needed to make a passing grade.  But Bill was smart.

“He told me one time that he was going to drop out of high school.  I said ‘you’re going to graduate if I have to push you across the stage to get your diploma.’  Well, he did not go to his high school graduation; he went to the comedy club.  I think they were having ‘Pajama Night’ that night.  His dad and I went to his graduation, and it wasn’t too long after that when he went to L.A.”

“He had a funny joke about that where he’d say he graduated 481 out of 490, just ahead of the AC/DC fan club,” Steve added.  “But he did end up graduating.”

Being quite a bit older than Bill, Steve’s involvement with his brother came later.  “I think our time and togetherness moved in and out until we got in our adult years,” he said.  “I went to college when I was 16 and Bill was 11, so I’d see him on weekends when I came home and summers.  But I was finding my own way in life, and he was just a little kid.  But it was around that time when he told me to come down to the comedy club in Houston where we were living.  I went down there, and Bill was performing.  The place was sold out, and he was hilarious.  He must have been 15 years old.

“I got married three years later, and he was the best man in my wedding.  I often traveled to where he was performing to see him perform and to hang out with my brother.  There was a stretch of time when I lived in Austin, Texas with my family.  Austin was kind of a second home to Bill; he never lived there, but he was there often because he performed a lot and had friends there.  For those five years we saw each other multiple times a year.  He spoiled my kids; they loved Uncle Bill.  He knew all the cheat codes for the Mario games, so they’d sit up all night and Bill would show them how to beat the games.  He was a great brother and a great uncle.”

Bill Hicks: Nintendo Master

Both Mary and Steve admit to not following stand-up comedy outside of Bill’s work.  Perhaps owing in part to this, his choice in careers came as a surprise.  Nonetheless, both noted and supported his certainty in his calling.

“It was different,” Mary said.  “Bill asked me one time if anybody in the family had been in show business.  He would ask if anybody had done public speaking.  Well, there are some preachers way back.  He was always curious about why he was so led to do what he was doing.  It was like he couldn’t not do it.”

“He did it since he was 12 years old in some form or fashion,” Steve added.  “I think it’s pretty rare for anybody so early in their lives to find that thing that they wanted to do, and he never really wavered from that.”

Yet despite his unusual occupation, the comedian was treated no different from the rest of the Hicks family.  “Bill was a stand-up comedian,” Steve said, “so he had a job that you could go see, but what we remember most out of that were the times when he was just being that family member.  Our family got together for holidays, and whenever Bill was not on the road performing somewhere he would be there with us too.  Since show business wasn’t in our background it was certainly unusual that that’s what he did, but beyond that he was just a guy in our family that we enjoyed spending time with.”

As Bill developed as a comedian, he developed the reputation of a philosopher working with the courage of his convictions.  In his high-minded work as well as in the rest of his comedy, the Hicks family wasn’t spared from his wit.  In one of his pieces, for example, Bill calls his father to task for being a fan of Rush Limbaugh.  Yet when asked their points of view on Bill’s various beliefs, both Mary and Steve found very little they disagree with in total, and a lot in which they had common ground.  Furthermore, even within topics they disagree with, they praised the open-minded stance from which Bill advanced his arguments.

“Bill – and all of my children – are not that crazy about organized religion,” Mary said.  “I think they all are Christians and live that way.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that I’m crazy about organized religion either, but I am a Christian and I do go to church and I do enjoy the fellowship with people in my little Sunday school group.”

If there was one topic which she disagrees with, it would be Bill’s frankness about his drug use. “I’m not into drugs, and I don’t know that they do good or don’t do good.  I do know that there are people whose lives are ruined by them, but if marijuana really could help people who have cancer, then I think it should be used.  I’m not against using things to benefit people, but I would be against them if they ruin lives.  I don’t know how you’d know whether it would benefit.”

“I think it’s an individual thing,” Steve added, “and I think that’s what Bill’s message was.  He didn’t tell us to take drugs or not to take drugs.  He said find your own way in life, and here’s my story.”

Mary agreed.  “That’s exactly what he did.  He never encouraged; he just said his views that he had good times on it.  If he did, I’m glad he did, but I’m glad he got off of them and he said he was too.

“I liked what he said when he quit.  He said: ‘Mom, somebody came in and offered me drugs, and I looked at myself in the mirror in the dressing room and said that was not who I am.  And I quit.’  I liked that he realized that he was not that.”

“Bill and I were closer in age,” Steve said, “so I guess I wasn’t as put off as an older generation might have been at some of the stuff Bill said.  None of it really bothered me; I’m pretty open-minded like he was.

“I will tell you a story, though, how Bill and I might discuss things and disagree.  It’s probably the closest we’d ever gotten to a fight.  He was always checking things out, spiritual things.  He did sensory deprivation things, the drugs for a while, yoga, lots of things trying to tap into the spiritual side of life.  So one time he was at my house, and he was telling me that he had seen people levitate.  I said I don’t believe that; you think if people were levitating, you’d see it somewhere!  It turned into an argument, and he was adamant and wasn’t going to give up without me agreeing that it could be possible.  I was just as strong-headed as he was in my beliefs.  When I see someone levitate, I’ll believe they can levitate!  I don’t care if people levitate or not, but having someone tell me they saw someone levitate doesn’t do it for me.

“That would be an example of our discussions about philosophy, and we’d finish it and it would be fine and that would be that.  As far as his general philosophy of life and his key things that he spoke about in his comedy that resonate with so many people these days, I pretty much agree with most of that.”

Within his act Bill often mentioned unpopular beliefs – such as the idea that children are not special – which he claimed were responsible for keeping him an anonymous figure in American culture.  Yet after his death, Bill Hicks was anything but anonymous.

Considering the role of Bill’s death within the greater scope of his critical acclaim is a fair question to ponder, but the Hicks family doesn’t see his enduring relevance as a product of martyrdom.

“I look at it this way,” Steve said, “I think a lot of untalented people also pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  Then there are talented people who don’t pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  While there may be some importance to Bill passing away, I think that his material is so relevant to people years later.

“I always think about Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, locked in time.  You don’t know what would have become of their lives later on.  There’s certainly some of that, but I tend to think that there’s something about Bill’s material and the way he presented it that resonates with people.  If that wasn’t there, I don’t think it would go on like it does.”

“If what Bill said did not have meaning and were just jokes,” Mary added, “I’m not sure that we would be where we are today.  It just so happens that he had some profound thoughts, and he got enough out there that these people come up and send letters and emails telling us what Bill meant.  Bill’s been gone 16 years and on the day of his death I still get emails from people who say they are remembering Bill.  [He] had some points that are going to be relevant till we all die.”

Steve continued: “I think something that’s important is when we meet fans – and this past 18 months we’ve had a lot of opportunity to do that because we’ve been traveling to film festivals to support another Bill project, a film called American: The Bill Hicks Story – what we hear echoing and in everything we get is that people don’t say: ‘We wanted to tell you how funny Bill was.’  What they say is: ‘I wanna tell you how Bill changed my life.’  There’s some way that Bill reaches people on a big level.  Alive or dead, if that wasn’t the case it just wouldn’t have grown into this legacy that it has.”

Taking the question to a close, Steve described a shocking phenomenon within Bill’s renown.   “We still will occasionally – maybe a time or two a year – get an email from somebody finding out about Bill for the first time and asking us for his address, so they can write him a letter, not realizing he’s dead.  What they’ve seen is something so relevant, and current sounding, and moves them on a different level that they want to get in touch with him.  That’s not a frequent occurrence, but it does still happen.”

In compiling the hours of material which comprise The Essential Collection, Bill’s family rewards the dedication of his fans with an in-depth look into his life and work.  The family spared no effort in making this a unique body of work, featuring bootleg videos, a goofy B-film, and a collection of guitar ballads in addition to familiar audio recordings.  Steve summed up the box set’s purpose as such:  “We wanted to have things that fans could discover and see something new about Bill.  That’s how we went about the box set.”

Steve went on to explain its production: “With The Essential Collection, Rykodisc, the label that Bill’s stuff has been on all these years, called us and were interested in putting out a box set to commemorate Bill.  They thought it was time.  It was funny because they asked if we had some unpublished photos sitting around, because fans really like to see things they haven’t seen before.  Yeah!  We’ve also got several hundred hours of video and several hundred hours of audio.  They were very excited about that.

“What we proceeded to do was go through all of this stuff and decide what we wanted to put in this box set.  Our criteria were a couple of things.  We wanted to avoid as much duplication of anything that’s out there commercially, especially on the video side.  We went back through some of Bill’s DVDs, Sane Man and Relentless and Revelations, and tried to pick things that weren’t shown on those DVDs, even though they might be familiar bits off one of his albums like Rant in E-minor and Arizona Bay.  That’s what we did for the later years.  With the early years, the first DVD out there of Bill was Sane Man, and that was 1989, so we focused on the years from 81 to 86, because that’s stuff that hasn’t been seen much.

“We were real excited to find these songs that Bill had recorded.  We went over to Abbey Road Studios in London and had them remastered to include on this download card in the box set.  I think some people know Bill played guitar on Rant and Arizona Bay, but someone who had written and recorded songs, I don’t think people were expecting that.  That was a real bonus discovery.”

As well as working on this ambitious project, the Hicks family opened their vaults to the makers of American: the Bill Hicks Story. Calling this “the definitive documentary of Bill Hicks,” Steve described the making of this film.

“These guys, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, are directors of this documentary.  Bill is huge in England, and for a few years Matt Harlock was doing tribute nights to Bill on the anniversary of his death in London.  The things would sell out, and he’d send the proceeds to the Bill Hicks Wildlife Organization.  Somewhere along the way he got in touch with my mother and father, who was alive at the time, and started communicating with them.

“It just evolved into Matt wanting to do a series of 30-minute documentaries about comedians, and he was going to start with Bill.  That led to him coming over to the States and going to Little Rock, Arkansas to start going through all this stuff.  We just opened everything up to these guys.  I think when they found out how much stuff there was, this thing turned into a four year project.  We support them 100%.  It was their vision, and we would occasionally give them feedback along the way, [but] we didn’t micromanage anything.

“It’s very, very well done, and we’re proud of it.  They’re even getting some notoriety because they enhanced an animation technique they used in the movie to work from all these still photos.  Beyond the fact that people love the documentary because of the story it tells, Matt and Paul are getting an awful lot of interest because of the techniques they used to tell the story.  It’s been showing at film festivals around the world, and it’s won two awards.  They released it theatrically in the U.K. over the summer, and it’s the second-highest grossing documentary of the year.  The DVD is coming out later this month in the U.K., and it probably won’t come out in the U.S. until next March or so.

“On the DVD, they have five hours of extras beyond the documentary – a lot of extended interviews, and only about 30 extra minutes of Bill performing – but even with that we collaborated so there isn’t duplication between that and what we have in The Essential Collection. They really do stand alone and they expose different things about Bill.  Both projects were done from an extreme position of love and respect, and I hope people will enjoy them both.”

If these projects are any indication, Bill Hicks the comedian is as powerful as ever.  But my final question to the Hicks family was what their favorite things were about Bill Hicks the man.

Mary was quick to distinguish between the demeanor of the two.  “I think a lot of people do pick up on the fact that he was – somebody called him a humanitarian.  I asked Steve when he first started seeing Bill before we did what he was like, and Steve said he’s nothing like he is at home.  He was different on stage.  [At home] he was quiet, he was serious, he was very considerate.”

Steve agreed, using a specific example to illustrate his brother’s good nature.  “I’d use compassionate to describe him, not only to his family and friends but to strangers.  When he would come to Austin around Christmas, there were at least two years where we went down to the main drag where the homeless people were, and Bill would hand them five dollar bills and look them in the eye and say Merry Christmas.  He was just a good guy.  Even though his comedy style was in your face, that came through.

“I think that’s what resonates all these years later – there was soul and heart and passion to this guy.  Beyond the iconic comedian, he was just a really kind-hearted, intelligent, passionate guy that made you feel important when you were around him.”

Photos Courtesy of the Hicks Family

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Ninja Bachelor Party

Ninjitsu!

Movie: Ninja Bachelor Party (1991)

By: Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth, David Johndrow

There’s a lot of treasure to be found on Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, the newest retrospective of the famed comedian’s career, but my favorite thing is Ninja Bachelor Party, a brilliant mockery of martial arts cinema.  In this roughly filmed gem, a dirty white boy (tragically) named Clarence Mumford seeks the ancient wisdom of the martial arts in order to become a man and to stop his girlfriend from sleeping with everyone with a pulse.  It should be noted that barely a shred of martial arts ability is present in this film.  Not only is the ninjitsu kept to a minimum, there is no bachelor party either.  Yet what is essentially a tale of guys filming each other fake-fighting is far more hilarious that the usual videos of dudes fake-fighting.

Our hero begins the tale as a Robitussin-addicted wreck, constantly berated by his parents for being a loser.  After witnessing his beloved servicing a roomful of scumbags, Clarence seeks out an even greater scumbag named Dr. Death, M.D. to teach him how to fight.  After that doesn’t turn out so well, our boy follows a mystic communication to Korea.  Whether it was North or South Korea, no one can say, but the landscape looks disturbingly like American woodlands and a golf course.

There, he studies under the tutelage of a badly bald-capped and eyebrowed Asian ninja master.  They train hard to a sweet musical anthem, and they get lit up on magic mushrooms and throw knives at each other.  Finally confirmed as a martial arts master, Clarence returns to the States and busts his old master humping his girlfriend.  After a brawl spanning the entire city, Clarence takes out Dr. Death using the ancient Chinese art of bicycling.

Both Clarence and the two martial arts masters – both gurus played by Bill Hicks – are wonderfully inept kung-fu fighters, but what sets Ninja Bachelor Party over the edge is the absurd dialogue dubbed into the film.  All characters are voiced by the filmmakers, and their stream of consciousness ramblings – especially those of any character voiced by Hicks – soon become the film’s best quality.

Ninja Bachelor Party is low-budget goofball filmmaking at its best.  Throughout his career, Bill Hicks didn’t stray far from stand-up, and in fact this is his only appearance in cinema.  His choice in film roles was extremely wise.

Bow to Your Sensei!

The Designer’s Drugs: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection

Medium: Multiple

Stimulus: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Anno: 2010

The problem with heroes is that after a while – and especially once they’re dead – they don’t get to be anything other than heroes.  Alongside Lenny Bruce, whose myth has him censored to death, Bill Hicks has become one character in the comedian’s world to be saddled with this uncomfortable status.  Yet perhaps more than Bruce himself, Hicks has been elevated to a nigh-messianic plateau, his flaws erased, his comedy bleached into the colors of philosophy.  As a person who often railed against groupthink and blind praise, I don’t think Hicks would accept the crown he’s been bestowed.

The great service provided by Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, the new box set retrospective of the man’s life and work, is that it goes beyond the philosopher mystique.  The two discs of stand-up recordings feature his famed rants on drugs, sex, marketing, and the many ways that society is designed to keep its citizens stupid and obedient.  Within this extensive compilation, the audio is the most familiar.  It’s a natural starting point for those new to Bill’s work, though old fans may have heard most of these pieces before.

There is a swerve in the audio end, however.  Enclosed in the collection is a download card which allows the audience to obtain an album of recorded music from Bill’s website.  As opposed to the faint sounds of acoustic guitar that drifted through his stand-up recordings, this work, titled Lo-Fi Troubadour, is a full album of quietly passionate acoustic ballads.  What’s best about this facet of the compilation is that Troubadour was clearly recorded without an agenda, that it was simply Bill documenting another of his passions.  That said, he’d be a hit at any open mic.  “The Road Can Be Hard” is a beautiful breakup song, whereas “Waiting to Meet You,” despite its surface cheer, is a rather murderous tune.

The Young Outlaw.

The best part of The Essential Collection is in fact the video section.  While most such audio/video sets tend to treat the visual as secondary, this collection rewards those who want to go deeper into Bill’s work.  The most fun thing to be found in this anthology is Ninja Bachelor Party, a silly martial arts B-movie made by Bill and a few friends.  Yet the most illuminating artifacts are the many bootleg videos of Bill performing stand-up over the years.  It’s startling to see a young Bill Hicks, just out of high school, clean cut and wearing a tie.  His comedy is largely apolitical, mostly joking about the craziness of his family.  Compared to his later work, it’s very nonthreatening, and yet it’s also incredibly funny.

And here’s the point that the video section drives home: Bill Hicks was a brilliant comedian long before he ever became a social critic.  With all due respect to what he had to say, The Essential Collection rightly maintains that Bill could have said anything and brought the house down.  True to its title, this collection is essential in breaking up the myth of Bill Hicks to show more of the admirable person beyond.

Photo courtesy of the Hicks family.

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