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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