The premature death of Bill Hicks was one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall American comedy. His hilarious and unabashedly angry attacks on conservatism, complacency, and stupidity made him a cult figure in his lifetime, but cancer claimed him in early 1994, just as he was poised to achieve real fame, so we never got to see him continue maturing into the gifted comedic truth-seeker he seemed bound to become, a legitimate heir to Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Like any tortured genius type worth discussing, Hicks was full of contradictions—he criticized the alcohol industry for peddling poison, but he took a perverse and boastful pride in his own cigarette consumption. He embraced a deeply moral we-are-all-as-one-in-the-cosmos philosophy, yet he sometimes took a sadistic glee in dehumanizing the rural underclass (as a conservative-raised southerner himself, he gets a pass on that). And though he constantly torpedoed commercial opportunists, he himself was seeking career visibility, and paradoxically, purity, in a milieu that necessitated rather a lot of commercial engagement. His career wasn’t helped, either, by his willingness to derail a performance to attack his audience, or even just a single member thereof, though that shit was every bit as golden as his prepared material. Behold:
If you’re skeptical of Hicks’ counterculture bona fides, consider that one of his most infamous bits was a call-to-action for the entire advertising industry to commit suicide.
A 1997 drop of CD releases on the Rykodisc label kept Hicks’ memory and work alive while introducing him to those who missed out. Four were issued in the first batch, the excellent Dangerous and Relentless, which were reissues of albums released during Hicks’ lifetime, and Arizona Bay and Rant in E Minor, which Hicks completed and mixed, but were only released posthumously. Those latter two feature Hicks’ guitar playing layered in with his standup, to deeply mixed effect—there are significant portions of Arizona Bay where Hicks’ words are rendered maddeningly inaudible by his psych guitar efforts, while Rant is the Hicks album to get if you can only get one. It was recorded after his cancer diagnosis, and is unparalleled in its bitterness and audacity—as though cancer were vitriol and he was trying to purge himself— and good GOD, it is funny as hell. The bit about Rush Limbaugh in the bathtub alone could have made Hicks a legend.
Bill Hicks, Rant in E Minor
Rykodisc continued to release Hicks concert material here and there, culminating in 2010’s 2xCD/2xDVD package The Essential Collection. Since then, Comedy Dynamics has worked with Hicks’ estate to track down every recorded work by the comedian with the intention of reissuing everything over the next few months. The company has tons of material on Hulu and offers its own Roku channel, so I imagine (or rather hope) one might find concert films in those places before too long, and on Monday, April 27, it’s hosting a one-night theatrical release of the 1992 concert video Relentless, which will boast a half hour of stand-up and home video footage that wasn’t on the original VHS tape. The list of theaters is at this link. And later today (Fri 04/24/15), a Reddit AMA is scheduled with Hicks’ older brother Steve, who was reportedly the only member of his family Hicks respected, and who encouraged his younger brother’s early stand-up career.
Enjoy this representative performance from the Just for Laughs festival in 1990.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Bill Hicks’ seldom seen ‘Ninja Bachelor Party’