Another dead hero

The gospel according to Bill Hicks

I was lucky enough to first see Bill Hicks in a comedy club in Austin in the early '80s; he was a fresh voice in a medium already going stale and self-indulgent. Nobody else so perfectly captured the rage that came with having a brain during the Reagan years, that foaming sense of "can you believe it!?!" that predominated then; incredible in the light of the acuity of his humor, Hicks was in but his early 20s, his round face still very much a boy's.

A woman in the audience--apparently under the influence of a bathtub-manufactured animal tranquilizer of a sort popular back then--began heckling Hicks vigorously, her volume inversely proportionate to her coherence. Hicks sparred with her, clearly relishing the fight, until her cogency evaporated completely. As the staff wheeled her out, he stood on stage, his arms open in supplication as if to say "Lady, I can't fuck with you if I can't understand you."

That was Hicks in a nutshell--howling mad, tearing at the fabric of bullshit, but always seeking some sort of understanding. More often than not, his humor came from an ordinary character driven mad by the contradictions and duplicity that crowd around all of us. Although I never saw him live again, I followed his career with interest: two albums; Letterman appearances and cable TV specials; John Lahr's 1993 New Yorker article, "The Goat Boy Rises," wherein Lahr declared Hicks as "an exhilarating comic thinker in a renegade class all his own"; and finally, sadly, the countless obituaries that came out when he died of pancreatic cancer on February 26, 1994, at the age of 32.

"The comedy of hate," Hicks would half-joke by way of introduction. "Welcome." He could be harsh--that long-ago night was the first time I ever heard his oft-ripped-off riff on the starving masses in Africa ("why are you living where there's no fucking food?!?" he would bellow incredulously), and another one of his routines involved "Officer Nigger Hater"--but there was always truth fueling his ranting, and bravery besides. At a time when most comics were cheerleading the Gulf War in 1992 with Arab-bashing stereotypes, Hicks was one of the few who pointed out some of the essential absurdities behind the Allied party line: "People said, 'Uh, uh, Bill, Iraq had the fourth-largest army in the world.' Yeah, maybe, but you know what? After the first three...there's a real big fuckin' drop-off. The Hare Krishnas are the fifth-largest army in the world. And they've already got our airports."

Hicks grew up alienated in the affluent Memorial section of Houston; by the time he was 15, he was sneaking out at night to do stand-up, and by the time I saw him, he was one of comedy's "outlaws." It's no surprise that around that time, one of his bosom buddies was Sam Kinison. He went through the standard drug- and drink-fueled excesses, but seemed to have found a measure of peace and serenity when the cancer was discovered. The last two weeks of his life, he didn't speak at all.

Popular West Coast metal experimentalists Tool paid tribute to Hicks on their most recent release, Aenima, sampling his routines and including a painting of the comic--fitting leg braces on a disturbingly deformed child--on the album's insert booklet. Now Rykodisc has released Hicks' two previously issued albums--1990's Dangerous and 1992's Relentless--and the two that were in the works when he died: Rant in E-Minor and Arizona Bay, which features his songs and guitar playing (when a lad, Hicks had been in a punk band called Stress, writing and performing such songs as "I'm Glad I'm Not a Hubcap (Hubcaps Don't Get Laid)"). Taken together they are a stinging rebuke to the cretinous muggings of no-talents like Carrot Top, a fitting memorial to a comedic genius, and simply hilarious.

Scene, heard
It turns out that bluesman Tutu Jones was not among the Dallas acts invited to the Moulin Blues Festival in Europe; instead, he was nominated for a W.C. Handy award (in the soul/blues album of the year category) for his album Blue Texas Soul. That informational tidbit somehow migrated from one press release to the other...other area musicians nominated for the Handy awards include Anson Funderburgh (best guitarist) and Freddie King for 1974's Live at the Electric Ballroom (re-issue album of the year)...

Jim Suhler, however, will be attending the Moulin shindig. Suhler, who'll already be on the continent for a two-week nightclub gig in Paris, just received his invitation...UFOFU's eponymous debut album is out, and Super Secret Weapon's new album release party will be Sunday, March 2...Good News Dept.: New York Times music pundit Neil Strauss reported an item--found amid the flotsam and jetsam of the music industry's rapidly growing information hotlines--that claims that Aerosmith's Steven Tyler has been told by his handlers that his skin is too saggy/baggy/nasty for him to appear shirtless in magazine pictures...one down, Mick Jagger to go...

Street Beat values more than life itself your comments, tips, input, and feedback, deliverable to Matt_Weitz@dallas-observer.com.

 
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