Rant in E-Minor
By J.R. Jones
Few people remember Bill Hicks, and really, why would they? He was an occasional Letterman guest, always trenchantly funny but never spectacularly so. Despite a sharp and adventurous mind, vulgarity was his idiom, and on the tube he always operated at a pronounced disadvantage. When he died in 1994, at the age of 32, he’d barely dented our collective consciousness.
But Hicks was probably the greatest stand-up comedian since Richard Pryor, the only comic of his generation to produce a body of social commentary on a par with those of Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Mort Sahl. Like Sahl, Hicks was fascinated with the mechanisms of political power and the darker motives of the commercial media; like Bruce, he forced his audiences to confront their own hypocrisy; and like Pryor, he softened his scathing attacks with humility, making his own shortcomings the biggest joke of all. What Hicks added to the tradition was a boomer’s hunger for transcendence and its flip side, a seething rage that often introduced the threat of self-immolation.
Hicks left behind three TV specials and two long-unavailable albums, Dangerous (1990) and Relentless (1992), which have just been reissued by Rykodisc. The label is also releasing Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor, two albums Hicks was trying to complete at the time of his death; both incorporate instrumental and even some vocal music by his soft rock band, Marblehead. Last year, Tool sampled some of Hicks’s monologues on its album Aenima. Front man Maynard James Keenan had called Hicks after hearing tapes of his act, and Hicks was set to open for Tool before he died.
I first saw Bill Hicks at a now-defunct club in River North called the Funny Firm. A friend of mine worked there, and he offered me a free ticket to hear the greatest comic on earth–a bargain, I thought. Of course, with the two-drink minimum the tickets weren’t quite so free, and the opening acts were the same not-quite-satire that eats up so much time on cable TV, but the headliner came on like an avenging angel. He was unprepossessing, with a potbelly and a tired, mordant face, but he made it clear at the outset that he had weightier issues on his mind than airplane food and child-safety caps.
Hicks’s gift for mining humor from moral outrage has no better example than in his obsession with the Kennedy assassination. On Arizona Bay, he describes a visit to the Texas School Book Depository, the sixth floor of which has been turned into a museum. “They have the window set up to look exactly like it did that day, and it’s really accurate, you know, ’cause Oswald’s not in it….It’s called the Sniper’s Nest, and it’s all glassed in, with the boxes sitting there. You can’t actually get to the window. And the reason they did that, of course: they didn’t want thousands of American tourists getting to that window each year, going, ‘There’s no fucking way! I can’t even see the road! Oh my God, they’re lying!’…There’s no fucking way, man. Not unless Oswald was hanging by his toes upside down from the ledge. Surely someone would have seen this. Either that, or some pigeons grabbed onto him and flew him over the motorcade. You know, there was rumors of anti-Castro pigeons seen drinking in bars the night before the assassination. Someone overheard them saying, ‘Coup! Coup!'”
Hicks loved to characterize himself as a cowboy hero, a lone ranger fighting corruption in the Wild West. His parents, Jim and Mary Hicks, were proper Baptists, raising three kids in the Houston-area subdivision of Nottingham Forest, but by the age of 13 their youngest had become a malcontent, taping comedy routines off his bedroom TV and typing jokes all night. In tenth grade Hicks began sneaking off with a friend to appear at an open mike at the Theatre Workshop in Houston; then his parents got wise and grounded him. He graduated from high school in the spring of 1980, and by September he was in Los Angeles learning his trade at the Comedy Store.
Anger was his muse, his comedy playmate, and the act he developed over the Reagan decade was a wildly funny but fundamentally serious attack on a diluted and mediocre culture. He was appalled by the timidity of American thought, the dearth of American imagination. “The comedy of hate,” he explains brightly in Arizona Bay. “Join me!” Hicks hated a lot of things, and like a person’s desert island records, even a brief list of them paints a vivid portrait: Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers, Rick Astley, Debbie Gibson, Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Michael Bolton, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Dan Quayle, Jesse Helms, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, the Supreme Court, the LAPD, Hollywood, the advertising industry, the arms industry, nonsmokers, pro-lifers, antidrug zealots, opponents of flag burning, handgun fanatics, fundamentalists, health nuts, TV producers, hotel maids, trailer parks, the pope, the Warren Commission, family vacations, patriotism, the veneration of children, Basic Instinct, Cops, Love Connection, American Gladiators, and adult films with no actual pornography. But he reserved his deepest spite for fellow artists who’d sold out to Madison Avenue–Jay Leno, Frank Sinatra, George Michael, Madonna, Vanilla Ice, M.C. Hammer. “Suckers of Satan’s cock,” he called them, acting out with horrific sound effects their frantic fellatio of the devil’s monstrous penis, then adding, “I am available for children’s parties, by the way.”
In the late 80s, Hicks seemed to be riding the same wave of comic rage that made stars of Andrew Dice Clay, Denis Leary, and Sam Kinison. But they were all lesser talents, working a shtick they could set aside when professional ambition demanded it. The Dice man turned back flips to craft a more cuddly persona after Sinead O’Connor denounced his misogyny, and Leary discarded his cigarette-puffing tirades to work for Disney. Hicks’s loathing of American culture was all too real: he turned down numerous offers for commercials, movies, and TV sitcoms, referring to television as “Lucifer’s dream box.” On Rant in E-Minor, he recounts how an English beverage company approached him to do an orange drink commercial, and he tries to imagine his pitch: “You know, when I’m done ranting about elite power that rules the planet under a totalitarian government that uses the media in order to keep people stupid, my throat gets parched! That’s why I drink Orange Drink.” Near the end of his life he was working on numerous projects of his own–books, screenplays, treatments for television shows–but only stand-up offered him the freedom to truly speak his mind.
The second time I saw Hicks was on Late Night With David Letterman, following the wave of self-congratulation that followed the gulf war. After weeks of watching smart bombs antiseptically obliterate Baghdad, after months of hearing the broadcast media speak with one voice in support of “our brave men and women in the gulf,” after countless welcome-home parades for soldiers who had seen barely three days of combat, my jaw dropped as this Texas smart-ass waltzed onstage and began denouncing the high-tech slaughter. Hicks repeats the bit on Relentless: “Those guys were in hog heaven over there. They had a big weapons catalog opened up: ‘What’s G-12 do, Tommy?’ ‘Says here it destroys everything but the fillings in their teeth, helps us pay for the war effort.’ ‘Well fuck, pull that one up!'” Sound of a missile whooshing off toward its target. A few seconds of silence, a cataclysmic explosion in the distance. A beat. “‘Cool! What’s G-13 do?'”
Hicks also had the nerve to explore questions of spirituality not usually noted for their comic potential. They might have been couched in a libertarian rap for drug legalization, but his language left little doubt that he had thought seriously about our place in the cosmos. On Dangerous he complains about the media’s demonizing of drugs, their stock news story about a person on LSD leaping out a window to his death. “I’d like to see a positive LSD story,” he says. “Would that be newsworthy? Just once? Hear what it’s all about? ‘Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather!'” Hicks was fascinated with pushing the boundaries of consciousness; throughout the 80s he experimented heavily with mushrooms. He was also an alcoholic, a coke fiend, and a chain-smoker, describing himself as a “three-lighter-a-day man.” The drugs and alcohol drew him into a downward spiral, and in 1988 he finally cleaned himself up. But his hunger for spiritual knowledge persisted, and on his epic tours (he typically played 200 dates a year) he read voraciously, studying such texts as A Course in Miracles, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Bible.
In 1990, Hicks’s career took off. He became an overnight sensation in England, released Dangerous and Relentless, and taped specials for HBO and Great Britain’s Channel Four. He seemed poised for a breakthrough in the U.S. when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 1993. Telling no one except his parents and fiancee, he began chemotherapy but continued to tour the country, getting his treatment in the afternoon and performing at night; he was determined to beat the cancer and to make it in America on his own terms.
That October he got his biggest boost yet when his first appearance on Letterman’s new CBS show was censored. Hicks had knocked ’em dead with jokes about pro-lifers (“If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries!”), Heather Has Two Mommies (“You know, they kiss in chapter four! Oooh! Go, mommies, go!”), and Easter (“I’ve read the Bible; I can’t find the words ‘bunny’ or ‘chocolate’ anywhere”). He later concluded that the show’s producers had bowed to pressure from pro-life sponsors. The controversy won him a lengthy tribute in the New Yorker, an offer to write a column in the Nation, and numerous bids for the book he was writing. But by Christmas his condition was deteriorating rapidly; he went home to spend his last days with his parents and died on February 26, 1994.
Of the four albums issued by Rykodisc, three are certifiable classics. But Rant in E-Minor, recorded while Hicks was dying, is a painful and decidedly unfunny experience. Despite his resolve to get well, Hicks’s rage had finally overtaken his sense of humor. He rains abuse on the audience, his sardonic delivery overwhelmed by bouts of Kinison-like screaming. He riffs on some of his favorite topics–trailer trash, women who love abusive men, artists who hawk products on TV–but they’re mostly tired retreads of ideas he’d already explored with greater insight and humanity. “I have the weirdest style, don’t I?” he asks at one point. “‘Bill, you do a little joke that’s kind of funny, then you start telling us you hate us, and you dig a fucking hole. Where’s Bill going? He’s going to comedy death!'” Buried in the spite are nuggets of the old brilliance, in particular an uproarious impression of Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, interrupting an interview with Joey Lawrence to stick a nine-millimeter pistol in his own mouth and spray his brains across the wall in the shape of the NBC peacock. But for the most part, Rant in E-Minor is a thinly veiled portrait of one man’s suffering.
To say that Bill Hicks’s anger consumed him may seem naive and simplistic; cancer cells know nothing of cultural mediocrity or world powers. But when I first learned of Hicks’s death, I thought impulsively of that first show at the Funny Firm, how he seemed to articulate all my forbidden hatreds, how I left the club feeling lighter than when I walked in. Art of that caliber exacts a psychic price; righteous anger can be exhilarating, but it’s debilitating as well. Like the soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his fellow men, Bill Hicks hurled himself at every evil mankind produced, and eventually he got himself killed. “I feel it’s my duty to pass on information at all times,” he explains on Relentless, “so that we can all learn, evolve, and get the fuck off this planet.” I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m glad he found the escape hatch.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.