Friday, July 09, 2010

Bill Hicks – a romantic out of time

Kurt Cobain once called grunge the last wave of rock. Around the same time Bill Hicks became the first rock and roll comedian.

If rock and roll means more than up tempo 12-bar blues with a strong back beat then it is an attitude, an outlook. I will maintain that rock music is late capitalist romanticism. Romanticism we will take to mean artistic and philosophical impulse toward unification of the fragmented whole. The original romantics were mostly pantheists or deists and were concerned with the fall of man, his separation from god. High period rock and roll, the music of the long sixties (1963-73) was the dynamic source of a counter culture (as opposed to subculture) that sought to liberate humanity from social and sexual atomisation.

Bill Hicks was this kind of romantic. His expressed desire was to illuminate humanity's collective unconscious, quite a lofty ambition for a stand up comedian, but no more absurd than the notion The Beatles could direct the leaderless youth movement from Abbey Road.

But, of course, comedy was not the new rock and roll. There is nothing innate in 12-bar boogie or a set of one-line jokes that means they can sustain the hope humanity can transcend its divided, alienated state. Nor is this anything to particularly worry about. It may be the case, from now on music will just have to be music, comedy be comedy, art be art.

Nonetheless, rightly or wrongly, the eighties and nineties felt like the death of such hopes for many people. This hasn't stopped them wishing or hoping for such promise to be rekindled and looking for music, comedy, something to be the new rock and roll.

This is the appeal of Bill Hicks.

Bio... such as it is

It would be wonderful if, for once, someone was born a revolutionary. People aren’t though and Hicks was no exception. What he was, was a man out of time, struggling against the generation gap.

In material terms he couldn't have had a better upbringing. Bill's family was solidly middle class. His Father worked in middle management for General Motors. Teenage Bill wanted to be a musician, so his parents bought him a $1,000 Fender. Later on Bill wanted to go to LA to try his luck on the comedy scene there (instead of going to college). His parents paid his rent and bought him a car.

In terms of a life, Bill was never in the middle of something dangerous or momentous. It was a comfortable, if solitary existence. His comedy routines often circled around how lonely he felt. But he could not have become a renowned comedian without playing 2-300 gigs a year for the best part of his life.

What did Bill kick against? Descriptions of Bill's home and school life confirm that in many parts of the world the 60s didn't really happen until the 70s. Like his rock star heroes, Bill was driven by the notion that his upbringing and education was based on lies. He is often described as being alienated from the rest of his family (an early form of his loneliness); they just didn't get him.

He was born to Baptist parents who believed in the literal truth of the Bible. Hicks mined much comedy gold from family life. In terms of his relationship with his parents religion this routine is typical:

But my Dad's just, “I believe it's the literal word of God”.
And I go, “It's not. I can prove it to you. Give me your Bible”.
He goes and gets his Bible .
“Ok”. I go, “what's that on the front?”
“Holy Bible”.
“What else does it say?”
“King James's Version”.
“There you go”.

The teenage Bill, who listed his goal in life as “enlightenment” was forever bumping up against this environment.

At home Bill's room became a haven of privacy. He filled his world with mind expanding rock music and seditious, obscene comedy; transcendent art far removed from suburban mundanity. This is the key to his artistic personality, his radicalism. Bill was always interested in reaching The Beyond. He was open minded toward all religion and philosophy, meditation and mind-expanding drugs. His politics developed whenever he hit barriers, people trying to proscribe his freedom.

It's to his credit that he generalised so broadly. How many comedians doing Gulf War routines in 1991 not only knew the Bush administration had sold 164 fighter jets to Korea and 240 tanks to Kuwait but could make comedy out of such facts?

Stand-Up Comedy

All art forms distinguish themselves when they separate off from ritual. Before WW2 most popular art forms were presented under the very general heading of 'entertainment'. The post-war boom saw a huge release of pent up demand, particularly in America. An important new market was the teenager. One of the reasons rock and roll took off was the 7 inch single. It was a cheap, mass-produced commodity that could translate the popular medium of radio into quick profit.

As rock music became a distinct form musicians took great care to speak to their audience. Whether an illusion or not, it made sense that musicians could speak for you and to you. Stand-up comedians did not do this. They were still stuck in world of mainstream entertainment, with all its banality and prejudice.

Comedy was tied to ritual. Even as clubs specifically hosting comedy started opening you still had to go to the comedy. There were exceptions to this rule. Bill's inspiration came after seeing Woody Allen at the movies then finding a live album of his. Bill Hicks breakthrough came through the live album format.

What ancestry does stand up have? Stand up comedy boiled down is a verbal/visual performance in front of a live audience. Stand up comedy, as we know it today is a capitalist art form. It depends upon the monopoly of public space. You can see a pre-capitalist basis for stand up comedy in pre-capitalist spaces.

Precursors of the comedian include the jester, who performed in royal or noble courts. The jester, or fool, played to his patron: the ruler of the house. His job was to flatter and amuse though he also had licence to offer witty forms of council. He could play on the host’s foibles and flaws. Something of this dual role still exists in modern comedy.

Another proto comedian was the preacher, in particular the radical preacher. Established religions need homogeneity, clarity and repeatability in their message. They are crucial pillars of civil society, organising consent for rule. In line with the state that sponsors them, their rituals more founded in text than performance. Think of a church or an empire without script. It’s not possible.

Breakaway religions do not have prestige and wealth. They are not plugged into networks of power. They are normally founded on revisions, combinations or alternative interpretations of prior religions. The rituals of the breakaway religion are more attention catching, performance based. This is the difference between a preacher and a vicar. A preacher has to win and hold an audience in a similar way to the comedian.

The last precursor to pick up is the theatre. The word ‘comedy’ used to be a concrete noun, referring to plays where the principle characters survived. The generally upbeat framework allowed comedy, in the modern sense, to develop.

Instead of the epic, deadly sweep of tragedies, where the fate of nations would rest on the shoulders of lonely individuals, in comedies you had a focus on day-to-day life. Comedies would rest on bawdy humour, scandal, satire, Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras. A common theme was the clash of middle class and aristocratic culture (also a tragic device) and the potential comic turmoil and overturn therein.

Once you get to things like vaudeville and music hall you find the direct ancestors of stand up comedians taking the stage. In time the music and dance separated from the comedy routine. All human inventions take time to find their niche.

Bill's Comedy

Bill started performing in 1978. He was quickly associated with a generation of Huston based comedians, called The Outlaw Comedians. Names typically cited are Jimmy Pineapple, Ron Shock and the infamous Sam Kinison. In one sense they were a functional equivalent of the Alternative Comics in Britain, a sharp break from showbiz comedy and its pretensions. While the Alternative Comedians were generally left-wing, certainly anti-racist, the Outlaw Comedians were more akin to radio shock jocks.

With the exception of Sam Kinison, who lived fast and died young, Bill is the only Outlaw really remembered. One of the most astonishing things about Hicks' act was its repeated and detailed grotesquery. How many left-inclined artists put out material such as Regan and Bush peeing on Rush Limbaugh, Chuck Norris decapitating your granny or Satan's semen burning a hole in MC Hammer's stomach?

But, of course, his routines were refined and pointed. They were meant as satire. More than anything else Bill protested against the legislated banality of popular culture. If nothing else his “dark poetry” jolted audiences into paying attention.

Hicks' stated mission was to point out how beliefs and ideologies were distorting our humanity and “making us pay a higher psychic price”. The inconsistency between word and deed in public life is a key ingredient of satire. An adjunct to his dark poetry, Bill would often take up consciously hypocritical opinions. Usually he wouldn’t take off the mask. For example: his routine about homelessness: “the very idea they want me to given them the hard earned money my folks send to me every week… leech, get a job”.

Another example: in his very last TV routine he went on at length about two grade school books, My Two Mommies and Daddy’s New Room Mate. He found Daddy’s New Roommate disgusting, but not My Two Mommies, which was very edifying. There is a subtle little wink at the end: “some people would call that a double standard”. Anyone who laughed or applauded the bulk of the routine suddenly ended up looking stupid.


What we now consider to be Romanticism is largely a 20th century compilation. The big six romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Shelley and Keats never as a group met in life (they were certainly not considered the romantics until well past time). Most of them only found widespread recognition after death. They were all influenced by the tumult going on around them, two parallel revolutions, the Great French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

The romantics, at least at the height of their powers, were either religiously unconventional or outright sceptical. They all wanted to see humankind reunited with itself in heaven on earth. Both revolutions seemed to offer ambiguous hope of this. Blake was perhaps furthest down the road of utopian radicalism (and consequent system building). Byron, of course, was most practically involved, as a soldier and gunrunner for Greek war of independence.

The modern romantics had very similar concerns. Living in late capitalism we see clearly what the first romantics only sensed, how the system brings together greater and greater numbers of people, only to atomise and alienate them. The modern romantics, the Beats and the Hippies, railed against a system that processed crew cut youths through high school into faceless corporations or the army – an uptight society of straights... estranged from their bodies and feelings.

The modern romantics sought a variety of tactics, from Situationism to Maoism to communal living. Their target was The Head. Their aim to liberate peoples minds so they may know reality. Perhaps the most powerful, certainly the most controversial weapon was LSD; a potent hallucinogen that radically reorders the human brain.

Romantics are plainly utopian, and utopianism is always politically ambiguous. You can extract hints of this from canonical romanticism, such as Blake's assault on Newton (for unweaving the rainbow), or perhaps Mary Shelly's Promethean anti-hero Frankenstein. But consider another group of romantics, the Thule Society, whose occult belief in a round table of superhuman heroes destined to herd the multitude into a modern Sparta fused together the core of the German nazi party.

There is clearly a difference in agency between the nazis and, say, PB Shelley calling on the poor to “rise like lions”. There is also a crucial difference between unity of the Aryan nation and the brotherhood of man. But there is also the same running theme of romanticism, the unity of humanity through the transcendence of the human condition.

Bill Hicks, the last romantic was appropriately ambiguous.

No true art has been created outside of contradiction. On particularly interesting thing about Hicks was the persistent duel between his leftism and fascism, Goatboy vs Satan (who each spoke with the same voice).

Bill was never a fascist, despite calling many times for the earth to be cleansed in unbiased genocide. His corporate concerns were all left-wing, he was for personal liberty, anti-racist and anti-war. Hicks frequently described himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes” and consistently recommended his work to others.

People often comment on his sexism, sometimes his homophobia. Bill was never a spotless Bolshevik. He was certainly fascinated by pornography, he did occasionally use prostitutes (although he is on the record as regretting this).

Given his consistent touring the constant I'd say the references to hotel rooms, pornography, loneliness and broken relationships, though comic, were more or less sincere. The, how shall we say, alienated language Bill used towards women was true to his personality. Contrary to this, for example, as his routine on pornography progressed he would nearly always undermine his pro-pornography stance with graphic, naked lunch material, concerning the grim reality of how pornography is made. Hicks was flawed but very aware of his flaws.

In terms of aesthetics and philosophy Hicks was equally ambiguous.

Bill was deist. The god he extolled was synonymous with love. He believed the fall of man was an illusion brought about by birth into the material world. This is roughly a gnostic point of view. Another famous artist interested in gnosticism was David Bowie, who fused gnosticism with Nietzsche to create a "pop Zarathustra", where the enlightened Homo Superior, able to see through the waking dream, suffered to live amongst the outdated, uncomprehending Homo Sapiens.

Bill Hicks was tremendously, almost indiscriminately interested in esoteric matters. He and his friends used to like taking psychedelic drugs outdoors. They heard about a new must-do drug called X. Bill and two friends took the drug and went out into the woods, whereupon they found a clearing with patterns of emergent power. Bill sat in a lotus position while the other two walked in careful circles. After a while Bill noticed:

“The patterns you just walked describe how our horoscopes interrelate with each other”.

But it didn't stop at mind expanding drugs. Bill critically pursed many religions, forms of meditation and prayer. He was fascinated by conspiracy theories, incorporating long (and funny) dissertations on the Kennedy assassination and the Waco disaster into his act.

This is incredible. When Hicks was young he created his own comic series, starring a superhero called Sane Man, who goes round solving the world’s problems with the application of logic and reason. In regard to most earthly matters he was sceptical and satirical. He probed hypocrisy and double standards in politics, war, drugs, religion, sexuality… and so on. Yet the Sane Man was incredibly superstitious. Bill Hicks believed in everything.

In Hicks' case superstition was the search for order, the over-application of reason. We shouldn’t underestimate how big an intellectual leap atheism still is. Humans labour consciously; the fruits of their labour surround them. The products of human effort are reflections of the human mind. If you understand a man-made object you understand the mind behind it.

It makes sense to extend this to nature. If it takes a mind to make something what mind made the world?

Bill Hicks was an idealist who tracked the “evolution of ideas”. He was an intelligent idealist who tried to link ideals to objects, in particular how people acted on their beliefs. It's a common Marxist observation that traditional idealists and materialists are apt to suddenly flip their outlook. Whenever Bill reached any crucial logical junction humanity would transform from essentially decent and enlightened to a virus with shoes (or vice versa).

At this point send in The Counts of the Netherworld. Counts of the Netherworld was a TV show based on an idea Hicks borrowed from CC Jung (who imported a great number of esoteric ideas into psychoanalysis), that humanity has a collective unconscious. It was Hicks' appointed mission to bring it to consciousness. Quite a goal for a programme that would mostly consist of people talking about great art for half an hour.

The name "Counts of the Netherworld" is the first give away. The second was its setting in a mock-Victorian salon. Hicks at least thought of it as an elite exercise.

The Counts' Manifesto is available in the collection Love All the People, and generally contradicts the collection's title. The manifesto bemoans the happy mindlessness of the people while exalting the Counts. It warns that only the Counts' commitment to unvarnished truth keeps them from being simply ruthless cads. At only one point does the manifesto describe the Counts as being "voices for the dammed".

This kind of ambiguous mesh is in keeping both with his class background and his political ideas, largely a reaction to that background. As as stand up comedian Bill's rough position was that of a petty proprietor, whose class consciousness is generally riven by fear and enthusiasm for mass participation in politics.

Hicks was an incredibly quick witted and sensitive individual. Without perhaps realising it he stumbled on a key difference between fascism and (although he wouldn't have used this word, I will) socialism. It is the difference between despair and hope in humanity. Fascists see the people as a passive element, any positive activity is to be repressed, whereas socialists are constantly trying to unleash this potential.

Bill clearly had scope for both despair and hope and, despite at many points finding this intriguing and disturbing, he explored this fact.

What has Bill Hicks left us?

It was observed in a recent Guardian article the iconoclast Bill Hicks has, unfortunately, become an icon himself. Given this was a man who took to wearing a trench coat and stetson and appearing on stage in a wreath of fire to the sound of Purple Haze (during a tour named Revelations, no less), I guess this wouldn't have been such a problem to Bill, had he lived.

His look, his moves and routines might seem clichéd at times, if only because they are so repeatable, copy-able (from Dennis Leary to Krusty the Clown circa the Last Temptation of Krust). He is the basis for modern comedy. He was (or at least his stage persona was) what all comedians, all questing radicals are supposed to be.

Aside from his example of relentless, questioning idealism, his life and works left at least one practical change.

When Hicks began performing stand up comedy was beginning to distinguish itself as an art form. Some comedians like Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and George Carlin had pop culture cache. Mostly comedians were thought of as take-my-wife types, old men in suits working casinos. The scope for a young, edgy stand up comedian was small. On the way up Bill Hicks had to play hundreds of nights a year in order to reach some kind of an audience.

If comedy did not become the new rock and roll it certainly holds its own in mass culture, a major part of TV, radio, film and live performance. To a large degree Bill Hicks made it so.