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Friday, 16 December 2016

Bill Hicks - A Life of Danger


I recently realised that Bill Hicks and my father had some things in common. They shared much wit and wisdom. Both had keen intellects and deep feelings. They could see, more clearly than most, the wrongs in this world and wanted to do their parts in putting them to rights. From the archive, here is my 1992 interview with Bill Hicks and today seems like an ideal opportunity to share it again... Happy birthday Bill and Barrie.


Bill Hicks is, in the words of the New York Times, ''the most brilliant comic of his generation," and his recent tour of major UK theatre venues was a sell-out. Jeremy Dean risks a trip backstage to meet the Man with the Horns.

Integrity is not a word that immediately springs to mind when speaking of stand-up comedy. Bill Hicks is scathingly honest in his viewpoint, and directs his wit like a smoking magnum at many serious subjects and social problems: free will, drug abuse, the homeless, care for the infirm and elderly, world famine, war, bigotry, - hey, wake up! Read on! This may sound like a rather tedious right-on hit list - but these things are funny. Ha-ha and peculiar.

But, 'smoking magnum'? Well, witnessing Hicks' act is rather like playing Russian roulette with your prejudices and complacencies. Bill Hicks surfs the crest of a wave between laughter and discomforting personal revelation, which always (almost always) breaks onto the Bondai Beach of laughter. Just leave those taboos at home.

... and we'll dream, won't we? Of Bill Hicks blue. All in blue.
Since I caught his act during his previous British tour, there has been one question burning in my mind... So, I took this opportunity to confront Bill an hour or so before he went on stage to face a Glasgow audience. There was no tactful way to approach the subject, so with no frills I just blurted, "Bill, what's all this 'Goat Boy' stuff about?"

He laughs, then chuckles like the Horned One himself, "The Goat Boy thing sort of emerged there and then - and it's gonna stay - it's a nod toward our darker desires. You can get people to nod, but they don't like to look too long."

And that's it? When pursued about his darker desires, he evades the subject, probably for the best, I imagine. After all, Bill thinks Playboy is a magazine for gay men! He is taking this meteoric rise to success and critical recognition, with modesty and he admits that he is, "flattered by all the attention."

As for the pressures of touring, he shrugs them off, "It can get a bit out of hand with driving half the day between shows, but no - I'm coping."

So, it's not up to the private jet yet...

"They got me a toy one to play with in the back of the car, to keep me quiet, 'Are we there yet? Shut up, Bill, play with your little plane! Aww gee... '"

But even with critical acclaim and a vast audience, I can't see how he gets the bulk of his material past the Americans, after the trouble that music stirs up among the fanatical right-wing minority, the moral majority and the Washington Wives brigade.

"Well, they haven't put me on prime time yet..." he admits with a demonic laugh. "Religious jokes go down stellar here [in the UK], whereas in America you can feel them draw back a little. The Great American Brow furrows: 'He can't say that, can he?' and political jokes - over here they seem to understand where I'm coming from. Across the board the British audiences give me a better reception."

Political jokes - is there a danger that by laughing at serious matters they become trivialised and that action gets diffused?

“That's a very good question. I don't know if I'm preaching to the already converted, just highlighting the problems. Making a joke about it is my way of grabbing them by the throat and shaking them - the people who legitimise all that kind of thing - the politicians, capitalists. The humour comes from initial anger."

Is Bill just a frustrated politician?

"No. I do a lot of political material. I also do a lot of drug material, and I'm not a frustrated drug user - I found drugs very satisfying… " He muses for a moment, perhaps a pang of nostalgia, “The War on Drugs - the President said, 'We're losing the War on Drugs'. Do you realise what this implies? There are people fighting a war, and they're on drugs, and they're winning! There's no war on drugs, it’s a war on free will.

"I don't do drugs ...any more ...not so far today! I'm talking to you now completely sober and chemical-free. And from this point of view, looking back, I can fully recommend experimenting with drugs!" He laughs insanely and thinks forward to the end of tonight's show: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Bill Hicks has now left his body."

One drug that is indelibly linked with Hicks is the cigarette in his hand for nearly every publicity shot. During his act the man-in-black was swathed with a cloud of tobacco smoke, when asked how many he got through in a day, his reply would be, "Just two." Cigarettes or packs? "No, lighters." But not any more. Hicks has dropped his partner from the act, on stage and off. The smokers in his audiences, who had seen him as some kind of champion messiah, have taken this badly. In Leeds, lighted cigarettes were thrown onto the stage during his act to tempt him.

"My Manager said, 'Bill - you're giving up smoking? What about the act?' Well, I guess I get to do it for seven years longer... And on stage there's the adrenaline. When something comes to you spontaneously on stage, in front of an audience and they share in that - then there's a real rush."

The clock is ticking. Is Bill nervous and psyched up?

"Well, before you disturbed me, I was just taking a nap, so that's how nervous and psyched up I am right now."

So, what does Bill dream of in his pre-show naps?

"I had a vision... Even though this is a world where good men are murdered in their prime and media hacks thrive and proliferate, I've gotta share this with you, because I love you, and you feel that... You know all the money we spend on nuclear weapons and defence every year - trillions of dollars, TRILL-I-ONS – instead… if we spent that money feeding and clothing the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded - not ONE - we could, as one race, explore outer space in peace. Forever."

Ladies and gentlemen, Bill Hicks has now left his body…

This interview was first published in the
Winter Term edition of Student Outlook, 1992.

More info at the official Bill Hicks website

For a reminder of how scathingly funny he was, check-out the Bill Hicks YouTube channel