Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"'Noam Chomsky with dick jokes'"

"Bill Hicks is most known, particularly in America, for being unknown". Thus begins Cynthia True's note at the beginning of her biography of Hicks, 'American Scream'. Not strictly true - at the time of his death, in February 1994, he was a veteran of 'The Late Show With David Letterman' and had been nominated for the American Comedy Award for the third time. But, yes, he certainly wasn't as well known as he might have been, or as he was in the UK.

What DO we come to know about Hicks from True's book?

* That he was a bookish, serious child who secreted himself away in his bedroom writing razor-sharp, Woody Allen influenced one-liners and who then graduated to performing as part of a double act taking parents and teachers for comic fodder.

* That one of the key formative events of the young comic's life was seeing Sam Kinison live. He shared a similar background to the former preacher: "They were operating out of the same middle-American evangelical Christian universe, both wildly enraged by its literal interpretation of the Bible and deeply imprinted by it". Hicks once said of his family as he was growing up: "'We were Yuppie Baptists. We worried about things like, "If you scratch your neighbour's Subaru should you leave a note?"'". Televangelism and the "prosperity theology" espoused by the likes of Jim Bakker subsequently became one of his key targets - an obvious one, you might think, but certainly not an easy subject to get away with in 1980s Texas.

* That Hicks's world-view may have often come across as bleak and cynical, but that he also had a positive, spiritual side to his character that led to a fascination with meditation, mysticism and metaphysical philosophy. For someone who spent so much time satirising and savaging the beliefs of others, he was in some respects a remarkably credulous and open person.

* That, after years living a fastidiously clean life, he suddenly threw himself off the wagon with equal enthusiasm: "Sure you could sit cross-legged and pray for ten hours, but drugs, Bill now realised, were an express lane to transcendence". Cigarettes, booze, mushrooms, ecstasy, coke - he embraced the whole smorgasbord of stimulants available to him. Labelling non-smokers "obnoxious self-righteous slugs", he became self-righteous in his pursuit of the classically escapist but ultimately self-destructive lifestyle of the rock 'n' roll star, adopting a new motto: "'Every time I party too hard I remember Keith Richards is still alive'". (I like the image of Hicks faced with a mound of illicit substances and looking at his 'What Would Keith Do?' bracelet...)

* That this had an inevitable impact on his performances, bringing out a side that increasingly set him apart from the pack - he became angrier, less predictable, more confrontational, often ironically in the cause of pacifism. Kinison had shown him that the conventional relation between comedian and audience could be warped, bent, shattered. True comments of his interest in Elvis (whom he regularly dressed as): "It was the inexorable thirst for acolytes and fans that fascinated Bill - an interesting fixation for a performer who had no compunction about offending his own audiences".

* That, aside from religion, his most revisted subjects were the Right, government, the media and corporate America, but that he also had a finely honed appreciation of absurdities, such as the Flag Burning Protection Act of 1989: "It wasn't that he personally believed in burning the flag, it was that he couldn't believe the absurdity of putting people in jail for burning the very symbol of freedom that gave them right to burn the flag".

* That people either genuinely didn't know what to do with him, or recognised his genius but then mistakenly believed he might be moulded or pushed in a certain direction. Hicks, though, refused to conform to expectations, eager to pursue his own big ideas and with an unshakeable moral view of his own role and responsibilities: "'To me, the comic is the guy who says "Wait a minute" as the consensus forms. He's the antithesis of the mob mentality'".

* That the infamous canning of his final performance on 'David Letterman', when the pancreatic cancer that was to kill him had already been discovered, was initially a bitter blow but subsequently garnered him even more attention. Even as his body waned, his star was waxing.

So, what of True's book? Well, it suffers from three faults.

Firstly, her reasoning is often facile and glib - see, for instance, passages like this: "Nirvana had just blown up the airwaves with Nevermind, knocking Michael Jackson off 'Billboard's Number One spot the week of 11 January 1992. If Bill's aesthetic wasn't punk, his sensibility was, and if there were a moment for America to embrace his anti-corporate message, it was then".

Secondly, and perhaps inevitably as a book about a near-mythical subject who suffered an untimely death at a young age, it glosses over some of Hicks's less likeable qualities and personal contradictions, even if not really sliding into full-fledged hagiography. Thus his frequently selfish relations with women are only alluded to in passing, while incidents such as his barracking of one heckler with repeated screams of "You fucking cunt!" are narrated without comment. It's hardly the most articulate or quick-witted of responses - just as not all the quoted material radiates with the keen intelligence by which True claims it was informed.

She admits that Hicks wasn't always above playing up to his bad-boy image, but could have made more of the fact that he came to hate being seen in some quarters simply as a foul-mouthed X-rated stand-up. It clearly rankled that he could be regarded in the same terms as someone like Andrew Dice Clay, who had no more noble goal than making people laugh by being as offensive as possible. Hicks didn't want audiences of Clay-loving frat boys baying their appreciation of every swear word (though he did, cynically, appreciate that the PRMC parental advisory sticker slapped on his albums automatically guaranteed more sales) - but at the same time he didn't want to be preaching to the converted, those already aware of his political views, either.

Thirdly, and probably most damagingly, 'American Scream' never seems to go more than skin-deep, reading like what it is - a book written by someone with little or no personal experience of meeting its subject, and pieced together from the reminiscences of those who have. With its subtitle 'The Bill Hicks Story', True arguably attempts to evade prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act - it is, as that would suggest, essentially a narrative of his life - but as a "biography" (as it's described on the back cover), it's deficient, giving the reader precious little genuine insight into the thoughts and psychology of the man himself.

Link: My review of the Hicks compendium 'Love All The People'

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