Bill Hicks: His Ride Ended 20 Years Ago
Whether he went on to meet his version of Jesus (the guy who doesn't like crosses), descended into the infernal regions (where the Satan-worshipping family down the block with all the good albums ended up), transmuted into pure energy, or is simply moldering in the ground in the Hicks family plot in Mississippi, we'll probably never know. Still, two decades removed from his untimely death from pancreatic cancer, Hicks remains one of the most revered and influential comedians ever.
Just ask Denis Leary.
You probably know the story by now: a teenaged Hicks was performing in Houston clubs even before (barely) graduating from Stratford High School. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, he returned here and honed his act with his fellow "Outlaw Comics" (including Sam Kinison and Ron Shock), getting his big break in 1987 on one of Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedians Specials. Touring relentlessly, he was a critical if not commercial success for several years before hitting a peak of sorts in 1993, playing larger venues and getting named Rolling Stone's "Hot Stand Up Comic."
That was also the year he was diagnosed with cancer.
The irony of receiving such news just as his career was taking off wasn't lost on Hicks, who continued working even as he underwent chemotherapy. Much of this material made it into his final CD (Rant in E-Minor), which I just listened to again this week. Knowing he recorded it with full knowledge of his impending death makes it that much more powerful, as he chose to rail with one foot in the grave against everyone from parents to pro-lifers.
The latter would become an unfortunate part of his legacy, however. In October, the routine was cut from Late Night with David Letterman, a show he'd appeared on 11 times before (Letterman finally aired it in 2009, you can see it here, complete with Dave's belated apology). This prompted Hicks to write a 39-page letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker, which ended up securing Lahr the green light for his subsequent profile of Hicks. What Lahr didn't know at the time (and he wasn't alone), was that Hicks only had a few months left to live.
Yet even now, Hicks' legend continues to grow. Bands like Tool and Radiohead have cited his influence (and I swear there's a Neko Case song that lifts a riff from Arizona Bay but I can't find it). This is especially fitting, considering his love of music (though it must be pointed out, not all music). Writer Garth Ennis even included a sequence in Preacher where Jesse Custer watches Hicks perform. Through the magic of YouTube and the continuing decent sales of his CDs (Dangerous, Relentless, Arizona Bay, Rant in E-Minor), more people have access to his material than might previously have been expected given his relative lack of fame when he died.
It's a popular exercise -- among folks like myself who like to make ourselves feel bad -- to speculate how famous artists would have responded to events following their deaths. This is doubly the case with Hicks, whose act relied so heavily on the hypocrisy of our elected officials and the ignorance of the public. Would the fact George H.W. Bush's *son* was elected President (twice!) have given him an aneurysm? How outraged would he have been over the 2003 invasion of Iraq (given his views on the first one)? Conversely, would the events of 9/11 have reinvigorated his attacks on the powers that be for using fear to control us? Or might he instead -- inconceivably, I know -- have pulled a Dennis Miller-esque 180 and become a quavering reactionary?
We can guess his reaction to American Idol.