It’s Only A Ride: Happy Birthday, Bill Hicks

Friday, December 16 by
Happy Birthday, dead guy! 

Bill Hicks would have been 50 years old today. The world is a much-impoverished place for losing him. As the world becomes stranger and scarier, it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be an easier place to live in if he were still around.

Hicks was a singular figure in the American media. Anyone who remembers the peak of Hicks’ popularity — the late 80s and early 90s — knows it was a particularly sterile time for American popular culture. Safe-as-milk acts like Warrant, MC Hammer and Paula Abdul dominated the music charts. Popular film and television still waded through a Reaganite haze of nostalgia for a Leave It To Beaver world that never was. Hicks, however, was a fire-breathing prophet. At a time when rock stars were nearly required to make “Just Say No” ads, Hicks reminded us that most good music gets made on drugs. For his own part, Hicks was a sober nonsmoker until the age of 21. He began using to determine if drugs were the missing component in his routine. They seemed to have been.

Bill bitterly feuded with two comics: Jay Leno and Denis Leary. Prior to his feud, Hicks was a student of Leno and a friend of Leary. Leno recalls Hicks from comedy classes in Austin, Texas. Bill basically thought Leno was full of shit, while Leno saw lots of potential in the young, rebellious comedian. Hicks often criticized Leno for corporate sponsorship deals. Bill and Denis were long-time friends until the latter released No Cure For Cancer, which Hicks claimed largely plagiarized his material. When Hicks quit smoking, he famously quipped, “I just wanted to see if Denis would, too.”

Hicks’ live show often devolved into little more than ranting at his audience for their perceived inadequacies. This made putting out albums somewhat difficult. You can hear a bit of this on Hicks’ Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1. However, his estate specifically chose this performance because his ranting is funny and tempered. Often times, he left his routine entirely and degenerated into screaming.

Nearly as much as his comedy, Bill was known for his obsessions. Namely, his hatred of the media and interest in the Kennedy Assassination. He often cited the latter as an example of the depravity of the former. While it’s old hat now to criticize the media as being dishonest, underhanded, vapid and a tool of the powers that be, in Hicks’ time this was a far less common practice. George Carlin often did so, but in a far more playful way than Hicks. Even on audio recordings you can almost hear the spit and froth coming out of his mouth as he rails against the mass media and its role in controlling the public. This trope would later be taken up by comedians like Joe Rogan.

Another thing Joe Rogan has in common with Hicks is his endorsement of psychedelic drugs. Both Hicks and Rogan were influenced by the work of Irish-American lecturer Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory. This is the theory that human consciousness and language have its genesis in early man’s use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Hicks later stopped using drugs after (he claimed) a UFO abducted him.

One thing Hicks had that all comedians before and since have lacked is a cohesive view of humanity that came warts and all. It’s too easy to dismiss him as a misanthrope. Rather, Hicks saw mankind facing crucial questions of perhaps cosmic significance. He never viewed as incapable of overcoming them. Rather, he was realistic about the dual and contradictory nature of humanity. It’s his brutal honesty mixed with love that makes him so attractive. Both poles of attraction easily resonate with anyone who has a three-digit IQ and the contradiction is not easily resolved.

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