Sunday 23 February 2014

Bill Hicks in print, 20 years on...

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks. He was only 32, brought down by cancer, though of the pancreas, not, as might have been expected for one of the most famous smokers in history, the lungs.

The self-described "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes" is still cool, still as relevant as ever, and his performances live on, discovered by each new generation. The burst of media attention surrounding this anniversary will no doubt introduce yet more people to his worldview (which is essentially love=good, war/intolerance=bad, people who work in marketing=worse). If Russell Crowe's biopic ever gets off the ground (he's signed on as director, not star, thank god), we can expect Hicks to go even more 'mainstream'. I bet Bill's looking down and pissing himself at the thought.

Thanks to the ongoing demand, pretty much every TV, radio and live performance Hicks ever gave has either been officially released, or can be found online. On Youtube alone you can spend several hours (or indeed days) combing through his entire career, from the hardly-out-of-his-teens newbie, via early TV appearances to his big headline shows and even one of his last ever sets.

This is my favourite routine of his, which you have to remind yourself is about the first Iraq go-round with George Bush Snr, even though it still played like cutting edge topical comedy several years after Hicks had died...

In print, the Bill Hicks bookshelf is not too long, which means that no self-respecting fan can be without any of these (and we have copies of the first two in stock at the moment folks):

American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story by Cynthia True

The first Hicks biography, originally published in 2002, which later became the basis of the well-received documentary entitled simply American.

Love All the People: The Essential Bill Hicks 

A compilation of 'Letters, Lyrics and Routines' by Hicks (and interviews and articles about him) prefaced by John Lahr's 'The Goatboy Rises', a New Yorker piece which raised Hicks' profile to new heights in the US mere months before he died. While the transcribed live performances are not really 'essential' if you have the audio, there's a wealth of other stuff here, including treatments for his never-to-be-made TV series for Channel 4, Counts of the Netherworld (make sure you go for the later, expanded edition of the book, pictured above, if you can). Hicks' letter to John Lahr in the aftermath of his banned Letterman performance is also particularly memorable. Speaking of which, many years later Letterman did eventually do the decent thing, inviting Bill's mum onto the show to apologise to her for cutting the appearance, before showing it in full (you can see it here).

Agent of Evolution: The Definitive Biography by Kevin Booth with Michael Bertin

Though Cynthia True's book is probably still the one to start with, Booth was Hicks' buddy and right hand man, so knows whereof he speaks. This is out of print, but still easy enough to find. ABE even has a signed copy (by Booth of course, not Hicks, who didn't live to see any of these books).

What Would Bill Hicks Say?

I've not seen a copy of this, but according to the blurb: "In 250 words (or one picture) or less, writers, comedians, musicians, cartoonists, and entrants from Austin’s annual Bill Hicks Tribute Rant-Off fulminate about the current political and cultural scene in Hicksian rants. Contributors include cartoonists Jeff Danziger and Martyn Turner; writers Neal Pollack, Robert Newman, and A.L. Kennedy; and Thom Yorke of Radiohead."

One Consciousness: An Analysis of Bill Hicks' Comedy by Paul Outhwaite

Self-published, but on Amazon (for a price!), this is, according to a 5 star Amazon review: "well worth the effort. Paul Outhwaite's book traces the cultural and political background to Hicks' material as well as offering and insight into his influences, style and attitude to audiences. There's a great chapter comparing his physical comedy to Richard Pryor. The real joy of this book is the way that Outhwaite, like Hicks, seeks to make connections. In the book, Hicks' comedy is compared with George Orwell's writing, the science-fiction genre and spirituality, whilst the last two chapters seek to look at how his comedy can be applied to world events since his death. Imaginative and very readable."

The other notable print 'appearance' Hicks made is in Preacher, the now classic, soon to be a TV series comic book by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. He features in issue 31 (collected in the fifth graphic novel volume, Dixe Fried) when Jesse Custer goes to see him perform.

Bill Hicks then ladies and gentlemen. We will not see his like again (however much Dennis Leary tries). 

How's this for an epitaph:

"Bill Hicks — blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer, and brain specialist, like a reverend waving a gun around. He will correct your vision. Others will drive on the road he built."  — Tom Waits

Monday 17 February 2014

Edwardian Self-Help Books for Women: How To Fold Serviettes, Cancel Engagements, And Make Cement

Leafing through the final pages of a book published in 1903 (the Lily Perks novel mentioned in the last blog entry in fact), I came across lots of adverts for other books from the same publisher. They're a fascinating glimpse into the concerns and day-to-day life of the well-to-do (or would-be well-to-do) lady or young gel of the time, whether it be the intricacies of 'love' (including how to handle 'intercourse between unconfessed lovers', which I fear is not as exciting as it sounds), how to make cement (I think it means 'glue', but I love the idea of Edwardian ladies building walls) and the essential skill of 'how to test damp beds'...

Sunday 2 February 2014

Damned With Faint Praise: The Sad Literary Legacy of Lily Perks

Have you ever heard of Lily Perks? Thought not. She was an author in the 1890s and early 1900s, but she doesn't warrant an Wikipedia entry, and none of her novels remain in print, other than as print on demand copies of scans, since they are out of copyright. I imagine the demand is light. She is, it is fair to say, a forgotten author.

Her books include From Arcady to Babylon, Gifts and Weirds, and Life's Counterpoint. There's a copy of the latter on the shelves at Withnail Books. It was published in 1903 by Pearson, as a nicely produced hardback (one assumes with a dustwrapper, though this copy's is long gone).

Charles Horrell's illustrations are now the kind of thing that appear on jokey gift cards...

It's a romance novel, written by a woman, for women. What would be dismissed as 'chick lit' today. Mind you, it was pretty much dismissed back in 1903 as well. Googling Lily Perks these days reveals nothing about the author herself, but thanks to the digitisation of old newspapers, it does throw up links to a couple of contemporary reviews of her work. Here's the London correspondent of the New Zealand Star:

From faint praise to no praise in this fantastically snooty Spectator review of her earlier novel, A Late Springtime:

There is really very little to be said about this story which it would be at all worth while to say. Mrs. or Miss Perks is evidently a cultivated and refined woman, and these are days in which it is very difficult to discover a woman of cultivation and refinement who has not either written a novel or thought of writing one. Unfortunately, while education, interest in literature, and the power to write with some measure of ease and correctness, are much commoner than of old, the qualities which go to the making of a good novel have not become equally common; and we must regretfully say that we see no signs of their presence here. There is no material for a "slating" review—that is, if the reviewer be moderately courteous and honest—for from positive literary vices the book is entirely free. The complaint is that positive literary virtues are also absent, that the matter is conventional, the style tame, the whole being somewhat flat and entirely ordinary. The story is the kind of story that has been told again and again, and it gains nothing of freshness in its latest setting. One is not roused to anger by agreeable commonplace, but praise must be reserved for something else.

Ouch. It's a shame that Mrs or Miss Perks' literary legacy has come to this, but hey, not every writer is a Dickens, and an entry on an obscure blog over a century later is better than nothing...