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):
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