Intellectuals and philosophers are often depicted as inhabiting the academies, or working in prestigious universities or high powered government positions. Very rarely are they products of the ordinary people. In the usual procedure of production it is the general trend that the educational elite produce the next generation of the educated elite, as social position and economic well-being create the conditions that allow for elitism of this type to self-replicate. Of course, it is not always like this, as on occasion a true genius shines through regardless of social position or family history. Bill Hicks – the American comedian – is just one of these remarkable people. Although his chosen medium of communication was humour, the quality and content of his work, when objectively analysed, has to be described as the presentation of a deep and penetrating philosophy disguised as humour. It is a philosophy that contains the added ingredient of making people laugh whilst simultaneously providing them with an education. Like the Greek philosophers of ancientGreece, Hicks stood up in public and delivered his rhetoric. He started doing this in his early teens up until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 – aged just 33 years old. The volume of his work by this time demonstrates that although he died young, he was able to fill his short existence with a lifetime of words. As is the case with any philosopher – the standard of the philosophy produced is dependent upon the quality of the words chosen. His presence upon stage was a blend of the ‘public’ and the ‘personal’ – in a room full of hundreds of people he had the ability to make everyone feel as if he were talking directly to them and sharing a private joke, observation or complaint. Hicks drew the audience into his psychological sphere of influence – creating a sense of approval – even if the spell was broken somewhat at the conclusion of the performance. Although obviously an American, Bill Hicks presented the best of that culture that served its purpose primarily through the function of criticism. American media presents an essentially rightwing and highly religious narrative by way of a means of defining what it thinks ‘America’ is, or should be. Hicks operated strictly as a provider of a continuous counter-narrative that never relaxed for the duration of his lifetime. He was genuinely affronted by much of what passed as ‘American’ through the media, and had a very poignant grasp of the US’s involvement in politics around the world, including the way it uses its military to create regime change. The image Hicks presents through his work is that the majority of Americans either have no interest in what their country does in their names, or are just naïve or legitimately ‘unaware’. His purpose is not just to entertain, but rather to act as an educator to people living in theUSwho simply do know or care about reality. American culture, in its local or regional variety tends to exist oblivious to the outside world. Its information is gained from a media that deliberately dumbs down news articles and in so doing, misrepresents the facts of those articles, creating a ‘Diseny-fication’, a kind of cartoon version of the world andAmerica’s place within it. This kind of narrative is entirely devoid of any ability to observe itself in an honest or impartial manner. The comedy routines developed around this lack of this internal observation. Americanism is presented as never wrong and always practical – the cutting-edge of Hicks’ observations were often uncomfortable for those who paid-in to the system without question. The Christian rightwing was wrong, the American foreign policy was wrong, American militarism was wrong, homophobia was wrong, racism was wrong, the Police were wrong, politicians were wrong, sexual attitudes were wrong, the media was wrong, capitalism was wrong, discrimination was wrong and the war in Iraq was not just wrong, but illegal as well. Hicks was not un-American. The impression one gets from watching and listening to his performances is that here was a man who had educated himself beyond the confines of his own culture. As an American, in many ways Bill Hicks represents the very best of what the culture of theUSAhas to offer. But this brilliance does not mean that it has to conform to every contemporary attitude extant withinAmerica. This voice of opposition was far more important than a quiet voice in the wilderness. Like Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks would not compromise with what he thought was wrong with the country he lived in and the people he lived amongst. His counter-cultural approach signified an aspect of his character that always sought the ‘beyond’ or the ‘transcendental’ from within the ordinary. His experimentation with LSD and his belief and acceptance of UFO’s as being representative of an advanced alien culture visiting the Earth is indicative of this inclination, as is his practice of meditation and his studying of Eastern philosophy. In many ways, his public performances helped him psychologically transcend the reality of his situation, but in so doing, also helped those who came into contact with him during these performances, to experience a very similar effect. He often spoke out against what he perceived as the corruption of institutional religions – but did not reject the notion of spirituality – in fact he drew a very precise line between the two. Established religions were corrupt and practiced a type of highly exploitative brain-washing upon its members. Religions of this type tended to keep practitioners ignorant of the facts and in a state of self-imposed fear designed to prevent any real spiritual growth. Spirituality, on the other hand, contained endless possibilities of inner exploration. These journeys were self-selected and self-enacted and the results immediate and unmediated by a priestly hierarchy who claimed to have your best interests at heart. For Hicks it was definitely the human mind that was the key to human evolution – and he saw the next stage of human development as comprising of a conscious transformation of being above and beyond the base level of the banal everyday existence. He wanted humanity to rise together in one gigantic wave of developmental bliss, the experience of which would mean that nothing would be the same again.
In 1992 much of his output centred on the defeat of George Bush Jr, in the US Presidential elections following his successful invasion of Kuwait and southernIraqin the first Gulf War. Through such material Hicks described his political stance ‘as a little to the Left’. He says that he did not vote for Bush because the recent Republican administrations had sponsored genocide in South American countries – whilst the US media limited the issue to whether a new Democratic President would raise taxes. The natural Rightwing bias within theUnited Statessystem is so prevalent that any legitimate notions of Socialism are treated as if they are a crime of immense immorality, stupidity and the product of extreme mental illness. Hicks detested the mainstream media – and along with corporate advertisers – viewed it as a product of Satan’s seed. In this respect he could be very forceful in his opinions – surprisingly so when his style of delivery is taken into account. The passion manifests suddenly within a meandering narrative about this or that. Regardless of the raw human emotion, he never abandoned the principle of considered opinion gained through intellectual analysis. The intelligence of Hicks – and his intelligence was as able as any renowned thinker Western civilisation has produced – never abandoned an accompanying morality that moulded ideas and directed actions. This morality, however, was never aimed at anyone else as a meta-theory, Hicks primarily targeted himself through its filter honestly expressing all his human failings to the general public. It is true that his political views were highly critical of the American system, but as an American brought up within the ‘land of free’, that his criticism was a natural conclusion of a free thinker and a confirmation of the so-called ‘American Way’. He expressed his highly intelligent criticism of the USA because American culture, with all its implicit underpinnings of the right to free and equal expression, provided the very conditions needed to produce some one such as Bill Hicks, a person that could well be described not only as an eternal cultural icon, but also as a multifaceted ‘genius’ who was primarily unacknowledged during his short life-time, but whose work continues to affect and effect people’s lives despite him no longer being on this plane. What is distinctive about Hicks and his political opinion is that he refused to bow down to the American Rightwing – which had become very powerful during the Cold War – and the mainstream media it controlled. As an American, Hicks expressed the finest qualities of the unwillingness to conform to what he saw as oppressive thought patterns and the political and military actions premised upon them. In this regard he was often attacked as being ‘unpatriotic’ by the Right, and bizarrely ‘un-American’, when in fact even a cursory glance of his work would inform the average person that Hicks was American, but that he expressed a kind of Americanism that harked back to the heady days of revolutionary thought that founded the US system, and the inherent Leftwingism that use to be obvious and present within the US political narrative. Bill Hicks was not a cultural aberration, but rather a confirmation of the American Revolution that threw-off the shackles of direct Colonial rule fromLondon. Only in relatively recent times has the American Rightwing totally subsumed the Left to such an extent that it appears no longer to exist in that country. No wonder that Bill Hicks often describes himself as a ‘little to the Left’, because in a country where the Rightwing dominates alone, absolutely any questioning of that system is immediately attacked, ridiculed and destroyed through the use of words and imagery, and as the last great threat to American Capitalism was the Soviet Union – any one who disagrees with Rightwing Republicanism is of course immediately accused of be a Communist, as if being aware of, or a member of that noble school of thought were some kind of crime. Even today, the Democrat President Barak Obama is referred to by his political enemies as ‘Comrade Obama’. Hicks says that we are the ‘puppet people’, the docile masses who believe that every thing placed upon the TV has to be true because it is ‘there’. The contemporary American political system, consisting as it does of just two parties, was presented by Hicks as two separate puppets controlled by the same person. Nothing was beyond the discerning eye of his precise criticism. What is interesting is that he was able to create a political dialogue that questioned the status quo of the country he lived within, whilst presenting that dialogue (at the point of first contact), through the filter of a refined humour. It is as if Hicks was aware of the institutional resistance educated into the minds of the American public, and designed his performances to engage the resistance, nullify it through a gentle humour – that is ‘softening up the resistance’ – before delivering the implicit Leftwing thrust of his thinking to a relatively receptive, or prepared mind. This method of accessing the minds of others is incredibly sophisticated – and this is before the actual content of his rhetoric is taken into account. Although very clever, it can not be accused of being a manipulation of the masses, as the audiences choose to attend the public performances actually paying to be entertained in this manner. Today, thousands of people continue this activity by purchasing the DVDs and CDs of Bill Hicks’, allowing themselves to be transformed by the Bill Hicks experience contained within.
The content varied in his performances around the subjects of politics, religion, extraterrestrial visitation, human ignorance, violence in society, city life and of course sexuality. InBritain, Hicks would gather knowledge about local areas and tailor his sketches accordingly. For instance, when inOxford(in 1992) it was the area of Cowley that took the brunt of some his humour – to the appreciation of theOxfordaudience. It was here also that Bill Hicks lamented the recent election defeat of the British Labour Party earlier that year. This performance, perhaps one of the best all round of his later career, spends time talking about pornography and the hypocritical attitudes existent within theUSAassociated with sexuality. This a country that produces a very large output of hardcore pornography at an alarming rate, whilst simultaneously practicing a moral conservatism that leads to simulated scenes of a sexual nature being deleted from mainstream cinematic films. The Kennedy Assassination is a favourite theme of and recurs through his performances. He pours scorn upon the ‘official’ version of events and through a re-cap of the key points of the event demonstrates that this version is not only probably incorrect, but at the same time signifies a cover-up that is an insult to the average intelligence. This interlocks with the idea that the American political system attempts to lull people into a sense of false security where even their democratic right to ‘question’ is not required to be practiced – ‘go back to bed America, everything is fine…’ It is the apparent negating of the principle of free and informed thinking that offends Hicks the most. His response is to ‘think more’, not less, whilst confronting such a homogenised culture that is comprised of a blend of ‘control’ and ‘oppression’. Although the powers that be might prefer their citizenry not to think, they can, whilst perpetuating the contradictory mythology of the ‘land of the free’, actually prevent a person thinking should they choose to do so – Hicks effectively demonstrates this point. What can happen, however, is that society can be controlled in such a way that creates patterns of behaviour that actively discourage the practice of informed debate – the point Hicks makes through his performances is that America has become such a place where institutional ignorance rules over refined intelligence – and that the higher aspects of education are preserved only for those wealthy enough to afford them, and who, consequently, are supportive of the idea that the majority of the people are conditioned not to think for themselves, but continue the daily grind of repetitive, exploitative behaviour, which contains within it the programming to attack and ridicule any outside attempt to free them from their imposed predicament. Part of the conserving nature of this situation arises from the presence of fundamentalist religion, which serves as a kind supportive harness to the establishment – accepting its thoughts and actions without question, and actively participating at times in the implementation policies based upon them – invariably Rightwing Presidents are careful to create a media image of a close proximity to religion – usually some kind of Christianity. Hicks makes the controversial point that many of these Christian groups are opposed to the practice of pregnancy termination – claiming that all life is precious – whilst at the same time often vocally supporting the practice of judicial execution whereby a convicted criminal is put to death by the State. Hicks does concede, however, that without the practice of the judicial Death Penalty, the distinct religion of Christianity would not exist. Jesus – of course, taught humanity should love one another and not take any other human life – Hicks appears to be in agreement with this position, but criticises the modern Christian Church for not actually following the teachings as laid down in the scripture of their founder. This kind of situation is compounded by the anti-scientific stance adopted by many people who take the teachings contained within the Bible at face value. This literal interpretation denies the teaching of Evolution and instead insists that the presence of dinosaur bones in the earth – that are not mentioned in the Bible – have been placed there by god to ‘test their faith’. Bill Hicks took exception to the idea that a Christian god is a ‘prankster god’ that spends his time f’cking with his head!
Almost without exception Hicks would always leave his audience with the message that life is just a ride – as it is an essentially a delusional experience – made real by the power of the human mind. This mind however, has the further ability to consciously evolve to a higher level of being beyond the limitation of everyday thought habit. This is the transcendental quality of Hicks’ humour. It is as if the content – as excellent as it was – was just passing the time so that the real underlying message of escape through growth could be delivered. In a blink of an eye – Hicks informs us – can create peace on Earth, now at this moment. This is achieved by looking through the eyes of love – rather than the eyes of fear. This message correlates with the other Hicks idea often deployed as the carrier of this transcendent message, namely that existence is in reality one consciousness experiencing itself through the lives of many. Unity, peace and transcendence, coupled with love and understanding will take humanity to the next level of evolution and in the process forever leave behind the drudgery, suffering, injustice, persecution and killing that has defined humanities progress for thousands of years. Within this process it is acknowledged that it is a matter of will – if the entirety of humanity so wished it – peace could become the immediate situation here and now. Drugs such as magic mushrooms, marijuana, LSD and opium have their place in human development. Hicks always made the point that the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco have absolutely no benefit to those partaking in them, and actually lead to the breakdown of society through drunkenness and disease, etc, whilst those untaxable drugs mentioned previously, that have a conscious expanding affect, are prevented from reaching people in a legitimate format due to their assumed illegality. The ‘War On Drugs’, according to Hicks was actually a war on civil rights. Hicks stated that as long as a person is not hurting another human being, what business is it of any one else what we do with our own consciousness? Bill often stated that he once ingested magic mushrooms and spent the next four hours lying in a field experiencing a deep and profound love for everything in existence. If enough people had a similar experience it would become very difficult to justify warfare as a concept and an activity, and the arms manufacturing business would collapse over-night. Hicks suggest here that there is a conspiracy conducted by the establishment that conspires to prevent ordinary people partaking in substances that would probably enable them to see the absurdity of their situation and the brain-washing techniques used to sustain it. This is one of the methods the authorities use to retain power in a real sense that gives the illusion of choice as exercised through the modern democratic process. When the government is not busy openly controlling the outside of the human body, it is actively participating in the suppression of the inner mind, preventing conscious growth and the kind of associated education that would see through the government’s role in holding all the oppression together. Although the official propaganda continuously declares that drugs are bad, Hicks continuously counters these claims by pouring scorn upon the official rhetoric, and decisively stating for the public record that he has engaged in mind altering drug experimentation and has never robbed any one, or killed any one, but rather had an amazing experience before going about his day. In many of his recorded shows he actually encourages the audience to experiment with drugs and make their own mind up, pointing out that much great music and art has evolved from the creative genius of those under the influence of such substances. There is a peculiar parallel to these statements in as much as by 1992 Hicks had already been off of drugs for four years, and had just stopped smoking. However, despite these adjustments of habit for health reasons, Hicks never backed away from the idea that mind altering substances are beneficial to the humanity’s consciousness. For Hicks these kinds of drugs offer a speeding up, or a short cut through the evolutionary process. This is all backed up by the idea that no one under the influence of marijuana has ever gotten into a fight – because it is just impossible to do so. This open and honest approach endeared Hicks as an icon of counter-culture to the younger generation, and confirmed his status as a philosopher pioneer to those older than himself. Bill Hicks spoke passionately about his experiences in life without distortion or unnecessary elaboration – he never claimed to be any thing he was not. In many ways, what the audience saw, they got. The ordinary human condition was not a mistake or hindrance upon the spiritual path of development – it was the path itself – and that meant that everything was up for grabs and comedic discussion. Sexuality, drugs, the ‘United States of Advertising’, politics, mundane life religion and finally the dying experience, combined in a rich mosaic of experience that if used in the right way could lead a human being to an understanding of the universe far beyond the material plane of existence. Each word and sentence uttered by Bill Hicks was designed to free the listener from the tyranny of their own everyday existences. In this respect he was like a modern day Ch’an or Zen master, cutting down delusion with correct verbal expression, presenting at times the most brutal of compassion. Hicks could be harsh –his monologues involving the Goat Boy, Satan’s Seed, corporate and political hypocrisy and many others, although dark and brooding were never dishonest. Hicks displayed both sides of humanity whilst always pushing for a spiritually transcendent experience. He manifested a certain gentleness of spirit that enveloped whatever communicative mood he happened to be on the night, and recorded conversations off stage, often with people he did not know, show that as a human being he was thoughtful and caring, never appearing selfish, or full of arrogance due to his celebrity. Indeed, he came across as very ‘ordinary’ and one of the people. It is true that this ‘ordinariness’ contained within it an unparalleled ability to entertain random audiences, and simultaneously make them laugh as well as make the think, but behind the professional persona Hicks refused to become a ‘media whore’ whose identity was dictated by the whims of passing fads and expedient commercial considerations. Hicks was very much of the people, when he spoke to the people, indeed he spoke for the people.
Around 1992 – 1993 Bill Hicks’ career was really taking off. He was becoming well known in the UKand the USAthrough TV appearances and good press. He was working continuously and travelling extensively giving nightly performances. He spent much of his life on the road, but at this time a certain increase in frequency was prevalent. Hicks was going places. People wanted to pay to see him perform, whilst managers and producers wanted to book him. He had been performing from the age of thirteen years old – inspired by the other American comic icon Woody Allen. From this early age he had honed his philosophy of gentle anarchy in front of adult audiences. Now, in his early thirties, after performing for nearly twenty years, he seemed to possess a spirit of one far older. Appreciation for his work as an artist, performer, philosopher and member of the counter-culture intelligentsia, was just beginning to become mainstream. A number of his live shows had been purposely recorded for release on CD and there was talk of regular TV shows with Hicks as the host. Furthermore, his American grown humour critical of the current state of USculture had found a very warm welcome in Great Britain. He played in Scotlandand Englandto sell out crowds whose enthusiasm for his presence seemed to lift Bill Hicks to another level (or frequency of being) in his performances. Not long after his performance in Oxford (November, 1992), Bill Hicks started to experience discomfort in his abdomen area – as his schedule was very busy, this was put down to indigestion brought on by a fast lifestyle and late nights. Just over six months later, in June 1993, Hicks was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Hicks was given just three months to live. He was started on treatment designed to give him a little more time, which it did. Bill Hicks lived another eight months before passing away on February 26th, 1994. He continued to perform and make plans for the future in 1993 after the diagnosis, but the chemotherapy and the illness were beginning to take their toll. Incredibly, Bill Hicks performed live one more time on stage on January the 5th, 1994 at Carline’s Comedy Club, New York. Half an hour into the performance Bill asked if his manager was in the audience – he then said ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Hicks replaced the microphone and walked off stage. The strength of spirit required to do the gig at the advanced stage of his illness and walk off stage in the dignified manner that he did, exhibited the highest calibre of character. On February 7th he penned a short piece entitled a ‘New Happiness’. Within it he thanked god for all the artists, and expressed a remarkably upbeat attitude toward life which was full of hope. He expressed the shock he felt when first learning of his terminal illness, and the accompanying sense of injustice. Now, as his illness was nearing its end, Bill Hicks’ creative genius came to the surface once again through the haze of treatment and illness. This short piece, some just five paragraphs long, reads like a script to one of his performances, expressing a section of incredible insight and glowing wisdom. He speaks of aNew Hope and a New Happiness contained within his search for answers to life’s great questions – least of all his own particular situation. Like a Ch’an or Zen master, Hicks appears to be writing his ‘final word’ as his physical life comes to a conclusion. He concluded this piece with the following words:
I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.’*
On February 14th, 1994 – St Valentine’s Day – Bill Hicks contacted old friends, and then announced that he would no longer be using speech to communicate. He was coming to terms with his rapidly deteriorating physical condition and acknowledged the dying process for what it was. He was withdrawing attention away from the outer world at a time when his diminishing energy was required to maintain the failing body for whatever time it had left. The dying process, particularly in situations such as this is always an isolating experience – not only for the person under going it, but also for those around who can not help or prevent the inevitable in any meaningful way. Death at such a young age is devastating to all concerned. Bills Hicks was a gentle spirit with a sharp, insightful mind. The manner with which he approached the physical demise of the vehicle that had carried his spiritual essence around for the previous thirty two years or so, can be said to be dignified regardless of the actual realities of such an unfolding of events. A physical demise of this nature is a waiting game, regardless of the apparent speed with which the time drags by between diagnosis and conclusion. As with much of life, a paradox appears to be in motion. It is ironic that much of Bill’s output along his path was based upon actually revealing and clarifying the contradictions inherent in life that many people were unable to perceive. The final act of this remarkable life involved a shocking exit from the stage. In one sketch Bill Hicks suggests that the ‘terminally ill’ be used as disposable stuntmen in the movies – giving the impression that this rather public form of euthanasia – was far more dignified than the usual practice of placing the elderly and the dying in unfamiliar care homes to face their end amongst people they do not know. For Hicks, it was the established modernity that was terrifying – not his suggest that the dying go out in a blaze of dignified glory – Hicks asks the rhetorical question as to whether grandma should die a cold and lonely death – or should she meet Chuck Norris? Hicks, of course, passed away within the home of his parents, amongst those who loved him, and with those whom he loved. Bill Hicks left his body at 11:20pm on the 26th of February, 1994. He lives on, of course, through the memories of those who knew him personally, and through the audio-visual recordings of his many performances and lifetime experiences. One night inOxford in 1992, he was arguably at the absolute peak of his powers. It is probably fitting to end this tribute to Bill Hicks not with a profound statement of his – of which there are many – but with a request aimed at him from an appreciating audience. That request is; ‘Come on Billy!’
Reference: Hicks, Bill: Love All The People, (2004) – Page 293.