I recently saw the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story at ACMI. (Unfortunately, it has just now finished its run at that venue but I am confident there will be many more avenues through which to see the film for those who wish to do so.) As I waited for the session to start, I read a feature article about sixty-five-year-old Deborah Harry from the musical group Blondie.
Coincidentally, I had just watched a performance that Blondie gave on Saturday Night Live, when the band was young and vital, all skinny ties and nimble movements. Furthermore, I have been rereading the John Belushi biography Wired, which I first read when I was seventeen and so found the concept of dying in one’s early thirties not to be an overly big deal, as opposed to how I feel now, with Belushi and the other cast members of Saturday Night Live appearing to me to be mere children. And, what’s more, I also recently revisited the video for ‘Spies Like Us’, with Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd having to horse around with Paul McCartney. Consequently, my head was filled with, highly unoriginal, thoughts about the advantages of dying young when it comes to a person managing to remain hip on a long-term basis. However, I actually ended up leaving American with other things on my mind.
In terms of my knowledge of Bill Hicks, I know who he is and I have been exposed to some of his work: I would estimate that I’ve watched one DVD and heard one album. Therefore, apologies in advance for anything I might say here that is screamingly wrong due simply to my ignorance. Because of the fact that I am not an authority on the man and his comedy, I found it to be worth my while to have gone to American. I’m sure, though, that a person who is a real connoisseur of Hicks would view American with a contempt similar to that of a Shakespearean scholar being forced to watch the Burton and Taylor film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew.
However, I learned rather more facts about Hicks’s life than I had been aware of before, as well as more about his work than I had hitherto known. And the film was perfectly nicely done as well, even though there was slightly too much use of images of Hicks being imposed on other images to show How Things Really Looked. I probably could have just about managed to work out how Hicks must have appeared when he flew on a plane to New York, for example, without this particular visual aid. On the other hand, it was interesting to see how much the right pair of eyeglasses could make Hicks resemble Billy Field.
Hicks himself not only has a lot of wildly enthusiastic fans, he seems to be a comedian whom it is all right to like. I would imagine that in the circles that the kinds of people who are fans of Hicks are likely to move in, you’re not likely to be shown the door if you say that you like Bill Hicks, similarly to the total safety involved in being around a bunch of music nerds and admitting that, yes, you really like Elvis Costello. The thing is, however, that there’s something about Hicks that rubs me up the wrong way, and I say this while fully acknowledging the man’s intelligence and skill, not to mention the fact that I have often agreed with what he said (or, at least, with those bits that I’ve actually heard).
My trouble with Hicks is simply that even though there is much about him I can respect, he also plucks my nerves sometimes. Now, one thing that American didn’t quite manage to do was to show us what Hicks was like offstage. For all I know, he was a charming fellow. However, when I listen to his routines it has the same effect on me as being talked to by someone at a party who offers many, many opinions at high volume on fish-in-a-barrel subjects such as consumerism and the dopier aspects of popular culture, until you’re thinking that if this person doesn’t pretty soon stop with telling you things you already know, you’re going to have to shoot them in the leg.
I was interested to learn from American that Hicks first made it really big in the United Kingdom rather than in the United States. The impression I had from the film was that this was because his fellow Americans could not entirely embrace him being such an apostle of truth about what was wrong with their country. I can certainly believe that this has some accuracy. On the other hand, I also wasn’t especially dazzled by Hicks finding such acclaim in the UK. After all, if there’s one thing the English like, it’s being told how stupid Americans are. The only pastime they like more than heaping scorn on their cousins across the pond is a good old talk about which motorway to take to get from one dreary part of their country to another. Still, I am sure that Hicks wasn’t merely preaching to the converted all the time while on stage in the UK, and that he also talked about things that were equally as controversial there as they were in the US.
But what also contributes to my slight prejudice against Hicks is that I can find his most vehement fans quite annoying. What I find boring is the syndrome of the state of being a Bill Hicks fan being used as shorthand for indicating that you yourself are quite the smarty pants who is able, as few people are, really to recognise society’s hypocrisies and failings. When I saw American, most of the audience members were laughing so hard at Hicks’s every utterance that you’d think they’d been told they could wear nothing but knickerbockers for the rest of their lives unless they could prove publicly that, yes, they really had a sense of humour and could really dig what Hicks was talking about.
But even putting my exasperation with certain of Bill Hicks’s admirers to one side, it was my impression – and, again, it may well be an erroneous one – from American that his sense of humour didn’t necessarily extend to himself (any more than a person’s sense of humour ever genuinely does extend to himself or herself, I suppose). But I certainly had an expression on my face that looked like I’d been sucking a sour candy when I learned from the film that the text Hicks prepared as his last words to be released after his premature death ended with ‘I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit’. While I sincerely hope that this thought gave Hicks and his loved ones comfort, it also seems to me to be a highly self-important claim for a person to make for their dead self. However, I wouldn’t want to get into it with him now that he’s omnipresent, so I guess I’ll just have to continue avoiding anywhere that truth, love and laughter might possibly abide.