Sep 7, 2015

The Tao of Bill Hicks: “Chomsky with Dick Jokes”

Mark Kernan argues that the late comedian was a shaman of our times
By Mark Kernan /

Is the mainstream media really failing people and the planet? As with any bold and generalised proposition it is always good to start with the evidence. Or, then again, as Bill Hicks might have said: “fuck that.”

But wait, let me back up a bit. The evidence? Well, if we are talking about the mainstream media in the west, we are talking about on the whole commercial entities controlled by extremely wealthy men and huge transnational corporations. Do they have an agenda? One that is manifestly failing us and the environment? And is detrimental to the future of humankind? Are we all buggered by impending climate change and not even being fully informed in the process?

If you are reading this, you are probably converted to this particular world view. If not, and you are unconvinced of the above proposition that the mainstream media is at best disinterested, or at worse complicit in spreading ignorance and misinformation, well: don’t be lazy and complacent.

Not convinced yet? Go back to the title of this article; the medium (the language, the content and communication of that language) is the message, right?

Still not convinced? Open a book by Klein or Chomsky or read an article by Bill McKibben. Or failing that, maybe even just go to a Frankie Boyle concert. Cast your net wider than the mainstream media in other words. Just a few pointers. Make up your own mind. If you do, be warned though; you’ll find the truth about our civilisation’s collective myopia to be a menacing and foreboding thing, a creeping spectre off in the arid, panoramic distance, edging closer and closer like a dark, silhouetted horseman.

Before you know it, the haunted vision will be right beside you, like a high plains drifter, taunting you with the ghostly refrain: “I told you so. I told you so.” But you, we, wouldn’t listen.

What would Bill do?

“Listen,” Bill Hicks once said, in his preachy, often self-righteous, but always very funny comedic delivery. “The next revolution is gonna be a revolution of ideas.” But Bill was only partly right when he said this, for as I’m sure he well knew, all revolutions begin ultimately with ideas (and emotions) in people’s heads and hearts. Ideas about why, for example, economic inequality and, increasingly, environmental degradation coexist in a world where a tiny few are fabulously wealthy and covet all the resources. Yet next door, both literally and metaphorically, the vast majority are grindingly poor and live short, hard and impoverished lives. We all know the statistics.

Bill Hicks railed against injustice and was, as a fellow comedian said, like Jesus in the temple.

Bill Hicks railed against injustice as he saw it. He was, as one fellow comedian said, like Jesus in the temple - kicking out all the money men in self-righteous fury. The problem for Bill, though, was that he never knew when to stop the self-righteous anger phase. Anger may be an energy, as John Lydon said, but anger if we are not careful can also be destructive and even a counter-productive emotion.

If Hicks were still alive today, how would he have developed? Would he now be a Buddhist monk, “loving all the people”? Or would he still be lashing out, hilariously of course, angry at the injustice of it all? Probably the latter.

So, what does the “tao” of Bill Hicks actually mean? Hicks was famously dismissive of mainstream American media. In fact, he was one of the few comedians who called it as he saw it; he had no self-censorship, no cynical filter and little or no calculating self-interest. Just ask David Letterman. And it wasn’t just the media that felt his acerbic wit, he famously excoriated marketing too: “By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising… kill yourself.”

The mainstream media’s real function, Hicks thought, was to enchant, to weave a spell, to keep people credulous. If this was true in the early 1990s, when he was famous, then the problem is even more acute now.

But now, 20 years later, and 20 more years of environmental destruction (we are, after all, heading to a probable 2%-4% rise in average temperatures as a result of global greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades…. not laughing now, are you!) and 20 more years of mainstream media myopia and, worse, sometimes even just plain mass media disinformation - what would Bill Hicks say now? Would he still be a prophetic outlaw?

Some might ask themselves the question: What would Jesus do? Well, I’m going to ask what would Bill do, and say

Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!

Hicks was unlike any of his contemporaries. His shows could be very, very funny and on the edge (a precipice more like): never fuzzy or comforting. He prowled the stage with all the self-righteous anger and swagger of an old-time southern preacher, hilariously venting his irreligious spleen at all the detritus Americana threw at him. The space between his ego and his id, the playground of his inner demons, battling it out for supremacy over his heart and intellect on hostile, but more often than not apathetic audiences across beltway America.

Hicks died in 1994, aged 33, of pancreatic cancer. On the cusp of serious fame, or Lenny Bruce-like infamy more accurately, he is now seared into our cultural memory, or countercultural memories more accurately - a pop culture receptacle for all our bile and frustration, and our love and hope. He tapped without mercy into our collective primeval longing for someone to tell us the truth about our lives, by exploring our fears, hopes and desires.

He was here on a self-appointed mission to disturb and disrupt the established order: a diabolical and self-conscious molotov cocktail in human form, combining the incendiary elements of Johnny Cash, George Carlin and Noam Chomsky into one explosive comet, straight out of Texas. Considering he challenged the monster of our collective complacency like no comedian ever has, what the hell would he now make of our ever-increasing collective insanity, our inert apathy and disinterest about the future of the planet, all the while promulgated by an “objective and impartial” dystopian media? Whether railing with manic precision against corporate manufactured pop music or corporate manufactured politics, who now could doubt his comedic and social vision? Few people, probably.

There will be no eulogising of Hicks here, or canonising him as the secular saint of confrontational comedy. He was too good for that. Truth is, that in death he has become something of a one-man cult, a comedic David Koresh or a Jim Jones but with a better sense of irony, a manic Texan in grainy but little-viewed YouTube videos. Hicks’s secular canonisation in the church of comedy since his death would have horrified him. The truth is that Hicks didn’t receive any real mainstream attention until after his death. He observed and ridiculed society from the margins, and it is at the margins of society where all good outlaws must live.

Truth is just a five-lettered word

The truth will almost always be found at the margins, rarely at the centre, where opinions and values must conform to accepted and agreed-upon consensual reality. When someone comes along and punctures that reality with new ideas, and then peels back the façade to reveal - a bit like the green curtain scene in the Wizard of Oz - the sometimes ugly and often horrible truth we’ve all been concealing from ourselves, we, collectively, as Gandhi said, first ignore them, then ridicule them, then fight them; then, finally, we come around to their truth.

The mainstream media on the whole is failing us, the people, on climate change and its harsh truths, with some honourable exceptions. But this doesn’t absolve us either of our responsibility to the planet and to future generations. We consume unconsciously most of the time after all, with little real responsibility. Yet, perhaps, we even want to be lied to; we don’t want to know about the impending spectre slouching towards us. Consequently we are wholly complicit in our own ignorance. Hicks understood this dichotomous and paradoxical truth more than most, and it horrified him.

We are wholly complicit in our own ignorance. Hicks understood this dichotomous and paradoxical truth more than most, and it horrified him.

We are now, after all, even more relentlessly bombarded with thousands of channels full of “pituitary retards”, as Hicks said, blunting and distracting our thoughts and actions with illusive promises of X Factor fame, easy money, fast car, and more and more exotic sex: a cornucopia of manipulated desires slated by shopping malls, credit cards, designer toilets and shiny glass skyscrapers.

The truth about the effects and consequences of climate change, and the changes that will be necessary to combat and mitigate against its coming ravages will not be found in Fox News or in a myriad of other commercial TV channels or most newspapers across the globe, again with some honourable exceptions. And even if it occasionally is, rarely will we see cause and effect joined up into one explanatory whole. Better to fragment knowledge and understanding of climate change, better still to ridicule the very idea of it. Instead, we’ll have many more Jeremy Clarksons tearing up to the magnetic North Pole in gas-guzzling 4x4s, blithely, but consciously aware, of course, of their mission to misinform and manipulate a largely uneducated public. The fact that there was a record ice melt in the Arctic a few years after the now notorious Top Gear programme was made hasn’t led to urgency or advocacy amongst the mainstream media; objectivity must be maintained after all. Rather what is communicated to us by a plethora of journalists, celebrities and broadcasters is apathy and ironic disbelief, or worse, fear and belligerence, and of course ridicule, the strategy supreme of all the best demagogues.

Here’s Tom with the weather!

Hicks didn’t care if the audience loved him or not. He wasn’t seeking validation for his insecurities, as lesser comedians do. Sometimes he didn’t even like his audiences, nor they him. You don’t get the humour? Go eat a pizza, or watch American Idol. Even when he was obviously parodying the self-imposed persona of the preacher/outlaw image he cultivated in later years, he rarely if ever let his audience of the hook and he never condescended to them. A bit like a great 19th century novel that is difficult to get into in the first 100 pages or so, Hicks paid you off eventually if you stuck with him.

But what would he say today, in 2015, now that the worst of late 20th century Americana has metamorphosed into cultural and economic globalisation, its bloated tentacles relentlessly pursuing markets, resources and consumers.

To understand Hicks and his audiences, think of the stylised silhouette of Robert Mitchum’s character Harry Powell in the classic 1955 film Night of the Hunter: all seething menace, a good degree of charm, and volatile sexuality. A preacher of dubious origins, come to spread the gospel, or at least some sort of gospel. Hicks didn’t repress his sexuality though - rather he gave full vent to it, sometimes with deeply uncomfortable results for his more puerile audiences. He didn’t care, though. He also vented his legendary misanthropy, again with deeply uncomfortable results for anyone caught in the crossfire.

“Fuck you. Get out. Get out, you fucking drunk bitch. Take her out! Take her fucking out. Take her to somewhere that’s good. Go see fucking Madonna, you fucking idiot piece of shit.”

No one ever said it was pretty.

Mitchum’s character in the film was a serial killer turned preacher, a crazed psychopath with a penchant for old-time religion and Old Testament-style killing. Hicks, too, was also a good ol’ boy from a Southern Baptist background and, just like the fictional preacher, he sure as hell knew how to kill - Hicks could kill an audience but never with faux kindness; he didn’t smile while doing it either. Sometimes he couldn’t even hide his contempt for his audience. But he still kept touring, year after year, frequently antagonising his audiences in the American heartlands with his castigation of the American empire and all it represented. Deep down, he must have loved them.

But let’s be honest, he only said what most of us have thought or felt at one time or another about other human beings. His epic rage against individual human stupidity, his no holds barred wrath against the collective hypocrisy and cant of the western body politic, and against the global arms industry; these are the type of things we censor ourselves from saying anything about. We censor these thoughts because we know that to articulate them could potentially be detrimental to our self-interest, or we just don’t want to be unpopular; most of us don’t like to rock the boat. The ultimate truth, of course, is more prosaic - most times we don’t say these things because we haven’t got the balls.

Franz Kafka said that we should only read books that wound or stab us. A book, he said, is only of worth and value if it grieves us deeply, and that its purpose is to be “the axe for the frozen sea within us”. Hicks took Kafka’s injunction literally. Caustic humour was his axe. Just like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, all menacing grins and manic energy. “No one gets outta here alive.”

Death of an American shaman

All the best humour ultimately comes from a subversive place, in that it is a reaction to some form of oppression or repression, it is also a rebellious two fingers to stultifying conformity and the self-importance and delusion of those in authority. The best comedians in the early 21st century are now our shamans, purging and casting out all the shit for us that we know is out there beyond our computers, newspapers and TV screens: in our politics, in our popular culture and in our vastly unequal economic systems and, of course, most terrifyingly of all in our fucked-up global climate system, which we unfailingly refuse to confront in any meaningful way as a human collective.

Shamans in indigenous cultures are regarded as wounded healers. They take care of the material and spiritual wellbeing of the tribe. Because of their position they are exalted, and even a little feared. The shaman’s transcendent experiences transform the darker spirits afflicting the tribe, like a spiritual alchemist, an otherworldly sorcerer, a person of wisdom and bravery to be respected. But who does our 21st century tribe of distracted consumers exalt and respect?

If he had lived, what would Hicks the alchemist shaman have made of the Iraq war, or Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or mass state surveillance, or 911, or the perpetual economic austerity foisted upon the masses while socioeconomcic inequality goes dangerously unchecked? And most of all, of course, what would he have made of the apocalyptic onslaught of ecological and environmental catastrophe, the silhouetted horseman coming closer and closer? Could even Hicks have envisaged our creeping descent as the 21st century advances into, well, who really knows what?

Mark Twain said that the secret source of humour is not joy, but sorrow. Maybe so, but it is also rage. Or maybe it is that rage is inverted sorrow, and no one has done apoplectic rage like Hicks, before or since. He was the master of discordant humour. He knew instinctively how to violate banality, puncture pomposity and drive a stake into the heart of apathy. But most thrilling of all, while doing it, he didn’t give a shit - just like any good outlaw, or shaman, or apocalyptic horseman.

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