Finally, a worthy compilation – and appreciation – of the greatest stand-up comedian of the '90s.
There's a notion that Bill Hicks was a miserable cynic who hated the human race and thought that everything on the planet was an evil conspiracy. And there's truth and falseness in that statement. A cynic, yes. But despite his oft-quoted bit about humans being "a virus with shoes”, he wasn't actually that nihilistic on the whole. Behind all the skepticism and vitriol, there was an undeniable excitement to his role of what his friend Kevin Booth called an "agent of evolution". Hicks performed constantly, taking his act on the road for nearly 300 days a year, and though the exhaustion probably didn't help fight the cancer that eventually killed him in early '94, you can tell that he loved nearly every minute of it. Life, that is.
The Essential Collection is the best-yet collection of Hicks in all his many moods, giving us four discs of his anger with the standards of pop culture (Billy Ray Cyrus as a "fevered ego, tainting our collective unconscious"), his own experiences on the road ("I've been on what I call my 'Flying Saucer Tour,' which means like flying saucers, I too have been appearing in small Southern towns in front of handfuls of hillbillies"), smoking, of course ("it's you people dying from nothin' that're screwed"), and so much more.
In a way, it's hard to review the performances of a comic like Hicks, since he depended so much on specific timing and delivery – as opposed to most comedians today, who may have the dialogue but don't have the precise timing and rapport with the audience. (Often hostile audiences, in Hicks's case.) Foul-mouthed, bitter, but essentially friendly, he was the kind of performer who could attention by just stalking around the stage and saying nothing in between barbs; you wait with baited breath to hear every giggle and every exasperated sigh.
The draw-in for the Hicks fan will be the previously unreleased stuff, and that's where this compilation –as a consumer product, anyway – falls just a tad flat. The DVDs, including very early performances from the mid-‘80s, are true finds – revelations, really – and every enthusiastic fan will likely want them as examples of an uncommonly talented guy perfecting his craft. And the purposely-absurdist Ninja Bachelor Party video finally gets a proper release here: terrific. But most of the audio tracks actually have been released – just not on one of his "official" albums like Rant in E-Minor (his angriest and most representative), Arizona Bay (his warmest and friendliest), or Relentless (his most fine-tuned). These "previously unreleased" tracks are indeed new, but as funny as they are (on the "name and address withheld" letters in Penthouse Forum: "Guys, we all know that if that happened to us, we'd put our fuckin' name on the letter"), the material itself has been heard before, just in different venues and with slightly different delivery – some on the self-recorded Love, Laughter and Truth CD that was released a decade ago. And it's a loss that we don't get one of the man's many skewers of the hypocrisy of American drug policy. ("I would not come out of jail wanting to do less drugs; I would wanna come out mainlining heroin into my fuckin' eyeballs.")
This is easily the most comprehensive Hicks package you'll hear. The fans will want it for the videos, and the prospectives should download each and every track – if you don't find yourself digging any of the first few tracks, chances are that Hicks isn't for you. Your loss. (One of the guy's defining messages, on "Burning Issues": "Listen, read, think, calm down, relax, shut the fuck up!")
Personally, I'm still waiting for an official release of "The Lost Hour", a bootleg of a Hicks performance that took place a few days after glorified censors pulled what would've been his final Letterman show at the last minute (due mostly to some comments on abortion which seem pretty tame in retrospect). Anyone who thinks that the early '90s were a time of sunshine and lollipops – or anyone who wonders "what's Hicks so angry about?" – should listen to it, most especially for a moment which seems to sum-up the real Bill Hicks. First, Hicks describes the feeling of taking magic mushrooms:
"Well, your mind completely opens up to the true nature of our existence, which is that we are not bodies, that we are pure, loving spirit created by God, that God is love, and there is nothing but love, and love – being all-encompassing – has no opposite. You are completely forgiven on all things, there's nothing you've ever done that has ever swayed God's pure and unconditional love for you, and you realize that eternity and peace and heaven is our inheritance, and all of us are going to make it there."
He makes a few jokes after that, and starts to continue by saying "My dad considers me very much a cynic and a skeptic ... ."
Someone in the audience interrupts, sarcastically yelling "No!" Whereupon Hicks pauses, and then says this:
"Well, wait a minute: do I seem that way to you, after what I just said? Cynical or skeptical? See, and there's irony right there: what did you just hear? Y'know what I mean? Didn't I just explain to you my belief, and also the experiences I've had, about pure and unconditional love? And yet, you think I'm cynical or skeptical. I do have a healthy skepticism, I think we all should. But I think if you listen closely enough, you'll find that my message – if I, as a joke-blower, could be pompous enough to have one – is that we're all alright and it's gonna work out. I don't find that cynical at all."
Nor do I.