American Scream: the Bill Hicks Story by Cynthia True

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
— Clint Eastwood, from Unforgiven

The story of Bill Hicks seems obvious enough that it almost, as they say, writes itself. In American Scream: the Bill Hicks Story, all author Cynthia True has to do is take a groundbreaking comedian, legendary today among fellow comedians but largely unknown by the public, taken before his time. When Bill Hicks died in February 1994, of pancreatic cancer, he was only 32, and any public recognition of his work has come in the years following his death.

Of course, there’s nothing the marketing reps like better than (as Morrissey once wrote) a dead star, so naturally the years since Hicks’ death have featured an aggressive promotional campaign, or at least as aggressive a campaign as is done for stand-up comedians. Copies of his four CDs, Dangerous, Relentless, Arizona Bay, and Rant in E Minor, are covered with praise from such comedic luminaries as George Carlin, Dennis Miller, and Monty Python’s John Cleese. To that list, we can now add Janeane Garofalo, who says of Hicks in her foreword, “he was a social critic, post-modern prophet, and comedian all rolled into one.”

Still, as tempting as it may have been to play the tragic angle, True, much to her credit, refuses to let American Scream turn into a pity party, as “It is tempting to read [Hicks’] story as a tragedy . . . But that misses the point. The life of Bill Hicks is the definition of a life fulfilled.”

Of course, Hicks’ story does demand a certain wistfulness. In recent years, George Carlin, Dennis Leary, and Dennis Miller have all, to varying degrees, made millions in the disaffected, social-prophet-of-doom role, a role that Hicks was pushing by the mid-1980s. And while there has always been a certain level of borrowing in comedy circles, as a fan of Carlin and Miller, I want to believe that their development into that role was one that may have been influenced by Hicks, but would have happened anyway. (Leary, apparently, lifted entire sections of Hicks’ act almost verbatim, much to Hicks’ chagrin.)

Having discovered Hicks after being a fan of Carlin for years, when I first heard the former’s act, I was struck not just by the similarities between them, but that Hicks seemed to be an early version of Carlin: a little angrier, not quite as polished, with a little less wordplay. It also seems difficult not to conclude that when Hicks was touring, people just weren’t ready for that much anger in their comedy — “Bill’s routine about how we live in a world where ‘good men are murdered and mediocre hacks thrive’ didn’t always go over. How was it, Bill asked, that Gandhi, Kennedy, and King were murdered and Reagan was wounded?”

Reagan was (thankfully) out of office before I started paying attention to politics, but I can’t imagine how that bit would have been received. It’s one thing to do that bit or criticize the religious right now (to Pat Robertson: “Go back to Virginia, marry your daughter, and stay out of my life, you Nazi hillbilly FUCK!”), but to have done it in the middle of the Reagan era is another thing altogether.

Of course, another possibility is that Hicks paved the way for the likes of Carlin and Miller, making it okay for them to say certain things. Still, it’s hard to tell, as for all the talk of how vital, daring, and energetic his act was, Hicks, at the time of his death, was only really known among fellow comedians (and, oddly enough, he had a strong following in England). Still, most of Carlin’s act is there, as Hicks’ “I hope you know this — I think you do — all governments are lying cocksuckers.” It is perhaps this vision of all authority structures as irredeemably corrupt that led to references to his work in such unlikely places as Garth Ennis’ comic Preacher and Tool’s albums Undertow and Aenima.

Ms. True, for her part, does an admirable job of presenting Hicks’ life within the confines of the entertainment biography. We learn about Hicks’ early life and alienation from his parents, his strong romantic streak, his fondness for psychedelic mushrooms, and his continuing to tour after his diagnosis with the pancreatic cancer that would kill him (“he performed with the freedom of a man with nothing to lose”).

Still, for all of True’s insistence of keeping the focus on Hicks’ life, not his death, the last 50 pages or so broke my heart. One time, after watching a few A&E Biographies in a row, I thought there should be a version that leaves out the last 15 minutes or so, or at least warns you so you can leave the room, because none of these things ever end well. So I was sorely tempted to stop reading ¾ of the way through American Scream (“and he’s going in for medical tests, and THANK YOU, GOOD NIGHT!”). Still, a strong reaction to the end of the book can only serve to underline the effectiveness of True’s writing.

And likewise, the strongest criticism of the book almost certainly has more to do with the biography format, and not True’s performance as author. The criticism is this: that True’s descriptions of Hicks’ act cannot do justice to the supposed vitality of his work. True tells us repeatedly of people who, upon hearing Hicks’ act, were completely blown away, and became ardent fans. The bits of the act quoted here, however, seem canned, a copy of a copy of a copy. Such a loss of vitality is perhaps unavoidable, but people interested in Hicks would probably be better served by picking up on of his cd’s, perhaps Dangerous, his first album (albeit the only one I’m not familiar with), or Rant in E Minor, generally accepted as his masterpiece.

Still, it is difficult not to come away with the feeling that Hicks was robbed, that he deserved better than this. Of course, that people don’t get what they deserve is one of the hardest lessons any of us will ever have to learn in life.