Those who are familiar with Bill Hicks' work in stand-up comedy often place him alongside George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Sam Kinison as one of the funniest voices and brightest minds in recent history.
And for good reason-Bill was bold and bawdy, even when both these traits repeatedly landed him in trouble. In an earlier stage of his career, his routines would frequently earn him death threats from offended audience members, when they didn't earn him general indifference.
Bill spoke on a number of different subjects, including his southern Baptist upbringing in Texas and his frustration at the decline of popular culture throughout the 80's and early 90's, but undoubtedly, his most compelling work was his open criticism of various governments, particularly the United States' government, which he believed committed various atrocities in the interest of protecting its own power, then claimed to be acting in order to diffuse imaginary threats to justify itself.
In support of this idea, he frequently cited the assassination of John Kennedy, the Gulf War, and later in his career, the massacre of the Branch-Davidians by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as examples of such atrocities. He also cited the criminalization of mind-altering substances, and the encouragement of alcohol and tobacco use, as methods of keeping the American public docile and complacent.
What made Bill's material so much more compelling, though, was his ability to create detailed and explicit scenes around each of his points.
Bill would often start off by outlining scenes that were already humorously graphic to begin with, then continue to build upon these scenes until he had more receptive audiences rolling in the aisles.
With loving precision and sharp, stinging language, he once referred to former Congressman Jessie Helms as a child murderer and Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh as a sexual deviant. He would also end a number of his shows by pretending to be assassinated himself.
By the end of his career, Bill was beginning to make quite the name for himself-he had already attracted a large following in England, gotten green-lighted for a talk show, and made a number of appearances on the David Letterman show... though his last performance on the show had been pulled, it in itself drew much attention in the form of a large-scale debate on censorship. Unfortunately, though, his promising career came to an abrupt end in 1994, when he died of pancreatic cancer. In spite of his failing health, Bill continued to perform in smaller venues, with infrequent recordings.
His last recorded show was believed by many to be his final performance, but in truth, he did one more after that. It is less known because the show ended abruptly, apparently after Bill had an encounter with his manager and fiance, Colleen McGarr, who was reported to have destroyed the footage of the show.
Recently, I came into the possession of one of the last surviving tapes of this show.
The tape was sent to me by one of Bill's longtime friends, Kevin Booth, who was recently recognized for his documentary on the American War on Drugs. I once wrote to Kevin for a paper I wrote on Bill's life and material, and we've been in infrequent contact ever since. So when I received a package from him in the mail, I was quite taken by surprise.
Inside the package was a VHS tape and a letter from Kevin, first and foremost asking me to keep the tape to myself, lest I “be found out” as well. As it turns out, Kevin had kept the tape of the mystery performance to himself for a few decades, as any copies he attempted to release to the public were quickly destroyed-mostly in freak accidents, though a few were destroyed by people who, strangely enough, all fit the same description-quiet, disturbed loners who spent the better part of the decade seething in their own mental illnesses before going on small-scale rampages that merely culminated in mild property damage.
Without a second thought, I plopped down by the nearest VHS player, carelessly discarding the Raiders of the Lost Ark tape inside before popping the unlabeled tape in.
As with the prior recording, the quality left something to be desired-the tape was shot on video, and consequently, the picture quality was grainy and crackly, and the sound was so muted that I had to turn the volume all the way up to make out what was being said... nonetheless, it was still quite exciting to see Bill Hicks' true final performance.
The performance itself began fairly slowly-Bill's failing health was quite evident, as he spent the majority of his time steadying himself on a nearby stool, his voice hoarse and quiet. On top of these, most of his jokes were recycled from previous shows-Debbie Gibson vs Jimi Hendrix, “play from your fucking heart,” and the evils of marketing, to name a few.
But then he got into the benefits of marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms over alcohol and tobacco. From there, he segued into a few other bits that were eerily evocative of recent events-he proceeded to predict the September 11th attack and subsequent invasion of the Middle East, the revelation of the large-scale corruption in the finance industry, and the Middle Eastern rebel uprisings.
And then he proceeded to collapse.
The audience began to murmur a bit, then panicked, some scrambling towards the stage and others asking for a phone-though it was hard to make out through all the other chaotic voices.
Then, a gunshot.
Everyone froze and looked towards the source of the noise, and a man in a suit walked out into the aisle and began to show a badge of some sort. He started to say something, but the audio was so fucked up, it was hard to make out most of it. The important stuff came through, though-
“...full extent of the law...”
I sat back and watched in horror as the man produced a syringe from his jacket and proceeded to jab it into Bill's neck, then approached the camera, badge in plain view. “ATF. I'll need to confiscate this taping as eviden-”
Then the tape went to a blue screen, signifying that the rest of the tape was blank.
The shock slowly began to settle in as I thought more and more about what I had just witnessed. I knew Bill had been right about a lot of things, but the government conspiracy bit was something I questioned frequently.
And yet, here was clear evidence that Bill was right-the Illuminati exists, it owns the government and the businesses, and probably even the world. Needless to say, it was quite frightening.
I thought about it for a while until the point where my thoughts began to trail off. I checked the clock.
Face and mind blank, I switched everything off and went to bed... I figured I'd get a chance to re-watch the tape in the morning, and figured doing so would help me digest everything I had just seen.
I was wrong.
The first thing I saw as I woke up was the tape-or, at least, what was left of it. The tape's casing had been broken into tiny pieces, then set aflame along with the rest of the tape.
The film inside had been reduced to thin, curvy charcoal, and the casing had been fused together into a lumpy, horribly disfigured mess of plastic. Whoever had gone to all this trouble had also slipped everything onto my pillow, like the severed head of my prize horse. In my subsequent swearing fit, I almost failed to notice the note that had been left on my dresser. Slowly grabbing it with a trembling hand, I began to look it over-it was a small piece of stationary, embossed with the ATF seal, with three words scrawled onto it in large print-
“Lock your windows.”