March 07, 2005

Whatja readin' for?

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines
Bill Hicks

I went to a Waffle House. I'm not proud of it, I was hungry. And I'm alone, I'm eating and I'm reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: "Hey, whatja readin' for?"

Isn't that the weirdest fucking question you've ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? Well, godammit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well... hmmm... I dunno... I guess I read for a lot of reasons, and one of the main ones is so I don't end up being a fucking waffle waitress like you.

I know Bill Hicks's Dangerous and Relentless albums well. Really well. I can recite The Gulf War Distraction ("it's so pretty and it takes our minds offa domestic issues") more easily than a Monty Python sketch. It was the early 90s: Cobain had been blasting through our eardrums with his particular brand of nilhisism, Hicks and Leary were on constant play because all the British comedians had run out of anger after yet another Conservative election victory[*], and I was in tattoo parlours. That I know Hicks' material well cannot be a shock. I'm not really sure what I wanted from this book. New insight into someone whose career is one of the seminal influences on modern standup? Perhaps. To revel in his style? I can do that by putting the albums on.

This transcribes many of the recordings of material. After the fourth time you've read that Hicks, like UFOs, is appearing in small rural communities all over America I realised what this primarily does is a forensic autopsy of his comedy. You can see the slight changes he makes, the comments to hecklers, and the way, like all pro comedians, he hauls himself back onto his script and keeps on going. This is the body of his work lain out on a slab to be dissected.

It may be of interest to aspiring comedians, and it did still provoke the odd smirk from me, but it is step one on the road of deification. Cobain's diaries, every element of his life, is churned out for obsessive consumption by the eager fans. We've been saved from seeing either he or Hicks degenerate or sell out to the Man by their early deaths (one from suicide, the other from pancreatic cancer). So now their legacy is being packaged up and sold to us, their images becoming safe, unchanging icons. Just as I'd rather stick some Nirvana on the mp3player than read Cobain's diaries, I'd rather whack the Hicks tapes back into the machine and play them at 10 than read this book.

[*] this, I feel, is one reason for the return of British surrealism (Izzard, Hill etc) and music hall slapstick (Reeves & Mortimore). A decade of angry young comics hadn't changed a damn thing and we wanted something new.

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