POET, preacher, activist, philosopher, shaman and social critic – Bill Hicks isn’t easy to categorise because he was no ordinary comedian.
His outspoken despair at political corruption and cultural banality drove his desire to change the world and provided explosive comedic highlights, but it’s his overall message of peace and love which shines continuously throughout his work, a refusal to stand idly by as ‘the demons run amok’ and ruin all things good in the world, and an unshaking faith in the essential goodness of the human spirit.
As 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of Bill’s death, Gemma Brosnan catches up with his brother, Steve Hicks to reflect on Bill’s life, his unique brand of intellectual anarchy and why his legacy continues to grow.
Gemma: Since the 20 years since Bill’s death, what’s been the hardest thing for you to deal with?
Steve: It’s all the normal things when you lose a family member – not having them around at holidays, missing milestone events like graduations, jobs, etc, just being able to have a conversation about simple things like movies you liked, cool new music you want to share, your favourite new book, things that piss you off, things like that.
Gemma: Does keeping his memory alive provide a source of comfort for your family?
Steve: Yes, this is the amazing part of it all. Of course, it is bittersweet since Bill is not here, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do about that. Since that is the situation, yes, we find it very gratifying and humbling to be able to continue to share Bill and his work with so many people, and that number continues to grow each year.
Gemma: Did you have any sense before his death of the kind of impact Bill had on others?
Steve: Bill had avid fans while he was alive but there was no indication that his impact would have grown to these proportions. Very early on after he passed away, though, we began to get a view of maybe how things would go; three months after Bill died is when we were contacted about a documentary and that was what became Just a Ride; at the same time they were filming that, there was a big story being done about Bill for GQ magazine and then we were contacted by the band Tool requesting to use some of Bill’s material on their next album, ‘Aenima’. There was also a big story about Bill’s passing, his work and legacy for Entertainment Weekly magazine. So, at that point we began to realize Bill’s work had certainly had some impact out there.
Gemma: What was it like growing up with Bill as a brother?
Steve: Pretty normal, really. I am five years older so there were times that we didn’t even share much, like when I was off at college and he was still at home. But, we both played sports, enjoyed music and movies so would share some of that. But, all in all, I’d have to say it was a pretty normal upbringing. Maybe that’s what he was rebelling against – normality.
Gemma: Bill mentioned once during an interview that he used to slide his jokes under your bedroom door to get feedback – is this true and if so, how good were they?
Steve: Yes, he did and I’ve been asked many times if I remember any of them or kept any of them. Sadly, I did not. I had no idea anyone would want to know that 20, 30, 40 years on! I do remember a very early joke Bill did, but I cannot say for sure it would have been one he slid under my door, but it would have come from that time period:
‘My parents bought me my own phone, but they were so cheap it didn’t come with a ringer so I could never hear it. Every so often I’d just have to go pick up the receiver and say, Hello, Hello, is anybody there?’
Gemma: What moment did you realise that Bill was going to be a career comedian?
Steve: Well, he invited me down to the comedy club in Houston, Texas where we lived at the time and when I saw him perform that first time I knew that it was something he was good at and comfortable with. The next night I dragged several friends down there to see my little brother and one girl, who had asthma, ended up suffering an asthma attack from laughing so hard. She had her inhaler so she ended up being fine but he was pretty funny right off the bat – at least I thought so. Then, not long after that when he graduated from high school he announced that instead of going to college he wanted to go to Los Angeles to pursue comedy; at that point it seemed pretty evident that he’d found something he loved and wanted to go after.
Gemma: You went to Abbey Road Studios to remaster some of Bill’s acoustic guitar music for the ‘Lo-Fi Troubadour’ album back in 2010. What kind of music influenced Bill the most growing up and later as a performer?
Steve: As a teenager Bill was a big fan of Kiss, when he was younger than that he’d ask for Elvis Presley records for Christmas. Years later, Bill did his Charlie Hodge bit and I always thought back to what he must have been thinking at 10, 11 years old when he’d ask for those Elvis records. I don’t know if it was the music so much he was into but the over-the-top cartoonishness of the whole Elvis myth.
Bill then got his own guitar so he went through a time where he was really into guitarists. There was one in particular – Eric Johnson – that he really loved. He’d go see him play in Houston clubs countless number of times and I would often join him. He even invited our parents to go with him one time because he was so impressed with Eric. Later in Bill’s life, I know he was really into music that had a message or told a story. He loved John Hiatt and really loved Bob Dylan. I know there were songs that would strike his fancy and he would use them as his intro or exit music for some of his shows – Stevie Ray Vaughan, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine – and, of course, he always loved the all time classic musicians such as the Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix.
Gemma: You spent some time on the road with Bill. What are your favourite memories from that time?
Steve: This is probably very boring, but just hanging out. You know, we’d go to movies, go out to eat, talk about our lives, what was going on with us, etc. We had a mutual admiration thing going on, he’d always tell me how much he like my stability-long term marriage and career and I’d always tell him I loved the freedom he seemed to have in his life, going where he wanted when he wanted. I’m sure we both romanticised each other’s worlds and that really we were both right where we were supposed to be.
Gemma: Were you ever jealous of Bill’s success?
Steve: Of course not, only love and pride, and appreciation that I get to be a small part of it still.
Gemma: With all of the information about Bill currently available, there is almost no mention of his love life. Why is that?
Steve: Bill did have relationships in his live, some very significant. For whatever reasons, those women have never felt like talking about it and I have total respect for that. As I always say, that is not my story to tell.
Gemma: When do you think Bill was happiest?
Steve: When he was with the people he loved – his family, friends and significant others.
Gemma: Bill’s use of hallucinogenic drugs is very well documented along with his praise of their mind expanding qualities. How much do you think this influenced his approach to both life and death?
Steve: It seemed to give him a broader perspective and the sense that there were more wondrous things out there than what we typically experience on a day to day basis. As Bill was getting sicker, one day he was sitting on the couch and he leaned back and said, “I’m getting ready to go on my greatest adventure”. There was definitely a calm and a dignity there.
Gemma: Did Bill’s views on life change yours in any way?
Steve: I don’t really think so. Coming from the same family, we shared a lot of traits – strong will, stubbornness, compassion, outrage at certain things and many of the same beliefs, but we didn’t always agree on everything, which seemed pretty normal to me.
Gemma: The name of Bill’s book is “Love All the People” which contradicts a fair amount of negative material. Do you believe that Bill’s overall message was positive?
Steve: I am sure Bill’s overall message is positive. It’s like if you have a loved one and you’re getting ready to go out, wouldn’t you tell them they have a big hunk of spinach stuck in their teeth? I mean the more you love, the more you care, the more passion you put into your message to the ones you love, right?
Gemma: What did Bill have that made others connect with him in such a way that his message transcended comedy into much bigger topics such as how we live our lives?
Steve: To me, it’s always been two things: 1) he had the ability to tap into the bigger issues, things that still resonate years later and are still relevant so the message or the comedy retains a place as the years go by; 2) Bill was just a good guy and I think that comes across on stage. He always used to say that he approached it as if he was talking to his friends, all of whom were as smart and in touch as he was, so he didn’t talk down. I think his innate goodness and compassion is a key part to his ongoing appeal.
Gemma: Bill has been called many things including a prophet, a Shaman and a poet. How would you describe him?
Steve: My brother.
Gemma: Many comedians have been influenced by Bill’s work – do you have any favourites?
Steve: I don’t really follow comedy. I know Doug Stanhope is often cited as someone in the vein of Bill; Lee Camp and Jamie Kilstein are two others in the US that are carrying on with the message and the passion. Although I know they are admirers of Bill, it is important to note that they are their own people doing it their own way. All three of these are very good and I think anyone out there who is actually ‘trying to do Bill’ falls very flat. You can’t copy someone that was such an individual and these three guys aren’t doing that. It’s just in the spirit maybe but they are all excellent doing it their way, which is how it should be.
Gemma: Do you think he has been portrayed accurately since his death, in documentaries such as ‘American: The Bill Hicks Story’?
Steve: For the most part, yes. Often, certain facts are wrong, but with the proliferation of the internet and anybody being able to write anything they want about anything or anyone, it’s virtually impossible to police it all. We were very involved with the American documentary with the two British filmmakers, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas; we loved what they did with it.
Gemma: What do people still get wrong about Bill?
Steve: That he didn’t get along with, or was estranged, from his family. That he was the son of a preacher (our father worked for General Motors). Lots of other little things pop up, but it just comes from people being uninformed and not taking the time to try to get it right.
Gemma: Do you think he left this world with any regrets?
Steve: Well obviously he did not want to die. He fought it valiantly and carried on performing literally as long as he was physically able to stand on a stage, but considering that we cannot change the circumstances, I think some of Bill’s last words sum it up better than anything: ‘I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit’.
Gemma: How much unreleased material is there of Bill’s currently and can we expect to hear it any time soon?
Steve: Quite a bit, but most of all the great stuff is already out there. We probably should consider releasing more in the ‘Flying Saucer Tour Series’. There is only Volume 1 out now and we get lots of request for Volume 2, and beyond, so maybe something will come of that.
I posted a free show on Soundcloud that would be along the lines of what could possibly come out as more Flying Saucer Tour shows. It’s a great show from San Ramon, California with lots of audience interaction. I’ve put out on Youtube some short rare clips of Bill that I think people would find interesting; all of those are parts of full shows so maybe one day we’ll put out some of those full shows on video as well.
For more information on Bill Hicks’ life, work and exclusive clips go to http://billhicks.com/Home.html