Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Best Things Ever #18 Bill Hicks: Rant in E-Minor

Today we mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks. 

Best Things Ever #18

Bill Hicks: Rant in E-Minor

“Bill Hicks, blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer and brain specialist, like a reverend waving a gun around. Pay attention to Rant in E Minor, it is a major work, as important as Lenny Bruce's. He will correct your vision. His life was cut short by cancer, though he did leave his tools here. Others will drive on the road he built. Long may his records rant even though he can't.”
          Tom Waits

Twenty years ago this month, the comedian Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer at the tragically young age of 32. Three years later in 1997, two posthumous album were released by Rykodisc: Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor. In this article I am going to concentrate on Rant in E Minor, which I consider to be both the greatest comedy album and the greatest spoken word album of all time.

The material for Rant in E Minor was recorded at the Laff Stop Comedy Club in Austin, Texas in March and October 1993 and at Coobs, San Francisco in July of the same year. Unlike the albums Dangerous and Relentless that were released during Bill’s lifetime, Rant in E Minor, as well as Arizona Bay, presents the material in the form of chapter points rather than as a traditional live comedy album. It’s more like a concept album, the live material interspersed with musical interludes performed by Bill and his producer and childhood friend, Kevin Booth.

I’ve always found the music on Arizona Bay to be somewhat intrusive, though it’s still a good album (it’s a Bill Hicks album). With Rant in E Minor though, the music is pitched perfectly and serves to divide the seventy five minute album into a series of movements or acts.

The other thing to say about Rant in E Minor is that most of the material included is unique to this one album. There have been a number of subsequent albums released, as well as countless bootlegs of other Bill Hicks’s gigs, which all have significant overlap between them. Yet aside from the bootleg of his final gig at Igby’s, which does include some of the material featured on Rant in E Minor, it’s a pretty unique set list. Even the Igby’s set contains many well-worn routines that you won’t find on Rant in E Minor.

Rant in E Minor is Bill Hicks at his bravest, his angriest, his most free and his most engaging. The material from the later recordings at the Laff Stop was recorded when he knew he was ill and any pretence that Bill was holding back at all is gone. To hear him screaming at his audience, “You fucking morons, you fucking morons.” is cathartic. As Hicks himself says:

“That’s what this is all about, man. It’s supposed to be a fucking catharsis, man, you know. It’s supposed to be a release from the fucking daily grind.”

In that catharsis, Hicks takes aim at the anti-abortion lobby, Christianity, Billy Ray Cyrus, the perpetrators of the raid on the Waco complex, including Bill Clinton and Janet Reno, homophobia in the military, women who defend abusive partners and Rush Limbaugh. One of the reasons that the comedy of Bill Hicks stands the test the time is both because of the universality of it content matter, but also, depressingly, because of how little seems to have changed and how much has come full circle in twenty years. If Bill was alive today, instead of riffing about hosting a TV show called, ‘Let’s Hunt and Kill Bill Ray Cyrus’ it would be have to be called, ‘Let’s Hunt and Kill Miley Cyrus (with special guest, Robin Thicke)’. Rush Limbaugh is still allowed a platform from which to spout his moronic opinions. The show Cops has been replaced by a thousand and one equally fascistic “reality TV” programs and rather than senselessly slaughtering women and children in Waco, Texas, it is instead in Pakistan and the Yemen that women and children are gunned down with drones by executioners who never leave the comfort of their armchair in some military base in the desert wilds of the United States, or have the decency to look their victims once in the eye.

I think Bill Hicks would be appalled at the level to which soldiers have been elevated to the level of heroes, protectors of freedom, even as they are used as instruments of brute terror and blunt force to destroy freedom in favour of corporate profit. He was never one to shy away from criticism of the military, questioning why a suicide bomber was a coward but firing Cruise missiles from a ship hundreds of miles away in the Gulf was a heroic act. In dealing with the issue of gay people serving in the armed forces, Hicks says:

“Anyone dumb enough to want to be in the military should be allowed in... I don’t care how many sit ups you can do, put on a helmet, go wait in that fox-hole, we’ll tell you when we need you to kill somebody.”

Now, I’m sure that Bill didn’t really mean a lot of the things he said but, like Jonathan Swift, used extreme views to present certain arguments as reducio ad absurdium, as well as a way to get laughs. My parents met in the Royal Navy and I exist because of the armed forces, so I tend to give serving personal the benefit of the doubt that they are merely following orders and they simply trust that those orders are given in good faith. Yet I don’t think there is anything particularly heroic about following orders, especially when the Nuremberg Trials established that “I was only following orders” is not a valid defence (although Nuremberg also established the invasion of another sovereign state to be the supreme international crime under law, but that doesn’t seem to stop us).

For all the supposed threat from Al Qaida in the last decade or so, the simple fact of the matter is that the most successful terrorist organisation in the last hundred years is the CIA. More coups against democratic regimes and more loss of innocent life than Al Qaida could ever even dream of taking. They kill thousands, we kill hundreds of thousands in retaliation. In America the repeated mantra is, “Support the troops, they protect your freedom. “ If you need protecting, you are not free. And all that all this killing really achieves is to intensify the level of retaliation that will be visited upon your children after the empire falls. You would think that the richest country in the world would have at least grasped the basic fact that all debts get called in eventually. That’s karma, man. It’s also the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Bill’s routine on gays in the military manages to correct one of the niggles I have with his early routines, especially on Dangerous and Sane Man, where his material is somewhat homophobic (although he did out George Michael several years before George’s own actions did it for him). Again, this could simply be a matter of taking things to extremes for deliberate comic effect. I like when graphic images of gay sex are used as a weapon against homophobes and other fatheads, so Hicks’s observation that Rush Limbaugh reminds him of “one of those gay guys who likes to lay in a tub while other men pee on him.” is especially brilliant. Although it gets too graphic for me when he comes to the part about Barbara Bush unrolling her flaccid labia, then shitting in Limbaugh’s mouth. Then I have to skip forward.

I’ve described Rant in E Minor as my favourite spoken word album, as well as my favourite comedy album, because as funny as Rant in E Minor is, it also represents Bill Hicks at his most philosophical. The power of comedy is in its repeatability and yet with Rant in E Minor there are so many lines that are as much like stanzas from Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) as anything else and worth listening to whenever you are feeling down or need a call to action. As well as his comments on catharsis, one further example will suffice here:

“The argument doesn’t work with me Flapjack. Go back to your fucking crackerjack lifestyle and I’ll meet you at the evolution bell curve. I’ll be sitting there awhile, it’s kind of a tortoise and the hare story.”

Many comedians and sitcoms can make me laugh till I cry, even after I know every word, but there is only Rant in E Minor that can make me actually cry. To hear Bill talk about thinking about taking his own life, but not having the balls to do it, and to realise that in that instant he is facing up to his mortality and the fact that he is going to die is heart breaking to hear. He’d struggled to build an audience in his home country, but was a star across the Atlantic. He was about to have his own TV show for real in Britain and died right on the cusp of major success. On that day, the world lost a true comedy genius.

In many ways, Bill Hick was a visionary and a man ahead of his time. Some of his material, like his alter-ego, Pan the Randy Goat-Boy, was considered extreme at the time. His honest discussions of his use of pornography were not applauded by all and yet to listen to many comedians these days, his comedy seems somewhat mild by comparison. The ubiquity of the internet, it seems, has made us more voyeuristic and more cruel.

If you read Agent of Evolution, the Bill Hicks biography consisting of interviews with the people who knew him, you see that there were elements of his life about which he didn’t talk openly (like visiting brothels and experimenting with just about every drug yet invented, not just the fashionable ones). He could go too far sometimes, but there was also as much that he held back. Compare that with, say, the average Doug Stanhope routine, where very little is censored or held back. I love Doug Stanhope, by the way.

There has been a lot written about Hicks in the media in this twentieth anniversary week, especially by other comedians. He has been lauded as a fine comedian, but some question his elevation to the level of Messiah. I don’t think Hicks was the Messiah, but I do think that some art and artists transcend the medium in which they exist. Was Shakespeare just another playwright? Is the Mona Lisa just another portrait? When Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit to hushed audiences, was that just another artist singing another jazz standard?

There’s nothing wrong with being a comedian, making people laugh is a fine way to make a living, but it doesn’t mean that some comedians can’t transcend comedy. Bill Hicks wasn’t/isn’t the Messiah but with the greatest respect to many other comedians that I listen to and love, neither was Bill Hicks just another comedian. He was somewhere halfway between comedian and Messiah and his genius in no way devalues the comedy of others, only drags it up by its bootstraps. If you want to realise the potential of stand-up comedy, listen to Rant in E Minor.

It’s hard to say what Bill Hicks would be doing if he were alive today, 52 and grumpier than ever, but I like to imagine him having his own weekly podcast. Anyone who listens to Greg Proops’s podcast, The Smartest Man in the World, can get a sense of what that might have sounded like. Proops has his own style, his own rhythms and way of doing things, but he also channels the spirit of Bill Hicks, frequently citing Hicks as the bravest comedian he ever saw. The Smartest Man in the World is one of the highlights of my week and I can highly recommend it.

It’s useless to dwell on what might have been, only what is. Bill Hicks died too young, but his comedy lives on through his recorded material. Rant in E Minor is his crowning achievement and remains a call to action against hopelessness. If he could be this funny and thought provoking as he was dying, imagine what we can achieve even as we live.

Get it done.

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