Bill Hicks: It’s Just a Ride

In his “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” the young Bob Dylan conveys a beautifully hopeful message during the uncertain 1960s. It’s a long poem. The bootlegged recording of him reading it above is well worth a full listen. I don’t want to play spoiler, but toward the end, Dylan asks: And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’. His answer is that there are two options: the church of your choice or Brooklyn State Hospital.

You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

I’ve spent much of the last week delving into art, literature, and music. Ostensibly, I’ve been looking for hopeful messages (and there’s likely no better artist worth revisiting these days than Woody Guthrie—if Woody Guthrie is a new name to you: stop reading this now and go find everything you can on Woody Guthrie). There’s a light and encouraging tone to the young Bob Dylan’s voice and words. And it carries over into many of his “protest songs.” But, subject for another post, perhaps: the older Bob Dylan provides the perfect soundtrack for the kind of catastrophic history I’m exploring at the moment. His songs are heavy, world-weary, tough, hardened. No less brilliant or beautiful. But that gravelly voice carries the weight of the world, one too many mornings, and bears witness to pain, violence, and burdens of the soul. Another time.

Because I’ve spent less time thinking about Bob Dylan’s younger work lately. In fact, the first voice I turned to last week was the comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks might be an acquired taste, but I suspect we will come to appreciate him as one of the most important comedians of the 1980s (he died in his thirties in 1994). His act followed in the spirit of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and viscerally and vociferously challenged the political status quo. He viciously lampooned mainstream media and popular culture. With another of my artistic heroes, the author Don DeLillo, Hicks shared a fascination with the Kennedy assassination. On occasion, he veered into paranoid conspiracy theory territory, but he was always clear, poignant, provocative, and profoundly clever. Like Kerouac, however, love was a key point of emphasis in Hicks’s work. There are numerous iterations of the following conclusion to his 1992 “Revelations” special, performed in London, and billed as the last authorized filming of his stand-up. In it, he offers up a simple choice for humanity.

Not shown in this clip is the typical Hicks finale. At the end of his act—after noting that so many forces of good (Gandhi, JFK, MLK, Lennon) are assassinated—Hicks would enact his own assassination. Gun shot and he would collapse onstage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that footage (he did it frequently) without tearing up. The comedian transcended entertainment. Good comedy is always a powerful form of social commentary. But “it’s just a ride” is the social commentary. The assassination goes beyond that. And it transforms and complicates the message he delivers in the video above. In that split second, his statement of hope devolves—shatters—into a statement of hopeless futility. And reinforces the importance of the message.