Bill Hicks was the last great social satirist, the true descendent of comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Mort Sahl. The self-described "Prince of Darkness," his work confronted the hypocrisies of late-20th century American life, divining comedy from the more evil impulses of the government and the mass media while assaulting the soullessness of mainstream culture. An alcoholic, coke addict, and chain smoker, Hicks also experimented heavily with hallucinogenics, and his monologues addressed issues of expanded consciousness and spirituality rare to the comedy format; for all of the rage inherent in his standup, his message was one of transcendence -- as he frequently reminded audiences, "The truth will set you free."
William M. Hicks was born on December 16, 1961, in Valdosta, GA. Raised in a strict Baptist household in the Houston, TX, subdivision of Nottingham Forest, he became fascinated by comedy at a young age, and by the time he was 13 Hicks was tape-recording his favorite comedians' routines off of the TV and staying up all night writing his own material. While a sophomore in high school, he and a friend began sneaking off to Houston's Comedy Workshop to perform at open-mike sessions; when his parents found out, Hicks was grounded. Following his graduation in 1980 he moved to Los Angeles, and began honing his craft at the legendary Comedy Store.
Throughout the Reagan years, Hicks developed his bitter, vitriolic style -- "the comedy of hate," he once dubbed it; among his frequent victims were the conservative right, the advertising industry, nonsmokers, pro-lifers, mainstream pop culture, fundamentalists, and the Warren Commission (the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a lifelong obsession). By the end of the decade, Hicks' stage presence -- seething and provocative, spiteful and ranting -- led many to lump him in with comics like Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, and Denis Leary; however, while his contemporaries ultimately softened their acts in the name of commercial viability and movie deals, Hicks stuck to his guns and rejected a string of offers to do television, feature films, and commercials, calling TV "Lucifer's dream box."
In 1990, his career took flight; he issued two standup albums, Dangerous and Relentless, became a cult hero in Britain (where he recorded a special for the Channel Four network), taped another show for HBO, and continued performing upwards of 250 concert dates annually. His frenetic pace continued over the next several years; however, in the summer of 1993 Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Informing no one of his condition besides his family and girlfriend, he began chemotherapy treatments but continued working even more feverishly, planning a projected book as well as a British series titled The Counts of the Netherworld.
That October, Hicks became the first performer since Elvis Presley to be banned from New York's Ed Sullivan Theatre after a performance on CBS' Late Show With David Letterman was censored in its entirety; the resulting controversy made him a media cause célèbre, and he was invited to write a column for the weekly liberal magazine The Nation. Additionally, he was contacted by the alternative band Tool, who invited Hicks to open a number of their live shows (a number of his monologues were later sampled for the group's 1996 album, Aenima).
Despite the flurry of activity, his condition worsened; finally, on February 26, 1994, Hicks died at the age of 32. In early 1997, Rykodisc reissued both Dangerous and Relentless along with a pair of previously unreleased albums, Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor. The label followed those releases with Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1 and Love, Laughter and Truth in 2002. The Invasion Group label issued the unauthorized Hicks CD, Shock and Awe, in 2003; the recording was derived from a 1992 appearance at the Oxford Playhouse Theatre in the U.K. The 2005 Rykodisc release Salvation was sourced from the same show but was an official release with more material. ~ Jason Ankeny