Bill Hicks

By Nick A. Zaino III

Bill Hicks would have been 50 years old on December 16, 2011. To mark that birthday, the Arizona Bay Production Company licensed Rykodisc to release the EP 12/16/61, a short sampling of previously unreleased material. The exact date and location of the performance is unknown – Hicks’s brother Steve places the recording as somewhere in Texas and notes that Bill would get much better at labeling his tapes later on – but this is early in Hicks’s career, when he was just 21 years old.

bill hicks

Hicks was already a bit of a comedy veteran at this point, having started in high school. He’d already been chewed up by the scene in L.A. and would have just moved back to Houston when this show was taped. By all accounts he was unhappy with his material, trying to do something more meaningful. Sometime during 1983, Hicks reportedly even quit comedy for a short time. He was just starting to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and wouldn’t hit his stride until several years later (see the Sane Man DVD).

A comic in transition is clearly heard in this material, with a delivery echoing George Carlin’s laid-back, almost melodic tone from 1972’s Class Clown. The fire-breathing, righteous Bill Hicks is not yet present…he was still trying to find that guy. For true fanatics, this EP is a missing link between the early, clean-cut Hicks who lampooned his own family and the evangelistic, politically-aware version on which his legacy is ultimately based.

Some of his favorite targets have undeniably begun to emerge: music, government, religion. For those who don’t know much about Hicks, however, this is the wrong place to start. The material isn’t up to the standards of 1997′s posthumous Arizona Bay or 1990 debut Dangerous, some topics are dated (the game show Password, actress Bonnie Franklin), and his bigger ideas are just starting to gestate.

The political content is particularly timid. Hicks takes a swipe at then-president Ronald Reagan, but the heart of the joke is a toothless pun on a current buzzword. “The guy’s a serious guy,” Hicks says in that languid drawl. “He’s cruel, in fact. I’ll go that far.” Then comes the punchline, a headline about Reagan sending aids/AIDS to El Salvador. “I’m thinking, is this helping diplomatic relations?” he adds.

There is some promise in a bit about the difference in worldview between the Carter and Reagan eras. When Carter was president, Hicks had to register for the draft. With Reagan, he received a gun in the mail. That’s as far as that idea goes, though. He then drifts into a joke about an old Army slogan. “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day… Is that supposed to get me to join?” Hicks asks.

Those who ever wondered what Hicks’s dog and cat material would be like, this EP answers the question. There are some amusing twists on well-worn premises – that cats are independent and lazy and dogs are excitable and loyal, that men don’t like cats – but they remain well-worn premises.

Music would be a big part of Hicks’s evolution as a comedian. Some of his most recognizable material is about Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix, as well as tearing apart such pop idols as New Kids on the Block and Billy Ray Cyrus, screaming about playing from the heart all the while. That material is merely a twinkle in Hicks’ eye at this stage. While a fairly standard take is included on how depressing country music is, his admiration for punk and rock and roll is clear. He says he loves that “fuck-you punk attitude,” that it shows some spine and commitment. Whereas others would say they didn’t like Reagan and dismiss it with a “C’est la vie!,” “Punk rockers are like, ‘Yeah, I don’t like Reagan, so I think I’ll stick a bone up me ass!’”

Hicks also expresses admiration for Keef’s doctor having to be on call 24 hours a day to bring the guitarist back to life before Stones gigs. That bit is tucked into a story about meeting Mick Jagger once at The Comedy Store, mocking Jagger’s pigeon walk and calling him “an effeminate billionaire elf.”

One of the best bits comes at the end, when someone yells the name of Hicks’s high-school alma mater, Stratford. Seemingly off the cuff, Hicks recalls being harassed by kids in a car who keep yelling “Stratford sucks!” and then peeling out, backing up, yelling and peeling out once again. This is where he sounds most like the laid-back Carlin, delivering the line, “I know, I go there, baby. You’re wasting gas, man!” The track then peters out on an unfinished thought, which is probably appropriate.

As a historical document, 12/16/61 is fascinating, especially with the proper context (start with Dangerous or Arizona Bay). But for Hicks, the best was definitely yet to come.

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