Walking in Willie's Footsteps

I remember the first time I was aware of him. It was a Friday night at home, I was maybe 16 years old, watching TV with my parents. Friday night was comedy night - 'Cheers' was a favourite and then maybe something a bit swearier after the watershed, Clive Anderson ridiculing guests or Blackadder, but still not really edgy, something you could watch with the olds. This particular Friday night, Channel 4 was showing a special by an American comedian called Bill Hicks. I guess it would be about 10pm so getting towards bedtime for the folks but, hey it's Friday, let's see what this is like. Out he comes, dressed in black, but pretty unremarkable looking, even a bit chubby, and a dodgy mullet, but he's off with something about moving to LA and people saying how good the weather is, then the pay-off "What are you? A fucking Lizard?" Not maybe the greatest gag of all time, but it scored on two counts 1) it was funny and 2) it was too sweary for Mum who toddled off to bed to leave me to enjoy the show. In my memory, Dad hung around for a bit, but maybe he didn't.

I wish I could say I was immediately struck by his genius, but I don't think that's true - I just thought he was very, very funny. The stuff about trying to blow yourself, about hating George Michael and loving Jimi, the smoking and swearing, that was all pretty much perfect for a 16 year old boy, just finding out how much fun the world could be. But I think I was aware that there was something a bit more going on than you average comedian even then - I guess his political stuff about Bush and the Kuwait invasion and then the last bit about 'exploring space, both inner and outer, together forever, and peace' resonated with an idealistic teenager who could grasp simple political and philosophical slogans.

Mike and I must have watched the same show because I think we talked about it on the phone the next day - did you see that? Wasn't he great?

And from then on, we were an item, us and Bill. We learnt his stuff verbatim.  We were maybe the last generation that properly had to mine music, comedy and films for everything they were worth because they were hard to come by. You couldn't just go on the internet and take your pick of the entire output of humanity at a moment's notice. You had to save up to buy an album, to scour the TV guides to see when there may be a late night concert film shown. A few minutes of Bill live from Montreal would be taped and watched again and again, until we'd caught the cadences, the rhythms, the little details that made it Bill, just like we obsessed over Jimmy Page solos to pinpoint 'that moment - there it is, listen to that. Aw man...'.

His world-view seeped into ours - detached, cynical observers of the absurdity, the hypocrisy of people, the way we are all manipulated by big business, politicians, the media, religions and everyone else with a vested interest. Foul-mouthed and interested in the seamy side of life, knowing, KNOWING, that rock music was real music, that reading was the key to evolution, that facts and truth win out over cant and received wisdom. But alongside that snuck in the other stuff as well, the love, the knowing that it could all be better if we could just all let go of some of the distractions, the selfishness, the pointless humdrum of life, and seek enlightenment.

And then he died. No-one seemed to know he was ill, so when I heard his death from cancer announced one Sunday morning on the radio, I was shocked. I was at university by that point, and I went next door to speak to a friend who was also into him and we just sat there listening to a tape of Bill that we probably knew by heart, but now with the knowledge that we'd never see him live. I probably called Mike and asked, have you heard man? I can't believe it...
Of course we grew out of him in due course, slowly stopping listening to his stuff, and maybe even thinking he was a bit juvenile for us, as we became more philosophically, culturally and politically sophisticated, and realised that there was more to music than Zep, The Lizard King and other dead rock stars (even if you could prove on an etch-a-sketch that there wasn't).

And then about 10 years ago, I read a book about Bill by his close friends and family which reawakened my interest and made me realise that some of the stuff around the edge was really in the middle. Yeah there was the stuff about drugs, and porn and waitresses in Possumridge, Arkansas, but that stuff to me is just part of the evolution of his thought and values. And there's a huge honesty in the admission that we are all to some degree horny, bacchanalian goat-boys, and that's not a bad thing, and it's not all we are, but it is a part of us. By the time he died, he was fairly explicitly spiritual in his discourse - as far as I know his position on mainstream organised religion and the hypocrisy therein didn't soften, but his talk was not dissimilar to religious or philosophical teachers, it was of the need to love, to evolve and be enlightened. He was still a comedian, but comedy now seemed to have been in service of enlightenment (as I guess at some level, all great art is), of drawing back the veil, of revealing something essential and true about the human experience. I don't want to pretend he was any more than he was, and there is always a risk of casting him as some sort of messianic or guru figure, which he wasn't, but at some level, he seemed to get close to some of the really important things about what it is to be human, and what is needed to be a successful one (successful in the broadest sense). And my response to this book was to write a song 'Walking in Willie's Footsteps', which is simply an attempt to reflect back some of that good stuff about friendship, love and enjoying the good bits of this all too brief and fragile life. And we've sung it for a few years, and now we've recorded it again, and Mike has brought it back home by putting it together with this great footage of Bill:

As I write this, 20 years to the day since he died, life seems to be going out of it's way to ram home the lesson to me - get on with it, focus on the good stuff, create something, anything, love, keep on  with the true friends, create again, shout into the void 'I am alive', evolve, think, be. So that's what I'm gonna do, as best I can.

For some reason until today, I never came across his 'Last Words' but they seem to stack up still:

"I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”

Thanks Man.