So. Son. Tell me. What have you done with your life? Huh? Lemme hear it. What have you done? No – don’t tell me. I can guess. What is it? Something selfless – the very model of altruistic, new age thought and action. Artesian wells in a struggling, underdeveloped African nation. Am I right? Unceasing lobbying of grimy politicians and vested interest corporations to wake up to the increasing horrors of global warming? A year spent throwing yourself in front of Japanese whalers? Tell me! What did you do? What have you done?
I heckled Bill Hicks.
Oh, yeah, and guess what: all my views are my own because somewhere, I’m reasonably convinced, I have the vague semblance of a spine. Pffft. Twitter. Twitter. Just a few lines to let your prospective new followers (ugh – right?) know you’re worth that all important thumb press. ‘Middle-aged sad lefty from Stoke with fondness for real ale’ was never going to be a stand out, let me assure you. But ‘Heckled Bill Hicks and lived’ is surely one of those wayward claims only open to the few. And so, for five years, it’s awkwardly sat there as my Twitter ‘come on in’ sign.
‘Heckled Bill Hicks and lived.’ Quite a claim…
In Britain, in the early 90s, the stand-up comedy landscape was so different from how it looks today, it was almost a different form. Today, as has been the case for at least a decade or more, stand-up is the new rock ‘n roll. Or perhaps the new drive time, smoothed-down, homogenised MOR. Should you manage to elbow your way past the piles of Michael McIntyre live DVDs, the snarling gatherings of comics who routinely line their pockets at the panel show candy store through their fondness for quick-witted (i.e. pre-scripted) piss-taking, you can throw your hard-earned at the execrable, juvenile wittering of Russell Howard, whose next arena tour culminates in 2017 – ker-ching! – with ten nights at the Royal Albert Hall.
That’s not to suggest that it’s simply been a straight swap of a hallowed working mens’ club dream of a generation ago for the current tawdry cash cow. Today’s comedy underground is alive and hungry. Most towns and cities are blessed with not just the name chains, but with smartly-promoted independent nights where a tenner will get you an expertly MC’d line-up with names you don’t (yet) know, names you might know and, if your local set-up is particularly switched on, big names road-testing new material in venues they rarely inhabit. Perspective: in the past three years or so, I’ve seen John Bishop in an arena, half a dozen multi-act nights in local clubs (discovering, along the way, Mark Nelson, Tom Wrigglesworth and Manchester’s incredible Danny Sutcliffe), Sarah Millican in a pub (hugely skilled with both crowd management and language) and the brilliant Sarah Pascoe earlier this year in a Manchester basement. (I was on a freebie with Bishop and the over-cooked staging and thin material typified the current stadium comedy model, but, early on in his career, in a more intimate setting, like Millican, he was a solid performer. And therein, perhaps, lies the problem. But that debate is for another day.)
So, Bill Hicks in Stoke in 1992 was just weird. Partly because the city itself – as is still the case today – was an ill-defined destination for any artist. Sitting as it does between Manchester and Birmingham, the Six Towns both confuse and appall outsiders. Growing up there was a constant reminder that your home town was, well, a bit shit, and that to see cool music, for instance, you’d have to head elsewhere. With only the 1800 capacity Victoria Hall as an option, if bands were doing, as became increasingly common, the ten date ‘tour’ that really wasn’t, you were buggered. But if they were vaguely arsed (The Smiths, Iron Maiden, The Cult, Big Country), you’d slip into their 20-odd dates by default (see also those other oddly iconic bastions of the provincial gig circuit: Ipswich Regent, Southend Cliffs Pavilion, Blackburn King George’s Hall.) Every now and then, an oddity: Bon Jovi touring Slippery When Wet in 1986, Pixies with Bossa Nova. But, once the 90s got going, and the Victoria Hall seemed to just slip away (not really re-appearing as an option for touring acts until the council set up the embarrassingly-named ‘Cultural Quarter’ years later), and Stoke simply failed to respond at any level – the lack of club venues for touring alternative acts is still a blight on a student-stuffed city – that was it.
Hicks coming to Stoke was almost a last hurrah: certainly for the city but, sadly, for him, too. The American comic had quickly found a loyal following in the UK, where his appearances on Channel 4’s Friday Night Live had seen his wildfire observations – an anti-establishment tract that took aim at the American right and its key constituents of George Bush, US foreign policy and grubby commerce, alongside progressive and questioning angles on abortion, drugs, alcohol and smoking – connect with an audience inclined towards his views and also compact enough to grasp and address as a whole. (Hicks’ US audiences were always in the more typically liberal centres. Indeed, he would work his struggles in “Bumfuck USA” into his act. Threatened by a group after a show in which he’d mocked organised religion, he smiled, shrugged and offered “Forgive me?”)
Typically, in an act of reasoning lost to the vagaries of time, Hicks was booked not into the Victoria Hall but the Queens Theatre in Burslem (one of the city’s six towns and still only really known for the dual delights of Port Vale and Robbie Williams), a concert hall whose current depressing status appears to be ‘owner in raging, public dispute with council.’ As you were. From its website: “The Queens is the only purpose built theatre in Stoke on Trent. It has seen many greats grace the board in the likes of Robbie Williams, Jim Davidson and Johnathon (sic) Wilkes to name but a few.” (Clearly, no room for mention of Fields of the Nephilim’s excellent 1990 show. Bah.)
With the 1,000 capacity venue was all but sold-out, me and a mate stopped off in Hanley for a quick pint, but, lured by the warm Saturday night welcome of The Dew Drop Inn, we swiftly changed our plans. Rather than get in in time to see support act Balloon (as I recall – a Turin Brakes-type acoustic duo), we’d have a couple more drinks. This, as has become increasingly clear over the years, is where it all started to go wrong.
We had seats on the fifth row of the stalls. Aisle seats. Centre aisle. We took those seats amidst dawning realisation that we were, undeniably, a bit pissed. You do this, if you’re smart, just the once: go to see a comedian while under the influence. Certainly, sitting just a few feet from the circuit’s sharpest mouth and mind was a move beyond foolhardy. Memories of the show are mostly vague, though I recall Hicks had the crowd from the off: I’d worried beforehand whether a Stoke audience (not always the most responsive) would properly connect. No problem: there was loud and extended laughter throughout, and a genuine warmth, too. Hicks was dressed in his usual dark suit and he prowled the tiny stage: I remember that much. But here’s what I remember most clearly.
After a lengthy, breathless section, Hicks walked to the front of the stage and smiled. He said something nice and welcoming to the audience – despite the reputation, he reserved his ire for his targets and always showed his audience great respect – and asked if anybody had any questions while he gathered his thoughts. “Why have you moved back to New York from LA?” someone called out. Hicks liked that, and gave it some thought. “Well,” he began, “I guess I just find New York that much more…oh, I don’t know… European.” That’s a good answer. It tells you something about the person saying it: something you perhaps already new, but it’s enlightening enough and perhaps designed to find favour with a British audience. That’s what I think now. I probably thought it back then but I expressed it rather differently. I let out a huge, fake snore.
I still don’t know why. I suspect I thought it would be funny. I was in my early twenties and probably needed attention. I’d had five or six pints of Marstons Pedigree. I was a dick. So I waited for a moment of silence and let loose with a big fat pig impression, the ultimate in mocking disregard. I chose to let Bill Hicks – who, let’s be absolutely clear, I adored – know that his answer was no good.
He went absolutely fucking berserk.
Storming to the front of the stage, he stared out into the crowd. Everyone was looking at me. Thankfully, they all seemed amused but, I realise now, more amused by what was to come. He found me. Jesus. “Oh, OK, buddy,” he raged. “You think that’s funny, huh? Well how about this? How about when I get out of your little fucking two horse town and get back to London and meet up with my cool comedy pals, how about I tell them to give your shitty little town a miss? How about I’m the last fucker you see bothering to come round these parts?”
Bill Hicks said this to my face.
There are positives, but they are few. He quickly moved on. He was, after all, an accomplished performer and drunken fools are there to be swatted away or else they unseat your act. (I certainly didn’t want that.) Also, the audience took it all in good heart and laughed like loons rather than pondering the future impact of Hicks’ threat. (I’ve often wondered whether the real drying up of performers coming to Stoke in subsequent years was down to me, rather than the flailing infrastructure of an increasingly impoverished and struggling city.)
It gets worse.
Hicks began an extended piece about Charlie Hodge, Elvis Presley’s ‘towel man.’ The joke – and it was actually a good one – was that Hodge had served gainful employment for decades as the fella who handed The King his towel after each song, and sometimes a drink. Hicks lovingly built a skit around this bizarre arrangement, colouring it with possible modern day equivalents. But I needed to pee. I was absolutely bursting and in the ten minutes or so since he’d railed at me, I’d been planning to get up and dash out. I was just waiting for a big enough wave of laughter to ‘hide’ under. One quickly came and I stood, stepped out into the aisle, moved quickly towards the stage and ran along the space between the stage and the front row, heading for the exit in the corner of the stalls. He had me in an instant.
“There he goes, everyone! There he is, Charlie Hodge! Go on, Charlie – go get me my fucking towel!” Uproar. Just too much laughter. I made it out, did what I needed to do, caught my breath. Now I had to get back in. Surely the same policy, though clearly flawed, was the best I had? Yeah, right.
“Here he is! Charlie Hodge! Yeah, run back to your seat, mother fucker!”
And that’s it. Pretty much. Those aren’t Hicks’ exact words, of course, but they’re really not that far off. The detail and tone are, I’m certain, spot on. I can’t remember a single thing he talked about in the rest of the set but this stuff… it’s like it was yesterday.
Hicks, of course, died not long afterwards: a terrible and unexpected tragedy. He’d kept his illness secret. (In the pre-internet age, I found out via my usual after-the-fact route: that week’s Melody Maker, where a small but respectful obituary announced the shocking news.) Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1993, he performed his last show in January 1994 before moving back to live out his final days with his parents. He was 32. He was just getting going. Christ knows, as America prepares to cast off a decade of progressive politics and settle back into (not so?) cosy conservatism, we could do with him around.
Thankfully, his legacy is supported by a wealth of history, both written and recorded. If this piece skirts around that history, almost takes that legacy for granted, that’s partly the intention. This is a story rather than an appreciation or tribute – barely a story, on reflection. But it’s a good one: funny, sure, but strangely sour. Because I heckled Bill Hicks and still, all these years later, I really wish I hadn’t.