Bill Hicks died 10 years, nine months and 13 days ago. For that reason, only God and His angels know what Hicks would think about the current sociopolitical plight of the United States. And it's doubtless that they do know, because if his behavior on Earth is any indication, Hicks' rantings have filled the heavenly spheres ever since his passing.

Now a certifiable legend (death will do that to you), Hicks cultivated a comedy persona that took the form of the outcast prophet – the sputtering madman whose bilious spiels are so suffused with truth that they're nearly impossible to accept. This legend has been formed thanks to two factors: the astonishing quality of his small body of recorded work, and the persistent proselytizing of his disciples. Hicks only released two albums while he was alive, and was working on a third when he died. (Rykodisc has managed to release another three albums, plus a best-of, from his recorded material, and it's likely that more is on the way.) "Product" was not what Bill Hicks was about, and the volumes of testimonials he's received from other comedians, as well as friends and fans, are what has kept interest in him alive.

Yet that's not to say that Hicks was a marginal, underground figure. As is well-documented in the performances on the Bill Hicks Live DVD (Rykodisc), he was a comedian playing to large rooms here and abroad; a comedian who managed to appear on David Letterman's show nearly a dozen times; a comedian who got his own HBO special. He was an outcast, to be sure, but that was his appeal, and his appeal was broad. During the Bush I era, when Hicks was at his comedic height, his piercing analyses of the hypocrisies running rampant through our society were a much-needed tonic to the tens of millions of people who were befuddled by the direction in which this country was headed. (Much like today.) Watching Hicks dish out his invective before audiences in Chicago, London and Montreal gives a much-needed dimension to the routines that we've all listened to so many times on CD. He's hardly the stage-stalking maniac that comes across on record. In fact, his unsteady ego seems constantly at odds with the radical truth he's preaching, and it's easy to see how his informed and intelligent delivery makes the often-shocking notions in which he trafficked seem so normal. Even his well-known "nonsmoker" routine ("I'd quit smoking if I didn't think I'd become one of you") gains a new appeal from watching him deliver it in person.

On the other hand, the book Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines (Soft Skull Press, 334 pages) strips away Hicks' emotional flourishes, leaving mere transcriptions of his routines – and letters he wrote to friends and enemies – to tell a frustratingly one-dimensional picture. Reading just this book without having seen or heard Hicks, you might well think him to be an off-balance nut job. Often, his writings are dense screeds that attack multiple subjects in a scattershot way. But even in them, one can see the origins of bits that would later make it into his routines.

Since it's unlikely that Love All the People will be read by anyone unfamiliar with Hicks' work, the book is best understood as an excellent companion volume. After wading through Hicks' mailed responses to two priests who had written to complain about his U.K. television special, or picking through the many undated ramblings like "Bill Hicks on the Fall of Communism," you realize that all the postmortem praise he's received for being a "realist" and a "truth-teller" is essentially correct. When Hicks got up on stage, he was merely continuing an ongoing dialogue with the world, one that consumed his entire life. He wasn't saying things to get laughs; he was going after those laughs to make us think about what he had just said.


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