In the years since his untimely passing, Bill Hicks has become a comedy icon. Operating on a seemingly higher plane than your average joke-teller, Hicks’ insights on politics, religion, drugs, and the general state of the world place him in the pantheon of poets and philosophers. Harsh as he could be on those general topics, his real vitriol was reserved for the most divisive subject of all: Music. His rants against fear-mongering about drugs in the music industry of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are things of legend.
Although he started slugging it out on the club circuit in his mid-teens, Bill Hicks only enjoyed moderate success until his later years. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 32, and if the ever-increasing quality of his work is any indication, Hicks had years to go before he could have reached his full potential.
As Hicks began to ascend the comedic ladder of the early 1990s in earnest, a band with an overlapping worldview to his own were developing at a similar pace. Intrepid sonic explorers of the mind and soul, Tool saw a like-minded peer in Hicks and sought to cultivate a deeper relationship with the comic.
Having developed a friendship during Lollapalooza 1993, Tool and Hicks endeavored to bridge the cultural gap between their respective mediums by setting up a tour. Frontman Maynard James Keenan spoke about the subject in an interview with Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, saying: “We were going to put together a tour. It was still when the band was young and still kind of up and coming, way before Aenima, we were still at that level where we could probably pull something like that off… We were trying to figure out what we were going to do. We were trying to figure out how we would work it into where it would somehow be accepted in that forum.
“Even then, it was hard for us to be accepted. We would play somewhere and we’d have these moshing skinheads dudes saying ‘play faster,’ and we’d be like ‘listen slower.’ I don’t know, this is what we’re doing. You came here to see us, I’m not sure why I’m supposed to give you what you want… Bill and I discussed this. It was early enough on in our career that we think we could at least weed out the people that didn’t want to see that, somehow resonate on that level.”
Although any hope for a theoretical tour died with Hicks, the comedian’s indelible mark can be found all over Aenima. The hauntingly menacing “LEARN TO SWIM” chant from the title track comes from an idea explored in Hicks’ Arizona Bay album, in which he contemplates Los Angeles falling into the Pacific Ocean. This somewhat subtle nod is just one of several loving tributes.
“See, I think drugs have done some good things for us, I really do. And if you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor – go home tonight and take all your albums, all your tapes, and all your CDs and burn ’em. ‘Cause you know what? The musicians who’ve made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years… real fucking high on drugs.
“Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.
“It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on personal freedom, that’s what it is, okay? Keep that in mind at all times, thank you.”
Emanating from the mouth of Bill Hicks himself, these words usher in Aenima’s epic closing track “Third Eye” like a mission statement. Hammering in themes of personal liberty, mind expansion, and the incomprehensible nature of infinity, Tool and Hicks prove themselves to be kindred spirits with similar philosophic ideas and artistic goals.
The alternate cover of Aenima features a painting of Hicks in a lab coat, operating a puppet-like creature that closely resembles Keenan. The caption reads, “Another Dead Hero.”
Goodnight, sweet prince.