Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Bill Hicks Story

Comics are always asking me, "what was it like to work with Bill Hicks?" (Hicks was a wildly-inventive, uncompromising comic who died young of pancreatic cancer). I was reminded of this story while setting my clocks forward when daylight savings time resumed two weeks ago.

I was the booking agent for the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas, between 1984 and 1986. This meant I was the de facto agent for all the comics who made that club their home base. This included such acts as Sam Kinison (who was before my time), Brett "Grace Under Fire" Butler, Fred Greenlee, and - of course - Bill Hicks.

Now, no one doubted the talent of Bill Hicks. I had no trouble booking him in other clubs - once. But they usually didn't want him back because of his behavior. Hicks was doing a lot of drugs at the time. He'd insult anyone who he felt wasn't worthy of his talent (audience members or club owners). And he wouldn't get off stage on time. Sometimes he'd go an hour long!

So, sometime in the spring of 1986, I booked Hicks in Oklahoma. I can't recall if it was Tulsa or Oklahoma City. It was a week-long booking, Tuesday through Sunday. In fact, I supplied all three acts: MC, middle act, and Hicks as headliner. I arranged plane tickets for all three acts, and told the Oklahoma manager what time to pick the comics up at the airport - sometime around 3 pm.

Hicks came into my office on Tuesday morning. I handed him his ticket. I told him, "Bill, it's getting so I can't get you booked back anywhere. Please, please try and get through this one week without pissing off the management."

Hicks smiled and said "Sure." And left.

Around 3:30 that afternoon I get a call from an angry manager in Oklahoma. "They weren't on the plane. Where are they?"

Frantically, I started making phone calls. This was long before cell phones; a lot of people didn't even have answering machines. I couldn't get hold of any of the three comics, so I called their friends. No one knew anything.

Around 7 pm I got another call from the Oklahoma manger. "They're here."

Hicks had convinced the other comics to turn in their plane tickets for cash, rent a car, and drive to Oklahoma. And he didn't tell anyone!

He'd managed to piss off the Oklahoma manager before he even got there!

He ended the week in the same way. Hicks and the other two comics forgot that daylight savings time began that Sunday. They all showed up to the club an hour late. With no comics there, the manager had canceled the show.

I resigned as booking agent of the Comedy Workshop two weeks later.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Midnight Disease

I awoke at 4 am and couldn't get back to sleep. I was worrying about my mother. We put her in a nursing home last week. No option, really. She has Alzheimer's and had to be in a lock-down facility. She kept trying to leave the house she'd lived in for 40 years to go to her childhood home in Manayunk (a Philadelphia neighborhood). She thinks her mother is still alive, waiting for her there.

Fifty years ago, HER mother was doing the exact same thing. Except that, back then, nursing homes didn't have keypad door locks or put monitoring bracelets on the patients. My grandmother escaped and made it to the bus stop several times.

So I couldn't get back to sleep. No matter. In Michael Chabon's book Wonder Boys, the narrator calls insomnia "The Midnight Disease" and claims it often afflicts writers. My rule for insomnia is this: if I can't get back to sleep in a half-hour, get up and write.

At 5:30 am I hear a neighbor leave for work. It reminds me of my own early-morning jobs, some twenty years ago. I remember working construction, showing up at the contractor's office at 6 am, being on the jobsite by 7 am. I was a plumbing apprentice. I had permanent bruises on both shoulders from carrying 22 foot lengths of pipe. Come to think of it, that's when my problems with my knees started.

It's 7 am now. Soon the school buses would make their rounds. How many times have I been on deadline, writing all night, only noticing the time when I hear the school buses in the morning? Too many to count.

The muse rarely inspires me late at night. My midnight writing is quotidian, workmanlike. Nothing brilliant. Just grinding out page after page. But that's what much of the writer's life is about. If deadlines permit, you can insert brilliance in the rewrite. It beats the hell out of writer's block.

Alzheimer's is also a midnight disease. I'm sure my mother awakens at night in the nursing home, not knowing where she is. But she was already doing that in at home, not recognizing her husband of 56 years. So she's no worse off. And now, perhaps, my father can get a full night's sleep. But it will take him time to get used to sleeping alone.