The Kings Are Dead, Long Live The Kings:
Andy Kaufman (courtesy of the Kaufman homepage) and Bill Hicks (Photo © 1993, Sacred Cow)
Andy Kaufman, Bill Hicks, Elvis Presley, and the Unknown Tongues1.
by Jesse Jarnow (January 2003)
It is the late 1970's. It is the mid-1980's. Andy Kaufman is onstage. Bill Hicks is onstage. The strains of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" build to its thunderingly triumphant climax and an old blues tune, "C.C. Rider," starts. Andy Kaufman is not onstage. Bill Hicks is not onstage. Elvis Presley is onstage. He is on both stages. They are two different Elvises. Both are decked out in sequined, rhinestoned jumpsuits. One of them is lean and alive. The other is bloated and nearly dead. Both of them fall to their knees.
"Why does Denis Leary have a career?" the old comedians' in-joke runs. "Because there's no cure for cancer." That's funny. Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, leaving behind a legacy of wildly intelligent comic invective, some of which Denis Leary unapologetically pilfered wholesale on his No Cure For Cancer album.
"I'm gonna let all you non-smokers in on a secret," Hicks had said, puffing on a cigarette. "Non-smokers die everyday." That's funny, too. Andy Kaufman - the comedian-cum-performance artist, star of Taxi, and subject of the Milos Foreman 1999 biopic The Man on the Moon - died of cancer, too. Kaufman was a health nut, an aggressive non-smoker, yet contracted a rare form of lung cancer.
While Hicks rode a chariot of cynicism, and Kaufman a wave of baby-faced innocence (besides occasional purgings/cleansings via boorish alter-ego Tony Clifton), the two shared much. Both came from utterly (comically?) generic upbringings (Kaufman from Jewish Long Island, Hicks from the sprawl of Houston). Both spoke of worlds far more trusting than the ones they existed in. Both shared a deep fondness for Elvis Presley. Both were, in a certain sense, rock and roll. And both men turned, clung, to alternative medicine and spiritual cleansing in the face of their ultimately unsuccessful battles with cancer.
According to Mike Wallace, Elvis liked Andy the best. Andy's impression of Elvis was reverential. A young Kaufman had, after all, written a book about Elvis, modestly titled God, hitchhiked to Las Vegas, camped out in the basement pantry of the casino where Presley was performing, and ambushed the King en route to his private elevator to the penthouse. Kaufman chittered and waved the copy of his handwritten manuscript. The King nodded, smiled, and offered his blessing. Years later, on a private tour of Graceland, Kaufman discovered - among Elvis's videos - a stash of Kaufman tapes.
As a product of the United States in the years immediately following the second World War, it is not surprising that Kaufman found solace in fantasy. His was that of any good American boy: Hollywood. Growing up in the late 1950's and early 1960's though, his fascination with Presley was an odd, but strangely logical one. Elvis was the first at a lot of things. Among others, he was perhaps rock and roll's first sell-out, returning from the Army to forsake Memphis for Hollywood and make campy movie after campy movie. In an America about to be overrun by The Beatles, Elvis was passť.
But that was fine with Andy. He liked Hollywood. He wanted to go there and make pictures. Before he did though, he found himself in some odd spots. It being the 1960's and all, Kaufman certainly wasn't immune to the times. Like many, he found himself in the midst of the drug culture. The first generation of children raised during the dawn of the American Empire in the years following World War II had every reason to believe they were born into a world of infinite possibility. They were on the up and up (and up and up and up). The rise seemed limitless, like it might be possible to transcend even silly physical barriers.
It was an infinite quality that ultimately found its way into Kaufman's bedazzling work, which was more often in the form of pranks than traditional stand-up. They were designed to twist the audience's perception of the world outside the performance, to create a sense of wonder. That's what he used his Elvis imitation for. Reverential as it was, it wasn't simply an Elvis imitation for the sake of an Elvis imitation. It was an elaborate punchline. As Foreign Man, the character eventually developed into Latka (on Taxi), Kaufman would - in pathetic broken English - intentionally bomb his way through a series of terrible wife jokes and horrendous imitations. Then he would announce that it was time to do "de Elvece Preslee". And he would proceed to do one hell of an Elvis imitation - downright perfect, actually - and it would just melt the audience's mind in shock and, yeah, wonder.
Then Andy would shrink back into Foreign Man. "Tank you vedy much," he would say. Or perhaps it was "dank you veddy much" (per Bob Zmuda, Kaufman's writing partner, author of Best Friend Tells All) or "tenk you vedy much" (per Julie Hecht, author of the recent Was This Man A Genius? Talks With Andy Kaufman) or "tenk you veddy much" (per Bill Zehme, author of the essential Lost In The Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman).
On one hand, it's all just a matter of spelling. On another, though, it's a bit more revealing. "Tenk you veddy much" (to go with the most convincing writer) was Andy's first major punchline, the first way he brought the audience in on his wonder. In The Aesthetics of Rock, critical prankster Richard Meltzer's early rock-write manifesto, he describes what he calls "the unknown tongue": "someplace between the incapturably transitory and the imperceptibly infinite". Meltzer, of course, applies it to rock and roll, and throws out a good number of examples (Paul McCartney's entrance on "All My Loving", for one), but it could equally be applied to Foreign Man. That moment - if one wasn't aware of what was coming - was one of a great flowering, a moment in which the world could do anything and the laws of science were bunk.
Yes, the children of Kaufman's generation were on the up and up, and Andy was right in the middle of it. Rock and roll gave way to marijuana. Marijuana gave way to LSD-25. And LSD-25 gave way to what Tom Wolfe would come to dub "The Third Great Awakening" -- a tremendous explosion of religious cultism in the United States. Andy was part of this, too. In 1968, Kaufman became a devotee of transcendental meditation (TM). He would be devoted to it for the rest of his life, even after being barred from attending religious events after his misunderstood wrestling career.
When he was diagnosed with large-cell carcinoma in 1983, it was only natural that he turn to the mysticism he'd relied on his entire life. He traveled to the Philippines to see famed faith healer Jun Roxas. Amidst gorgeous vistas and heart-wrenching poverty, he found himself in a scene more surreal than even he could've schemed. Bob Zmuda watched in horror as Roxas palmed chicken guts while "cleansing" his patients. The saddest (or funniest) part was that - besides the fact that Andy's condition only worsened - Kaufman and Zmuda could've done it better.
Bill Hicks spoke the unknown tongues, too. "He stuck the mike in his mouth, practically swallowing it," Cynthia True wrote in American Scream, describing Hicks' interpretation of sell-out pop stars "suckin' Satan's pecker" as they hawked products in return for unheard of endorsements to line their already silken pockets. "[He] let forth an amplified snarling, snorting wail-moan that sounded something like an angry beast trying to sweat out the devil. 'AHOOOOOHHHHHHHWWWWWWWWOOOOOOO!'" The words, of course, don't do justice to the sound, which is absolutely guttural and stunning.
It is the sound of a tornado of cynicism sucking up ravaging hope and optimism. Inside all social critics - political pundits, message board posters, stand up comedians, and rock musicians - is some blueprint for a perfect world. They complain because they see something plainly wrong, differing from what they see as obviously sensible. Hicks was no exception. That was how he arrived at his version of Elvis.
"He had everything he could possibly want and he was still completely miserable," Hicks once said. "It's just mind boggling... The American way is no way at all. Are people happier? You judge a culture by how happy the people are, not by how much money they have." Hicks's Elvis found him in a dilapidated costume, sideburns fashioned out of grocery bags, throwing cheeseburgers to the audience and promising them free Cadillacs. More than mere camp, Hicks's Elvis was downright disturbing.
"To me, real humor is very serious," he explained. "Mark Twain's humor in Huckleberry Finn is funny, but it's about very serious things. It's a deeper, richer laugh for me." While it is perhaps because he is dead and hindsight is rose-colored, audiences have consistently cited his performances as revelatory experiences, bordering on the spiritual. Hicks himself was conscious of this. He laced the post-humously released Arizona Bay with an underscore by his band, Marblehead Johnson. "It's kind of like New Age music under my comedy, which is rather... angry," True quotes Hicks as saying. "And it has this neat healing effect on the comedy."
Kaufman came from the happy-go-lucky sunshine of the 1950s, and it showed in his work, just as the nighttime malaise of the late 1970s showed through in Hicks's. Where Kaufman swore off drugs and alcohol when he began to practice TM, Hicks found TM long before he discovered chemical pleasures. By the time he was in high school, Hicks was meditating regularly and attending TM retreats. For all of his skepticism, there was a deep current of spirituality that ran below (and occasionally through) his work. It was easy to miss, though, for the sheer rock and roll brutality of it. Hicks often described his informed humor as "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes".
Where Kaufman (and much of his generation) had moved from drugs to spirituality, Hicks moved from TM to psychedelic exploration. On the date of the Harmonic Convergence - coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of Elvis's death; August 16, 1987 - Hicks and two friends consumed massive amounts of psilosybic mushrooms and had a monumental experience. Both Hicks and one of his friends separately reported being in touch with alien beings. This bit of information turned up throughout Hicks' routines, and always seemed a bit out of place among Hicks's diatribes, which seemed to tend towards the humanist secular. Make no mistake about it, though: Hicks was just as much a product of the Third Great Awakening as Kaufman. For all of his put-downs of TV preachers and illogics of all kinds, it was to holistic healing that he turned. Like much about the world, it let him down.
Andy Kaufman and Bill Hicks worked towards creating something that was greater than comedy, and went further than entertainment. They wanted to see a world transmogrified through their work. Though their methods were opposite - Kaufman magically created illusions, Hicks gleefully destroyed them - their mission was the same: to reveal the world as a series of frames. It was a mission that could easily be placed next to transcendental meditation in its effects. It isn't a coincidence that they found salvation, for a time, in alternative healing.
Nor is it a surprise that they gravitated towards Elvis Presley, perhaps the most widespread American myth of their childhoods -- be it Kaufman's genuine musical interest in Presley or Hicks's fascination with (per True) "the last shot of Elvis in an old documentary where he was fat, high, and pathetic, crying onstage and talking to 'Cilla."
They found themselves there for the same reason. Elvis had successfully pulled it off. He had been able to sustain something, to transform the world around him, to let the audience touch something vaster. He had been able to summon hysteria in his audience, madness beyond pop music, and was worshipped like a god even as he crumbled. He had built himself a pyramid in Memphis, and he died.
ED NOTE: More of Jesse Jarnow's writings and work can be found at http://www.well.com/user/jjarnow
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