brother sam book coverBill Kinison w/Steve Delsohn
William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Sam Kinison was Lenny Bruce at warp speed.  He was not only beyond hip, he was beyond gonzo.  He was a white Richard Pryor; a preacher-turned-comedian, a primal screamer who shrieked for our sins.  He was knwn as the “rock and roll comic” – a burly, volatile high-wire act, calculated to offend, demolishing taboos on national television with brute force.  When he lost his life in April 1992 at the age of thirty-eight, behind the wheel of a sports car east of Los Angeles, many of his fans didn’t know about his past.  The most successful comic of the 1980s was the son of a poor Illinois preacher – an unhappy child from a torn, dysfunctional family, plagued by low self-esteem and fated for disappointment.  This first full account of Kinison’s whiplashing life is written by the person who lived closest to its subject – Sam’s brother, Bill Kinison, a traveling preacher for seventeen years who gave up his vocation to manage Sam’s comedy career.  Bill covers Sam’s checkered early years; his sudden ascent to fame in 1985 and flamboyant life in show business; his personal struggles wiht liquor, drugs, and sexual excess; and the feelings of a brother doomed to take care of a brother born to raise hell.

I first discovered the comedian known as Sam Kinison in one of the more unlikely places to discover stand-up comedy – within the pages of Circus Magazine, a music rag dedicated primarily to rock and metal.  First I saw the ad for his just-released album, Have You Seen Me Lately?  Then a write-up piece describing a Kinison show that culminated with a bunch of bigger names in rock at the time joining the comedian on-stage for a jam-session.  Okay, that got my attention.  Then I stumbled upon the video for his cover of “Wild Thing” on MTV later that year while visiting my grandmother (who had cable), and being blown away by this stocky built, anti-pretty boy in a head scarf and a trench coat screaming altered (and funny) lyrics to a hard rock rendition of a 1960s classic.  I remember thinking, crap, this is that guy?  This was the greatest thing I’ve heard at the time.  Keep in mind, it was the tail end of the 1980s and I was a Midwest-dwelling 15-year-old rural boy.  Of course, finding any of his comedy albums at the time was hard, and then convincing my parents that I should spend whatever money I had on it when I did find something was even harder.  Mostly, I got my fix by borrowing a schoolmate’s copy.

Over the years, I was still interested in this man’s spectacularly intense and brief life, if not so much his comedy routines. After finding this particular biography of Sam Kinison at Half Price Books, I have a bit more insight outside of the Wikipedia page, and this from the perspective of Sam’s brother, Bill Kinison.

The story unfolds for Sam, growing up the son of a preacher, his dysfunctional family life and his own brief stint as a Pentecostal preacher, then his introduction to comedy, working his way up through the clubs, to his fateful appearance on Rodney Dangerfield’s Ninth Annual Young Comedians Special in 1985, to his prominence as a rock star comedian, partying along with the Los Angeles Sunset Strip scene, and getting lost in a sea of drugs and booze along the way, to the eventual death he endured on the way to a show soon after his marriage. As to the minute specifics…well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out. Yeah, I know; I’m a jerk like that.

As a biography, Brother Sam is a fairly breezy read. So far, it’s the only biography I could find on the man’s life, and so we’re with only one perspective. Reportedly, Sam’s widow Malika Kinison sued Bill Kinison for allegedly portraying her in a negative light; but so far, she hasn’t produced anything from her perspective yet, so it’s really all just speculation from here on that. But overall, it was a short yet fascinating life of a man that seemed to be suffering more from a personal dichotomy from the fame and let the debauchery be kind of a toxic balm for this. It would make for a very interesting biopic, methinks. Someone get on that.