IS AN ERA WHEN TO LIVE THE LIFE OF POP super-ultra-megastardom means to
have one's every pore pried and probed, as if the Truth could be confirmed
in bacteria and glandular secretions. But what do we find? More flesh. How
refreshing it is, then, to ponder the enduring mystique of a phenomenon
such as the Residents, who for over 25 years have explored their elation
and revulsion with the evil banality of American pop culture while happily
cloaked in utter anonymity. Their giant-eyeball heads have no pores.
Recently, prior to the
group's upcoming performance of their latest epic, Wormwood, I had a chat with one of
the group's spokespersons, Homer, a folksy longtime associate of the
"band" and co-head of the Cryptic Corporation, the Residents' production
conglomerate. Homer amiably conveyed the group's way-out Weltanschauung,
bizarre beginnings, current crazes and fears for the future.
The Residents, it
seems, germinated somewhere in Louisiana, possibly a swamp, but packed
their bags and moved to San Mateo in the late '60s. They spent their early
years honing their style and recording such unreleased masterpieces as
"The Ballad of Stuffed Trigger" and "Baby Sex." It was
here too that they met their guru, The Mysterious N. Senada, whose Theory
of Obscurity later inspired them to record The Unreleased Album, a pure-art work created
intentionally to be heard by no one.
Moving to San Francisco
in 1972, the Residents set up a four-track recording studio in a small,
windowless room. Their modest goal was to tell true stories about the real
America, the one they knew from puerile pop music, terrible TV and horsepoo
Hollywood movies. Significantly, it had dawned on them that any truly
countercultural telling of the Great American Adventure not only had to
shun stardom, it had to be interpreted in a musically original form 行 for
them, an honestly white no-soul music derived from disparate views of
reality squished together for maximum cranial excitement.
You'll recall that in
the wake of '70s punk rock there was a trend called new wave, which
spit-shined the sweaty spirit of punk and took it to heady heights at the
top of the charts. The Residents, having been discovered by the ravenous
British music press, suddenly became the next big new wave thing, a
phenomenon that spread into Europe and, in classic fashion, back to
Having been officially
approved of by the people who wore skinny ties and rolled up the sleeves on
their blazers, the group began to sell in sizable, if not exactly mass,
quantities. The Residents used this relative prosperity to found their own
label, Ralph Records, which released high-quality uncommercial music by the
likes of Fred Frith, Yello, Snakefinger, and Renaldo and the Loaf, and
established Pore No Graphics to handle album-cover, poster and T-shirt art.
Along the way, they won fans in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The
Residents are huge in Greece
HAS HELPED THE RESIDENTS ACHIEVE durability, but...the masks must become a burden at times.
Surely the band wants to rip them off and proclaim, "Yes, it is me, John Johnson, who has
created this art." And surely there's been some fanaticism to deal
with, the mad compulsion of fans with nothing better to do than to unveil
the men (?) inside the eyeball heads.
says Homer, "but people seem to respect that it's important that the
Residents be allowed to exist in their own little world. We've had a few
people who've tried to crash through the backstage doors, or get through
security and things like that. But it's like people have accepted that the
Residents really want to be treated as a group, they don't want to be
treated as individuals, and it's not to anyone's advantage that they be
forced to give that up."
The Residents have thus
maintained their mystery, yet they couldn't have done it without such
ambitious music. From humble beginnings messing with tape loops, detuned
guitars, one-fingered cheapo organs and twangy, retarded vocals, often
reinterpreting to horrific effect the "best" of the rock canon
(hilariously tin-eared and unfunky covers of "Satisfaction," "Land
of a Thousand Dances," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"),
they've slowly developed a pretty slick production technique, largely due
to their discovery of the Emulator sampler in the early '80s, and their
exploration of computers and MIDI programming. They've taken on works of gigantic
scale, such as Eskimo, a history of life in the Arctic, and the
ethnic-cleansing/dignity-in-work legend of the Mole trilogy (volumes 1, 2
and 4), which relates the struggle between the industrious, sincere Moles
and cheerfully vacuous hypercapitalist Chubs ("We don't want your
brow/We don't want your eye/All we really want is/For you to puke and
die"). Consistently, they've established a distinctive homegrown
tonality, owing equal debts to the Stones, Harry Partch, Mauricio Kagel and
Don Kirschner. Their Third Reich & Roll album, wherein
Adolf Hitler imitates
Chubby Checker singing "Let's Twist Again" and concludes with a
discordant medley of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," "Hey Jude"
and "Sympathy for the Devil," was also a nod at '70s Krautrock,
the Residents demonstrating that America could generate its own avant-garde
style derived from a purely American tradition.
The band has been
prolific, with two dozen-plus albums released since 1974, wide-screen works
loaded with dissonant electronic elegies to normalness, arcane spoken-word
patches and a cast of sympathetic (sometimes) weirdos, gimps and losers.
The recent two-CD retrospective Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses is a good intro.
RESIDENTS HAVE LONG RESIDED IN THE VANGUARD of new technologies 行 as
well as being among the first to use the Emulator, they've produced a
number of award-winning videos and CD-ROMs (Gingerbread Man, Freak Show and their most recent, the
bracingly grim Bad Day on the Midway, featuring such endearing characters as Benny the
Bump, Herman the Human Mole, the Old Woman and the Sold-Out Artist) 行 yet
their music remains the product of a highly refined ignorance. The core
members enjoy limited instrumental chops, though recent projects have
incorporated skilled players and singers to better transmit the sickness.
craftsman concept of musician," says Homer, "the Residents
couldn't hardly be worse. From the idea standpoint of musician, with
the emotion and energy for music, I'd say they can hardly be beat. With Wormwood, they would write things
using the computer, and then print scores out, and then people would come
in to play them. They feel like Wormwood, being about the Bible, it
was really important to have that human spirit behind it."
Wormwood is, in part, the Residents'
reaction to the severely literal-minded Christian atmosphere that has
plagued the American consciousness in recent times. Gleaning insight from
Jonathan Kirsch's book The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden
Tales of the Bible, the group retells several of the hairier Bible stories
without all the mayhem, humiliation and abnormal sex sanded off.
watch television a lot," says Homer, "and they've always been
fascinated by TV evangelists. Several years ago, they said, 'We have to
find out. These people are waving this book in the air and telling other
people how horrible they are because this book says they are, and it's time
to sit down and read this book and see if it really does say that.' It
didn't 行 these evangelists were holding the Bible hostage."
Residents' reading of the Good Book proposes other options. "The
Bible," offers Homer, "is saying that it's okay to be failures as
humans and as gods, because that's all there is. And it's really not about
denouncing this group or that group. In fact, when you read it, everybody
gets denounced at some point or another."
THAT THE RESIDENTS LIKE TO KEEP UP with all the latest nifty trends, I ask Homer if
there're any new bands they like.
"The Residents are
very fond of the Spice Girls, and Hanson particularly," says Homer.
"They like them a lot, because they really love pop music, and they
think pop music should never last, that two weeks later you should forget
entirely about the music and who performed it. So they like whoever does
Well, I guess these
veteran Residents aren't a pop band then, going by their own definition. I
wonder what they'll be doing 20 years from now.
"I've heard the
Residents talking about what they'll be doing 100 years from now,"
Homer says, cryptically.
"I'm not allowed
to say, but they have some interesting schemes on how the Residents will
live forever...They're thinking replacements. They're thinking
apprenticeships and training."
The Residents, eminent
purveyors of a grotesquely beautiful, sometimes anti-, sometimes
pro-American art, are an American success story, having achieved a
preferred way of life by precisely locating their audience. And who might
that audience be?
Homer says, "You
know, in high school you've got the majority of people that sort of rigidly
listen to the same music, and they like the same things and dress the same
way. And then you have this smaller group of people that stand apart from
that 行 they can't really relate to that larger group of people at all, and
don't like anything they like. That's the Residents' audience. They're