Gather ’round the embers and I’ll tell you a tale of my people: in the Big Back Before, when there was no digital web in the sky hung with all the pop culture you could dream of, you had to hunt it with spyglasses and snares. You’d hover by the stream of early music-video television with a loop of videotape and lunge at any glint of something misshapen and distressed.
This is how my friends and I, circa 1983, netted the most exotic fish of our young lives: a three-minute clip called ‘Hello Skinny’. A horse-faced, pie-eyed man in a black and white montage that might have evoked Diane Arbus or Eraserhead (1977), if we’d known of them. A two-finger organ riff thrummed and a cragged voice drawled: ‘Skinny was born in a bathtub and he grew so incredibly thin / That even the end of an eyedropper sucked … him … in.’
We rewound again and again, shuddering, giggling. We were obsessed. Soon, we’d collected more clips by this group, The Residents: the rudely brief but chipper ‘The Act of Being Polite’ (1980); their brittle, soul-drained cover of James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ (1984); and, after a field trip to the big city, a few albums, including Duck Stab/Buster & Glen (1978) and The Third Reich’n’ Roll (1976). We wanted to know everything, but it turned out there was almost nothing to know.
They were on their own label, Ralph Records in San Francisco. They never gave their names. Faces were masked or concealed. Only their management, The Cryptic Corporation, gave interviews. No one would even say how many of them existed. This only stoked our curiosity. And, thanks especially to the fledgling video stations’ thirst for material, we weren’t alone. As we witnessed a few years later at their sold-out 13th Anniversary Tour show in Toronto, The Residents had patented the elixir of the ultimate cult band.
Three decades later, they are still at it, with a new retrospective documentary by Don Hardy, Theory of Obscurity (2015) – which, although it doesn’t reveal their identities, doesn’t sweat to hide the clues either – and a current US and European tour for their international fan diaspora. But can their game, and their art, still fascinate the way it once did?
There’s an avant-garde guideline by which the work of art matches the crime: to assassinate conventions and get away unstained by compromise. The most airtight scheme is to die young, or to disappear. An alternative is to carry it off under cover of pseudonym, such as Marcel Duchamp’s R. Mutt and Rrose Sélavy, or the network aliases of mail art and neoism. In pop culture, though, the big score is the opposite: to be idolized out of all proportion to what you’ve accomplished, under the sign of Kardashian, moon in the seventh house of Warhol. Of course, the divide is not so neat: a star can become notorious for elusiveness instead of ubiquity. But The Residents, starting in the early 1970s, smeared avant-garde distancing techniques self-consciously across the rock-band model, well before punk found its own way to do so.
The Residents loved and hated pop culture with equal passion, knowing it made them who they were but not wanting to acquiesce to its limitations.
Art nerds from Shreveport, Louisiana, they migrated to the Bay Area’s hippie mecca; as the documentary tells us, they loved the sex and drugs but were still misfits, too mentally restless to mellow. I suspect their small-town stink was part of what attracted the likes of us. They took leads from psychedelia, Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra and raised them from masquerade to mirage. (In the US midwest, groups such as Devo and Pere Ubu were assembling a similar toolkit independently.) They became the world’s most famously unknown band. Not even a band, really – they mostly weren’t musicians and would have made films instead if they could have afforded it, as they have since – more an idea. Some estimates say that there have been more than 50 Residents and quasi-Residents over the years, though there are signals that suggest at least one or two of the originals are still involved. Ideally, it would not matter who’s inhabiting the concept, as long as someone does.
If the name The Residents still doesn’t summon up anything, and it was calculated not to, one image might: four figures in top hats and tuxedos with giant eyeballs for heads. As one of The Cryptic Corp. ‘associates’ comments in Theory of Obscurity, the iconic status of that visual is ironic. Here’s a collective that has produced dozens of striking and bizarre albums, videos, interactive CD-Rs, DVDs, web projects, books and stage shows. Yet, looking back, ‘What’s their biggest hit? A T-shirt.’ Then again, he adds, ‘There’s something that’s real pop culture about that.’
What I appreciate most about the early Residents is how those big eyeballs were always inspecting both the inside and the outside of their bubble. They started off in eccentric dialogue with the just-dissolved Beatles, calling their own first album Meet the Residents (1974), with a cover that defaced Meet the Beatles! (1964). There were numerous further references, enough to give rise to rumours that a Beatle or two was involved. Many of their fans have claimed that their work proves the worthlessness of all music on the radio. The Residents never assumed so. One of their early slogans was: ‘Ignorance of your culture is not considered cool.’ They innovated in sampling, collage and deconstructive cover versions because they loved and hated pop culture with equal passion, knowing it made them who they were but not wanting to acquiesce to its limitations.
What I appreciate least is their gradual withdrawal from that messiness. By all accounts, a few early core collaborators left in 1982, at artistic and financial crossroads. And, soon afterwards, The Residents got ‘weird’ in a more clichéd way – with projects called Freak Show (1990) and Bad Day on the Midway (1995), as well as a couple of predictable Elvis pastiches. While pioneering in its own way, their ongoing interest in new media and technologies (no doubt due to the second-hand fumes of Bay Area tech business) resulted in them making flatter, less charming music on MIDI synthesizers as well as laboured interactive projects. At that point, I tuned out. I had moved to the city, where there were people my own age making their own experiments, and some of The Residents’ earlier gambits – like their faux-ethnographic album Eskimo (1979), which had great soundscapes but conceptually treated northern peoples as fantasy objects, as well as their ‘dark’ approach to disability, sex and American racial-musical legacies – started seeming like flabby boomer-counterculture hangovers. Even their anonymity, from that angle, was always a species of privilege.
Watching the documentary, I got hints that The Residents seem to be trying to alleviate some of these issues. In recent tours, they have billed themselves as ‘Randy, Chuck and Bob’ with the lead singer, in a rubber old-man mask, acting as more of a storyteller from a dying, dysfunctional village than a cool enigma. Some of their more recent albums have a different but effective, more intimate charge. Recently, keyboardist ‘Chuck’ officially quit the band, but he’s published a charming e-book memoir, This is for Readers (2016), as ‘Charles Bobuck’ about being a married gay man who lives on a rural chicken farm with his husband, but whose life is enlivened by his continuing link to this life-long art project. It’s difficult not to speculate which one of The Cryptic Corp. spokesmen in the documentary he, or the rambunctious ‘Randy’, might be. Still, we can’t be sure.
In today’s age of trolling social-media avatars, The Residents’ collective shell game has become relatively banal. Yet, I’m sentimental enough not to want them to drop the screen altogether. ‘Coming out’ as a couple of old hippies seeking belated credit would be such an anticlimax. And their loyalty to the ruse keeps alive the endangered memory of a cultural Outside – an essential weirdo alienation that risks being crowded out by today’s pop-positive democratic egalitarianism. The Residents carrying their secret to their graves would be a dignified defiance of the contemporary demand to reveal all. Indeed, if enough successors wanted to, the group in theory could be eternally refreshed and rebuilt. Or else their eventual mortal diminuendo could be met by a slow-motion, sweet, appreciative sigh … Goodbye, Skinny.
Carl Wilson is the author of Let’s Talk About Love (2014) and music critic for Slate.com. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
First published in Issue 180