The Residents: Talking Light tour, San Diego Jan. 29, 2010
Who’s the most original band in rock history?
There are plenty of innovators in rock, going all the way back to Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, continuing on through with the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Who, Velvet Underground, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; but can any of these artists claim to have so completely broken down rock and pop music into its molecular components and reassembled them so radically as The Residents?
Personality has always been an important component of Western music (classical and popular), and in rock has frequently reached such a point that a musician’s identity becomes more important than the actual musical content. The Residents discarded personality (or turned the idea of personality completely on its head, depending on your point of view) by practicing complete and total anonymity. (I once saw an autographed copy of Mark of the Mole for sale; the album cover had four signatures (in pencil!) scrawled on it along the lines of: “A Resident.” “A Resident.” “Another Resident.”)
Theories abound as to who these people really are, but no one has any conclusive proof to back up such speculation. When the Residents perform live, they always do so in costumes that obscure their identities. At their previous San Diego show at the Belly Up in 2002, a chubby, genial middle-aged guy shook everyone’s hand as they entered the club and wished each person to enjoy the show. A local songwriter confided to me that the friendly fellow (who later appeared in the role of a stage manager/roadie for them) was actually one of the Residents. It was impossible to test the veracity of that rumor, because the performing musicians and singers were all obscured with masks and bizarre camouflage.
While the mystery of their identities guarantees them a certain degree of notoriety, it would be little more than a gimmick if their whole approach to their art did not so completely overturn ideas about what rock music is or could be. Their 1974 debut album, Meet the Residents, combined rude primitivism, home recording, sophisticated studio techniques, surrealism, and irony. The original cover was a prank referencing Duchamp: a defaced copy of the album art to Meet The Beatles. (John Lennon was supposedly amused, but EMI/Capitol hit them with a cease and desist notice faster than you could say, “Smelly tongues looked just as they felt.”1)
If their early achievements do not seem so original to younger listeners, that’s because the Residents were so ahead of the rest of the industry. They created some of the first music videos (their early work has been exhibited in the New York’s MoMA), used samples of other rock and pop tunes, used drum machines, and created all-electronic scores in their 1970s work. Their artwork, a striking blend of cubism, surrealism, and nightmares, stood out from other cover art of the day. Conceptual and performance art informed their work: consider Not Available, recorded in 1974, but put aside according to the “theory of obscurity,”only to be released 4 years later when it was forgotten by its creators; or Eskimo (1979), a strange blend of cool electronic landscapes, aural storytelling, and commercial catch-phrases (which are disguised as purported Inuit language). They were several years ahead of the punk movement in espousing Do-It-Yourself publishing.
Their lyrics were often spoken rhythmically (predating mainstream rap), usually in a style seeming equal parts surrealism, expressionism, and nursery rhyme. What is one to make of “An oily ole egg with a red peg leg/Thought a porquepine was his daughter./But he soon found out that she had the gout,/And often would wink underwater?” The vocals (most delivered by the same singer, up to this day) use all manner of contortions, quiverings, gravelly rumbles, electronic distortions, and high-pitched squeals; I had a buddy whose girlfriend was so upset by the vocals on Duck Stab that he was forbidden to ever play it in her presence.
The music itself was a unique type of rock inspired by 20th-century classical music (in particular, wrong-note Neo-classicism, early Stravinsky, Milhaud’s polytonalism, electronic music, and Harry Partch), free jazz, and top 40 pop music from the 1960s and early 70s (Meet the Residents opened with a thumping, abrasive version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’”). There was a bizarre blend of amateurism and professionalism, most likely due to the founding Residents being unable to play acoustic instruments very well, combined with the chops of professionals like the guitarists Snakefinger or Fred Frith. The Residents at times used toy instruments, and the equalization on their LPs sounded like a drunk engineer wiped out all the treble at the soundboard. It was comical, frightening, exuberant, silly, and chaotic. Their Commercial Album consists of 40 songs, all timed at 1 minute each; all of them were aired as commercials on the San Francisco top-40 radio station KFRC-AM.
As technology advanced, so did the Residents. They created interactive CD-ROMs, designed a DVD (Icky Flix) of their videos with multiple soundtracks and Easter eggs; created videos expressly for Youtube; and since the advent of mp3 downloading, they’ve been more prolific than ever, with 5 albums in the last year.
For people who like their art handed to them on a platter, all nice and orderly and completely predictable, the Residents are an abomination. But for those of us who enjoy music which isn’t afraid to leave more questions unanswered than explained, music that explores new horizons, which seeks to provoke and make listeners ponder, the Residents are one of the best things to ever happen to rock and roll.
In their early years, performances were few and far between, which only added to their mystique. In their second decade, the Residents focused more on creating music theater performances which could be taken on the road, and although the travails of their Mole Show left them hesitant to tour, that reluctance eventually wore off. Still, a Residents live performance is rare enough that when they perform within driving distance, you go see them.
It was heartening to see not one, but two lines snaking around the North Park Theatre Friday evening. Hardly anyone came to see the Residents at their Belly Up show 8 years ago. The North Park Theatre was probably at 80% capacity. I, for one, was grateful to finally be able sit through a Resident show (my past 2 experiences were in venues without easily available seating).
On the stage was one of those fireplace heaters with the fake flames; on the mantelpiece sat a plastic or ceramic sculpture replica of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, a weird melted-plastic-looking lamp with shade, and an old CRT TV set, about 12 inches, tuned to the white noise of a dead channel (it stayed that way all night long). Next to the fireplace was a retro divan with high curled arms; behind this hung three large white discs.
Two performers walked out to take their places left and right of the set: a keyboardist/laptop artist and guitarist. Both wore dark sequined tailcoats, black cloth masks which rendered them faceless except for some kind of optical gadgetry resembling night vision goggles, and wild snaky-haired wigs like some kind of Rastafarian Gorgons. Loops of percussive electronic music overlapped, tinkling like unearthly wind chimes in the background, only to be gradually subsumed by a recording of the old Coca-Cola jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
Onto the set shambled an old man (in both makeup and real life—it was the Residents’ longtime vocalist, and he must be in his 60s by now) wearing red argyle boxers, a black bathrobe with wide white stripes, an oversized red and white polka dot tie that descended to his knees, and comically large black and white spats. A mask gave his countenance a sour, pained expression; his ears stuck out like fence gates, and the clumps of gray hair surrounding them were the only patches of hair on his bald head. If anything, he looked like a clown without face paint, but still in his circus clothes, pacing painfully about his home.
The Coke jingle cut out, leaving a void. Into this stabbed the jibber-jabber of a different TV commercial, this one less identifiable, but clearly an ad for a talking baby doll, whose tinny laughter repeated in a tight and annoying loop. This loop launched a brusque, abrasive rendition of “Demons Dance Alone.” The doll’s laughter faded out, only to satanically giggle once more in the middle of the song when the vocalist sang, regarding his own personal demon, how he “took the hook and followed it.”
The music, here and throughout the night, was thickly layered, echoing, dissonant, a type of dark ambient music. Few of the songs had heavy grooves that you could have danced to, or tunes you could go home humming, but this wasn’t a feel-good event. Over the course of 90 minutes, that pathetic old man told the audience “ghost stories” and sang, shouted, and rasped songs of death and loneliness, often through electronic processing which distorted his voice even further.
The hideous old clown cautiously introduced himself as “Randy,” with “Chuck on keyboards and Bob on guitar.” He explained that the fourth Resident, “Carlos,” had retired, so now there were only three Residents.
Randy announced that he wanted to tell some ghost stories, and the first one was called “The Talking Light,” (which happens to be the name of the tour as well). So what did we get? A story? More moody laptop rumblings and guitar plunks?
Another damned commercial snippet, this one for—believe it or not—ketchup, followed by an introductory four beats “played” by the slapping of the ketchup bottle in the ad. Then the dark ambient loops and guitar squawks set the mood for a creepy little story whose punchline was the skeleton of a baby clutching a wedding ring, which may have been a real memory from Randy’s teenage years, or just an illusion—it’s unclear which. Then Randy and the boys launched into the most dirge-like rendition one is ever likely to hear of Hank Williams’s “Six More Miles (To The Graveyard).”
Thus the evening continued, with songs of death and/or loneliness from the Residents’s previous albums: “My Window,” “Death in Barstow,” “Lillie,” “Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie” (another radically deconstructed Western lament), and “The Old Woman” (a really disturbing opus in which a lonely crone thinks about killing herself because her children never call or visit, only to reveal that perhaps they don’t come around because she killed their pet—rabbit? frog? the only clue is that it hops around—when they were young). The one song whose lyrics didn’t seem to fit the mood was “Semolina,” yet the harmonies were so gloomy and the rendition so terrifying that based on emotional and tonal quality, it fit right in with the other numbers.
Three more stories with musical accompaniment were told: a woman grieves her sister’s disappearance (she’s probably dead, from what the lyrics reveal); a man becomes obsessed with a serial killer who slayed his victims by binding them in a carpet like a giant fruit roll up, and stuffing obscure 1980’s kid’s treats, Pudding Roll Ups, down their tracheas, until he too starts carrying carpet samples and home-made pudding roll ups (they’re not available in stores any more), looking to get into some kind of evil trouble; and a story stretched out over several interludes about people that live inside mirrors and want to attack Randy.
These stories were narrated at times by video projections which were cast onto the three white discs by Randy, and a striking aspect of the design of these numbers was that whenever Randy moved the projection from one disc to the next, the sound panned across the stage to match to the image’s movement. The faces of the narrators, in typical Residents fashion, were grotesque, doubly distorted by the video projector, creating a sense of humor and terror simultaneously.
Preceding the stories were more snippets of old TV commercials for Pudding Roll Ups and Vanish toilet bowl cleaner, and the entire show ended with a recorded instrumental reprise of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
What to make of all this? Clearly, the talking light is a metaphor for television—the old analog set was throwing off white noise spectra throughout the entire show. And perhaps old TV commercials, with their foul radioactive half-lives that outlive other memories in our synapses, are a modern equivalent of ghosts. The songs of loneliness and death—both physical and spiritual death—speak for themselves. The bitter, frightened old man is a forlorn clown figure straight out of Samuel Beckett—Nagg from Endgame, perhaps, or Krapp himself, if Beckett had grown up with TV.
Yet all of this doesn’t make any easy sense. If TV is the talking light, then what was the talking light Randy describes enveloping the baby in the first story?—that’s more of a supernatural visitation. What to make of Randy’s obsession with people who live in mirrors, and his sudden transformation into a cocky, swaggering Show-Biz type after he looks into a hand mirror, only to sing two of the bleakest songs in the whole show (“The Old Woman” and “Lillie”)? If commercials are ghosts, then shouldn’t they have more presence in the show, instead being fleeting interruptions/introductions (with the exception of the Coca-Cola jingles framing the entire concert)? There are multiple strands in this show, and they all don’t interweave well together; but perhaps that’s the point: that life, like the Residents’ music, is messy, irreconcilable, and ugly.
Whoever “Randy” is, he’s been the Residents’ vocalist for 40 years now, and his vocals are just as unnerving and powerful as they were in the 1970’s; additionally, his acting skills could be the envy of many a thespian. “Chuck” and “Bob” were indispensable in evoking the terror and rage of this show; it’s always hard to gauge how much a laptop musician is actually doing besides pushing buttons to release samples which could have taken hours to craft in his studio, but Chuck’s contributions, however achieved, were well integrated into the show. Bob’s skills on the guitar, which included atonal lead solos, plinks and plunks on the tuning peg strings, and bent notes which echoed into the ether, marked him as a first-rate musician, and he has the Residents’s sound down cold.
There are plenty of Baby Boomer rockers out there selling tickets and taking their fans down memory lane in happy nostalgia, singing songs about being young and carefree, while their prostate is probably swollen to the size of a picnic ham, and they just can’t do those onstage splits any more because of their arthritis. You have to give the Residents credit (or at least Randy and the other Resident who lore has it has been with him since the beginning) for staring mortality in the face and reporting back to their audience what they see in all its harsh, unpleasant truth.
The merging of theater and music is seamless in this show, and great means are achieved with small but significant visual effects. If you have the opportunity to experience this show, get yourself a ticket and strap in for one of the weirdest rides you’ll ever have.
Finally, special thanks to Tim Mays and the Casbah, who consistently present some of the most off-kilter and challenging rock concerts in town, and who really outdid all expectations with this wonderful production.
Scene from the Santa Cruz show:
1. Typical of the Residents’ work, this seemingly nonsensical phrase—repeated over and over as the only lyric to “Smelly Tongues”—nevertheless suggests meaning: It mentions 4 of the 5 senses in one sentence; the only sense missing is hearing, which is the one needed to perceive a recording. The listener sings the lyric in a style strongly suggestive of Jim Morrison; what that might imply, I haven’t a clue.
If you’d like to learn more about the Residents, you will find this book very informative.