I, somebody

It began in the early '70s, in a Canadian Dada-Surrealist magazine styled to look like Life. Tucked inside was a flexi-disc sampler of four songs from the Residents' first album, Meet the Residents--a tongue-in-cheek sendup of Meet the Beatles. Instead of the familiar mugs of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, the accompanying ad introduced four bloodshot eyeballs. Send two dollars, the ad said, and they'd send you the whole album. Who could resist such an invitation?

That was the beginning of the curious cultural phenomenon known--and unknown--as the Residents, an anonymous group of individuals whose names and ranks have been guarded from the general public ever since. Twenty-six years and some 40 albums later, the band is still working to tweak the status quo and question pop culture; it's now touring an elaborate, holy-book inspired stage show called Wormwood: A Curious Collection of Bible Stories, and has released an eerie accompanying album full of interesting, emotionally awkward music and odd operatic singing.

Since none of the members will reveal his or her identity, all Residents interviews are conducted through band "spokespeople" who may or may not be actual members in disguise. These days, questions are answered by a man who calls himself Hardy Fox ("I describe myself as a babysitter"), and he's quick to explain the concept for the thousandth time: "The Residents are fascinated by American culture. The eyeballs represent their looking at American culture and coldly watching it, watching from the wings."

If they're watching American culture, they've also become a part of it. And they've also been flipping the script on the whole age-old performer-audience contract: Gaze at me; make me what you need. As their audience peers at them, guess what's creepily staring back?

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Despite all the enigma, there are several quick, reductivist ways to describe the Residents: an old-time new-wave outfit (an odder, more threatening Devo), punk progenitors (still respected as its highbrow foster-father), performance-art collective (its stage shows smack of "rock opera"), and concept band. Though nothing about them is certain, they supposedly moved from Shreveport, Louisiana, to San Mateo, California, complete neophytes to the music world who bought the first commercial four-track. Amateurs with good equipment, they started the band in 1970, recording at home. Their first demo tape was promptly returned by Warner Bros. Records, addressed to "resident," and the name stuck.

Since those early years, the Residents have remained groundbreaking and critically cherished, if not for their music then surely for their irreverence and anti-celebrity stance, even as they have dropped in and out of cult popularity. As recently as 1996, the band's cult status seemed to flourish: That year, the Long Beach, California-based Vaccination Records released a worthwhile covers compilation called Eyesore: A Stab at the Residents, which contained some obvious contributors (Thinking Fellers Union Local 282) but also a few surprises, including Cracker's "Blue Rosebuds"--a love song by way of Edgar Allen Poe.

Lately, though, the band has also been the subject of rare but severe critical skewering by writers annoyed by the stubborn perseverance of the band and its rough, heavily synthesized aesthetic.

"Its cheap-synthesizer music had a charge of the fresh during the punk and New Wave eras," Ben Ratliff wrote in a New York Times review of Wormwood, in which he slammed the record, calling it "shrill," "ham-fisted," and "ponderous." "Now it sounds more like what it is: sourly cute ditties with croaking singing." (Ratliff later warms up a bit to the live show, acknowledging that after all these years, "there was still something unsettling about seeing the group in person.")

The Residents might feel a little ideologically retro and musically clunky to one critic, but the band's influence--and nostalgic appeal--is getting stronger. Maybe it's because people long for the days when the Residents' brand of status quo-tweaking seemed incredibly subversive; see, for example, the band's freaky version of the Stones' "Satisfaction" (recorded before Devo's version), which, in 1977, seemed to stand for everything punk. Funky, strange, ugly, creepy, dissonant, underground, and even melodic in unexpected ways, it questioned the day-to-day American culture even more--on certain levels--than the Sex Pistols prodded British culture. Now that almost all old punk treasures have been mined in revue tours and critical reveries, there's still something incredibly cool and terrifically unseemly about the Residents. No wonder those inflatable plastic eyeball blow-up toys seem to be just about everywhere these days.

Nobody, except a select few who do business with the band and the people in the group's multimedia clubhouse, Cryptic Corporation, even knows who they are--or how many of them there are. Three? Four? Fox says that all the original members are still with the group and that, no, he's not one of them, but he also teases, "We don't shy away from that. That keeps people from looking too closely." Rest assured that anonymity is a big chunk of their appeal.  

"There's the mystique of 'What's behind the eyeball?'" the band's agent (and longtime fan) Tony Rindal says. "But people don't really want to see Oz behind the curtain; they just want to hear him speak."

Toying with the concepts of history, personal identity, and a recognizable visage was soon to become the very core ideal of punk, of course. Darby Crash's original Bobby Pyn, X's John Doe, Repo Man's ubiquitous supermarket plainwrap (aluminum cans simply marked "Food"), and a slew of others were to follow.

"A lot of people don't understand the idea of being anonymous," Fox concedes. "The Residents want to be a group, and names and faces destroy the group. They did everything that it took in order to stay together."

The mystery has served them well through the course of 29 years, 40 albums, six EPs, and three CD-ROMs. They've scored for television, including MTV, the Discovery Channel, and Pee Wee's Playhouse. The band is also often credited for creating the very first music video: a '70s clip for "Third Reich n' Roll" that was exhibited in 1982 at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

In 1973, Meet the Residents sold a piddling 40 copies the year it was first released on the band's own Ralph Records. Today, the group's 1972 Christmas single, "Santa Dog," sells for well more than $100 (and good luck finding it). Long after most groups from that pre-wave era have crumbled (or at least gotten less strident), the Residents are still anonymous and still prodding sacred cows from Elvis on down. Now the band is taking on yet another loaded totem, the Bible, with Wormwood; the idea is to take some of the darkest and most morally confusing tales in the Bible and set them to music, in much the same way they tackled American music and the cult of Elvis in Cube-E: The History of American Music in Three E-Z Pieces, a late-'80s/early '90s trilogy of albums. Taken together, the records form a cycle (of sorts) about American music: its messy roots--from cowboy western to southern blues and gospel--its Elvis moment, and its eventual disintegration.

"American culture became world culture," Fox says. "When people started imitating it, it got watered down; the whole British invasion was this loop feeding American culture back to American culture. When Elvis gets bloated in the show, it's about the culture being bloated. He's eventually slain by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones."

Not big news, perhaps, but seen through the Residents' distinctly skewed, um, eyes, the story is worth hearing again. Same goes for Wormwood, which also takes a popular symbol that most people consider benevolent, or simply quaint, and digs into its disturbing heart. They reveal the nightmarish strangeness hidden in that tome's lesser-known pages. ("The Residents think that the people who wave the Bible on television are holding it hostage," Fox says. "It's offensive to what it is: a very complex, human, and cool book.") It's the complexity that's most disturbing. The Bible writhes with dark tales of incest, unpunished rape, and unprovoked cruelty, and that's where Wormwood begins.

"They've become fascinated with the stories, which are very dark, and you can't take it literally because then you'd have to assume that it was made by crazy people," Fox says. "It's a manic book, and it's also one of the darkest books of all."

As a work of music, Wormwood sounds like a soundtrack, albeit a growly, synthesizer-rife, and uncomfortable one. It's a millennium-minded exploration of mostly Old Testament tales, from the rape of Dinah to Bathsheba, Lot to Judas (the song's called "Judas Saves"). Throbbing with grandiosity, the album begins with an inhuman growl and later falls into a chugging chorus of synthesizers. But it isn't completely successful as just a listening experience: Most of the "songs" are really tales that are spoken in a gruff singsong, which has become the Residents' trademark. It feels pretty flat in "Fire Fall," when a voice takes Lot's point of view, rapping: "I offered them my daughters then, a light came, came from a stranger's skin / I was just an old man, how could I understand?" No doubt the whole thing plays much better onstage, with a narrator (or some approximation thereof) as part of an elaborate stage show.

Wormwood could be seen as a scholarly work done by amateur Bible buffs, but mostly it's about how the Bible has been warped by proponents and detractors alike. They twist it to their own ends. It's no surprise that the Residents are obsessed with interpretation and manipulation--those very same ideas keep them hidden behind their eyeball masks, keep fans listening, and ultimately keep the band's music interesting long after it has any right to be. And don't expect those eyeball costumes to come off anytime soon.  

"The American culture is so built on personality," Fox says, falling into a cozy Southern drawl, "but the Beatles were more interesting than John, Paul, George, and Ringo. When you start looking at the actual people, you start seeing their problems, the drug, the marital problems. At one point there was a rumor that Michael Jackson was going door-to-door [as a Jehovah's Witness] in disguise. The Residents thought that he had it all wrong. He should be going door-to-door in person and disguised on stage.

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