Yearly Archives: 2012

Something Written on His Wrinkled Skin (Bad Day on the Midway novel)

Book 'em, Danno.Randy Rose has written a novel.  Perhaps it’s a novella – I abandoned both sides of that argument decades ago.  But whatever it is, it’s definitely a long-form story based on the characters and events of Bad Day on the Midway, the CD-ROM The Residents produced back in the 1990s.

I suppose it’s not unlike a movie tie-in novelization, in that it is largely the familiar story but with some elements changed or added.  With movies, it’s usually the case of the author working with an early version of the script (a necessary evil so the book and movie can be released at the same time) and therefore includes dialogue, scenes, and sometimes entire subplots that were cut from the final film.

So here we’re allowed to imagine a situation in which there existed more characters and events than we saw in the game.  That must be the case – there’s no way every idea wound up in the final product – but this book is certainly not that original story.  No, this is a new departure for the project, a practice familiar to The Residents, though I am surprised at how closely it follows the source material.  I would have expected many more new characters and situations, essentially a brand new experience.  But apart from Tebo and the man from the health department there’s really nothing of great note added.  It’s more expanded than reimagined.

Which brings me to the companion CD, which bears the title Bad Day Reimagined.  Under the hood, however, it functions just like the book – the original music is there, but enhanced and expanded, and little has really changed.  Now one could argue the music is wildly different, more so than the book, but that ignores the fact that the book has changed the very medium from nonlinear interaction to standard narrative.  A step back in technology, sure, but an unexpected turn nonetheless.

The book is new, very new. Unlike a movie adaptation based on an early script, this isn’t a look into what might have been.  This is a look into what is.  A novelization was never on the table until recently, so what we have here is a new project with the defining limitation of being based on an earlier work.  Like much of The Residents’ oeuvre, I’m taken more with the concept than the execution.  The Residents are great storytellers, and this is a great story, but unfortunately not a great novel.  It suffers from the dreaded problem of much modern writing: lack of editing.  It’s one thing to proofread, another to edit.  The world is short on editors, partly because of the general slow death of journalism, but also for something that’s otherwise positive: the barrier of entry has been lowered.  Anyone can publish a book, and that’s wonderful.  But on the other hand, anyone can publish a book, and that’s terrible. This isn’t as clear cut as the invention of the printing press (it stunted the growth of language, but the benefits far outweigh that downside) because despite my love of freedom, I still want expertly crafted stories.  I suppose I’ll accept the new paradigm, because it brings with it an army of online reviewers which will allow me to filter out the lesser works.

That said, I’d read a Residents novel regardless of, or perhaps in spite of, the reviews.  I like their content, if not always their form (there’s concept vs execution again).  This definitely fares better than a bad Stephen King book – the man excels at short stories and epically long novels, but can fail at works that fall in between.

But it’s that indomitable will that I find so endearing.  Part of the genesis of this project was probably the idea that music groups simply do not write novels.  “No better reason to try,” I can hear Randy say, before setting out to do it.

Maybe it’s a one-off not meant to be repeated, but just in case I hope editors come back in style.

Everyone Is Crazy in a One Man Show (Codgers on the Moon)

We know Major Tom's a Barcalounger.Codgers on the Moon is the first solo album from Charles Bobuck, recently outed member of The Residents.  Randy has already developed a one man show, but it has only seen workshop performances at this time, allowing one to keep believing  the separate personalities is just a one-off conceptual idea.  Codgers, with its broad availability, really drives home the idea that this is really happening.

The album is described as being unexpected – Mr. Bobuck did not expect to have a life outside of The Residents, but one has been thrust upon him.  He thinks a solo album is logically expected of him, so he put one together.  I think that it will be interesting to compare it to a typical Residents release, so that we may attempt to learn what Mr. Bobuck thinks is and is not considered Residents.

Unfortunately that is easier said than done.  Codgers sounds like a likely progression from recent Residents projects, in particular (obviously) the instrumental ones.  I think all we can really gather from this is that Mr. Bobuck had been the one interested in creating film scores.

The album has a companion website, which finds me fascinated and uncomfortable in equal measure.  Fascinated because we are getting a behind the scenes look, and uncomfortable for the same reason.  Having an identity, a personality, an established set of values… it just doesn’t seem right to me.  I know this is part of a larger concept of what a “band” means in our culture, but it still makes me uneasy.

Randy is doing this too, to an extent.  He has started his own website which began as a series of ghost stories (a continuation of the Talking Light project) and more recently has branched out into a collection of wildly varying posts.  It seems as though he’s found an outlet for ideas outside of the Residents inner sanctum.  I think the intent is to create a space where he can test out new ideas and gauge reactions from the public – a way to measure interest before dedicating months of work to it.  Whatever receives the most likes will inform the next project.

Though, actually, I don’t entirely believe that.  While The Residents are certainly interested in the collaborative opportunities afforded by the internet, there’s very little in the way of them making use of it.  They put out an open call for artists to create videos for their Commercial Album – and certainly delivered on the proposal – nothing else really feels as interactive as one might have hoped.  The Bunny Boy story ultimately did not seem to be guided by fans; Randy’s Tumblr appears to be a one-way conversation; Bobuck’s Twitter account so far only advertises his new album.

And perhaps that’s entirely intentional.  If Randy Chuck and Bob, as a concept, is a statement on the nature of celebrity, then perhaps it is fitting that, despite having made themselves known to the world, they remain just as inaccessible as ever.  Celebrity personalities are not real – they are stage personae that live in our world.  It’s easy to forget the people on our TVs are imaginary.  It’s been noted many times that television stars are treated more casually than film stars, and it’s supposedly due to the familiarity – these people come into our homes every week, whereas we have to make a special trip to see a movie star.  The Talking Light used this in a skewed sense by setting up a living room on stage.  The audience would have gone out for a special event, but then was invited into a home to watch television.  The lines are blurred and ultimately we find ourselves no closer to the truth.

Except of course for the fact that the truth is precisely as laid out for us.  There is no secret underlying layer of any importance.  But where’s the fun in that?  The Residents faked the Moon landing.  It’s so obvious – those big round astronaut helmets were clearly precursors to the eyeball heads.

Before the Eve of Everlasting Grey (ERA B4-74)

This is not how you get washboard abs.The Residents have launched a new project called ERA, in which they revisit and annotate past periods of their career.  It is not unlike a museum exhibition, complete with exclusive t-shirts available in the gift shop.  The first installment is suitably concerned with the time before they became known as The Residents, here named Pre-sidents to avoid confusion with their post-1974 incarnation.

This particular era holds a place of wonder for fans, because it is at the heart of the mystery that surrounds the group.  Even when you accept that there are no individuals involved in the concept, there’s still a part that wonders “yes, but what about before the concept was formed?  Who was there before it all started?”

That kind of thinking is flawed, of course.  There is no beginning before the beginning.  The Residents as an idea is constantly changing, yes, but The Residents as group of individuals emerged fully formed – that form being void or nothingness.  Of course, the recent Talking Light show directly contradicts this notion.  Now suddenly there is a sense of individual membership, and that is perhaps why they’ve begun this large retrospective project.

The first ERA celebrates a time before the Residents concept took hold.  A more innocent time, perhaps, but definitely more naive.  Who were these people who thought it would be a good idea to hide behind a collective mask? What’s the motive?  To listen to these early recordings, one might think it’s a defense against negative feedback – the number one killer of creativity.  These early songs are not good, and no sane person would fault them for wanting to keep the tracks unreleased.  The ERA website says “Projects from pre-1974 are sketchy and largely personal. The Residents do not generally encourage the inspection of that time.”

But now they’ve been released and laid bare for inspection, so the story must have changed in some way.  It can’t simply be they’ve listened again and thought “hey, this is pretty good after all.”  That certainly happens to many artists, but I don’t think that is the case this time.  First of all, they probably would have released them during the 25th anniversary celebration when they reviewed these recordings looking for suitable material.  Secondly, and most importantly: ugh.  They sound awful.  If anything good was seen in these songs, they’d have been re-recorded and released as new.

No, I think the revelation of identities has unearthed hitherto unseen ego.  Now that there’s a name behind the music, that name wants to show improvement.  “Look how much better I am now,” they seem to say.  This wasn’t possible without identities; any drastically different sound would be attributed to the fluid nature of membership.  “That sounds bad?  Must have been someone else who made it.”  But now the narrative says it’s always been the same people involved, so a new critical lens must be applied.

And the lens starts at the new beginning.  Think of it as a prequel, where we learn what motivated our favorite character to become the hero we love.  Of course, as with all prequels, the inherent problem is that the story doesn’t get interesting until later.  It functions best as historical footnote.

I suppose it’s really a reboot.  Start over, and repaint the canvases in a slightly different way, this time with the foreknowledge of what is to come.  It will allow them to smooth over bumps by making them expected turns.  So while I’m not especially thrilled with this first installment, I am eagerly awaiting future ERA exhibitions.  I don’t think it will necessarily mean loads of unreleased demos from their entire career – most likely the ERA concept is just a compilation with an accompanying narrative; it just so happens that the first era mostly consists of unreleased material.  But there’s plenty of behind the scenes information – historical or newly envisioned – that we’ve yet to see.  The Residents have always been great storytellers, and now they are turning that talent towards their own tale.