Yearly Archives: 1991

Can It End With Smiling Eyes? (The Eyes Scream)

Teller doesn't speak because we'd recognize his Resident voice.The Residents love manipulating their own image, and have concocted some wild stories about themselves. (Did they really run away to England with the Eskimo tapes? I don’t believe that for a second, though for the sake of accepting what they are presenting – their art – of course I’ll play along.)

With that in mind, it’s a wonder they didn’t start right out of the gate with a documentary about themselves. It would be fitting if the first thing they released to the public was an elaborate fictional backstory. Instead they waited nearly twenty years before presenting their history. But the reason is clear: as much as they enjoy telling stories, they are less interested in their own story than they are in the characters they dream up. Case in point: most of this documentary consists of clips from videos and performances, with very little commentary or narration. The Residents feel their story is in their artistic output, and not in what happens behind the scenes.

And what little is provided may not be actual history. It’s presented by Penn & Teller, two professional magicians, or, as they’ll have it, liars. Penn of course has a long history of lying for The Residents, pretending to be shocked at every performance of the Mole Show, and earlier pretending to be locked in a hotel listening to records from a band he had never heard of (despite appearing on one of the records he was reviewing). He even walks out during this documentary, but we see on the teleprompter that his frustration was scripted. But again: this is not really a documentary; it is an artistic rendering of what a documentary looks like. So we go along with it.

My favorite part of this program is when one of the managers says The Residents are not particularly skilled at anything, but they have a lot of ideas. I think he’s selling them a bit short in the skills department, but he’s definitely correct that creativity is their strongest trait. Even when their execution falters, the core idea makes it memorable. Which is not unlike a good number of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes – we remember how great the stories were, but when we catch a rerun we can’t help but notice some limitations of the production. If the occasional misstep with a good idea works for those classics, well then The Residents are in good company.

The band’s anonymity comes up, but instead of becoming a focus it acts only as a springboard to explore the effects of such a decision. How do they make money? How do they stay relevant in the personality-driven field of entertainment? These are the kinds of questions that I find interesting, partly because they can be applied beyond the narrow scope of a single band from San Francisco. Some people believe that the most important question concerning The Residents is “who are they?” I contend this is not a question worth pursuing. Yes, The Residents do seem to be playing a game, but it is not “guess who we are.” If that were the case, the game would be over the moment someone guesses correctly, and where’s the fun in that? The Residents’ game is actually “come pretend with us,” which is much more satisfying because it doesn’t have to end. Wouldn’t you rather have a game you can play forever? Every child’s frustrated plea for “just five more minutes” would need never be uttered.

In the end, I’m glad this video was not a revealing exposé. I think The Residents are an incredibly interesting group, and were I to meet a member I know I’d be tempted to ask questions about their process and intentions. But at the same time I know that getting those answers removes part of the structure of what “The Residents” actually represents. It’s a methodology, and a big part of that is not looking behind the curtain.  Quite a product-centric stance for a decidedly non-commercial group.

The Barker Swears To More Delights (Freak Show)

Imagine this canvas instead of Bob Marley on every dorm wall.The Residents are on fire. After Cube-E I expected their next album to be more of a placeholder, not unlike how the American Composers series followed their Mole Trilogy. While I liked those albums, they were clearly an easier project to knock out while they replenished their energies, eventually giving us the amazing God In Three Persons. That was followed by the lackluster King And Eye, which they were able to salvage into a part of Cube-E, but at the time it occupied the same space: something to keep the basic machinery running, but without any real innovation.

But with Freak Show, The Residents have found another unexplored yet profitable area right out of the gate. Combining their new computerized music production with the throwback atmosphere of a carnival sideshow seems like it couldn’t possibly work. But instead of listening to reason and turning their attention to something else, they opted to move forward with the experiment. The result is surprisingly good – so much so that I think even The Residents are astonished by the outcome. This is a group that is not afraid to try something different simply for its own sake, but even the most optimistic hope would have to fall short of how successful this album is. Whatever they sought to accomplish has been met, and exceeded. It’s no Abbey Road, I’ll admit, but why would it be? That album already exists, leaving no need to create it. This album is a back alley, and no less interesting.

The cover art, a brilliant recreation of the sideshow posters I remember from many years ago, triggers some uneasy memories. I always felt the sideshow was exploitative, but I admit my curiosity got the better of me on more than one occasion. (How could one possibly resist the temptation?) The barker always promised more than what was actually inside, but that could be said for every aspect of the carnival, and advertising in general. I never felt ripped off by the sideshow, but by my own participation. At some point I’d realize I was paying to gawk at a person’s physical deformity, and I’d feel more uncomfortable with myself than with the astonishing sight on display.

The Residents have captured this feeling perfectly. This album aligns so well with my personal experience that it can’t be mere coincidence. No, rather than having what I’ve always felt was a unique view on sideshows, it must be a universal experience. I’ve only thought it was personal because I did not discuss it with anyone, obviously due to a sense of shame. I expect while brainstorming this album The Residents had a similar revelation, and it is that more than anything else that drove them to complete it, and what will drive its undoubted success with the public. Freak Show will resonate with everyone who hears it, because the freak show sells admission not just to the tent, but also to ourselves. This could, ironically, be the album that brings The Residents into the spotlight of the mainstream.

In the world of music, The Residents themselves are a sideshow. They are not the sugary delights or thrilling rides that appease the crowds en masse, but they do catch the interest of the truly curious. For some they are the destination, with cotton candy being endured until the real show begins. With this album The Residents are at once celebrating and lamenting their position. If we look at the attractions presented on this album as metaphors for the band, we see a mixture of self-pity and self-confidence. Fortunately the latter wins out, giving an overall positive tone to the proceedings. Even when the tables are turned with “Lillie,” in which the audience becomes the freak show, it is not a finger pointing moment. Instead of declaring “you are the freak,” the album is inclusive: “we are the freaks, and we accept you. One of us.” Now it is up to the public to reciprocate with the same open arms.